All but naked, I stand perfectly still and squint down at the water beneath me. I guess I look a little like one of those Acapulco cliff divers. Only I’m not in Acapulco or on a cliff, and I have no intention of diving. Under the circumstances, it would be a bad idea.
The name of this remarkable place is Tranquility Tanks, which is ironic, since my whole body, from my thinning hair southward to the plantar wart on my left foot, is taut with anxiety. I feel anxious as hell.
I’m in a small white featureless room peering down at a flotation tank. Or an isolation tank, or a sensory deprivation tank, as these things are sometimes called. The pool of salty water inside doesn’t bubble or even move much that I can see. It does sparkle a bit. Mainly, it just lies there and waits.
Open, as this contraption now is, a flotation tank resembles a gaping mouth, a huge hungry mouth that can swallow a person in a single gulp. In fact, that’s precisely what it’s designed to do. Closed, it resembles a high-tech coffin. Neither image holds much appeal for me.
Beside me, my twenty-five-year old nephew Zach prods my elbow. “Whadaya think, Gordie?” he says. “You ready to give it a shot?”
“I dunno,” I hedge. I’m remembering a scene from the movie Altered States in which a scientist, as a result of being in a flotation tank, devolves into an ape that runs amok, kills a sheep and eats it raw. Zach has assured me that it’s unlikely I’ll have a similar experience.
He’s also assured me that people are drawn to floating for valid reasons. The theory being that if you can find the gumption to climb down inside this gizmo and lie suspended for a while on a buoyant bed of warm water, cut off from the sights, sounds and stresses of the real world, it’ll do you some good. Maybe a lot of good. You’ll revisit past experiences and come to understand them better; you’ll explore new and exciting possibilities for the future. You’ll come to recognize just who and what you are, and you’ll relax. People have been floating—and supposedly benefitting from it—since way back in the 1960s, long before Zach or even his parents made their earthly debut.
I glance over at him, and I see that he’s doing more than just glancing at me. He’s giving me his full-bore, straight-ahead, eyes-like-a-pair-of-blue-marbles stare. He’s a tall, plain-faced guy with acne scars and a big beak of a nose that seems to swoop down at you from the clouds. He’s got a sort of scarecrow aspect to him as well, maybe because he tends to hold his graceless, scrawny frame at an odd angle, as if blown askew by a blustery wind. In recent months, following a promotion, he’s taken to wearing a dress shirt and tie constantly (always a spot of ketchup on the tie). Put him in a cornfield, though, and he’d still unnerve some crows. Zach means well—I’m OK with him—but his appearance and manner aren’t exactly a balm for my tension.
“C’mon, Gordie,” he says. “You stand there much longer like that, you’re gonna catch pneumonia.” I’m wearing nothing but a swimsuit and a sprinkle of goose bumps.
“All right, all right,” I mumble. I hitch up my swimsuit (it’s a Speedo brief in a pink and black floral print, utterly inappropriate for me) and make my move. “Let’s do this and be done with it.”
Earplugs wedged in place, I sit down in the tank and then lie back. First thing I notice is how pleasant the water feels; at about 94 degrees, it’s neither too warm nor too cool. Roughly ten inches deep, it’s loaded with Epsom salts that keep me magically afloat like a large cork in a small pond. So shallow is the water, and so springy, you’d have to make an all-out effort to drown in here.
Above me, Zach gives me a cheery thumbs-up and slowly lowers the lid; he’ll come back for me in hour, assuming I care to stay that long. But now this lowered lid presents me with the second thing I notice—the total, inky, uncompromising darkness that envelops me. It’s a darkness so complete that I doubt I’ve encountered anything like it since being nestled in my mother’s womb. Usually darkness, like everything else, is imperfect; there’s a glimmer of feeble light somewhere.
But not now. Not here.
A curious fact. Normally I’m not too fond of tight spaces. I’m not claustrophobic necessarily; I just don’t like tight spaces. Elevators and closets I could do without. And I’m not too crazy about being in the dark either, whether literally or figuratively. But for the moment at least, against all odds, I feel pretty comfortable in this tank. Maybe it’s due to the water snuggling gently all around me, or the feeling of being artlessly aloft, as if I’ve been excused from the strictures of gravity.
So I figure I’ll give this project a try, see what I can get out of it. I’d love to get something out of it.
But what happens next? What’s supposed to happen next?
I honestly don’t know.
For a while I do nothing but float, my mind a blank. This strikes me as unproductive, so I put my focus on Zach, not that I really want to. But he’s the one who convinced me to come here.
Throughout most of his adult life, Zach was an absolute and unmitigated wreck of a human being. All he did was grow his straw-colored hair, listen to “industrial” music, play hundreds of video games and use hundreds of illicit drugs. Then, without any warning that I detected, he got himself a decent haircut and got hired by McDonald’s as a cashier. Soon after, he became assistant manager of the restaurant and then manager. Now, I’ll admit that succeeding at McDonald’s isn’t equivalent to climbing the ladder at Apple or Google, but, considering his track record, I was amazed and impressed regardless, and I made a special trip to his workplace to tell him as much.
“Thanks, Gordie,” he said, munching a French fry. “I’ve discovered the secret.”
“What secret?” I asked.
“What is it?”
“Flotation,” he said. “Yessir, life rocks when you can take a dip in your own inner sea.”
I couldn’t agree with him, largely because I didn’t know what he was talking about. After he explained himself and started trying to enlist me as a fellow floater, I really didn’t agree with him. I thought maybe he was back on drugs.
“You do what you want,” I said, “but keep me out of it.” The notion was just too screwy, too California, for me. “No way in hell,” I said.
But one week to the day later, I’m somewhere in the bowels of Tranquility Tanks, doing a float.
How’s this even possible? I ask myself. Is Zach that persuasive a speaker? Or are my personal problems and my need to fix them more urgent than I realize? I’m guessing it could well be the latter.
Because I’ve got problems aplenty. Where to begin with my problems? My boss is always pressing me to “do more with less” (not likely to happen), my doctor tells me I need to lose thirty pounds pronto or my heart might pop like a party balloon, and the IRS has been hounding me about certain “irregularities” in my tax returns from a decade ago. Those guys have a sharper memory than I do. I also have an ex-wife who likes to call me and email me to rhapsodize about how fabulous her life is now that she’s met a “real man” who treats her to candlelight dinners and takes her on sumptuous cruises to exotic hideaways in the lush, sun-soaked Caribbean. But since I’ve started using a call blocker and changed my email address, she’s been mostly under control.
Wish I could say the same about my boss. His name is Wes Westfall, and he presides over the governing board of the YMCA where I serve as executive director. A stout man with silver-black brilliantined hair, eyebrows so bushy you suspect chipmunks and rabbits might be hiding in them and a five o’clock shadow at every hour of the day, he always addresses me in a curt, impatient tone that suggests he’d rather be somewhere else, doing something vastly different. When I’m with him, I generally feel the same way.
I can picture the two of us, in my office, having a typical back-and-forth; we’ve had many of them. It’s late afternoon on a rainy day. He’s pacing. I’m sitting.
“We’ve gotta build our membership, Gordie,” he says, his slick hair gleaming beneath the fluorescent lights. “Our membership’s flat. It’s been flat.”
“If we’re gonna build our membership,” I tell him, “we’ll need to cut our fees.”
“No, we can’t afford to cut our fees till we build our membership.”
“Wes, we can’t build our membership unless we cut our fees.”
More than annoyed, he stops pacing, eyes me critically and strokes his five o’clock shadow. His fantastic eyebrows quiver at me. I get the distinct impression he’d like very much to do something awful to me, though he hasn’t yet figured out what, how, when or whether he could get away with it.
For my part, I can’t figure out if this awkward scene is actually occurring or not. It all seems so vividly real—my chair beneath me, my boss before me, the shape and tone of our exchange. I tap my desk with my finger, and I hear the tap; I feel it in my fingertip. But I’m not truly in my office, am I? Of course not, I’m actually—
But here comes another twist. I can see Westfall talking to others, one after another, none of whom I’ve ever met, in a series of varied settings. First he’s describing to a tobacco-chomping garage mechanic an unwelcome sound his brand-new Audi SUV has been making. “It’s like this,” Westfall says. “Ka-chunga ka-chunga ka-chunga!” Hopping as he makes the noise. Next he’s accusing his paperboy, a high school freshman in a Ravens baseball cap, of overcharging him. They’re standing near a glider on Westfall’s front porch. “I happen to know it’s sixteen ninety-eight,” he growls, “not nineteen ninety-eight, OK?” Finally he’s leaning back guiltily against his kitchen sink, attempting without success to clarify some unfortunate situation for his wife, whose mouth wouldn’t be open any wider if she were singing opera. “Honey,” he says, “I did not put my hand on her leg. She put her leg under my hand.”
Fascinating stuff, but even it pales before the uncanny scene that unfolds next. Westfall, thank God, is gone. The location has shifted. I understand I’m in the town of Sweet Lips, Tennessee, in a middle school gymnasium, and I seem to be afloat somehow at a height of maybe twenty feet. It feels natural enough. Beneath me, a dozen or so prepubescent girls, dressed for volleyball—they’re wearing black kneepads with a white swoosh mark—are milling about. The coach, a gaunt crabby woman whose voice sounds like a late-night door creaking open, has just informed one of the girls, Bonnie, that Bonnie is being kicked off the team. Tears welling in her stricken eyes, the girl appears shocked.
“But why?” Bonnie asks. “I didn’t do anything.”
“You did so,” the coach creaks. “You pushed Emma from behind and knocked her down. Just look at her.”
One of the other girls, who seems almost as miserable as Bonnie, has bright red blood trickling from her nose.
“I didn’t do that,” Bonnie says.
“Then who did?”
“I—I don’t know.”
“You did it,” the coach insists. “I watched you. And you’re off the team!”
Sensing an injustice, and calling on powers I never knew I had, I’m able to replay the incident in question as if it were on videotape. I do it simply by willing it. There’s the push—Bonnie wasn’t the culprit; another girl was!—and the stupid coach wasn’t watching at all but was instead staring down entranced at her cellphone! Just because I can, I replay the incident twice more, and each time Bonnie is innocent.
“What am I gonna do?” she sobs, wandering off by herself. “My parents are gonna kill me.”
“You just tell ’em the truth,” I advise her.
“They’ll never believe me,” she says.
“Sooner or later the facts’ll come out. Tell ’em the truth.”
Now she pauses, frowns, lifts her head and blinks up at me, more curious than frightened. “Who are you?” she asks. “And what’re you doing floating around up there?”
“Doesn’t matter,” I say.
“How do you do that?”
“Doesn’t matter. Take my advice, and everything’ll work out.”
Suddenly a burst of white light explodes in my face, and for a moment I’m stunned. “Whoa,” I say. At last I recognize that Zach has opened the tank; the glare that’s erupted at me is the everyday light of the room.
“Rise and shine,” he says, his beak of a nose bearing down at me. “How’d it go?”
“Has it been an hour already?”
“Sixty minutes on the dot.”
I sit up, and he tosses me a towel. “Man—felt like ten seconds.”
“So how was it?”
Following my own principle, I tell him the truth. “It was wild, Zach. Kinda fun, too.” I share with him some of the details, but not all of them. I’m already thinking of my adventure, at bottom, as a personal one.
“How do you feel?”
“Tremendous,” I say. I’m relaxed and energized at the same time, as if I’d just had incredible sex.
Zach nods and smiles. “There’s more coming. Wait till you dig the afterglow.”
And so I do. Driving home, I seem to have a whole new read on the world, a new appreciation. Everything around me is so fresh and vibrant and delightful. Colors are more intense—red is now red!—common objects such as birds, traffic signs and buildings strike me as splendid and unique, and even ordinary sounds intrigue me. The hum of my engine, honks from other cars and the wail of a distant siren have taken on an almost musical quality. After their forced blackout, my senses are back with a gleeful vengeance.
What a boost to my attitude! At one point I notice a little old blue-haired lady wobbling out of a corner grocery with a hefty bag. Nothing else I can possibly do but pull over, park and offer to help her.
“Ma’am, it’s your lucky day,” I beam at her, holding out my hands. “Your knight in shining armor has arrived.”
She tilts back her head, locks her eyes on mine and says: “Get the hell away from me.”
“No,” she corrects me, “you misunderstand. I’ll kick you right in the jewels.”
Well, it may not be the response I’d hoped for, but so what? Hey, she’s a tough one. I like her moxie. I like everything. Everything’s fine.
And everything stays fine for a while. During this time life smells pretty fragrant to me even if the basic facts that comprise it haven’t really changed. Even my hours at the Y are feeling better spent and somewhat satisfying. I decide to try a warmer, more open, more empathetic approach with folks who inquire, however remotely, about a membership.
“What all do I get for my money?” one gentleman asks me.
“What all do you want?”
“Well, I don’t—”
“Just name it,” I say. “We aim to please.”
“OK.” He’s got a grin flickering on his lips that threatens to detonate into loud taunting laughter in the next five seconds. “How about . . . anytime I want to visit the Y, you pick me up in your car and chauffeur me. And when I’m done, you take me back home again.”
“You got it,” I say, and his devilish grin morphs into a look of astonishment.
“Here’s my card.” I hand it to him. “Give me a call and I’ll be there.”
I tell Zach about the post-float high, and he smiles, tilts his scarecrow length toward me and squeezes my shoulder. I also tell him when, after a few days, the euphoria gradually fades away, and I go back to being my usual saturnine self. Tight. Anxious. Moody. Maybe it shouldn’t, but it bothers me to look, for example, at a door and see merely a door rather than, say, a shimmering portal to another reality.
“Guess we’re due for another float,” he says, and I heartily agree.
As before, we go together. We float simultaneously and use a timer to alert us when an hour has passed. He has his favorite tank, and I have mine. In fact, he’s gone so far as to name his; he calls it, or her, “Lulu.” Sometimes I think about naming mine too, but I haven’t, and I doubt I will. Not my style. In any case, at least twice a week we make the trip to Tranquility Tanks and get recharged and refortified. Heckle and Jeckle, man. Frick and Frack.
And for a time, life is very mellow.
Maybe too mellow? When things go wrong, as sometimes they will, I can no longer see the value in overreacting—or in reacting much at all. It’s as if I’m floating along on my own pink puffy little cloud of good faith and optimism. Day before yesterday my doctor informed me I’ve got all sorts of numbers going up that need to be going down. Blood sugar. Blood pressure. My weight, of course; I’m carrying some choice beef.
“Gordie,” he said, studying me over the top of his half-rim reading glasses, “this isn’t something you can just shrug off, you hear me?”
I waved my hand at him. “Doesn’t do to worry,” I said, just shrugging the bad news off.
Yesterday I received a call from a man who identified himself as a Special Agent of the IRS. In a not too genial voice, he told me I would soon be facing formal charges for what he claimed is tax fraud. He suggested I hire myself a lawyer.
“I appreciate your kindness,” I said, “in giving me a heads-up. I hope we can get this mess straightened out. And may God bless you.”
Issues have popped up at work, too. This just in today: An auditor has discovered that one of my staff has, over a period of years, embezzled tens of thousands of dollars from the Y’s coffers. I knew nothing about it, but some people, Wes Westfall for one, think maybe I should’ve. When I learned about the theft this morning, my response was rather low-key. “Hey, c’mon,” I said. “Take it easy. It’s only money.” At which point Westfall, his face flushed and his breath short, looked as if he wanted to have a heart attack but couldn’t. On some level, he probably would’ve been pleased to have a heart attack. What he could do, however, was suspend me indefinitely without pay. That much he did, and he did so briskly and at high volume.
He fired the staffer, and it occurs to me I may wind up getting fired myself. (If I do, I suppose I could always find work at McDonald’s. Zach would hire me.)
Because of my newfound calmness, none of these developments troubles me too much. Yet I’m able to grasp that perhaps they should be troubling me, at least a tad, especially when considered in their full scope and tonnage. This strange paradox itself troubles me, and so off I go for another float, hoping to soothe and clear my mind.
For once I go without Zach, since this figures to be the granddaddy of all floats. Longer than an hour. Two, three hours—whatever it takes. And when the visions come, the episodes, call them what you will, I intend to ride them like a magic carpet as far as I can, in whichever direction they might take me.
A float to end them all.
Anytime I’m adrift on my inner sea, I’m unable to feel where my body begins and where it ends, or even if it ends. On and on it seems to go through the black, measureless void, filling the universe. Becoming the universe. The sensation is empowering, intoxicating.
O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space. . . .
Who gave us those deathless words? Someone way above average, yes, but I can’t recall who. I don’t think it was Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Roman Empire’s Five Good Emperors, though he’d certainly been capable. After all, he was renowned not just as a noble leader but as a philosopher-king, and there never have been too many of those about.
What would it be like, I wonder, to meet with Marcus Aurelius? Wearing a polo shirt, blue jeans and penny loafers, I stand before him in some marbled chamber. He runs his pupilless eyes over my duds and stoically—meditatively—asks me where I’m from. I’m about to answer him but find I’m confused by the question of language. Did he just speak to me in Latin or in English? Am I to speak to him in English or in Latin? He doesn’t know the one language, and I don’t know the other. And yet . . . He continues to regard me as the scene dissolves. . . .
Actually, we do have one philosopher-king I can think of—Bob Dylan—and he’s being discussed vigorously at this moment by two English professors at a coffee shop in Urbana, Illinois. I’m seated at a table next to theirs, sipping some cappuccino and listening in.
The first professor, Dr. Lloyd Harper, reminds me somewhat of Wes Westfall—not a favorable sign. He’s got graying hair, an aggressive voice and a wide body that sits there like an overstuffed chair. He seems personally offended that Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. “Why, Dylan’s not even a writer,” Harper says dismissively. “He’s a songster, Katherine.”
The other professor, Dr. Katherine Keene, is younger and trimmer—she’s built like a whippet—but no less assertive with her opinions. She tosses her plaid scarf back over her shoulder and leans in. “Lloyd,” she says, “he’s more than a writer; he’s a literary artist!”
“Oh my God! Have you actually sat down and read his lyrics? Philip Larkin called them ‘half-baked.’ ”
“Well, Philip Larkin was half-baked. Dylan’s lyrics are rich and intricate. Some of them hark back beautifully to the classics, to Homer and Ovid.”
“And when you reflect on the marvelous writers who haven’t won a Nobel Prize—Joyce and Nabokov and Updike . . .” Harper shakes his head.
“Dylan was the Voice of a Generation,” Keene submits. “He influenced millions of people, including other artists. Say what you want, Lloyd; the man and his work are out of this world.”
A captivating debate, but something in that phrase out of this world is having an almost chemical effect on me. Out of this world . . .
Abruptly I’m poised at the controls of a small saucerlike craft skimming through the skies of Europa, the Jovian moon where scientists think alien life may exist. Instruments beep at me, and the round, streaked, incalculable mass of Jupiter hangs above me. No sign of life yet. If it’s here at all, it may be down there swimming in the uncharted oceans that flow beneath the moon’s frozen surface. Somehow I don’t feel like going down to check. Can you imagine what marine life on Europa might be like? I can’t, but I doubt I’d find it agreeable.
But now something horrible happens. For no apparent reason, the engines lock up and then cut out. The craft, dead as a cinder, is plunging helplessly toward the moon’s surface. An enormous fissure yawns beneath me, and I’m hurtling straight for it. Within that fissure lies the ocean. When I strike it, will I survive the impact? Will I float? Or will I continue my spiraling, heart-stopping plunge? And what sort of nightmarish creatures will swarm around me to investigate? To poke at the craft? To rip it apart?
Oh no. Oh God.
Why did I ever leave the Earth?
Or did I leave the Earth? If I did, I’m back on my home planet now.
I’m sitting in a McDonald’s, possibly Zach’s, though he’s nowhere in sight. But I’m not alone. Sitting across from me, her clear brown eyes watching my every blink, tic, glance and smile, is Bonnie, the young volleyball player. Except now she isn’t quite as young as before. I’d peg her as being in her late (and lovely) thirties. I understand she’s a doctor, an esteemed surgeon; she’s also the person I’m closest to in life.
We’re in love with each other.
We’ve just finished lunch, and afternoon sunlight is streaming through the tall wide windows. In the background Bob Dylan is singing “Lay, Lady, Lay,” which I consider a charming touch. Moreover, my intuition tells me that certain people—my boss, my doctor, my IRS agent, my ex-wife—don’t exist here. Not just in the restaurant, but in this realm. They’ve been relegated to somewhere else, and this too is a charming touch. A yellow balloon, its string dangling, bobs along the ceiling.
“Lately,” I muse, “I’ve been traveling a lot.”
“I know,” Bonnie says.
“But I like being here with you.”
“Gordie, I like having you here.”
I can feel her gaze as it links with mine; it feels warm and soft, like a summer breeze.
“I’m going to ask you something,” I say. “Will you tell me the truth?”
“I always tell the truth.”
She nods. “When I was a kid, there was . . . an incident. I, uh, I was playing volleyball . . . I always tell the truth.”
“I like it here,” I say again. “I’d like to stay here. Bonnie, do you think it’s possible?”
“Of course it is.”
I mull this over. “How?”
She shrugs. “You just stay. That’s all.”
“I can do that?”
“If you want to.”
“Huh. Back where I’m from, won’t it . . .”
“Create a stir?”
“Does it matter?”
I do my best to weigh the alternatives, the repercussions. It isn’t easy, but then nothing ever is. I take a breath and take her hand. We stand up together. “Let’s go somewhere,” I say.
“Anywhere. Acapulco.” We move toward the glass door, toward the streaming sunlight.
“I’m game,” she laughs.
“And we won’t even have to fly.”
“Uh-uh.” I draw her against my side and lower my voice to a whisper. “We’ll just close our eyes, Bonnie . . . and relax . . . and let our dreams float us away.”
“You think that’ll work?”
I give her a wink. “Works for me.”