“Don’t try to make anything happen,” the calm voice said
At Float House on Cordova Street in Vancouver you float in a tank filled with two hundred gallons of warm water and nine hundred pounds of Epsom salt. A session costs $75 and lasts an hour and a half.
The Float House website suggests that on float day floaters should eat light, stay hydrated, avoid smoking and drinking coffee; men should avoid shaving within six hours before the float and women should avoid shaving within twelve hours before the float; and all floaters should use the bathroom before floating. The website also says to expend pent-up energy. So I rode my bike to the spa.
A guy in a stretchy purple shirt sat at the front desk, eating crackers and almond butter.
—You’re Dylan, right? First float, right? Would you mind taking off your shoes?
He slid an iPad and a pair of large headphones across the desk. The video on the iPad showed a slender man with long hair climbing in and out of the tank. A calm female voice narrated the video. The man with the long hair demonstrated how to float with your arms around your head and then how to float with your arms at your sides. “Don’t try to make anything happen,” the calm voice said, and the long-haired man closed his eyes and continued to float with his arms by his sides. Then the voice said that any anxiety or claustrophobia can be pacified by wedging a pool noodle in the tank door to keep it open. The long-haired man wedged a blue pool noodle between the door and the tank.
When the video ended, mellow music was playing in the lobby. The attendant in the stretchy purple shirt scraped out the last of the almond butter from the jar.
You’ll be in tank 3 today, he said.
He placed a laminated sheet of paper on the desk. It was a waiver stating in vague legalese that drowning in the tank was impossible due to the buoyancy of the water, but if the impossible happened, Float House was released from liability. The attendant handed me a red dry-erase marker. I signed the form. He photographed the form. Then he wiped away my signature with an eraser brush.
A middle-aged man in loose-fitting jeans and a faded black T-shirt emerged from the hallway, fresh from his float, hair still wet and slicked back. He looked a little tired, as if he had just finished a day at the pool. The receptionist waved him over.
—How’d it go?
—Good, said the man.
—A lot different then the first time, huh?
—Yes, much different, said the man. He was trying to slip on his sneakers without using his hands.
I tiptoed down the hall in my socks, avoiding small puddles on the floor, and opened the door to tank room 3. Tank room 3 was lit with soft blue light. Perfectly folded towels were fanned out on a stool and a silver kidney-shaped dish containing a few sets of foam and silicone earplugs rested on top. A fresh white terry cloth bathrobe and a large ornate mirror hung on the wall. A maze of pipework ran in and out of the far end of the tank. The tank was the size of a luxury bathtub and made of high-gloss white plastic with chrome grab bars. It looked like a coffin for astronauts.
I hung up my clothes and showered, lathering with the soap labelled “pre-float.” I began to dry off, out of habit, and then stopped. I inserted the earplugs in my ears. Then I climbed into the tank on my knees and ducked my head while I pulled the hatch shut above me.
Absolute darkness. The water lapped against the walls; I could sense the limits of the tank. The air tasted sour.
Floating was effortless, but staying in the centre of the tank was difficult. Any movement generated small waves, pushing my body into the wall. I pushed off and knocked myself into the opposite side. In the video, the long-haired man had centred himself by spreading his limbs against the sides of the tank and then retracting them. It was a tricky manoeuvre, but when I got the hang of it, the water became calm.
I was drifting in an endless ocean, with some sense of motion but not of direction. It was like sinking while remaining still. I waited to hit bottom, but the impact never came.
Sounds echoed in the tank, long droning hums and light trickling taps. Whether my eyes were open or closed, I saw deep blues and pulsing green flashes, shadows passing over shadows.
Concentrating was like trying to flex a muscle I no longer had. Every thought spilled into another.
A bead of colour appeared in the vast blackness. I stared into it and it began to grow. When it grew large and close enough, I recognized it as my uncle’s room at our family cottage. Dark green shag carpet, stained by cigarette smoke and sand from the beach. A brown bed, sagging heavily on the edge with a sleep apnea mask hung from the headboard. The shelves were filled with science fiction books and the VHS tapes—each with two or three movies on it—that we often watched together. One of them was Altered States, a movie about a scientist who experiments with hallucinogenic drugs in a sensory deprivation tank and emerges as a devolved primordial monster.
Faint music began bubbling up through the water. It didn’t seem like an hour and half had passed, maybe less or maybe more. I climbed out of the tank just as the long-haired man had demonstrated, both hands firmly gripping the chrome bars. The room seemed darker than before. I showered, this time with the soap labelled “post-float.” I could not tell if it was any different than the pre-float soap.
The receptionist waved me over.
—So how’d it go?
—Good, I said.
—Was it what you were expecting?
—No, I said.
—It never is, he said.
The empty almond butter jar sat on his desk.
It was raining lightly outside. I felt like I had just awakened from deep sleep. I could feel the rain on my skin, the sound of it on the pavement. I noticed everything.