The Cassander Canon: Meet the Tosers

We’re running my supposedly finer material from the past while I take some extra time to write some stories that need a little more attention.  This week, one I’ve never felt completely sure about but that Nacho likes quite a bit, a fake feature article about kids who let other people hit them in the head with rocks in order to achieve temporary comas.  Early 21st century satire, ladies and gentlemen!

I’d first heard of the Tosers at parties in college; random rumors of them often crept up. At first I thought it was too incredible, but during my more recent travels I heard more and more mention of them in cities like Fort Lauderdale, Boulder, and even DC. It was always, “I heard about this guy,” or, “I met this girl at a bar,” but never, “Yes, I’m a Toser.” Given the nature of what Tosers do, it’s hard to imagine that they get out a lot or spend a lot of time widening their social circle. But somehow Tosing is on the rise in pockets of America, and more and more teenagers, college students, and nearly-thirtys are experimenting with the newest high around: the coma.

When I had heard enough hearsay about the phenomenon–a group of people getting together in a party-like or moodlit setting, drawing numbers, and then inflicting trauma upon each other until they’ve reached a comatose state–and really started to seek out actual Tosers, I found it easier than I had thought. Tosing is such a new activity that its practice is basically equivalent to that of LSD in the late 50s and early 60s: the police and other official people just don’t know about it yet, so as of yet no anti-tosing program has been launched. There isn’t a stigma like with, say, ecstasy or marijuana, and so the Tosers can gather without worrying about being conspicuous. There are even a few message boards available on the internet, and this is where I started.

Tosers with screen names like “ComaChameleon”, “Tosegirl”, and “ZzZzZzZ” share stories and tips, even hawk T-shirts and posters featuring such slogans as “100% GONE” or “Fuck 4:20, Go 24/7.” Posing as a newbie, I started up conversations with a few of the members, but it was hard to discern between the wannabe teenagers and the actual seasoned Tosers. After I had weeded out the poseurs, I contacted a few Tosers who attended the University of North Carolina, less than an hour away in shady Chapel Hill.

I arrived at one of those houses that have been occupied by hundreds of student leasers through the decades, a two-story faux Victorian with yellowing paint and dying rhododendrons surrounding the frail yard. Though it was a standard college pad, I noticed there was no evidence of any drugs, even alcohol. No memorabilia decorated the walls, no paraphernalia resided on end tables or in dresser drawers. I commented on this to Trixie (all the Tosers I met allowed me to use their real first names, but asked me to withhold their surnames), one of the residents of the house, and she just laughed and said, “We don’t really miss it, those of us who even used to do that stuff. We’ve got ex-potheads, ex-binge drinkers, even ex-smackheads. Once you start to tose, everything else just looses whatever power it had. That stuff becomes impotent.”

I told her I found that notion to be quite incredible, but she swore up and down. So what exactly was the high they were chasing? “It’s completely different from anything else you’ve felt,” said Jon, a recent graduate who was still living in the area. “Imagine the best sleep you’ve ever had and multiply it by a thousand percent. Imagine how at ease you’ve felt on the best marijuana you’ve ever smoked. Tosing makes that seem like a paranoid nervous breakdown.”

While I admitted that complete and utter unconsciousness sounded intriguing, I was nervous about the potential side effects. Like, for instance, pain.

“Yeah, at first, that’s what everyone is hyped up about,” said Jon. “I mean, there’s a bunch of kids out there just beating each other over the head with PVC pipe or broomsticks or whatever shit they can find. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Most of us have found out–through experimentation–what will make us go under and having a group like ours, a group of people who are looking out for you and who know that point of ‘no more/no less,’ y’know, really makes a difference. Besides, I mean, look at heroin addicts. Everyone I know is afraid of needles, but those guys overcome that. They come to associate that feeling with whatever high they get, and they get over it. It ceases to be pain, maybe. Something like that.”

I quickly followed up, “So tosing is addictive?”

Jon said, “No comment,” but he was laughing as he said it.

“But what about the kids who don’t have a group or whatever? What if they don’t even have friends? Do they self-inflict? Couldn’t that be potentially dangerous?”

“Well, with anything like this there’s an element of danger,” Trixie said. “I mean, it’s just like any other high. There are whacked out people doing whacked out things: gravity bongs, freebasing, kegstands. It’s not so much a matter of extremes as personal taste. I mean, it would be scary to OD. It’s happened. Not around here, but I’ve heard of guys who are lifers now. But, I mean, those are the guys who are always trying to outdo each other, to see how much they can take or how long they can go out. The people who are really down and out. But not like us. We’re just rec tosers.”



But, really, what’s it like? How long does it last?

“Well,” said Brit, another girl who lived in the house, “It depends. People tend to sink into it. Like, I remember when I first started tosing, I was only going under for maybe three, four minutes. Now I can go almost a day if I want to.”

“There’s control?”

“Yes and no,” she said. “Most people who fall into comas, like, regular people, car accident victims, people like that, they’re only in for a few days, if that. It’s usually only the serious ones you hear about on TV, the people in twenty-year comas. And we don’t really go that deep. We don’t simulate head-on collisions around here. There are degrees is what I’m saying. Your body gets used to it after a while, so that the shock of being plunged into unconsciousness doesn’t activate your body’s alert systems anymore. Your body just succumbs, your mind doesn’t try to pull you out. So we have these.” She pulled out a gang of keys on a keyring. Attached also was a small device that looked like a laser pointer. She held it up to my face and had me close my eyes. “Feel that?” she asked. It felt like a weird heat on my eyeballs, as if they were being soaked in warm water, but when I opened my eyes there was nothing. “It’s ultraviolet or something. Something you can’t see,” Brit said. “But if you condition yourself it’ll wake you up no matter how deep you are. It’s called a Bummer.”

“Why ‘Bummer’?”

“Because it brings you back to the real world,” Jon said with a huge grin.

And therein lies the ultimate attraction of tosing. There is no distorted reality as with LSD or E. There is no only skin-deep comfort as with pot or whiskey. There is the complete escape from reality, complete disavowal of all requirements, emotions, perceptions, and sensory impulses.

“The first time I tosed was completely on accident,” Trixie explained. “I was fourteen and dealing with all this shit. You know, coming of age shit. My stepmom and I got in an argument about curfew or a boy or something, I don’t remember, and I was so mad I swung at her. She reared back with this Pyrex casserole dish and slammed me with it. I was out for about an hour or two and when I woke up I was still on the kitchen floor. She’d left me there. She thought I was faking. But that didn’t even bother me. I felt so rested and relaxed that I couldn’t even work up enough ire to confront her about it. It’s like, if something bad happens to you–you run into bad luck, bad karma, whatever you want to call it, like your boyfriend dumped you or you can’t pay the bills or your cat dies or something–you know in the back of your mind that you can just tose and all that anxiety will be gone while you’re under. And all that stress, all that shit that knots you up inside…your body forgets all about it…”

“It’s like the best kind of hiding,” Brit said. “It’s nice to have that to fall back on when things are getting tough or if you just want to kick back for a while.”

There wasn’t much more they could tell me, so it was time for the full-on demonstration. Trixie called up a few other friends, and within a half hour we were all gathered in the cool basement, a room furnished with beanbag chairs and single mattresses. Trixie lit some incense and Jon grabbed a fishbowl filled with dominoes. As he shook the bowl in his hands everyone sat down in a circle. Jon stood in front of each person and they drew a black domino out of the bowl. “Lowest is first,” he explained to me. He finally came to me, and I had a quick moment of crisis. I’d never imagined doing something like this, and I was as nervous as the first time I’d snuck a cigarette with a friend behind a movie theater in middle school. The others watched me, though, and smiled benevolently, and they all looked normal, so ordinary and anxious to share what they had with me that my fear subsided and I reached inside the bowl.

I pulled out the double six. Twelve. The highest number. “Oh, bummer, man,” said Jon. “Guess you gotta stay awake. Twelve is like the DD. That’s the easiest way to explain it. Gotta make sure we all get up and nothing catches on fire.” I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not, but I felt simultaneously relieved and disappointed. He went on to the guy next to me, completing the circuit; he then drew a number for himself.

Silently, wordlessly, the group all got up and compared numbers and assembled themselves in order. With slight smiles they looked over at me. “Cassander,” Trixie said, “could you hand me that?” She pointed over my shoulder and when I turned to look I couldn’t tell what it was she wanted. “That, right there,” she emphasized. It was a half of a brick, a little bigger than a softball with the corners apparently rounded out. There were magic-markered peace signs on it and the popular slogan again, “100% GONE.”

“This?” I asked. “Yeah,” she nodded encouragingly. I picked it up, felt gravity pull it down against my strength, then readjusted my grip and handed it to her. She winked at me and said, “Thanks.”

Number one, a younger girl named Steph, turned her back to Trixie and then it happened. With a practiced swing, Trixie lightly bludgeoned Steph on the back of the head, close to where her spine and skull met. Steph rolled forward with the blow and fell face first into a Care Bears pillow. Trixie then handed the brick to the person to her right and closed her eyes. This time I didn’t wince. The brick traveled around the circle, and though I kept expecting someone to cry out or to miss or to fail to go under the first time and start coughing up blood, this never happened. They were what they had said about themselves: a tight-knit group, a trusting gang, maybe even connoisseurs…one by one they went down. A boyfriend put his girlfriend under and then went down right behind her, falling with his arm over her waist into a cuddling position.

Eventually, only Jon and I were left in the realm of consciousness. “It’s okay, man,” he said, eyes conveying both confidence and eagerness. “I know you can do it.” He handed me the brick and knelt on the floor facing away from me. “I’m ready. I been looking forward to this all day, man. Stoked.”

I waited for something to happen within myself, either acceptance or revulsion to sink into my brain, but in the end I didn’t feel any different at all. I focused on the back of his head and realized as I inspected it, that it was covered with raised scars and discolored bruises underneath his short brown hair. I reared back and, with what I guessed was the appropriate force, struck him. He let out a slight gasp, then crumpled. I stretched him out on his mat, placing his arms underneath his head. As I bent over him, I saw his face relax into complacency.

I sat in the room for a while, contemplating what I had just seen, but after a while boredom set in coupled with the desire for a buzz I was more familiar with. I left the Tosers to wake up on their own and drove through the campus towards the Caribou Coffee on Franklin. As I drove and sucked at a cigarette, I watched the sparse population of summer students mill about, their faces scrunched up in worry or completely blank, their minds lost in idle thought, slaves to the spasms of dark memories, and no time for relief, or so they thought.

At the coffee shop I got a double espresso to go and rode it all the way home.