I had thought it would be dark.
I had thought it would be quiet.
I had thought it would feel like being inside a phone booth. Close. Encapsulating. Perhaps calming, in the way a compact, dark, quiet space can be. Like hiding in a closet during Hide-N-Seek when the edges of the world fall away, leaving behind a sheltered island of welcome isolation.
I was wrong.
Instead, it’s bright, with two long tubes of light running the length of the scanner; it’s loud, with thwacks and thumps and creaks and hammers drowning the music piping into my ears through massive headphones.
I don’t feel encapsulated but, rather, entombed. This must be what it’s like to be alive inside a coffin: arms pressed against sides, ceiling six inches from face, a weight of “don’t move” pressing the body into unnatural stillness.
Within thirty seconds of being rolled into the MRI machine, panic rises. My heart is galloping, frantic. The silly thing is: the shoulder that’s been ailing for eight months has actually been feeling significantly better lately. However, on some recent flights, I experienced bizarre, unprecedented pain during the descents–head-in-vise “ohgodamIhavingananeurysm” tears-in-eyes fire-through-my-teeth clenching-at-my-neck-cords firing-up-exactly-the-route-of-shoulder-issues agony–so I’ve decided that some scans of my right side might have value. I’ve willingly entered this tomb.
They’d asked me, three times, if I’m claustrophobic. Naw. Naw. Naw.
In the off chance that confined space did bother me, thinking it would add an overlay of peace to the experience, I had requested classical music when the technician advised, “You can have music or ear plugs, but your hearing has to be protected because the machine is loud. What would you like to hear? We get all the local FM stations.” It would have been a singular kind of hell to be strapped inside a cylinder, passive and unmoving, while Katie Perry’s voice assured me I’m a firework. Classical, please.
Unfortunately, as my MRI begins, the piece playing on the classical station is syncopated, staccato, nuttily nuts. It’s the kind of composition that, when Saint-Saëns’ friends heard it performed for the first time, elicited comments of, “You been hittin’ the absinthe again, Poodle?”
I am engulfed by hectic beats and clackings, music and machine, anxiety and shallow breaths.
Protectively, my eyelids shutter. Always, on the screen of my forehead, there is a white pinpoint of light I can imagine and focus on when I close my eyes. Even better, I know I can quiet my heart with yogic breathing, counting in for five and out for seven, feeling the air move from my belly up to my clavicles and back down again.
Except. That type of breathing is too physical for a motionless situation. I have been told I can inhale, exhale, and swallow, and that is all. In this situation, meditative, chest-filling breathing is as dramatic as hurling a plate into a fireplace. Even worse, every time I conjure up a pinpoint of white light, the jackhammering of the MRI machine splinters it into a million jettisoning fragments.
Held tight, deliberately still, my body is invaded.
The music in the headphones stops, and I hear a voice. Immediately my heart rate drops. It’s the technician. “How are you doing?” she inquires.
“Fine,” I say to the ceiling six inches from my face. I am fine. There’s no scream inside of me, threatening to rise. It’s more that I’m in the process of adjusting to current circumstances, and in this case, that means sorting through a reaction of “Whoa, this is more of A Thing than I’d anticipated” and realizing I won’t be able to distance myself from the experience.
“We’re going to start the first scan now. It’ll last about a minute,” she tells me. As she speaks, it is everything; it’s stunning how effectively that single voice reaches through the machine and spirals into my brain. Her syllables reel me in, pull me to her, her to me. If she would just keep talking, this would be–
the machine shudders, adjusts me a few inches, and revs up its intrusive clamor. There is no distracting myself from what’s happening.
Not a fan of creating my own tension, I give over.
Thump, thump, thumpa thump. Thump, thump, thump, thumpa thump.
Quickly, I realize what I’m hearing is basically the driving beat of electronic dance music. I love to dance. On whichya, I urge my brain. Get out there. Take a spin.
Setting down its Long Island Iced Tea, my brain obliges. As long as it’s heading out to the floor, it decides to hang a disco ball, spruce the place up, create some atmosphere.
Just as it begins to consider what shirt Imaginary Jocelyn is wearing at the club–I’m lobbying for bell sleeves–the first scan is over. The technician’s voice, that astral anchor, floats into my ears again. “Still okay?” she checks. Yes. I was just about to befriend two guys under the disco ball, in fact. Their open collars and sweaty chests signal rollicking good stomp partners. “Okay, the next two sets of images will each last about three minutes.”
I wish she’d talk more. When she’s talking, everything’s okay, and I don’t have to play at Desperate Pretend. When she’s talking, I dare to open my eyes. In a moment of sweet mercy, just as the machine shifts into its jackhammering again, the host on the classical station breaks in with station and song identification. The act of his speaking is unaccountably reassuring. I love him. I would like him to identify the station over and over, for half an hour. As his soothing tones pour into my ears, my eyes open and cast about. His company gives me the courage to take stock of this space pod I’m inhabiting. In addition to the long, tubular lights, I can see three hatches with screws. Hey, I could be in a movie. Just keep talking, Classical Music Host Guy, and I can believe I’m starring with Matt Damon in this winter’s galaxy-based blockbuster: Pod People. Just keep talking, Classical Music Host Guy. You’re Ground Control to my Major Tom.
It is not to be so. Host Guy stops talking, and my eyes slam shut. Too soon, the thump, thump, thump, whack, crash, bang pummels my space again. This time, though, the beat doesn’t take me to the club. It takes me to the past.
What I hear flickering through the thunking rhythms is this:
What I hear in the thunking rhythms, in those guitar chords ingrained into the crinkled nooks of memory, in those beats that transported my painfully permed fourteen-year-old self, holed up in a wood-paneled basement, leaning against plaid upholstery while sitting on orange carpet, sipping Tab and chewing Beechnut gum–what I hear in the industrial noise pounding into my senses, taking me back to 1981, when I sat, rapt, in front of the television screen–
what I hear is a promise that if I hang in there, I will get through.
I grew up in Billings, Montana, a city of 70,000 people–the biggest in the state. In the 1980s, it was the kind of city where teens drove pick-up trucks with gun racks to high school. It was the kind of city where the height of daytime socializing happened in the wide corridors of a new thing called “the mall.” It was the kind of city where the height of nighttime socializing happened around open fires next to free-running kegs at a spot called The Badlands. It was the kind of city, bordered by the Rimrocks on the north and the Yellowstone River on the south, where a young person could stay inside all day, watching re-runs of The Beverly Hillbillies. It was the kind of city where a girl’s father could teach choral music at a college while she lay on a waterbed at home, listening to April Wine wail “Just Between You and Me” on her clock radio. It was the kind of city where young women entering one of the high schools would have to walk, each morning, past a long cement bench in the main foyer, a thing called Jock Rock, and get “rated” by the guys lounging on that throne. It was the kind of city where I started going to high school really, really early, before most of the other students showed up, where I’d sit in a recliner in the corner of my favorite English teacher’s classroom and read or chat or laugh until the hallways filled and the school day began.
Growing up in this city, my childhood was unremarkable, in the best possible way. I had a bike, a neighborhood, friends, family, safety, security, enough to eat, good teachers, Girl Scout cookies to sell, a mother who was willing to buy 16 boxes of cookies from me and 16 boxes from my sister, a car to drive when I got my license, freedom, independence, an enormous sky to bear witness.
Could all that still not be enough? In such a city, in such a time, inside myself, yes, it could not.
I was happy, but I cried a lot.
I had friends, but I imagined others.
I thought a can of mandarin orange slices was intoxicating, but I wondered what other people, in other places, ate.
I found the ragingly popular The Official Preppy Handbook to be hilarious, a guide to who I wanted to be, but maybe not actually funny or aspirational.
I read Albert Camus’ The Stranger and was fascinated by the concept of existentialism, but I couldn’t quite figure out why the protagonist had been walking on the beach or why people would actually cleave to a philosophy in which there’s no payoff at the end or how existentialists functioned at a potluck or found comforting words at a funeral.
I dressed like Madonna, if Madonna had starred in Flashdance, but I sensed that something like sophisticated clothing might exist elsewhere. Maybe across the ocean. In Europe. Where they wore chignons and pearls instead of Nikes and torn sweatshirts.
As a teenager, I didn’t know people who were “weird.” In my yearbooks, friends commemorated our time together by scribbling affectionately about my “weirdness”–because I was goofy and had comments and made jokes–but, realistically, all of my energies went into cultivating myself for the mainstream. I wanted to dress right, talk right, look right, be right. To me, “edgy” involved being tardy for physics, asserting that Neal Peart wasn’t actually rock’s greatest drummer, or neglecting to add bleach to the mop water at the ice cream shop’s closing time.
No one at my high school had an asymmetrical haircut or had heard of the Meat Puppets.
Fortunately, there was never a question, never a discussion that I can remember, never a debate: when I turned 18, I would go to college, and when I went to college, it would be far away. The only question was this: until then, how could I weather the years of pick-up trucks and kegs and Beverly Hillbillies and April Wine and having my physical worth assigned a number by football players? How could I sit contentedly with my present while revving up for a leap into the future?
But then. Those guitar chords, those beats, the thumpa thumpa thumpa thump of MTV poured out of the television’s tinny speakers, Nina Blackwood’s curls filled my vision, The Buggles informed me that video had killed the radio star, and I heard words like “new wave” and saw women with shaved heads and heard fetishist lyrics and felt my feet tap to pub bands and sat, agog, as men in drag sang that “Boys Keep Swinging” and watched whips wave in the air and laughed at flower pots on heads and–
suddenly the world Beyond was right there filling up a Montana basement, a Beyond teeming with carrot-colored hair, discordant noise, tattooed fuck yous, confident disenfranchisement, beautiful countercultures, all delivering the loudly sung promise that, yes, oh yes, there were alternatives to gun racks and jocks on rocks.
Every day, two feet away from the screen, I would sit on the old steamer trunk that my grandmother had used when she traveled to Europe but which had become a basement “coffee table.” Plucking at the swoosh on my shoes, I’d watch The Vapors, Ultravox, Bowie, Blondie, The Pretenders, Split Enz, all of them beaming the message of MTV across the grid of Manhattan streets, past the Limelight, gaining speed over the Great Lakes, waving at the Midwest, blasting across the plains, landing near the Rimrocks, tunneling into my psyche.
It was stunning how effectively MTV’s voice reached through the machine and spiraled into my brain. Engulfed by its hectic beats and clackings, the power of music and machine, I was freed from anxiety, from the need for shallow breaths.
With it, MTV brought the deep expanse of a full inhale.
“Still doing okay?” The technician’s question, so intimate through the headphones, pulls me out of my woolgathering.
“Yup,” I respond, smiling at the ceiling six inches from my face.
“Great,” she responds. “A little bit longer, and then it’ll be over. Just hang in there, and then you’ll be good to go–and it’s so sunny and gorgeous out there today, isn’t it?”
“For sure,” I confirm, counting down the minutes until my release. “It’s gorgeous out there.”