About the time I was 200, maybe 300, pages into Infinite Jest, I watched a man OD while waiting for the 66 bus at Harvard Ave (a deceiving name if you aren’t familiar with the area because Harvard Ave is not at all near the brick campus of the Ivy, but in Allston, a disheveled neighborhood of Boston). In a crowd of twenty, waiting for the bus that didn’t want to come, I didn’t even pretend to look away. He was wearing a wife-beater and oversized plaid shorts, his likely blood-shot eyes shielded by drooping lids. He sat slumped back on the bench. His friend, riding whatever high took this guy too far, called for help, and in a few short seconds there were three men, each a little more sober than the last, each a little more panicked.
“Man, I don’t know. He took what,” looking around, “what I took. But he musta been on somethin’ before.”
“You gotta get him up. You can’t let him give in.”
The pair looked down at their friend: jaw slack, head leaning back over the bench. I imagined froth gurgling up his throat, dribbling down his splintered lips, his body seizing up. But aside from his friends, no one was reacting, and he just sat there as if hypnotized. I hid myself in the calm of the crowd, the crowd who had no doubt seen it all before while waiting for the same overdue 66 bus.
His original friend, with craters under his eyes and a sweaty sheen despite the relative cool, grabbed him by his shoulders and peeled the OD-ing man from the bench he had become a part of. He took the ODer’s forearms and beat his own stomach with the slack hands. The friend reciprocated with soft jabs to the OD-ing man’s ribs, as if boxing with a child. He bounced his weight from foot to foot, announcing each move, as his friend threw limp punches, eyes still shut.
Suddenly, his friend left him there, boxing blindly with the air, and followed a girl for a few steps, reaching past her blue hair for her boney shoulder.
“Hey, hey, did you have fun the other night? You’re Christie’s friend right?”
“Yeah but I gotta be somewhere,” she said through missing teeth.
“Can I get your number?”
“Yeah.” She put her number in his phone and took off quickly.
“Hey wait, what’s your name? What’s your name? Girl! What’s your name?” He yelled down the street, but she boarded another bus. “Ha, I put her in as ‘Blue,’” he said to his sober friend.
He looked back to his OD-ing friend who was still standing but bent at every joint, like an accordion collapsing on itself. He lit himself a cigarette and stuck one in between his friend’s lips. It hung there effortlessly.
And for a second I thought it was funny. I found humor, feeble, sad humor, in the entire scene before me. Every outrageous encounter in Infinite Jest, previously too horrible to be real, became real, and I wondered, how do people engage in normal interactions, carrying some air of casual ease, when they’re entwined in disarray?
“This is the stuff Infinite Jest is made of. This is David Foster Wallace’s Boston,” I said to my boyfriend. I’m not sure why it took two years for me to see Boston like this. In fact, I had seen it before.
I remember going to a party in an apartment on the other side of Harvard Ave not a month after starting my freshman year. As my friends and I stood at the top of the landing debating whether or not to knock, the door opened to two guys dragging a ragged and grayed teen by the armpits, his feet just breaking the threshold as his ushers descended the first few steps, real foam coming from his mouth. We went in. We danced, we drank, we stayed until we had no choice but to take a cab back. I forgot about the boy until now.
It’s some sort of safety mechanism, self-preservation. We remove ourselves from what’s before us and act as if it doesn’t affect us, hoping it won’t.
The bus finally came and we boarded, leaving the men in the ring, fighting whatever forces we couldn’t see.
By Becca Pollock