This is a piece in an ongoing series of artistic explorations and personal reflections on electronic cigarettes and vaping. This series will include fiction, journalism, and personal essays. Feedback is welcome. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you have an e-cigarette experience worth sharing.
My phone rang and I had no intention of answering, but I couldn't figure out the Bluetooth system in the rented car and somehow a voice took over my stereo. It was my older brother Travis. He was drunk, either still drunk from the night before, or already full of Bloody Marys, or both. Most likely both.
"Hurry up dickwad," he said. "We're fucking falling asleep here." I hung up on him after a string of expletives shouted into the car. I wasn't sure if he would hear me cursing him out unless I really screamed, so I bellowed several f-bombs and a few insults and then somehow hung up the phone. Nothing unusual about the exchange. Foul language was the only kind I spoke to Trav.
The Pacific Ocean and my family were falling further and further behind me. I was out on a errand to bring home coffee to brew. Somehow between nine people no one had remembered coffee. Every minute I took was another minute that they were suffering back at our vacation rental.
I had bought ground coffee but I wasn't headed home yet. I needed electronic cigarettes before I got back there. I hadn't followed proper airport protocol for bringing them through security so all of mine were gone, and I hadn't vaped in almost 24 hours.
Without an e cig, and surrounded by family, there was no telling what monster I could become. I had already snapped at my girlfriend Ava and screamed at my brother Travis, and I knew that could be only the beginning without sufficient nicotine. So I pressed on with the search as the morning hours kept growing larger.
I was driving due east, sun in my eyes, inland into Huntington Beach, California. Any charm to the place was miles behind me. On either side were row after row of strip malls. In one of them had to be a decent e cigarette vendor, but so far I had only found one vape shop, the one I was approaching.
The voice of a navigation app spoke over the car speakers. I was supposed to turn left, but the app was mistaken - left turns were not allowed. I was either to break the law or disobey the maps lady. Never an easy choice, but I knew she was more flexible than the local authorities would be, so I kept going straight, passing by my destination.
The maps lady panicked and started begging me to do U turns, but out of the corner of my eye I saw another vape shop, one that must have been too small or new to make it onto my maps app. It was on the right side, so swung across three lanes, past two honking cars, and turned right into a parking spot.
My phone lit up as I shut off the maps app. It was my girlfriend. Apparently everyone had just gone out for coffee in a huff that I hadn't made it back earlier. Ava had stayed behind and was alone in the rented condo waiting for me to return. I could hear the annoyance in the silent messages. I couldn't blame her though. She was jonesing for nicotine too.
At last it looked as though I had found a place to buy vape gear. When I walked in, though, my heart sank. There on the walls was row after row of e-juice. No electronic cigarettes to be seen anywhere. Behind the counter was a short man with a point goatee stroking his mustache with a thumb and forefinger. He looked askance at me, as if I were a cop and what he sold wasn't legal.
"Do you sell electronic cigarettes?" I asked.
He scoffed aloud, puffing his mouth and huffing as if out of breath for just a second.
"Two kinds," he said, and pointed a bony finger at two small boxes. Both were big nationwide brands that were terrible.
"Really?" I asked. "Just those two?"
My phone rang again. It was Travis.
"Where the fuck are you, asshole? Dad's almost done making breakfast."
"I'm buying e-cigs," I said.
"No shit. Hey do me a favor. See if they have any of that THC you can vape."
I hung up the phone and saw another text from my girl. She was begging me to come back.
"How much for a pipe?" I asked the clerk. He stroked his mustache again, which made me think he was pulling a price out of his ass and that whatever figure he gave me might be negotiable.
"Entry level, 99 dollars. I would start there," he said.
"I'll do one hundred," I said, knowing that was almost all the money I had, "but throw in a bottle of e-juice, something good."
"This juice is popular in Brooklyn."
"Good enough," I said. "Oh - one other thing... Do you sell..."
I paused, trying to gather the strength, but I just couldn't ask. I worried this guy would think I was a Narc and blow me away with his shotgun.
Then this just burst out of me: "Do you have Spice?" I asked. It was a perfectly legal question to ask for synthetic marijuana, as there was no law yet against the specific chemicals I was requesting. And whatever he sold would get my brother fucked up. Giving my brother a strange, unstudied drug with a terrible reputation just made sense.
"I have a special e-juice," he said. "All legal of course." He clearly thought I might be a cop.
The back room looked like a TV show depiction of a meth lab. I wasn't entirely sure the room wasn't a meth lab.
"This is K2 in solution, liquid form," the man said, "You call it spice. It can be vaped."
"Sweet," I said, "I'll take it. Plus two pipes and a bottle of that nicotine e-juice you showed me."
The last of my checking account was emptied in a swipe, and it felt totally worth it.
* * *
The waiting room outside the psychiatric ER held a very particular variety of sadness in its vibe. No one was going to die, but everything was still going to be different after each of the patients and supporters left the room to go in or out. You could just taste the permanent disappointment as much as you could smell the cleaning products in the hospital air.
I looked over at my girlfriend and she was crying. I couldn't figure out why. She hated my brother. There was something else clicking in the gears of her mind, some kind of wrench that had ground those gears to a halt. What was that wrench?
Just as I was about to ask the door opened. Every time the door opened I would think, maybe that's the shrink who will finally tell us what is really wrong, absolve us, and then we can figure out plane tickets back to New York. But the man walking through the door wore no white coat.
I felt a twist in my stomach, something like guilt. Mike was the one who would be admitted to a psychiatric ward several thousand miles from everyone he cared about. But Mike had brought all this on himself, other than the fact that he smoked vaporized legal synthetic marijuana I had given him and told him was THC. He was the one who made a flame thrower from a hairspray can and a cigarette lighter and burned several tablecloths in a Newport Beach restaurant. I just gave him what he asked for. Almost.
Looking back at Ava, I saw the sadness again, and I felt I had to defend myself.
"You remember what he did to me?" I asked her.
She did. Ava remembered everything.
Ignoring her nod, I went on. "He dosed me four years ago at the last family reunion, and I ended up missing a semester of college."
"Mike is not why I'm sad," she said. "I'm sad because you haven't asked me why I'm sad. You're just talking about your fucking family again."
"Why are you sad?" I asked with genuine interest.
"I was going to tell you something I've talked to no one about since it happened ten years ago, but now I'm done." She stood to leave. "There's no point in waiting here," she said. "Whatever happens next they're going to keep him and we're going to leave. So let's leave now."
She walked faster than I could on the way to the car. I had to jog to catch up, and she was already impatient when I got there. I looked at her, waiting for her to continue the conversation from before, but she just said, "What?" Then we got in the car and she flipped the radio station four times before I had backed out.
Driving away, after a few turns, we were back on the road where I'd bought the drug that had leveled my brother. Quickly we passed the vape shop, and it was still open with a red light out front as if it were a brothel. I wasn't entirely sure it wasn't a brothel.
I turned to tell Ava about the shop, but as soon as she saw me look at her, she dove into a another conversation.
"I was hospitalized, too, you know?" she said.
I had no idea.
"Freshman year it took too many caffeine pills during finals and spent a weekend in there. Got Jesse Spano syndrome."
I laughed and the reference, and I looked and got caught in her eyes, how distant and blank and brown they were.
She went on. "When we were in there waiting for your worthless fucking brother, I wasn't thinking about your problems or your family. I was wishing it was years before I ever met you, when caffeine pills were still the hardest thing I had ever dealt with."
The road ran straight into the Pacific then and we had to turn but I just kept going straight. I parked and got out of the rental car. A West Coast wide mouthed beach opened before me, and I felt like you could feel the size of the Pacific Ocean, its mass impossible to hold in my head, like an infinity bigger than all other infinities.
I sighed. Then I pulled out my piece and started vaping hard. Vaping like the only thing that would keep me alive was nicotine.
I looked back at the car and Ava was just sitting in there, not crying or seeming to feel anything at all. I walked around and open her door. I put the business end of the pipe in her mouth. She took a long, deep pull of nicotine and held the smoke within her. Her eyes smiled before she released anything.
I looked at my watch to clock how long she was holding it in. We had missed our flight and would have to put another on one of her cards, which she already couldn't afford. Our debt was endless and always getting bigger.
Ava was still holding it in. I don't know how but she was. It had to be painful. I reached for the pipe, Ava gave it back, and I took a pull of my own. But as I released my vape, I heard my brother call my name behind me, probably my guilty conscience taking shape in my head.
I thought of a Travis again, as a boy, smirking. I had just dared him to do something infinity times, and he said, "I dare you infinity times plus one."
And Ava kept holding it in.