In an attempt to make this story seemingly less arbitrary for a blog largely about China, I can add this little relevant linking preamble. The other night my flatmates invited me out to a bar with some friends of theirs. The bar has the win virtues of being a place I frequent far too often and a place I am entirely sick of frequenting. The company that night was poor and I was getting ready to get the hell out of there. Just when things were at their most dull, one of the friends goes into his bag and pulls out a single ‘whippet’ [note: I am entirely unsure as to what if anything the singular of whippets is, as the word ‘whippet’ only brings up pictures of dog]. I was happy to not be the only person at the table to recognize it, and was even happier not be the only person mocking the adolescent drug internally. My flatmate in fact when ahead and mocked her friend openly for it, though only after she had taken a balloon full of NO2 and found the high to be less than satisfactory. Perhaps it was cheap, Chinese knock-off NO2 that was mostly CO2 instead, but no one seemed to be laughing when taking this laughing gas. All things considered, the reaction here was not what I remember NO2 being like. The attached tale is what I recall of NO2.
I was once related to a celebrity. Or rather that was what high school felt like.
The flash-bulbed memories from starting high school were the following; seeing what looked like a well-built and in all respects youthful looking eighteen year old who was as bald as my forty-year old father: and being suddenly confronted by seemingly much older and intimidating individuals who would look at me with an un-interpretable scowl and ask “So, you’re *****’s brother, aren’t you?” You can imagine my confusion, as I had been *****’s brother for the entirety of my life and has never been aware of the fact that it was at all an issue, only to arrive at high school to learn that it was a central focus of everyone’s life. These interrogations came from students, teachers and the administration alike, and there was no logic to whom held what opinion about my brother. A group of African-Americans kids who didn’t live terribly far from us seemed to hold him in some kind of distanced reverence which by some law of biology which I never fully understood turned out to be an inheritable trait, allowing me free pass through their neighborhoods as well as leaving me untormented when my pudgy young self underperformed in physical education class. On the other hand, the white trash kids who dominated the automotive classes considered my brother to be The Enemy, though they generally operated with the silent tact of an Israeli diplomat living in Saudi Arabia. This group took their smoke break at the wooded path that led from my high school to my home and would often grill me as a form of toll tax. “We don’t like your brother”, they would with a Marlboro red dangling from their lips. Their accent was at least 200 miles out of place. Eventually, another friend gave me a proper introduction to this group, and their mantra soon become “We don’t like your brother, but you are ok”. I could live with that.
The grizzled, white-haired geography teacher whose very presence brought to mind a three-story townhouse filled basement to attic with cats knew beyond certainty that my brother was a gangster, a Satanist, a communist and altogether antithetical to the American way of life and warned . The still-on-the-younger-side-of-middle-aged biology teacher whom all my friends desperately crushed on (teaching me that when it comes to lust the order is “de gustibus non disputandum est…”) seemed to think that my brother was a lonely, lovely, misunderstood man, and that if only someone could have reached out to him he would have righted himself into a proper functioning member of society who earned a proper income, supported his wife and children, voted for every election and dutifully paid his taxes.
This was all very confusing for me. In that he was my brother, I always just assumed that it was my duty and my duty alone to have such high emotional stakes for him. After all, when it turned out the moron who was bullying me was the head brown-noser in my brother’s fan club, it was my brother has gained my admiration by threatening to stuff said bully’s foot into said bully’s own asshole. He did this over the phone in a way I found terribly amusing, and just to add a cherry on top he also gave me a nickname with which I could address the bully; Clownshoes. conversely, it was my brother who would also beat the shit out of me when I tried to hang out with him and his friends, though I was probably doing something more to earn the ass-stomping I got. He also did many, many worse things, the kind of worse things I won’t put onto a blog (yes, even a blog that I run anonymously). The ultimate point is that I had a god damned reason for having high emotional stakes towards my brother. What the fuck did these people have?
By the half way point of my freshman year, I had learned to make a principled stance on the issue and never reveal my own feelings regarding my brother until whomever I was speaking with had already played their hand. To me, answering for the existence of my brother seemed to be a normal part of life, and I had resigned to the fact that no matter what I did I would forever be dancing in his shadow. The day after he was arrested, my ass did not even make it to a first period chair without someone in my class and closer to my age asking me about what had happened. I didn’t even know they were friends.
The highest pay off of being my brother’s brother came during my sophomore year, in a simplified geometry class that for reasons I never firmly established became known as “Hawaiian geometry”. I was only in the class because an incident at the end of freshman year had taken the studious discipline right out of me, and I now wanted to take easiest path towards finishing high school. And in this math class of least resistance I met a group of stoner kids who were so lost in their permanent high that they just assumed everyone on the planet was getting high with them, including a loser such as myself. Because of their constant misbehaving in class they were at some point forcefully relocated to the front of the class, where I had positioned myself voluntarily. As the school year progressed forces both un and not understood worked on the geography of the class till I ended up in the second row, a bright shinning ‘good student’ nucleus surrounded by stoner electrons. I couldn’t tell you any of their names, and I now cannot at all recall whether there were three or four of them. What I do recall is that without having to introduce myself at all these guys knew that I was *****’s brother and they were positively stoked to be in my presence.
Perhaps it was because my brother had now left the school and these guys had never really had a chance to get to know him, but these guys took the enthusiasm of my blood relation to a whole other worlds. Prior to this, when being my brother’s brother was a positive it was something kind of subtle approving gesture, a kind of secret code I didn’t understand. But these guys carried on towards me as if they would one day be sitting down to tell their grandchildren about how privilege they were to have shared a Hawaiian geometry class with the likes of me. Every time I walked into the room it was high-fives and back slaps. I found it increasingly more difficult to concentrate on the geometry lessons for all the camaraderie.
All of a sudden, I was in. And in seemed to include everything short of knowledge to what in was. I was there when they would huddle before class to talk about this or that person; in on the chain gang to whisper information from one member to another; the recipient of mid-lecture jokes; the invited to hang out. This last one was truly terrifying and I would always have to humbly turn down all their offers knowing that should we hang out they could never know the truth that while I was my brother’s brother I was by no means my brother’s brother. Our friendship was forever doomed to stay well within the confines of Hawaiian geometry. This tortured realization led me to constantly wonder what element was missing within myself, what magical elixir I needed to consume to truly be cool, like these stoners and like my brother before me.
The elixir, it turned out, was nitrous oxide.
Nitrous oxide (N2O), is commonly known as laughing gas. According to the medical community, when breathed this colorless slightly sweet-tasting gas gets you ‘fucked up’.
I was sitting down eagerly awaiting to learn something about triangles when my electrons arrived, a little more agitated than usual. They chatted a bit and before we knew it the teacher was droning on about something or the other. At some point, the electron seated a row above and a column to the right turns to get something from his the backpack hanging off his chair’s back. Instead of a notebook, he pulls out a metal canister. “Psst!” he hissed for our attention. To my left the electron that was at the time my partner for class work silently mouths something in the direction of the canister. While I am still staring at meaningless lines on the board a whole mute conversation of vigorous and urgent gestures is happening all around me. Suddenly, the first electron turns to face the front of the classroom and takes off the sweater he was wearing. Then waiting till the teacher begins a new drawing, he goes into his bag, pulls out the canister, and swaddles it into the sweater. Cradling it in his arms as one would a baby, he bends down till his mouth is on the canister. The aerosol exhale is barely audible in the classroom. Again he looks about the room before turning to toss the bundled baby to the electron to my left, who as well bends down to mouth the canister. This time the sound seemed much more prominent, but the teacher is still obviously doodling to a bored classroom.
I’m nudged in the ribs, and find the baby being offered to me. I shake my head politely, only to find the bundle dumped rather unceremoniously in my lap. With no regard to the being caught by the teacher, I clearly pass the bundle to the next waiting electron.
And for some noticeable time nothing seems to happen. The guys took their hits and then laid their heads down on their desks soundlessly. Then from one of the smiling faces came the first soft, whimpered laugh. It was faint enough to be ignored by most of the class
The first sound trickled out And then, there was giggling. Just a trickle at first, but it is the most virally contagious giggling I had ever heard. Who knows if it was merely because such laughter is always infectious or just because I was finally in on the joke, but I took to laughing right there with these guys, despite the fact that I was stone sober and sitting in a geometry class. I was in fact having such a good time that I did not notice that our collective laughter reached some kind of classroom distraction critical mass, and that we had quickly achieved the attention, and by extension the scorn of the teacher.
To the teacher’s credit, when she turned to confront us she didn’t look immediately to crucify the offending students. In what I imagine is the hallmark of good high-school pedagogy, she strived to know just what the fuck was going on in her classroom. I don’t recall if she tried to address anyone else in the group, but if she did she didn’t get a reasonable answer. What I do recall was being instantly sobered when the teacher, with a pleading look in her eyes and a demanding tone in her voice, looked at me and said “Matthew. what in the world is going on?”
I felt a massive weight on my shoulder. I obviously couldn’t tell the teacher anything, but I clearly had some involvement in what was going on. What was I to do?
Visions of those massive Senatorial hearings one always sees on C-span came to my head, and I recalled all the major trials of my youth (White Water, OJ Simpson). Then it crystalized in my mind how those brave men and women, by American tradition, bravely and calmly said not a good damn word to their prosecutors with invocations of the fifth amendment.
Then it hit me. I decided to stonewall the bitch.
I looked straight forward to the whiteboard and its drawing of a triangle with all its interior angle notated in degrees and as robotically as I could said “I don’t know”.
My inebriated classmates took to giggles again, and this only fueled my teacher’s determination to get an answer from me. She gave me a look that suggested I would be protected from consequences, that I had nothing to fear and could trust her with whatever was going on. She asked again “Matthew, you can tell me, what is going on.”
“I don’t know” I said in the same wooden tone, and this time my classmates replied with genuine, non drug induced laughter. I steadied myself, and didn’t let their good time get converted into my own of their incrimination. I merely continued to look forward and assumed absolutely no expression whatsoever.
“Matthew” came the next plead, this one laced with desperation, “just tell me what is going on….” when I looked at her in her large, doe-eyes I saw what I can only infer to be the sorrow one feels after a massive betrayal. But the Judas in me had set in, and I continued to keep the dead expression on my face.
“I don’t know” I parroted without thought, and this time the thigh-slapping laughter of my classmates reached an all time high. They were falling over with laughter, and remained that way for a good few minutes.
And then the teacher gave up. I had broken her. She couldn’t do anything about the other students because merely laughing in class was not punishable by any rules. She waited for the laughter to subside enough for her to continue with her lesson before doing exactly that. But she did so begrudgingly, and every now and again gave me a very familiar look. the look was one that I knew all to well. The look meant “You really are *****’s brother, aren’t you?”. And I guess I was, whatever the fuck that meant.
For what seemed like the first time in my life I was a part of someone’s good time, and not just witness to it. As with many details of this story, I have no idea whether this incident ever came up again. But by the way these kids would brag about getting blazed and ordering pizza, I imagine that they are somewhere right now, working dead-end jobs somewhere in the DC metro area, and talking about that one time they got high on laughing gas and watched as *****’s brother stonewalled a teacher.