Designed by Domenica Landin
Lying in bed one morning, I turned my head to the left and felt something pop in my neck. I tried to sit up, but a shooting pain seized my upper back. I couldn’t roll onto my side or even turn my head. I lay there immobilized, thinking about how to extract myself from the situation.
This was during my freshman year of college, so ordinarily my roommate would have been present, but today he was not around. I began to maneuver around for my phone. It lay on top of my dresser, which, due to the small size of our dorm room, was lodged beneath my bed. By hooking my arm beneath me and slowly sweeping my forearm across the wood-veneer top of the dresser, I was able to drag the phone out by my knuckles. This process took about five minutes.
My girlfriend lived just down the hall; I sent her a text for help. A few minutes later, I heard her her outside the room trying the door handle. It was locked. I was unable to sit up and open the door from the inside, so she went to find my roommate in the dining hall. For fifteen minutes I lay motionless and alone in my agony, and then the two returned and got the door open. They called the student-run EMS service and gave me some ibuprofen.
Two students in cargo pants arrived with a stretcher some ten minutes later. But I was embarrassed at the prospect of being wheeled supine past many of my classmates, and besides, the ibuprofen had started to kick in, so I insisted on walking. The journey was slow and painful; I held my upper body immobile, my arms straight at my sides, and tried to keep my head motionless. I was forced to assume a bent-knee position that was like a walking squat. The EMS team shrugged and led me to the health services waiting room. My girlfriend stayed with me until my name was called, but then had to rush off to the library.
The doctor sat me on an examination table and lightly squeezed my trapezius between her thumb and forefinger. The pain caused me to emit a small yelp.
“Can you feel that?” she asked.
Under the pressure of her fingers, I could feel a regular quiver in the muscle, ticking away like a clock.
“You’re having a muscle spasm,” she told me, and suggested that it had been caused by too many hours carrying heavy books and hunched over a laptop. She prescribed me muscle relaxants, sent the prescription to the Duane Reade on Broadway and 111th.
“If you take two, don’t take a shower,” she said. “You might pass out.”
I squatted my way back across campus and down Broadway. My thighs ached, and I was sweating by the time I reached the pharmacy. There was a long line to accept prescriptions, and then I sat trembling for even longer as I waited for them to fill it.
When they gave me the bottle, I swallowed a pill immediately. It started to hit me on the journey back to my dorm room. I felt some relief, but still an awful tightness in my neck. I had an assignment due that day, and back in my room I sent an email to the professor explaining what had happened. He replied promptly.
“That sounds like a pain in the neck!” he wrote.
After that I took another pill and blacked out. I am told I attended a student art exhibition in Harlem and was generally in good spirits. I woke up around midnight, alone in my girlfriend’s bed with half a salad next to me.
This was my first significant experience with the effects of stress on the body. Later on in my college career, I started waking up in the middle of the night having panic attacks. Still later, I had these panic attacks in the daytime too. In my final semester, I had the same muscle spasm in my neck; the pharmacy already had the prescription on file.
I visited the library five or six times between 2 and 6 a.m. over the course of a semester to take these photos and always, without fail, found people asleep there. The unending and overwhelming pressures of academia—the same pressures that twice seized me by the neck—drive people to sleep in the library, squeezing in a few hours of sleep amidst all-nighters. As I walked through the library at night, taking these photos, it seemed to me that these were bodies broken onto the furniture of the school, bodies becoming part of the furniture of the school in a strange metamorphosis.
I left the photos in a box for nearly three years. Then, offhandedly, I began to show them to friends who hadn’t attended my school. I assumed they would see and feel the same things I had felt while making the pictures, but they saw and felt other things: they told me the photos were funny; surreal; reminded them of Balthus; suggested untold dreams, worlds beyond the library. These new interpretations gave me an unexpected relief, a release from painful memories of my time in college.
The way I see it now, these photos are as much about what’s there as what’s not. They are about the pain in my neck, but also about those lost hours after I took that second muscle relaxant, during which—so I am told—I had a very nice time. These photos are about the half salad I found when I woke up: the half that was there and the half that was not.