a grainy film photography of a big smooth white floatation tank that is open and showing clear water inside
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The Floatation Tank

Gabrielle de la Puente

When she closed the huge smooth lid of the floatation tank over her body, Gabrielle was naked and shaking. It wasn’t the visible shaking of a sick animal. There was a whir inside her that had been running smoothly in the background for a long time, but was faltering now in palpitations and a completely clenched and bent-over gut. Her eyes were darker than usual, her hair wasn’t sitting right, and she was tense, as though she had forced herself to hold a pose for longer than her muscles could handle — a pose that had something to do with standing upright, and getting dressed, and working hard, and cooking dinner, and speaking to terrible people, and hissing back at the cat. Her mum used to tell her not to pull funny faces because if the wind blows, her face would stay like that forever. But the wind had blown over her entire funny life and she was so rigid now that when she got into the floatation tank, she was half-prepared to sink.

The woman who checked her into Room 2 in the hot basement of Floatplanet said that everybody ends up falling asleep. Gabrielle was not going to be sleeping. Her blood had the unnatural adrenaline of somebody who had missed a night’s sleep and carried on vibrating into the next day. If somebody had made a loud noise — dropped a pan, rung a phone alarm — she was poised to bark, bite their ankles, or run away and hide. She was a sick animal then; a dog kept in a cage overnight at the vets, too aware of its surroundings to rest and seriously recover. Gabrielle tipped herself backwards into the water like a baby fussing at its baptism, turned the lights off inside the tank and… didn’t drown. The water was loaded with so much epsom salt that she floated easily on the surface like debris in outer space, or a dead rat caught in a flood — an animal the vet couldn’t save. Four rooms in Floatplanet, four dogs in wet cages. She kept her eyes open, convinced she could still see everything. But today marked the return of anxiety, and Gabrielle could see fuck all.

Surrounded by wooden slat spa walls, the woman at the front desk had an iMac, a cheese plant, and control panels for each of the rooms below her. She looked severe with tattooed eyebrows and a slap-back ponytail but only because Gabrielle was so much the opposite. The woman was kind really. A full-time conductor, she set 10 minutes of ambient music playing at the beginning and end of everybody’s float. That meant 10 minutes to settle and 10 minutes to rouse. Each guest was sent downstairs with a sachet of petroleum jelly to seal any wounds, which Gabrielle only remembered when the fresh cat scratch on the back of her arm felt re-scratched by salt. There was also a case of orange putty to press into the ears. The colour became cartoon-nuclear under the diffused ultraviolet lights around the floatation tank. With earplugs in and too much on her mind, Gabrielle didn’t notice when the 10 minute overture ended. Besides, she had already started talking to herself by that point.

She hadn’t planned on talking in the tank when she booked the hour. She wasn’t rehearsing lines in the taxi. In fact, she barely remembered booking the session. She knew she’d fallen down the stairs after a dizzy spell, and water, she must have thought, would help. Now that she was in it, she hardly noticed the stuff. It was only a bath. Just a thing people did to relax. But the dark Fantasia of overlapping worries Gabrielle didn’t even know she even had had quickly began to order themselves politely by way of the slower processor of her mouth. She spoke for a long time in there, and not always in full sentences. Coming in headlines first, her various anxieties were followed by their own subtitles, multiple headings, and paragraphs of text with footnotes dragging behind them. She is a writer so of course her worrying would take this shape. Gabrielle went over the chronic fear that chronic illness would indeed be chronic; the social consequences of not wanting children; a few premature deathbed thoughts about places she hasn’t been yet, like Chile and an ancient forest; as well as vague concerns she was simply waiting for good things to happen, but in waiting, even patiently, nothing was guaranteed to come.

It is embarrassing to be anxious but only as embarrassing as it is to be alive, or to fall down the stairs, or fall apart, or fall out with your cat, or book a special bath, or tell taxi drivers you write for a living. What dya write? She writes reviews on a website. Dya get paid? Sort of. It’s hard to explain. She is self-employed and publishes her writing on the website for free. Some people support her directly but most do not. That’s up to them. She wants it to remain up to them. She’s well are that other people have paid newsletters but she would never want to read art in an inbox; there aren’t even adverts on her website because she doesn’t want them to frame what she says, or for pictures and videos to flash and jerk between words on a screen the way so many adverts do. She thought she could see them now imposing on the darkness, but one of the side effects of her heart medication included seeing coloured flashes. Hallucinations were all the same to her.

Writing is what took up most of the anxious monologue. That wind her mother had warned her about had blown over Gabrielle’s funny life and struck her as a writer. That was her decided now. Someone who couldn’t live without writing (because it made everything make sense) but didn’t know how to live with it (because she was earning less than everyone she knew, and she was too soft for advertising). She admitted this to the soundproof tank. The curse of all artists who don’t have a middle class safety net to catch them when they fall, and bounce them back, and help them float easily through time and space and life; the middle class, a floatation tank in its own right. The taxis were the most middle class she got, and she only called them when her fatigue was so bad she couldn’t risk standing room on the bus. Everything else went on bills and rent. Her cardiologist wanted to try new drugs. Specifically, he wanted to try giving her high blood pressure. She hadn’t given him the okay, but she hadn’t told him no. The nan she never knew died of a heart attack before she was old enough to be a nan, and she forgot to tell the cardiologist about that. Gabrielle hadn’t heard the ambient music below her speech, but she could always hear her heartbeat. And she still agonised more about writing than she did her bad health.

The wet writer posts reviews online but she also has a book coming out in October. The book, her first, might not be liked. It might not make an impact. Booksellers might give it a wide berth, and it might never earn out the advance, and then it will go out of print, and no invites will come from interesting places, and critics might not give it their words, and it will have no legacy at all, becoming an awkward topic of conversation amongst people who knew how much she once cared. An anxiety chain reaction. The book wasn’t only hers to worry about though. She made it with another writer. The book wasn’t something she would have written on her own, and the same goes for her collaborator. It was a text they could only write together. Water droplets leaking into the same pool, twitching before they became indistinguishable. The anxiety was shared like the book, but even sharing doubled her fear because it halved her wage. In this economy, in this body, half wasn’t enough. She wondered what her own water would be like — and remembered where she was, losing her balance and splashing hot salt into those still-open eyes.

She raised the lid to wipe her face against the one towel provided, and when she closed it again, the panic from moments before seemed so boring. She stopped talking. She didn’t like thinking about her heart as the one thing keeping her alive. She didn’t like thinking about the release of the book as the one opportunity to change her quality of life; to buy a house with heated towel racks, or to be as free as freelance promises — so free she could afford to be sick, or come here more often, and break out of the rigid pose of living. Gabrielle stretched her arms out but the tank wasn’t wide enough. If she made fists, the edges vanished. She used to know a kid who always had her fists curled small, tight, pink and sore. It might have been her. She wakes up sometimes and her hands are tired. Gabrielle waved them down now by her sides and unfurled them, palms up from the water like lily pads. Her first real bid to relax. Time passed.

Anxiety was boring. Piece by piece, as she had spoken all those worries into her personal abyss, she’d heard each of them hit the black humid air with a thud, neutral and blank, like letters typed into a password field. Secret asterisks, perfect duds. Like telling somebody else about your dreams, anxiety was drama with no punch. It was a comedian bombing a set, and in the tank, Gabrielle was her own disappointed audience. She liked writing because it made the world make sense. Anxiety was nonsense, and hers wouldn’t have made for very good writing. She knew other people could pull it off. Over the past few weeks, she had read three books by J.G. Ballard (which may or may not have tipped her into insanity, even temporarily). One book was about a man who crashes off the motorway onto a concrete island. Stuck between the roads, no cars stop, and nobody comes looking for him. The second book was about a high rise of tenants tormented by the building they live in, with broken lifts and garbage shoots, and full blown class warfare. The third was dystopian, about an Earth whipped by solar flares and completely drowned. The few buildings that reach above the surface of the water are home to reclusive people torched by the sun, barely surviving in the new tropical jungle covering the world.

Ballard’s books weren’t stories in the traditional sense, more like images. Nothing had to happen. He only had to describe the situation from every unflattering angle so that he could pen in his characters. Each story Gabrielle read was about somebody in a confined space quickly running out of resources — and letting it happen. The man who crashes off the road decides he is fine with being stranded. He will eat the garbage and he will die if he has to. The tenants in the high rise love their neurotic building so fervently they never leave. The run out of food, and eat their pets. They feeling nothing. And even when the temperatures on the drowned world rise again, the residents who are burning and thin will not let themselves be saved. These people don’t want normality or dry land. They are in a dark stasis, wounded without dressing their wounds. Red flesh in open air; cat scratch without protection. Ballard wrote books about people who were satisfied by being abused, and that was hard for Gabrielle to read because she didn’t want to relate, but none of his stories felt especially fictional. In money, healthcare, landlordism, and in the inherent, accepting anxiety of the working classes, she worried she was too used to letting the same abuse happen; and wondered why floatation tanks weren’t available on the NHS.

And still, those worries felt far away. Outside the tank, upstairs. There was so much she didn’t like thinking about that she very rarely let herself think about the things she actually wanted from life; she didn’t feel she could have them, thus they became bad thoughts too. But once Gabrielle had gotten to the end of her thoughts, she decided she would like to close the gap between Ballard’s writing and her own. She felt good about that which meant she also felt bad; still not sleeping because life was a continuous alarm. She was already in one of his images. Whether it was a bed-bound sick day or an hour in the paradoxical image of the tank which promises zero gravity comfort but looks like it could be a coffin, she had already shrunk down into confined spaces and was always running out of resources. She could always turn it into a story later on, about a girl who lives in Room 2 at Floatplanet. A girl who couldn’t afford the deposit on a house; a girl who couldn’t afford to hold the pose of the living much longer. A girl who booked a session one day and decided she never wanted to wash the salt out of her hair — she would stay here. Take a mortgage out on the tank. No taxi home. The dam had burst and the water that had seemed so furious earlier was now a flood she would float over. Down in the basement, where it was too wet and too dark for books, the dry world couldn’t pinch at her sanity because it would slip right off. She could be naked, un-shaking, where the wind couldn’t fix her. And like a character in an image, not a story, nothing would have to happen. No future to worry about. Just a girl and her water in the dark.

If you’re here at the end of the text, please comment a water-related emoji on our Instagram, like the bath emoji or a droplet! Also just a very bottom-of-the-text thing but if you are in Liverpool and you want a referral code to the tank place, message me lol