I was the Drew Barrymore of the science project. I rose up quickly, winning my first science fair in 3rd grade by constructing a flawless Pascal Vase and then again the next year for making a gyroscopic hard-boiled egg using the properties of friction and slippage. Along with all the accolades; the ribbons, the medals, etc., I was also treated to clandestine doses of caffeine from hangers-on and sundry other science aficionados. "Congratulations on your project. Quite fascinating. Here, have a Coke. Maybe you’d prefer Pepsi, eh?"
At home, my parents, both children of the ’60s, eschewed the "evils" of caffeine in lieu of wheatgrass shakes and soy milk slurpees. However, thrust into my newfound fame, I fell full-bore into the lifestyle. Birthday parties to which I would have previously never been invited, candy bars, and enough dark, fizzy beverages to occupy Disney World. At first, I could handle it. Just two Mr. Pibb’s before breakfast, one at lunch and two after dinner, occasionally savored alongside a Milky Way. But you know the story. Way leads on to depraved way and the next thing I know I’m ten years old, slashing open discarded Pepsi cans to lick the remnants of any caffeinated globule that might have adhered itself to the inside of the can. I spent the better part of my nights and early mornings in my room with our cat, both of us pawing furiously at the vertical hold on my Apple II+.
My 5th grade science project was a total calamity. I aimed to probe the effects of length on the musical pitch of organ pipes and calliope whistles but, overcome by caffeine mania, the day of the science fair I endeavored to deposit my little sister Yvonne in a bowl of macaroni and cheese while pouring sodium hydroxide over her little blond tresses.
The science fair a shambles, my family humiliated and any semblance of scientific credibility I once had now dashed, I resolved never to touch caffeine again. And I flourished. I steered clear of the sciences, hesitant to stir up any unpleasant memories, and began my tenure in the humanities. Caffeine-less I really thrived. I hadn’t touched caffeine in over twenty years. I procured a cushy appointment on a tenure track teaching German Idealism at a local college. And most importantly, I reconciled with both my parents and my sister who, instead of jabbing me with a makeshift trident every time we met, would kindly put her withered, bubbly arm around my shoulder and muse, "I think hair and skin are sometimes really just overrated." Life was good. Then bad.
Similar to the downfall of so many academicians, mine came at the hand of a graduate student. A second year PhD. candidate who must have seen in me a weakness for Hegel’s criticism of Marx’s moral philosophy and large breasts, Belinda X (as we’ll call her) had me at danke. I would finish my lecture on Feuerbach, all the time straining to avert my eyes from Belinda, who would sit in the back of the classroom spelling out "Achtung! I want it now" with semaphore flags, her unbuttoned blouse revealing a perfect Euclidean geometry of canyonesque cleavage between those fleshy orbs. "That’s it for today, class," I’d say.
"But professor, what about the Spinozistic immortality of reabsorption in nature?"
"What about it?"
"You said we would be covering it."
"Well, it’s like scurvy—but in Germany and extremely rare. We’ll skip it."
Belinda and I would retire to my small cottage for the weekend, locked in horizontal ecstasy; making pillow talk, biting pillows, and wearing pillow cases over our heads like sweaty harlequins. This bliss continued on for weeks until a particularly awkward episode in which I asked to be asphyxiated with quiche Lorraine left me in a brief coma. Belinda saw to my convalescence daily and even went so far as to teach a number of my classes, set up an office in my old office, and acquire power of attorney over my estate. I felt healthy, but the old vim and vigor had left me. I spent my days in quasi-consciousness, unexcitable, finally melting into a state of general exhaustion by lunch time.
"Maybe you have the Spinozistic immortality of reabsorption in nature," Belinda would ask.
"No, no. I’m just tired."
"Well, here. Take some of this." Belinda handed me a small can, no more than eight ounces. "Drink it," she said. I took a small sip of the viscous, medicinal liquid and lay my head back down on my pillow. I felt nothing for a few minutes, then a kind of attentive warmth. "I’ll take another sip of that," I remarked. She handed me back the innocuous-looking little silver bullet can and I disappeared it down my gullet.
"That’s it right there," I said. "That’s the stuff."
"Yeah, it’s an energy drink. It has taurine or something they mine from bull testicles."
"Whatever it is, let’s have some more of that." Belinda brought me another can and within twenty minutes we were going at it as if nothing had changed.
"Bull testicles?" I asked later, incredulously.
"Yeah, that and caffeine, I guess."
"Aargh!" I exploded with anger, explaining to Belinda my previous dependency issues with the little brown devil.
"No! Caffeine, goddamnit." Belinda felt horrible, but how could she have known? And besides, after a few moments of rumination I thought to myself, "You’re older. You’ve grown up. You can handle it."
For a while, Belinda put up with my addictive reprise. She laughed nervously as I would sit atop the ceiling fan, spinning languidly while reciting the second part of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. She served as my proxy (my incessant jittering had caused me to gnaw my own lips off in a fit of pique) in front of the disciplinary committee after I was put on probation for my attempt to carry the school’s chemistry building on my back all the way down US 401. Belinda beseeched me time and time again never to "caféflip, or mix cans of Full Throttle, Red Bull, Pimp Juice, Rock Star and Sobe No Fear to create a truly Edenic experience–assuming your idea of Eden is a pinball game of electromagnetic radiation in a spotty vacuum. I paid neither her nor my colleagues and associates any mind, which is perhaps why toward the end of this month long debauch, I kicked Belinda out and turned my cottage into a "Fidgethouse." Perhaps you have seen these things on 60 Minutes. Well, it’s worse. The multitudes of tinkling aluminum cans strewn about the floor resemble a cacophonous plague of shiny morning stars, screeching Venus before dawn. Cosmic nuisance. The people zipping in and out of corners (and the abject sadness of the crash, the delinquent who spends his last quarter for a piece of used guarana root), and the tremens! The horrors, shakes and rum-fits of the garden variety drunk can’t even be touched by the agitation of the caffeine-head.
After pawning my first edition of Hegel’s Phenomology of Spirit for a Yoo-Hoo and bogus xanthine seed, I blacked out for a period, then saw myself as I was: totally nude, standing in the middle of a monster truck rally and howling for Heidegger to get out of my armoire. I was broken. I had done it again. I sought out help, but with Belinda gone, my colleagues a distant memory, my family’s compassion run dry and not a dime to my name, I was without hope.
After a near-fatal caffeine crash in which I spent three days stuck in a smokestack inside Los Tios Mexican Restaurant, I arrived at the door to a clinic to which I had been referred by a man who once spent a week at my Fidgethouse. When he was "high," he would only break from his ingestion of high-potency caramel macchiatos to douse his head in a plate of sweetwater oysters with mignonette sauce for protein. But sober, he seemed level-headed. Even kind. The man approached me as I tried to engage my microwave oven with other dogs at the local dog park, and handed me a card with the address of the clinic, giving me an understanding smile. I scoffed at the time, but now I was ready for help. I ambled my heavy heart and my heavy soul up to the old, dilapidated building. I knocked on the door and was met by a curious man with wise eyes. He looked me over from head-to-toe, then remarked affectionately but sternly, "I’m sorry, sir. It’s just too high a risk. I mean, how can we even admit you with that chemistry building on your back?"
I lit a cigarette and trundled on toward the dumpsters behind Starbucks.