Thirty minutes into the procedure, Mathias Drane, a bike courier, tightens his neck muscles to lift his head from the scanner table, noticing again that his forehead is held in straps, as are his hands, as is his chest. Although thirty minutes is a conjecture, it seems to him a fair assessment, in line with the tingling feeling in his right calf; he rotates his ankle and bends his toes. The tingling doesn’t go away. With more ankle-rotation, the tingling eventually goes. It is the first time he has an MRI—the first time his body slips entirely into a tube. In some way, it is an experience, something fresh, like the first time he saw Juliane, like his first downhill time-trial race, like crashing his bike into a cliff. At noon, a compassionate doctor declared his body officially broken, and now he is waiting for the final decree, which will come out of the box where he now lies.
There is a miniscule drop of water condensed on the surface of the tube right in front of him. He looks at the drop; he blinks a lot—he always blinks a lot—feeling the stillness of the air around him. The only atmospheric motion in the tube comes from his own breathing. He exhales through his nostrils and feels the small gust traveling over his philtrum and further out. He follows the breath-volute around in the tube—up it goes, and then down again. He feels like an opium smoker in his own cloud, smoking his own breath. He floats needlessly. There is pleasure in that sensation. The condensed drop is about to roll. He has no idea how he knows that: that the liquid pearl will set itself in motion, that gravity will pull on the delicate skin of the pearl and distort its shape. He knows. While the drop knows nothing about itself, about the vapor that made it, and yet in a second it will drop onto his face—shameless. He makes elaborate computations about the probable point of contact. His nose bridge—the drop will navigate onto his nose bridge, not for very long, then flow through to his cheek, down his jawline, along the upper part of his neck, and will end on the surface of the scanner with a plip. It’s as if, lying there in this tube, he’s both the weatherman and the weather map.
There is a loud rushing noise, like a whipping noise with a small bird at the end of it. Mathias is wearing earplugs, but he can hear it very clearly. It is not so much the loudness as it is the repetitiveness that is striking. Every thirty seconds or so, there is a loud alarm sound like a foghorn, followed by more horns and then claps as if someone wearing oversized clogs was walking and tripping around the tube. In an effort to deflect the noise, Mathias closes his eyes and imagines himself at the top of a very steep hill on his bike. He can throw himself full speed down the hill with as much realism as one sitting with goggles in a 3D theater. He experiences such ease and looseness in his trip that he suspects at once that he could be falling asleep—the effect of the Diazepam. If that’s the case, he will resist. He doesn’t want unconsciousness. Not now.
He jumps to thinking that there is no such thing as chance, that everything is linked, Juliane would say. It is no accident that precisely this morning before the crash, he received her package in his mailbox, a stack of photos. She could have sent an email with the pictures as attachments, a link to a Dropbox if the files were too big. Instead she picked a brown paper envelope, licked a series of antique stamps, went to the post office in Boseong, which, according to a short consultation of the Internet, is located on the southern shore of South Korea. His mind wanders back to the inscription on the sticky note affixed on top of the stack. For you, my dearest Mathias, with all my love. Nothing else. He closes his eyes and visualizes the inscription again, the elegant tilt of the letters. His mind stays there for a while; it drifts like a bird on her aquatic words. He swallows his saliva—warm and salty. He presses his head deeper in the pillow that the operator added for his comfort.
Gazing upward at the strips of fluorescent light on either side of him, at the white plastic surface of the tube, Mathias doesn’t see plastic. Mathias sees Juliane’s skin, pale and microscopically textured. There is a bit of sweat behind her knees and at the base of the neck, there is one drop entirely formed between her shoulder blades—about to roll. There is one mosquito trying to get through the bed canopy, called in by the blood pulsing in the wrists of the sleeper. Hzzzz. Nothing for a while. Hzzzzz. It is sixteen hours later in Korea; the sun is rising there. Outside Juliane’s bungalow, the clouds are kissing the cliffs. Vapor comes off the ground. Someone is burning incense nearby. It smells of a warm and powdery and almost creamy wood.
Mathias tries to shift position, but of course he can’t. His sense of smell—always acute—seems to have sharpened. He smells the odor of the MRI operator. It is an honest smell—overlaid with the bleachy and soupy hospital smell but unmistakably human and a little citrusy. It travels toward him and into the tube like a meteorite, and with it comes something smoky as well—the morning spell of Juliane in Boseong. And now he wonders about this elation of his, this capacity to recreate Juliane in all her fundamentals: her skin, her smell, her sweat. Perhaps it is how she wants to manifest herself in him: like a fearless explorer, a pioneer of her own body, a freedom fighter able to break the distance with a few photos. When he, Mathias, really never travels any farther than a few hundred miles away from home—with his padded pants, his cycling glasses, and a breathable rain jacket just in case. It is a bit depressing to think that he hasn’t changed, that all his riding hasn’t made him more of a man, that his tan is all but on the surface, that his apparent health is just for display. He still feels like himself: a sickly, shy boy silent in a group of adults who ask him questions that he never answers. Because he can’t. Because he doesn’t know what to say.
There is a voice—out of nowhere—feminine and calm. “How are you, Mr. Drane?” the voice asks. He focuses simple-mindedly on the meaning of the question. There is more than one truthful answer. He is working his mental way through the tangle of the words to be honest. “Mr. Drane, are you okay?” the voice asks, now with a slightly more pronounced upward intonation. He is about to respond. At the same time, he is very much conscious of the futility of this dialogue. In a way, he doesn’t wish to answer. So he doesn’t. “Mr. Drane, we have another thirty minutes to go. I need to know that you’re okay or we’ll have to get you out and start all over again. Can you hear me at least?”
“Yes.” He thrusts the word out with superhuman effort, pushing either side of his tongue against his upper premolars, pulling his lips out into his cheeks. On a three-second time scale, it starts out with the wetness of the “iii,” rolls forward to the “eee,” glides into the “sss,” which skids ahead until it pulls his mouth shut. Once it is said, he feels the impact of a thought in the lower left part of his brain—like a rubber arrow. He feels like a nine-month-old saying “yes” for the first time.
“Thank you,” the voice says, audibly irritated.
Bing. The tremor is gone. That is all. What is left is a mild yet lingering sense of being exposed.
And then he holds on for what, two minutes without hardly thinking?
The side light in the tube flickers. It’s a slight flicker, perhaps more like a very brief dimming that corresponds to another machine turning on. The MRI operator has most likely noticed it. He should wait it out and see whether it happens again. If it happens again, he doesn’t want to miss it. And so he tries not to blink for a while, which is hard. His eyes water, and a tear swells and escapes to the exterior edge on the right side. Now he is crying. It hurts and it soothes—it does both. He lets himself go. The tears come, not as a sprinkle, not as a downpour, but as a deluge. Part of him is precipitated onto the scanner. In a moment, the scanner temperature will make his teardrops evaporate and perhaps reform above him. Suddenly he has this flashing memory of a school book in seventh grade: a naïve blue sea and a bright yellow sun, a white cloud, oversized blue raindrops, a meandering river on a green mountain. C’est comme ça qu’on fait la pluie. He liked French in school. Il ne faut pas pleurer, Mathias, ça ne sert vraiment à rien.
Being in this tube may provoke tachycardia, the doctor said. The doctor shouldn’t have said that. Saying things makes them happen. Saying I love you in a drunk delirium made him love Juliane—it wasn’t the other way around. And words are irreversible. Mathias cannot unsay I love you; the doctor cannot walk back on his warning. So there is flopping in his chest. Mathias’ heart beats too fast; he breathes too often.
“Everything okay, Mr. Drane?”
Juliane is here again. She has this irritating way of returning. She is very much like this upsetting refrain, which Mathias hums quietly in the tube.
The absence, here it is.
Of a child, of a love
The absence is the same…
He should stop humming, he should stop summoning Juliane. But that’s not him—he can’t stop. And all the while as he hums, he sees himself when he was little (eight?). Eight-year-old Mathias makes a bet. The bet is to cross a square lined with chestnut trees filled with starlings. It is raining shit on the square—intensely. He needs to run through and dodge it. That is his way to confront shit—head-on. He almost makes it. He gets hit in the very last yard, right when he is opening his mouth to cry victory. This is when he stops humming and starts laughing inwardly. Juliane says he scoffs at everything valuable about himself—including his resolve. Still, it’s funny, she must admit it. The voice calls out to him again, reiterates her question.
This time, his “yes” is effortless, sincere.
The light flickers again. He’s thirsty.
He feels like having one of those sports drinks—with added minerals and electrolytes— something really refreshing, with cucumber mint flavor. He has a collection at home—little tabs that dissolve into his plastic water bottles. The collection sits in the pantry on the uppermost shelf, just above the assortment of energy bars. Juliane says that Mathias’ pantry looks like a medicine cabinet. She says a real pantry smells of apples in a crate, of sawdust and permanent humidity, which is another way of saying that a real pantry is a morgue for food with preferably northern orientation and no windows. And him, with his tubes and bars, he is trying to escape the pantry rule. He likes food so unfoodlike, so abstract that the idea of death cannot touch it. Nothing can rot in there. Not even the pickled vegetables on the lower shelf. In fact, he’s trying to turn his pantry on its head, to make it a chamber of eternal, colorful life-pellets and ever-enduring fermented food, a place he can crawl into when the world explodes. He does what he can with what he has.
A side ache starts to run on the left side of his head. Mathias did not think a side ache could reside in the head. He assumed like everyone else that a side ache dwells under the rib cage. But now he’s feeling this stabbing pain that compares accurately to a side ache. It starts with a sharp swelling sensation, like rising sea waters. And once attaining its maximum intensity, the pain sloshes back and forth, as if stuck in his long and narrow skull. Mathias doesn’t seem to be equipped with the necessary mental sluiceways. In short, he is going through a cerebral climate change, an expression that would no doubt delight Juliane.
There is the sound of clogs moving in the adjacent room not far. The room has a screen that displays all his bodily commotion. In a way, it must be entertaining, like some special exhibition—Mathias’ Side Ache or The Rising Blur. But if it comes to a choice between allowing his broken body to be on display and pedaling in the sauerkraut, Mathias would rather ride in his own cabbage. The side ache must be beautiful by now: Blazing Sun in Skull.
“Mr. Drane. How do you feel?”
“On a scale from one to ten, how would you rate the pain?”
Mathias calls on the worst possible pain he can imagine. Like being skinned alive with a peeling knife, bit by bit, starting with his extremities—a ten. On that scale, the scale that ends with the skinning, the side ache rates a solid four.
“We’ll go on then. Would you like me to turn on the radio gently so you can listen to music through the rest of the procedure?”
He just said no exactly like Juliane—like a short and disconnected note—after a small rest—followed by the noticeable absence of thank you. And because he said no just like her, Mathias knows that the ache in his side will not leave him anymore. It is here to stay. The pain has progressed to a new stage; it is becoming part of the whole that defines him. Mathias has clear blue eyes, a yellow road bike, and a side ache on the left side of his head. When he emerges from the tube, his head will be slightly tilted to the left, as if someone had driven a screw to his skull, wound a yarn around it, and tied a calibration weight at the end. The weight will change under the dedicated effort of an invisible hand—it should not remain the same at all times because it is constantly adjusted, and that makes it alive. Mathias can accept alive pain. The only thing that Mathias is truly afraid of is to feel nothing, something until now he could combat with a 2 a.m. bike ride on the hills near the ravines.
Did the operator put on the radio even though he said not to? No. He just imagines it, but the idea of music gets on his nerves, and layers an oddly familiar form of violence with his pain. Mathias starts having terrible thoughts. Thoughts that get stuck in his heart like rust spots on his bike chain. He’s in a tube that has dissolved all sense of outsideness. He is so enclosed in himself that the violence budding in him feels as unprompted and irrepressible as an epileptic seizure. He’s thankful to be fully strapped, and at the same time, his leg muscles tighten as if they may rupture. Tendons and hollows get drawn around his muscles—barely covered in skin. He feels unnerved and tight, about to burst at the seams, fully disqualified to exist outside of this tube. Right now, he could hurt Juliane, pull one of her eyes out of its socket, burn the skin on her breasts with a lighter, kiss her in a way that would choke her—catching the nose and the mouth all at once—and wait. It’s a feeling of evil joy and immense distress, a feeling close to what Juliane once described to him as the philosophy of a poet whose name he forgot, but whose words wedged into his cortex:
“The unique and supreme delight lies in the certainty of doing ‘evil’—and men and women know from birth that all pleasure lies in evil;
“But what can eternity of damnation matter to someone who has felt, if only for a second, the infinity of delight?”
And as usual his violence spurt comes in spasms and is already receding. It’s a little like sex or like jet lag, in that it is the accumulation of little waves—of pleasure, of fatigue—that gradually build up to a seaquake, which crashes to the ground and then shatters into pieces. It is delightful and shameful and exhausting. Once it is over, it is over. If he hadn’t become a bike courier, he wouldn’t have quit smoking, and it would be time for a cigarette or a joint, like after the battle, like after the rain, like after the procedure. Juliane once told him about a trip she took to Jordan—before they met—where she was invited to a private room in a restaurant, and they passed around an argileh full of marinated tobacco and molasses. As she told him the story of the pipe being passed around, he could visualize the smoke getting out of her lips—coming out like a dream, rolling out—every last bit. It makes him happy to relive that story she told him. He smiles with his lips closed. He says to himself that it was the right move to tie him in this tube, where he is protected by the warmth of his imagination. He doesn’t care that he is wrecked, that perhaps he’s going to die, that the machine will confirm his sentence. He may as well smoke his last pipe here, eat his last supper, watch the sunset, hold Juliane’s hand, choke her with a kiss, pedal away. He can do all of this here, and the machine will not stop him. The machine will settle for projecting splashes of color onto the operator’s screen, and it will look nice and incomprehensible.
Observing his own thought is dry and infinite like the desert—a clean process with a lot of recycling involved. There is a recurrent meandering to it, which snakes a bit like a Brazilian dance. Mathias is a good dancer—all types of dances. It’s one thing he can claim without second-guessing himself. When he was an adolescent, his friends admired him for a particular series of dancing steps he could execute at full speed onto any rhythm. He can still do it, although he has less opportunity as he gets older. Not long ago he attended a workshop close to his apartment—mostly cha-cha-chá. He tried to teach Juliane one night, and he owes to that the only moment he ever held her tight.
Mathias’ lower left leg lifts up and hits the tube before it goes back down—the first of six steps. It strikes him how the memory of dancing is all in his muscles, his nerves, in the privacy of his connective tissues. It soothes him to think about dancing because it is done without thinking—or if it is thinking, it is a very ancient form of it, a form that seeps into his bone marrow. Once dancing is learned, it cannot be forgotten, like biking. The body knows forever. Only in death will they part: his body and the dancing. And even then, how would he know what will be happening inside his dead matter? If nails continue to grow for a while, the same inertia must leave the memory of dancing somewhere.
Perhaps the tube is growing on him. It is a bit like a house growing on an older person. There is this moment where having been in one place for so long, a node gets formed between the content and the container. This is where the light flickered and the eyes winked. This is where his opioid breath has curled and met with the white plastic surface before it fell back down and he could smoke his own odor as if it was pure Afghan. This is where his heels define the end of the tube and where the tube defines the end of him. This is where the strap inlays his forehead. This is where his skin has sealed with the tube, and no one can tell whether it can be unglued. He’s tired now; he starts fossilizing.
Somewhere something makes the sound of a buzzer and there is motion. Whether the motion is Mathias’s or the tube’s is impossible to sort out. It is as if Mathias has been sitting on a train for a long time and the landscape starts to move—the first impression is that the land is moving, not the train. The sun rises at the end of the tube, the floor beneath him drops as if in an elevator, yet Mathias is still lying on the firm, glassy surface. There is this idea, a bit panicky, that he is an astronomer stepping out of his shuttle into infinity. It’s so bright out there, so painful to the eyes. He closes them tight. In that short moment, he fears that some essential piece of equipment will fail—his hair will get caught, he will get partly scalped, the straps that tie him to the tube will rupture and he will impale himself onto something sharp, he will lose control and urinate and set off multiple short-circuits, leading to abundant electrical contact burns—the smell of his carbonized flesh will make the operator pass out and there will be no help. Obviously, beneath this shell of stress, Mathias is excited; the hair on his arms spikes up like a platoon of miniature toy soldiers. As he glides out of the tube, he stretches in length, he fills his lungs with a big breath, he feels what all creatures feel as they step into a new world—an urge to shout out and expel the overflow of euphoria, the spirit of conquest. Mathias gliding out of the tube is Tarzan swinging out of the forest. And now he opens his eyes wide and lifts his eyebrows to help. He decides he likes it here—the muted pale green color, the cleanliness of the ceiling tiles, the rows of neon lights that seem to guide out to an invisible yet heavenly exit.
“We’re done,” the operator says.
She’s pretty—not as pretty as Juliane but pretty. With slightly darker skin around her eyes, the near absence of eyebrows, her round face, her fine hair tied in a ponytail, and a somewhat frozen smile, she has a dignified yet enigmatic look. A medical Sphynx—minus the cruelty. She has the look of someone launching into interior debate about how she will say what she will say next.
Part of Mathias would like to help her: the romantic part. That part would like to talk and say that he knows already and that there is no need to take oratory precautions. It’s a chivalrous instinct—generous and self-guided. In the millisecond that follows, Mathias feels valiant, able to brave the danger. When unstrapped from the machine, he will rise and stand tall, hold the operator in his arms, embrace her impetuously, tell her it is okay, not to talk, not to worry. They will elope and seize the days that are left, taking sunny breakfasts under the olive trees. But if Mathias looks closer, deeper into his desires, if he allows the clarity of mind that accompanies the certainty of his death, where he truly sees himself, where he truly wants himself, is in an extraordinary freefall—out of a small airplane, a very loud machine, a propeller-driven aircraft. There, knees bent over the edge, the door wide open, the wind franticly beating his hair onto his face, he will watch the curvature of the earth, and before that at the forefront, a small and shy cloud, full of melancholic dampness. He will hold on to the fuselage, his knuckles temporarily white under the gloves, his body will make one with the plane, and he will let go, tumble into the air as in a drum-type washing machine, no up and no down, the blue and the brown dancing like the remnants of lights from a disco ball, followed by the calmitude: his body flattened into a napkin, his legs and arms bent out of the way. That is all.
“Would you like a glass of water?” the Sphynx asks as she touches the skin on his forehead with her very cold hands while untying the straps.
He must sit before he stands. Quietly, he tightens the muscles in his abdominals. It is a gigantic effort, mobilizing all his strength; he feels like an old self summoned out of a deep chair. The room has no windows, and it is cold in here. There is a clock tied perpendicularly to the wall to his left, a round white analog clock. Time flows normally and the operator walks across the room toward a small metal sink. He is starting to rise out of his lying position and feels some light-headedness as gravity plays tricks with his blood flow. He helps himself with his hands pressed onto the sides of the scanner-bed. The hospital gown slips from his shoulders as he sits. Facing away from him, the operator fills a paper cup at the sink. He closes his eyes. This time there’ll be no trouble hearing what she won’t say; there is nothing that can stop that now. His body damage is no longer a concept. The machine has captured it and marked him like cattle. He is branded for the same reason livestock has been since ancient times, to prove ownership. The damage owns him. He fits himself on the scanner, adjusts the gown back up, expels a small excess of air. The Sphynx comes back to him with the paper cup held forward. He takes it gently from her hand. There’s always this, he thinks, and the photos. And he drinks slowly, letting water drown the last of his resistance. And finally, progressively as if on a dimmer, the hope to see Juliane again is turned off.
Cecile Barlier’s short stories “A Gypsy’s Book of Revelations” and “Forgetting” have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. “Forgetting” is featured in Epiphany’s 30th Anniversary Anthology. Her work is featured or is forthcoming in Amarillo Bay, Bacopa Literary Review (first place for fiction, 2012), Clare Literary Journal, Crack the Spine, Cerise Press, Delmarva Review, The Emerson Review, Gold Man Review, Knee-Jerk, The Lindenwood Review, The Meadow, New Delta Review, Penmen Review, Saint Ann’s Review, Serving House Journal, Sou’wester, Summerset Review, The Tower Journal, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Whistling Shade.