Winter 2012, #18
The "EVERLASTING DELAYS" Issue
Not My Suicide
by Cynthia Gregory
Everyone has a suicide story. No, seriously, ask around; it’s true. The apex of danger is when you feel well enough to venture out, perhaps numbed by anti-anxiety pills, afraid of nothing and thereby at risk of a mortal trip over the rail of a bridge, a leap through a window five stories down. Experts say it is most likely to happen when you’re happy - not sad. Artists. Mothers. Sons. No one is really immune; if they say so, they’re a liar.
“It’s in the blood,” Bibi believed.
Bibi was named for her grandmother, who after clearing the breakfast dishes one morning stepped through the open dining room window to the street below. The fall did not kill her and when she came to she cried, what have I done?
There are stories of a white tunnel, God’s beard. In my dreams I am flying like Icarus through the wet air as applewood blossoms drift up to my face, a balm.
One morning last winter, we sat in the café, where we’ve met once a week, over coffee and biscotti for two years. Bibi, Marina, Vio, and me. This was our support group. This was our haven. We met the way women gathered on the riverbanks, slapping rugs on rocks.
Harvesting honeycombs in blue smoke.
On this day, Viola began. “My sister is coming to visit,” she said. “From France. She is the one, you know? I told you about?”
“The one with the boy and girl.”
“Yes,” Vio exhaled across the surface of her green tea, twirled her wedding band. She was about to reveal something, about to excavate a terrible truth. Her eyes darted to the table, then trailed up, slow with misgiving. “Her husband killed himself.”
Bibi pinched the hem of her skirt between supple fingers. Marina slid her eyes away, a passing flicker of guilt. As a healthcare practitioner, Marina knew a thing or two about self immolation.
The waitress skirted our corner, listening casually under a cap of black hair tipped crimson on the ends, bending over a café table. She swept the surface, capturing crumbs. Her lips were wet and slightly open as she drew in Vio’s terrible story, tasted it. Bibi tossed a dexterous stink-eye at the girl, who shrank away, stepping over a discarded sugar wrapper. The boy at the counter with a blue Celtic knot tattooed on his neck watched the girl move across the café, watched her trousered rump make the sign of infinity as her hips moved.
“Little pictures have big ears,” Bibi intoned.
Marina chewed at her chapped lips.
Vio offered her intelligence, her confession, as if predicting a storm. “They had split. You know, not getting along. His work was not happening, either. So at last she told him he should find an apartment. He moved to another city, near to Paris. We come from Marseille. Anyway, one day she came home from work and there was a message on her machine. It was from him. He threw an electrical cord over the beam and wrapped it around his neck and called to tell her, ‘you have done this to me. You.’”
“Jesus,” Bibi said.
“It was awful, how is she to be telling the children? That their father could do such a thing? He had threatened to do it before, but she didn’t think he would.”
Marina cut in. “It was a cry for help,” she said.
“His voice, it was strange of course, and then the sound was as if a struggle, and then nothing.”
I cast my vote, angling for detente. “Do you think it was an accident? That he wanted to scare her but it went too far?”
Vio frowned. “He was no lovesick puppy. And anyway, it’s more common than you think,” she said in her knowing way. “It happens all the time.”
We all attributed Vio’s stoicism to her Franco-Castilian blood but the truth is that every twenty minutes, someone in the world walks into a river or swallows tablets or fills a car with poison gas. In the time we’d been drinking posh coffee beverages and eating creamy Madeleines in a café in our small town, three people somewhere on the planet had eliminated themselves.
But that day, we were together. In that Now, we were safe. We turned our attention to Vio, trusting her sensibilities. We knew that she sat in that barn of a house, flipped through copies of Living - waiting for Max to return from client meetings. They had been renovating room by room for a year in a chic Manhattan-meets-Sonoma metro style, filling the open spaces with artifacts from Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware.
“Anyhow,” Vio continued. “In November, Max was sleeping in the guest room all the time. But that’s over. See the watch he got me for Christmas?”
“I thought he was Jewish,” Marina said.
“Then he plays it both ways.”
“What, you think he’s having an affair?”
“The Audi? The Cartier watch? It’s so obvious!”
It rather was. From the outside, they were the golden couple except Viola couldn’t conceive. No, that isn’t right. She had conceived and miscarried, three times. If the mind really is like a computer, her motherboard kept crashing. She tried to insert a new program, but there was a virus and the system self-sacrificed to protect itself.
Ever pragmatic, Bibi adopted the bottom line. “How much is he worth?”
“What do you mean?”
“Euros. Dollars. Where is the money parked? Do you know?”
Vio flushed, cornered. “In his business. In the house.”
“You better find out sweetie,” Bibi warned.
“Fast,” Marina added.
“Faster than fast,” Bibi intoned. “You get account numbers of cards, banks, investments, everything.”
“Look, I hate to be a cynic,” I said, stating the obvious. “But you haven’t covered your assets very well. This isn’t the time for magical thinking.”
Vio turned her gaze from Marina to me, trying to read my face for meaning because the words were not translating fast enough in her mind.
I wanted to tell Vio how it worked. I wanted to tell her that time was a string of collected Nows. In a recent Now she was with Max. In a more current Now, Max was trading sex secrets with the co-ed who took care of the dog when they vacationed in Kaui. All Vio’s Nows were a string of pearls that could choke an innocent bystander.
I had met her. I knew that the pet-sitting girl was pretty in the way of youth, but fundamentally dim. She was not clever, but she was firm, and clean, and now, now, now, baby. Vio and the dog-walker both existed in a certain Now for Max. Vio’s dead brother-in-law inhabited a Now like the one Max would exist in after the papers were signed and she striped him down.
Then, our sanguine Viola pulled her mouth into a knot. “I don’t even know what that means, magical thinking. Like to conjure?”
“Yes, like that.”
Marina pushed. She was an aggressive advocate for tough love. “Is he the suicidal type?”
“Are you sure?”
Poor Vio, I thought, it was her turn in the barrel. Why do we gang up on each other like this, I wondered. Compassion? Maybe it was easier to work out the flaws in our friend’s lives than to work out the flaws in our own.
At last, Bibi redirected the focus away from Vio. “Well,” she said. “Kelvin is.”
Bibi worried about her Kelvin, a brilliant man, a savant who couldn’t manage to keep a job. He was fired or quit jobs as if keeping a schedule. He was idle and ridiculed her work, the saving grace that paid the mortgage and kept their daughter, Gemma, in music lessons. He had too much iron in his blood, which in itself was a life threatening condition, and which was held under control by regular transfusions. Still, she worried that when a blue mood struck, when he was feeling superior to the human condition, he would do himself in. There were a million ways. He could take up a dangerous hobby, flirt with death, make one thin miscalculation and auger straight in.
It was a valiant effort on Bibi’s part, but Marina wasn’t finished. “Even if Max isn’t suicidal, you have to be sure about where you are financially. You have a nice life. He could have a heart attack. You need to know where your assets are my dear, and what you’re worth.”
“Well anyway,” Viola said. “That was at Christmas. Now we’re in couples’ therapy.”
“He’s trying,” I said. “That’s something.”
“Leave it alone,” Bibi said. “She just wants to be happy. That’s the main thing. Anyway, did you read about that woman at Gemma’s school?”
Bibi’s eyes fluttered wide and she gestured toward her neck. “They found her in her apartment with a chunk of Korean barbeque wedged in her throat.”
“Jesus.” Marina, the state hospital therapist, said this with the Spanish flavor: Hay-seus.
Bibi paused for effect, then stage-whispered. “It was ruled accidental suicide.”
“It’s not suicide if she didn’t mean to,” Vio said.
Marina lifted and dropped a shoulder. “Maybe she did.”
I could see where this was going. “Come on, Mar.”
Marina ignored me. She was on a roll. “It’s more common than you think.”
“Killing yourself is illegal,” Bibi stated. “And it cancels the insurance policy.”
“Wait, what? How can killing yourself be against the law?” Vio was then, and continues to be, staggered by her adopted republic’s
cunningly random proprieties.
Marina sighed. “It’s murder. You murder yourself.”
“And if you are not clever enough and you fail?”
“Attempted murder. Anyway, it’s better to take up a dangerous hobby.”
“Murder by default.”
“Meat is murder,” Bibi barked.
“Murder is murder,” Marina said.
Some people, those who are either marginally motivated or marginally skilled, don’t manage to close the deal the first time and try again, compulsively. Psychologists say that some people go at it up to fifty times before actually making it. Strangely, you could say that one success in fifty is respectable. One hundred in-vitro attempts will statistically result in eleven babies. Edison, who was afraid of the dark, made three thousand attempts to create the light bulb before he succeeded. It’s a matter of perspective.
Finally, Viola had had enough. “Can we talk about something else?”
Marina straightened her spine, pointed toward the light fixtures overhead. “Global warming.”
Bibi choked on her biscotti. “Are you off your meds?”
Marina wagged her chin. “We’re murdering the planet.”
“Don’t mother me.”
Peace begins with me, I thought. Peace begins with me. “Please, ladies.”
“She’s in denial,” Bibi insisted. “A victim of the liberal media.”
“Liberal -- are you nuts?” Marina was not having it. “They’re saying that global warming is a myth, that alternative energies cost too much.”
“Geez Louise, don’t have kittens. You want an almond cookie?”
“I don’t want an effing almond cookie. I want rain forests and tree frogs and glaciers.”
“You’ve never even been to a glacier.”
Water pooled in Marina’s cerulean eyes. “Scientists in Norway are finding industrial flame retardant in whale blubber.”
“It’s true. Poly-something -they use it to make furniture, clothing, computer chips.”
“How did it get in the whales?”
Marina folded Bibi’s hands in hers, squeezed lightly. “Through the water table, Beeb.”
“What? That doesn’t even make sense.”
In the ‘twelve simultaneous versions of Now’ world view, it is possible to be both dead and alive at the same time, both here and there. As if our so-called lives aren’t complicated enough.
“They’ve found Viagra in the water supply in Los Angeles,” Marina continued. “Paxil in Philadelphia. Caffeine in New York.”
“But what do you mean, it’s in the water?”
“It’s all over the papers, the Internet, everywhere. They’ve measured the water and it has drugs.”
“Where are you from?”
“Okay, you take the pill, it goes in your blood and it goes in your pee and it goes into the sewers and it goes into the water. It’s a closed system, honey.”
“But they filter it.”
“For lead and mercury. Not pharma-poo.”
“You’re making this up. They wouldn’t let that happen.”
“They can’t stop it. Anyway. Nothing ever disappears entirely. We’re choking on the dust of the pharaohs. We’re breathing the same hydrocarbons as that bastard Goering, drinking the same water as Moses except, you know, filtered.”
Marina paused to take a breath. “And don’t even get me started on bio-engineering.”
“What about it?”
Here we go. “Stop, please.”
“Did you know that they feed anabolic steroids to beef cattle?” Marina’s cheeks flushed, her naturally wavy hair corkscrewed a little tighter.
Now the drugs are in the animals. Now the drugs are in us. Now the drugs get recycled in the watershed. In some future Now it will rain Viagra.
“You know, when you exaggerate you diminish your argument.”
“How can you not care?”
Bibi was resolute. “Prescriptions are important. They add value to people’s lives.”
“Why do I even try to have this conversation with you?”
Outside the coffee shop, the town spun beneath a canopy of quaking Aspens. The market was soft, work was slow, and I passed my time reading murder mysteries, meeting the girls for coffee for entertainment value.
Once upon a time, I was a hippie chick, a revolutionary. I taught those tenement kids from Richmond that they had rights. I was the lead volunteer for the volunteer fire department, up at Dry Creek. When the siren went off, I hotsie-totsied down to the truck shed, eased that bad boy out and started up the diesel engine so it would be ready by the time the men showed up to carry hoses and haul axes. My Now was: start the engine. The men’s Now was: stop the fire. I wonder what has happened to that girl, that fearless one.
This is what I think: there are phases of a person’s life, and each one has a timeline. Your future self is calling to you, like a program you wrote and don’t remember but it remembers you and is always reaching back through time to give you a hand up. A hand forward. Through the window. Across the river of light.
Bibi waved the girl over to refill her shade-grown organic decaf. Vio snapped a biscotti in two.
“I found a fur baby,” Marina announced. She’d been shopping for dogs. She saw them everywhere, waiting in the cab of a truck at the coffee house, thrilled to lick a friendly lady’s hand. There was a three year old Yorkie online she couldn’t forget.
“You can’t have a dog,” Bibi scolded. “You can’t have a dog and a social life,” she said.
“Easy for you to say,” Marina countered. “You don’t need a social life or a dog. You have a daughter.”
“I just think that people who use dogs to get attention from other people are sad.”
“Of course you do.”
We all knew that Bibi didn’t get it. Well, it didn’t matter. Marina wanted what she wanted.
Suicide is the eleventh cause of death worldwide, after sepsis, kidney failure, alzheimers, pneumonia; and it accounts for more that one percent of all deaths. Probably more than that, if you want to know the truth of it.
The details of our lives eventually poured out like fancy coffee drinks, flowed like rivers of exotic tea. It was revealed that Bibi and Kelvin were locked in a to-the-death battle for the love of ten year old Gemma. The particulars were unbearable, and we were hooked.
Bibi was executive vice president of human relations. Kelvin’s sickness was a mirror of her success. The sicker he grew, the higher she rose. He folded Bibi into his long, loopy arms, rested his chin on her head. She would never leave him. One of nine siblings, Bibi had untapped stores of patience and loyalty, even if they were somewhat tarnished by age. Bibi Vonderwerth was Kelvin Chalk’s ace in the hole.
The vertical theory of time says that at least twelve possible outcomes to any situation are occurring simultaneously. So that what has yet to happen already has; the past accident remains a vague present possibility. So how could we not know? Maybe we knew all along. Marina is not the one you would have expected to do something so violent. But then, you always overlook the obvious. At what Now point did never and always merge and become something else?
In the spring, Marina said she’d spoken to her mother on the phone. She had been working on filling herself up instead of looking for that kind of comfort from the outside. As a healthcare worker you’d think she would already know this, but let’s don’t speak ill.
“It was weird,” she told us. “I listened to my mother’s voice, and her utter self-absorption didn’t piss me off like it usually does.” She laughed. “Maybe it’s working, the meditation, the prayer.”
“Will you be coming for Easter dinner,” her Ma said.
“No,” she lied easily. “I’m going to stay close to home.” She had plans to drive down to the Esalen retreat in Big Sur. It was a hippie experience she had never had, but an outdoor massage alongside the crashing Pacific in the spectacular dead of California winter was something she longed to sample.
Then in the way that it does, Now hopped a beat and it was summer. Viola asked Marina what her mother had sent for her birthday. Vio worshiped her mother, with her thick ankles and fried onion smell and she couldn’t imagine not having that kind of exhaustive connection.
“Oh, she forgot.” Mar smiled that crooked smile of hers. “It’s okay. She didn’t mean to.”
Vio blinked, her face impassive. “You’re kidding, right?”
It was one of those sickening moments when Marina’s veneer cracked a little.
So then, what was left? The circumnavigation of evidence, like reading a novel backwards, chapter by chapter. She didn’t mean to. If what happened was an accident, how did that scarf come to be wrapped so savagely around her neck? There was no break-in; and evidence suggests that she had been dancing. Or doing a cardio routine. The only possible answer was speculative and in my darkest moments I urgently needed to believe she didn’t mean to.
The first coffee date afterward felt disjointed, as if we were all guilty somehow of an act we didn’t remember committing.
“I can’t believe it,” Vio whispered into her tea.
“We couldn’t have known,” Bibi chanted like a mantra. We couldn’t know, though each one of us wanted to think we could.
Later, I called my mother. I tried to remember what Marina had said about every thought being a prayer and every action Divine. But mainly, I did not feel Divine. I felt weary, exhausted from treading water in one long, blue, simmering Now.
The phone rang for long minutes and then she answered.
“Mama? It’s me.”
“Candy.” My mother laughed, a melodic sound that erased a million years and a thousand petty resentments.
I hadn’t intended to call, a marginal punishment for Mama having abandoned Daddy all those years ago. But I couldn’t harbor that kind of fury any longer, those burns like a cigarette cherry on silk chiffon.
As it turned out, we had a pleasant conversation and Mother told me about a time just after I was born, before the musician, when as a young woman she and the other wives at the apartment complex met in the laundry room once a week to share ironing chores, drink Postum, speak secrets.
I hung up. Now, my mother is a young housewife. Now, Marina is alive. Now, I am a young radical. Now, I step from one Now to the next, never glancing back across that river of light, those pearls of time unstrung.
# # #