The attendant smiles and hands me a terrycloth bathrobe. "Slip everything off, and wrap up in thisn until we get the tank ready. It's a little cool in the waiting area. Oh, and here's the key, ma'am, for your dressing room."
As I strip, I bite the inside of my lower lip. I don't know why I let my damned shrink talk me intothis. From his big black leather chair, he leaned and said: "How long are you going to let externalvoices rule your life? I wan t you to spend some time with yourself. Hear your own loving, nurturing voice."
I pull the one-size-fits-all robe around myself and can only manage to cross one end of its sash over the other. One size fits all unless you're fat.. .like me.
Fidgeting with the sash, then the hem, I startle at the creak of the door. I'm grateful that it is only the Smiling Attendant. She motions me through and we move wordlessly down a narrow hall past the white doors that lead to individual flotation rooms. My head begins to swim. Smiling Attendant's shoes squeak.
I stagger for a moment, caught off balance, and she takes my arm.
"You're going to be feeling better in no time." Isn't that what they say before they give shock treatments to depressives? I tug from her grasp, ready to retreat, but she is already ushering me throughanother door. In the middle of the dimly lit room is the tank. As promised it is long enough for a basketball player, which at 5'6" I am not, and wide enough for a woman who is too fat for one-size-fits-all, which I am.
The attendant lifts the lid to the flotation tank and begins her spiel. "The first thing I want you to do is come and check the temperature of the water. It should feel just about the same as your own bodytemperature."
I approach and dabble my hand in the water. "Okay."
"Feels good?" Her smile broadens as I nod my head. "Now, if you begin to feel the least bit uncomfortable, for any reason, you can always lift the lid from inside. It's very simple." She demonstrates the ease with which the bronze-colored lid moves back and forth. "Are you claustrophobic at all?"
"No, I'm not claustrophobic. But I'm not a swimmer either. I don't want to drown in this thing."
She giggles. I twist the sash of the robe around my knuckles. Taking in a quick breath she continues: "It is impossible to drown in here. You'll simply be lying on your back in a warm saline solution, just like the
Great Salt Lake. You're probably less likely to drown here than you are to suffocate yourself with your own pillow in bed."
I make a mental note to dispose of my pillows when I get home.
"You don't get it. I don't float." "Everyone floats!"
"Not me." I hate my shrink. "For fifty years I've been unable to float. I can't push my big ass up on top of the water, like everyone says to do. I sink. Like a stone. A boulder."
"In here, in this salt water, you will float. And you'll relax like you never have before."
I extract her promise to come and rescue me in fifteen minutes. "If you need me, I'll come back."
I stare at the tank, then back at the attendant. Still smiling, she whispers, "There's no hurry. When you feel ready, I'll help you in."
Wondering if she could smile for the eternity it would take for me to feel ready, I muster my resolveand nod at her. I dangle my legs over the side, and the smiling attendant urges me to slip the rest of the way in. I try to sit and immediately rise to the top. Maybe I will float. Sucking in a deep breath,
I lean back into the water but I won't relax"Are you comfortable?" Her words s ound like sonar tones through the water. I am anything butcomfortable, floating naked with her standing over me. Like a whale stranded at low tide, I feel the pity of the attendant gazing at me.
I mumble, "Yeah, I guess."
"I'm going to close the tank now. It will be dark and there will be no sound unless you make it. The water should remain at your body temperature as it is right now. For the next hour..."
"You mean fifteen minutes!" I interrupt her. She's not going to hedge on her promise.
"Don't worry. You'll want to stay the whole hour. Everyone does." Perfect white teeth flash as her smilebecomes even larger. "Once I close the lid, you will be able to reach right up and find the inner handle if you need
to. Relax and enjoy." She slides the lid shut.
Immediately I reach straight up and grasp the handle like a lifeline. I draw in a deep breath and hold it, still afraid my head will go under. When it does not, I release my breath and take another. My eyes dart around but find
only blackness, not even a pinpoint of light. Release and draw another breath. My fingers ache from gripping the handle.
What is it my shrink said? "Every time you talk about your family, your fists clench. Who do you want to punch?"
Slowly my fingers let loose. My arms are now by my side with room to wave back and forth without hitting either side of the tank. Maybe I'm not so fat after all.
Floating in the tank, I think about my body. It is curvy. It is well padded. Women pay to have breasts like mine. I begin to recite the words as if they are my mantra. My hands, which are small, run over my body.
When I hit the folds of my abdomen my inner tape rewinds and my father speaks: "I just want you to be my sweet girl. My pretty little girl. You'll be so pretty if you just lose a few pounds."
I pinch the flab. I have always been fat to him. I comb through my mind searching for other adjectives he has used. My memory bank comes up wanting. Counting down through my accomplishments , I cannot recall the first
word of encouragement or admiration. Just one phrase, over and over: "Lose a few pounds."
I am grasping the handle again. I do want to punch Dad. I'm more than my body. Much more. I dare him to love every pound. Floating weightlessly in the darkness I realize I have done just that. I have dared him to love me
despite the package. I have held every ounce as a ransom for his affection.
"Of course you have. I don't know why you have to be so stubborn about everything." My mother's voice rings in my right ear. "Ever since you were little. If I had tried, I don't think I couldn't have beat you hard enough to get you to do what I asked.
I argue with the disembodied voice. "What about all the things I've gone after that you said I couldn't do?
Graduated magna cum laude, me, a single parent. And got my Master's. Oh, but you couldn't make it to graduation."
I fight the temptation to shove open the lid and boot them both out. I knew I couldn't relax in here. And where is that attendant? She's supposed to come and check on me.
In this tank, crowded with my parents' voices, I am suffocating. The walls close in. I'm floating, but I cannot relax. I want out. I begin to pant I fumble for the handle, but my wet fingers keep slipping.
"I can't do it. I can't get out! Help me out of here!" My eyes are squinched tight and I see red veins running behind the eyelids. "Get me out!" I'm crying.
"I told you not to go up there." The voice is soft and firm and distant. But very familiar.
"Maw-Maw!" I haven't heard my grandmother's voice in years, decades. Now it is the only one I hear.
"You got yourself into a fix haven't you? Always climbing up on that chicken coop, but you can't climb back down. Now what did I say, honey?"
Maw-Maw always threatened to switch me ifl climbed up on the coop and couldn't get back down. I always climbed up on it, just like all the cousins did. Once up there I would become petrified, unable to make it back down.
The old tin roof seemed to groan under my weight. It took the threat of a switching to urge me down, plump legs quivering, Maw-Maw's hands gently guiding me. But she never broke a switch off that bush.
Instead she'd slice me a big piece of watermelon. Juice ran everywhere. Maw-Maw would challenge me to see who could spit the seeds the farthest. When I was done, with pink juice and brown seeds smeared on my face and hands, she'd gently wash me off with a soft, white towel. For that moment, when it was just the two of us, I was her favorite grandchild out of thirteen.
All sins committed were forgiven and forgotten.
I realize as I float in the water, that Maw-Maw rarely told me I was smart, or pretty, or funny, or sweet. She never said I was stubborn or fat. As we walked through the tobacco fields Maw-Maw took my hand and showed
me how to pull the suckers off. She gave me a pound of freshly churned butter to take home for my own. With her butter and egg money, Maw-Maw bought me my first paper dollhouse and watched as I put it together on her
long kitchen table. She held me against her generous bosom when I slept with her when my baby brother was born.
Lost in these memories, I playfully lap at the water with my hands. The walls of the tank are pushed back out. I hope that my hour is not up. I am floating. I am relaxed.
I close my eyes and Maw-Maw's presence fades. As she loved me, I can begin to love myself. The lid of the tank slides open and as I open my eyes I see the attendant is still smiling.
"Back so soon?" I sigh.
Gently, she helps me climb out, and wraps me in a soft white bathrobe that fits me just right.