I attempted suicide in 1965. I wasn’t very good at it.
For one, while I have since learned that the lethal dose of regular 75 mg aspirins lies on the far side of 500 tablets, I attempted my lethal feat with 121 of the little darlings (yes, I kept a tally).
For two, I did lose my nerve late that fatal afternoon, and alerted my dad to my Bayeresque overindulgence.
This is not to say that this was not an interesting exercise, it was. I was sincere in my banging on that dark and final door—truly expecting it to open—having no clue that it would take at least four times as many of these small, white, bitter tablets to even begin to pry it open. I’ve since learned that people have even survived a thousand or two of them, when treated swiftly and correctly—but who on earth would have the time, or patience, to pop two thousand aspirin? I mean, by the time you’re done with the second thousand the first will have worn off: do you see my problem?
Yes, that one: aspirin is definitely the wrong suicide medium.
Be that, however, as it may: blissfully ignorant that my undertaking (yes, pun intended) would only lead to a few months of ringing ears, as I rounded the even century of these bitter pills, I was certain I’d face Mr. Reaper in short, and relatively painless, order.
Why did I do it?
Why, to get even, of course. And to place the blame for his son’s premature demise squarely on my dad’s guilty shoulders.
Were there other reasons?
Well, if truth be told, I was also a little curious.
Pill #1 minus 14 hours:
I had recently dropped out of school. The schooling I had so abruptly abandoned was the first year of what we then, in Sweden, called Technical Gymnasium. But here’s the conundrum: since I had had among the highest acceptance grades that particular school had ever seen: what on earth happened?
And here’s the answer: girls, that’s what happened. Girls and alcohol, that’s what happened. Never a good mix, especially not at that age.
And math, that’s what happened. The math I was so brilliant at in 9th grade and so effortlessly earned the highest possible grade in (capital A, we called it in Sweden) had turned infernally hard in the 10th.
So hard, in fact, that some of the first words out our math teacher’s mouth that first day of the fall semester were, “You had better eat well, because you are not going to sleep much.” Translation: nothing less than long, sleepless nights over books and books of trigonometry, integral calculus, et al. would earn you a passing grade.
Unfortunately for me, that summer someone had apparently translated all these books from math to Greek, for that’s all they were to me.
Well, I ate okay, and I didn’t sleep much (I got that part right), but what kept me and the Sandman at odds most nights was not piles and piles of math homework, but girls. Girls and alcohol. Nary a math book in sight. Inevitable result: I flunked my first math test. The math star of the class flunked his first math test. That was truly embarrassing.
By snowy February truth was writ large on the proverbial blackboard: I was failing, and failing badly.
Onto plan B: Drop out, start from scratch next fall (with less girl and alcohol distractions). The problem here was that I never let my parents in on plan B, not even after I had implemented it.
However, five days into this well-conceived and up to this point splendidly executed plan, the school tattled on me and fatherhood was not amused.
Motherhood was a bit down about it as well, but supportive in a way.
So, now officially a dropout, I had to play the part. And play the part I did. Not very well though, and not very enjoyably. I spent most of the time away from home, hanging out with girls, or with guys contemplating girls, until the girls got out of class so we could hang out with girls.
Some days, as a freelance, I wrote articles for a local newspaper. I loved writing then, I love writing still.
Now, to be honest I don’t remember whether I had promised fatherhood something specific—such as “I’ll be home tonight, by dinner-time. For sure. I promise.”—or not, but I have a feeling I must have, for as dinner-time rolled around I felt guilty about something. Uneasy. Should have been elsewhere, most likely at home.
At home, at about the same time, fatherhood has had his fill of me. Absolutely enough of me. To the brim of me. Pacing the floor perhaps, arguing with motherhood perhaps, I don’t know, but pretty wound up, that is for certain.
Then he begins calling around for me, calling those numbers he did have, including the paper where, as I said, I wrote the occasional piece. He didn’t track me down, though, for he didn’t have her number. Where I had spent the day, and well into the evening.
Eventually, about nine or so as I recall, I began to saunter homeward. On the way I stopped in at the paper to see if there was any work the following day. The editor greeted me with, “Call your dad.”
Said rather emphatically, curtly, even. No preamble. The sort of voice that spells trouble. Something heavy shifted in my stomach. I called.
It was a strange conversation. All he said was, “Stay where you are, I’m on my way.”
And hung up.
Odd. Frighteningly odd, to be honest.
Well, I was not going to stay where I was, so there. But I didn’t have the nerve to completely disobey (as in vanish), so back out into the snow, and into a slow saunter toward home—I’d be sure to spot him when he came, there were very few cars about in weather like this and he was bound to take these streets.
And fifteen minutes later, spot him I did. And spot me he did. He burned a sliding-in-the-snow U and pulled up. I opened the door and eased myself into the passenger seat.
I know that in writing—whether fiction (such as this) or non-fiction (such as this)—clichés are to be avoided at all costs, but I just have to press this one into service, because you could cut the atmosphere in that car with a knife. He was boiling, or somewhere very close to boiling. I was actually afraid of him at this point, but I tried to act as nonchalantly as possible.
We came to a stop sign, then turned right. I opened my mouth and drew breath to say something clever like “So, what’s up?” but I never got that far, for that (me drawing breath to speak), apparently, was the detonator fatherhood was waiting for to explode him. And explode he did. A foot or two to my left, at the most top of his voice I have ever heard:
This was a first. He had never, ever, yelled at me with such, what’s the word: venom, before. Never. The loudest possible intense venom.
So loud, in fact, was his scream that I felt like I had been shot. Stopped dead, frozen in whatever tracks I had planned to head down. In retrospect: he had shocked me. Petrified would describe my condition.
For several moments after this detonation I don’t think I thought a single thought. Everything blown apart and away by the fatherly explosion. Out of sight, under cover, something like that. And rationality, too, had scrambled for cover.
What arose perhaps a minute later into the vacuum of this shock was decidedly not rational. It was the most intense urge to strike back I have ever experienced, made even more intense by the fact that I could not physically execute. He had never hit me, and I could never hit him. Physical violence was not in my genes. Nor in his.
But I had to strike back, at any cost, for no one—fatherhood included—treats me like this and gets away with it.
This was what flooded me and flooded me and flooded me some more and refused to leave. And truth be told, I didn’t want it to leave, for there was a sort of wonderful finality about this: I knew how to strike back.
I would kill myself.
Even today, I can recall, very clearly, the exact moment I made the decision, and that the decision was right, for any other path meant having to stand up to him, to the loudest scream I’d ever heard (and directed at precious me, to boot). There was just no way I could do that. Not in my petrified (which is the perfect word here) condition.
Dead, however, solved everything. And it struck back with a vengeance. That’s a lot of mileage for a single act.
Tomorrow, I decided. Tomorrow I will kill myself. I will wake up, and then I will take a hundred or so aspirin, and that should do the job. End of story.
Pleased with this decision I retired for the night and for a good night’s sleep. Yes, no problem sleeping at all, actually. I was quite at peace with my resolve, and on some level I was looking forward to checking out the following morning.
My final morning was sunny and quite cold. The world outside was brilliantly white—this my last day on Earth.
I’m sure I brushed my teeth and combed my long hair and such first, but then I went straight into the kitchen, opened the cabinet door, and reached for the large bottle of aspirin. I brought it down and poured out a healthy helping into my hand; counted them, twenty-one. I put one back. Easier to keep track of how many that way. Twenty at a time. I then proceeded to swallow them two by two, with a little water in-between.
All right. On my way, then.
Mom came up from the basement. I could hear a washing machine rumbling down there, so she was doing laundry.
“Don’t forget the appointment,” she said, as I rinsed out the glass and put it on the counter.
“What appointment?” But as I asked, I remembered. Fatherhood had made an appointment for me (and him) to see some sort of consultant, or was it a shrink? I’m still not all that sure. We were to discuss (and resolve) my crashing out of school, and my unwelcome waywardness since then.
“About your future,” she said, stressing future.
I nodded, “Yes, I remember.”
“Your dad will meet you there.”
“All right. I’ll be there.”
Then the washing machine, or the dryer, yelled at her from below, and she ran downstairs again.
Twenty down, a hundred or so to go.
My father owned and operated a small manufacturing plant that lay just a short walk up the road from our house, and I knew precisely where the employee medical supplies were kept. I also knew that among them nestled a gigantic bottle of aspirin. A 500-count, I think. Massive.
Before heading out, I read the thermometer mounted just outside our kitchen window. It read well below freezing. So I donned sweater, jacket and cap. No mittens. Mittens are for sissies.
I didn’t say goodbye to our house, come to think of it. Perhaps I was not that attached to it. I simply stepped out, closed the front door behind me with not a second thought, walked down the steps, out onto the road, and into the brilliant morning—this my final, cold, one.
On my way up the white and crunchy (from recently fallen snow) road, I could feel my pulse rumble a little as if to suggest that something was afoot. Whether this was from pills 1-20 or from the excitement of it all, I could not say. But I know that walking up that snowy road to fatherhood’s plant, large glittering fields to both left and right, things were moving about, balances were shifting.
To get to the medicine cabinet—which was located in one of the restrooms—I had to pass my father’s office. He usually looks up as you pass his window. Busy with something or other, this time he didn’t look up, much to my relief.
I found it easily enough. I shook the bottle a little to hear the many little pills tell me this gathering was almost full. Good. No one would miss twenty, or even forty, or even a hundred, would they? Then again, what if they did? It wasn’t like I’d be around to face any sort of consequences.
Realizing I would not come upon a stash like this elsewhere, I counted out a full one hundred of my little helpers, then added one last one for good measure. That, I figured, ought to do the trick. And 121 is a palindrome, so it must be right.
I took twenty of these on the spot, then put the remaining eighty-one in my jacket pocket. Armed to the teeth.
Really on my way, now.
My dad did not look up as I left either, although I had the feeling he knew of my coming and of my going, but—and I had to smile to myself—he knew nothing of the where I was heading, though he’d find out soon enough.
I had timed things well. The yellow bus for town eased around the bend just as I reached the bus stop. I didn’t recognize the driver but said “Hi” anyway. I flashed him my school pass (which I had yet to turn in to the administrative office, I realized) and he nodded his acceptance. The bus was empty, and I sauntered all the way to the back, where I spread out: just me, the driver, and my secret destination.
My hometown is not a metropolis by any stretch. But as cities go, I sure liked it. The bus pulled up at its end stop outside the Saga (which is Swedish for fairy tale, I love that word) movie theater and I let myself out the back door.
Normally, suicides are not very communicative, nor are they social. Private business, this killing of one’s self. And so they lock themselves away to blow out brains, or drown, or slice wrists, or, yes, consume far too many little pills. Not me, though. I was not the run-of-the-mill suicide at all. I was both communicative and quite social, to boot. And so, I had to spread the word. I had to tell someone, and I knew just the one.
We were sort of going out, Marie and I, though I think I took it far more seriously than she did. In fact, I think she found me amusing more than anything. A novelty. Also, we were viewed as a mixed marriage (nothing to do with race, but nonetheless quite taboo in our town). To borrow the dichotomy of the then dueling English youth cultures of the day: I was a Mod, she was a Rocker. Or, to use the soon-to-flourish one: I was a Hippie, she was a Greaser. And never the twain shall meet. But in our case the twain had met, and they still did, and it was for her house I was headed to meet yet again.
The bottom floor of her house was a café, owned and operated by her mother. Marie helped out at times as a waitress, but mainly she spent her days either with her Greaser friends (at another café, believe it or not) or as a guest at her mother’s place, reading some magazine and sipping some coffee. Smoking some cigarettes.
This cold February morning I found her at her mother’s place. Smoking, reading, not helping her mom. Not that the place was crowded, no help needed.
She looked up as I sat down opposite her.
“You get in trouble?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“You said you had to be home by dinner last night.”
“Oh, yeah. Nah. Not really.”
She looked at her cigarette for a while, flicked off a little ash, looked at that for a while, then back at me, but didn’t say anything else. After a strange span of time (during which my pulse upped the volume a little and my internal balances shifted again) she went back to her reading.
“I’m going to kill myself,” I said.
Strange girl this. Cool as anything, she looked up at me. “Why?”
From this perspective, from inside the cozy café, now lighting a cigarette myself, this proved a question hard to answer. The night before, all had been obvious, so obvious that I was now going through with it without giving things a second thought.
Well, I thought of saying, it’s the right thing to do. But I didn’t say that. I didn’t say anything. Instead I shrugged a no answer, searched several of my pockets before I found what appeared to be my last one kronor coin, which I then dropped in the table-side jukebox. I dialed “Little Red Rooster” by the Rolling Stones.
Then, with her still looking at me and with me not answering her question, I rose, and went into the bathroom. It was small and hot and dark. Very small, very hot, and very dark. At first I did not turn on the light. I just stood there in the far-too-well-heated darkness and listened to Mick Jagger. Would this be the last song I’d ever hear? I hit the light switch, and the weak, reddish-almost light seemed to add to the warmth of this closet-cum- bathroom. I scooped up another handful of pills, counted out twenty, put the rest back in my pocket, and downed pills 41-60 two by two.
Then I sat down on the toilet seat. “Little Red Rooster” was over, but now the Stones started up again with “Paint it Black” which Marie must have chosen. She had the run of these little table-side juke boxes (they were attached to the wall), her mom supplying her with coins or tokens, I guess.
How many was this now? I wondered. Forty or sixty? I sprang back to our kitchen: twenty. Then on to my dad’s factory: forty. And here, yes: sixty. And what time was it? I checked my watch. It was just past ten thirty. Almost two hours now since I set foot on this my final path. Shouldn’t I be dying soon, or at least start to?
What would I see? How would I know? What would I feel? Well, these pills were supposed to kill pain along with me, so I shouldn’t feel anything, should I? That was the beauty of the plan.
Still seated on the toilet cover, I reached up and flicked the light off. The hot darkness seemed somehow fitting as I sat there mentally probing my body to see where Death might be setting in—surely, He should have begun His doing thing by now. Couldn’t really find Him though. Just a denser and denser movement in the region of my stomach, or was it in my lungs? Like a fist, somehow. Closing. And I could hear my heart in my ears, thump-thumping away.
“Little Red Rooster” started up again, Marie must like it, too.
I cast my mind forward into an unknown, though not very distant, future. What would it be like? Just nothing? Blackness? Is that it?
I discovered nothing.
Then I stood up, turned the light back on, washed my hands for some reason that seemed like utter ritual, especially since I hadn’t gone, opened the door, turned off the light and returned to Marie and the Rooster.
“You get stuck?” she said.
She turned the page, then looked up at me, “You’re kidding, right?”
“No, I’m not.”
“You’re really going to kill yourself?”
“Yes I am.”
She laughs at this. It’s a laugh that clearly says that she does not believe me, not in the least, whatever I say. Nor will she ever.
Well, I’m thinking, you just wait and see. You’ll be sorry, too.
I had not known Marie very long, a month at most. And as I said, we moved in very different circles.
For the most part, I moved in a circle of one for I was the town’s first hippie-like creature, and as such a target of her Greaser friends’ scorn. She was, very much so—and perhaps literally—in bed with the duck tailed, engine-grease crowd that cruised Main Street on weekends looking for trouble in restored (or very well kept) cars that had yet to develop into low-riders—that would follow a decade or so later.
We met by chance (mistake) one Saturday when I hooked up with a girlfriend of hers at a dance and we all wound up in her house, she with someone I knew, though not very well.
That evening was not very memorable from my perspective, and this was apparently a sentiment she shared, for when our eyes sometimes met that evening, we both saw attraction and curiosity. Enough for me to actually call her the following day—I called her mom’s café, which was in the book, and she was there, and yes, she would not mind seeing me.
She was quite beautiful—very beautiful, in fact. But, and I soon learned this, very much of that alien greaser tribe. Still, we met again, and then one more time.
Even so, we were spiritual strangers, so I don’t really know what I had expected from her in return for my stirring news that I was going to take leave of this world. Well, at least some sympathy, I would have guessed. Or some sort of interest.
She, convinced I was hot-airing it, offered up neither and I (beginning to sweat now, actually) decided to leave. Then did leave.
Back out into the cold no longer quite morning anymore. Everything was white with the overnight snow, and all so very fresh, I felt one moment, and all so very padded, I felt the next. Padded, as in well insulated, for it would seem that Death had at last decided to make his appearance, or was at least preparing to. And this he did to the muffled fanfare of humming ears, and to the thump-thump drum of a racing heart. I did not feel very well, to be honest. But at least things seemed to be working according to plan.
At least He was knocking on my door.
Downtown, or what there was of it. I have since come to know the full meaning of the word, as in New York City, but that’s a different story. My current downtown, draped in its overnight coat of white was basically just a slightly denser conglomeration of nothing to speak of in the first place. It did, however, have a couple of department stores, one of which also had an upstairs restaurant. It was this restaurant I was headed for.
The Domus Restaurant was more like a large café than a restaurant, and it was a very popular school hangout. You had to buy something in order to occupy a table, though, that was the bad thing (especially if you were me, i.e., broke—which, as a rule, I was). The good thing was that a single cup of coffee would seat you for as long as you wanted—hours, in fact.
And, true to form, this morning I had spent my last kronor on Little Red Rooster, so I was definitely short.
I spotted Anders at one of the tables by the window, working through what seemed a hearty lunch. Anders always had cash. I could never understand people who always had cash, a different breed altogether. A phenomenon.
Money, in my pocket, had volition of its own, and the gist of it was to get as far away from me as possible, as fast as possible, and by any means. It would squander itself on just about anything, food, coffee, cigarettes, sweets, clothes, books, records, and in very short order. This was a known fact. I borrowed money often, more often than returning it. Flush people, like Anders, were not a little weary of me, especially when approaching them eating lunch, as I was doing now.
“No,” he said, hardly looking up. Much to his credit.
“Fifty kronor,” I said. “You’ll have it back tomorrow.”
Anders, at heart, was a very nice guy and one who found it very hard to say no, especially to the Hippie Tribe of one. So, out came his wallet, and here came the fifty kronor bill. “Tomorrow, for sure,” he said.
“Tomorrow, for sure,” I confirmed, knowing very well I was lying, for by tomorrow I would be dead.
It’s amazing what you can do—or promise—when you know you won’t be around to face any sort of consequences. And as I heard myself saying, lying, “Tomorrow, for sure,” I experienced an odd freedom. It was like a farewell, like a nice-to-have-known-you feeling, with a tinge of sadness, and a freedom. A relief, perhaps. I would check out, no longer a player. No more worries about money. And that, fundamentally, spelled freedom.
Would he feel tricked? I wondered next, when he finds out tomorrow that I have died. I really didn’t mean to hurt him, financially or otherwise—fifty kronor at the time, while not a fortune, was not an insignificant amount—but neither did I care, that is part of the freedom of snuggling up to Death.
I spent one of Anders’ fifty kronor on a black coffee, and another four on a shrimp sandwich and brought my tray to a table as far away from Anders as possible, where I now sat down to ponder Death (while enjoying the shrimp sandwich—they made a fabulous one here).
When would I die? How long would it take? How many pills had I taken? I went over the morning again and again arrived at sixty. Surely, that was not enough. I left the half-eaten sandwich (to indicate to the busboy that I was not yet finished) and went to the bathroom.
Two by two the tally climbed from sixty to eighty.
I was sweating again, I noticed. And the soft roar in my ears was no longer so soft. Was I shaking a little? I stood in front of the mirror and watched the reflection of my hand for quite a while. It looked still to me, but the hand itself felt like it was shaking. Odd.
I went back to my table. All in order. The busboy had not cleared it. I sat down. So how many was that then? Again I tallied in my head. Four stops, twenty pills a piece, makes eighty. Would that do it?
I had heard—or seen on television, rather—people die from twenty or so pills. Overdose, they called it. But those, I’m sure—well, of course—were a lot stronger than my little helpers. Prescription stuff. Sleeping pills, they were called. But four times that worth of aspirin, shouldn’t that do the trick?
I finished the shrimp sandwich in a private little last-meal-on-Earth ceremony. Then finished my coffee in a similar vein. All very final.
I looked at the clock hanging over the cash register. It said eleven-twenty. There was the appointment, of course. At three. Was it at three? Then I saw my mother by the stairs to the basement saying that very word, “Three.” Yes, that’s definitely what she said, so three it was. But would I still be alive then? Three and some hours from now. Judging by the way I felt, my guess was yes, I probably would be. At least a little.
How long does it take for aspirin to work anyway? I tried to think back to headaches, or leg aches (which I used to suffer from as a kid). An hour, at the most, I concluded. Which means that I would have sixty of the little guys working on prying Death’s door open right now, with twenty more on their way to help out.
But here’s the thing: I was not dying. Whatever I was doing at that moment, dying was not it. I did not feel good, definitely not. But I felt strangely alive, as if my body was telling me I’d have to do a hell of a lot better than this. Was this all I had? it hummed in defiance, and the humming hummed its way to my ears, which roared a little louder in response.
When was that appointment again? It was at three, right?
I looked around the restaurant. Anders had left. I wondered what he thought of me. Well, that didn’t matter, did it? That was the freedom part of this. It didn’t matter at all what anybody thought of me. I could not care less.
Where was this appointment?
I remembered. And yes, definitely three o’clock. The where was only about five minutes from here. Again: would I be alive by then?
Where should I die?
Oh, good question, and one that I had not considered until then. I ruled out the outside. It was too cold (not that this would matter in the grander scheme of things, but something spoke against it). Here? In the Domus Restaurant? No, not quite right. In some bathroom? Perhaps.
The roar in my ears seemed a little louder, and the thump-thump of my heart a little stronger. Was it objecting? Well, I’m sorry, you’ll have to live with it—smiling to myself at the terrible, terrible pun.
So, how dying was I?
I looked around the restaurant again. I recognized several people, even nodded in greeting to a few. More were coming in and lining up to get their coffees and snacks. No one was looking in my direction, and I wanted it to stay that way. Not much up for conversation right now, not with these humming ears and my thump-thumping heart.
So, how dying was I?
Actually, I felt disturbingly alive.
How many was it again? Eighty?
Well, I thought, the more the merrier. I rose, and brought my tray to the conveyor belt window, where I slipped it on the belt for conveying to the dishwashers.
Then back to the bathroom. Someone was in there. I took up an unmistakable I’m-next position by the door. I heard the toilet flush, then the faucet, then the lock in the door, and here he came, the old guy. He gave me a brief look, but no smile. Didn’t even hold the door open for me. No matter.
Two by two at first, then four by four they went down. Twenty more. That made an even hundred, didn’t it? Surely that would be enough. How many did I have left? Twenty?
No, twenty-one, I remembered.
I sat down on the toilet seat (smiling at this new habit of mine) and brought out my remaining pills. Counted them once, twice, thrice: twenty-one each time. So, that’s settled then: twenty-one to go for the final palindrome.
I stepped out of the bathroom and considered what to do next. Where to go? Where was I going to die? was the question. Not outside, yes, I had already ruled that out. At home? No, not with Mom around. Here then? In the Domus Restaurant? What a headline that would be: Young man kills himself in Domus Restaurant. Oh, wouldn’t that be something? Would show Marie for not believing me. Would tech Dad such a lesson. What an embarrassment for him. Well, he only has himself to blame. Shouldn’t have yelled at me.
I checked my watch again, twelve-forty already. Was time speeding up? Was that part of dying? Was this roar in my ears part of dying? And the thump-thump of my heart? And the sweating? I also felt a little dizzy, as if my knees were contemplating buckling. They didn’t though.
It was terribly hot in there. I needed some fresh air. Or I needed a soft drink. Yes, I was very thirsty, so very thirsty. A soft drink first, then some fresh air for this dying boy.
Returning to the restaurant I had to stay in line for a few minutes before I got to the cashier. She took the five kronor bill and handed me back the change. I turned with bottle and glass in my hands and surveyed the floor. Yes, two empty tables. I picked the one closest to where I stood. Not so far to walk (with uncertain knees) and I did not, did not want to stumble and fall, not with the bottle and the glass, what a mess.
I didn’t fall, and made it to the table just fine. I sat down, poured the soda into the glass slowly, carefully so as not to effervesce over the edge. Carefully, carefully. Successfully. Then I drank, and drank. Oh, that was just wonderful. What an amazing drink, or how amazingly thirsty I was.
I refilled the glass and emptied it twice more, and that was the end of the soda. Now for the fresh air.
I checked the wall clock before I left, ten after one. Had that been half an hour? Really? I double checked with my watch and yes, it was ten after one. I found this disturbing. Had I lost my grip on time’s reins? Perhaps that was part of dying? Yes, very disturbing. But what can you do?
I exited the restaurant through the rear entrance and onto the second level parking lot. Lots of snow here, bright snow. Many of these cars must have been parked here overnight, so much fresh snow on the roofs. Can they do that? Do they allow that? I didn’t know.
Two more cars pull in. I hear their engines approach, but barely through the now constant—and loud—buzzing in my ears. Annoying, actually, the ears.
The fresh air felt good, though. My heart thought so, too. It thumped a little extra hard with all this newly snowed oxygen. I fished out, and lit a cigarette. I wasn’t a big smoker, just a now-and-then smoker. I enjoyed the taste, and the wooziness that followed after a few drags. But not now, not here in the cold and sparklingly white parking lot. The smoke tasted cottony, as if it wasn’t smoke at all, but something more substantial. Some sort of fabric, cotton candy consistency though bitter. Still, I kept smoking, wouldn’t do to throw half a cigarette away. Cost a small fortune, they do. Especially for the permanently cash-less one. Me.
The air did me good. I felt better, which, come to think of it, was not good. Not really dying at all. Well, the last forty had yet to kick in, I decided, and then I suddenly felt very cold, standing still like this, smoking away, looking up at the church only a block away, watching another car entering the lot, while another car was leaving.
I couldn’t stand here all day, had to move, keep warm. I finished the cigarette, and like a good citizen, I disposed of the butt in the outside, partially snow-covered ashtray. Cold hands in pockets now (mittens are for sissies), and off on a brisk walk.
Down to the canal. Snow everywhere here, too. The benches by the old boathouses covered. No way you can sit down there. Still, I walked down to the edge of the canal, onto the boardwalk, looked at the benches. Memories, these benches. This is where I had spent most evenings last summer, me—star of the nascent hippie scene—and many admiring girls (and boys). Would they find out? Would they miss me? Sure they would, on both counts.
Someone else, munching a hotdog, stepped down onto the boardwalk, looked over the edge and into the water (not frozen here, the current is too brisk) but never once looked in my direction. He finished the hotdog, turned around and vanished.
I’m cold again. And wooden, I think. Yes, that’s the word. Thick, muffled, wooden. With roaring ears. A roaring silence, though I can hear through it: the squeal of breaks as a bus comes to a halt at the traffic lights the other side of the canal. The bus looks warm. Cozy warm.
I am very cold right now.
I can see the building from here. Where I’m supposed to meet fatherhood in, what—I check my watch again—an hour and a half, a little over. Seems I’ll be alive still then, so I’d better show up. There’s a café in that building too, and a bakery. Perhaps I’ll wait there. I still have forty-two of Anders’ kronor left, a coffee at least, though I know that this café is very expensive. They’ll probably charge me five kronor just for the coffee.
And so they did. So I’ll die with thirty-seven of Anders’ kronor in my pocket.
I take the coffee—which is served in a cup and saucer—and carry it, carefully, to an open table by the window. From here, I’ll see fatherhood when he arrives. It’s not yet two o’clock, so I’d better make this one coffee last, there are no free refills in this little town—those came much later, and in a much bigger town.
Eighty? No, a hundred. A hundred aspirin. So, why am I still alive? Quite very alive, actually. And getting warm again, very. I sip the coffee and look out at the street. The snow is dirty here from too many cars, perhaps even a plow-sander has run through here. Cold though. I see the breath of those walking past rising up as if they were smoking. No one looks in my direction, although I’m sitting close by the window, leaning into it in fact, looking at people who do not have a clue about being looked at by someone dying. For I am dying, right? I’m at a hundred for heaven’s sake. If this had been prescription pills, I would sure have died by now. Like Marilyn Monroe. So, in a little while, I hope. Though not before three, that much I can say for certain. How many do I have left?
Again, I run through my various pit stops, and decide that I’ve taken a hundred. An even hundred. Good even number. Twenty-one to go then.
All right, I might as well finish the job.
I leave my jacket on the chair to signal that I’m not done, and will come back, then head over to the bathroom. I am walking a little uncertainly. As if I don’t trust my legs or feet.
The bathroom is very warm. What’s with the bathrooms today?
Five times four plus one. One hundred-twenty-one. I study myself in the mirror. My face seems flushed, as if I’ve just been in a sauna. What am I saying? I am in a sauna for heaven’s sake. It’s very hot in here.
Two by two plus one. Down they go. I drink water straight from the tap. Who cares about germs at a point like this?
Well, if this doesn’t do it.
I make my way back to my table, and get there just before the waitress who carries a coffee pot. “Top it up?” she asks.
“How much?” I ask.
That was a surprise. Special deal today for the dying?
“Sure,” I say.
I watch her pour the steaming coffee then look over at me. Is she concerned? Is that concern in her eyes? Could she possibly know? “Anything else?” she asks.
“No,” I say. “I’m fine. Thanks.”
Of course, this means that she expects a tip. Hadn’t thought of that. Well, I have thirty-seven kronor left, some tip that would be. No, I’m not leaving her a thirty-seven kronor tip.
Though, come to think of it, why not? Good question. It’s not as if I’ll need the money where I’m going. And this, after all, is my final-final cup of coffee. Worth a thirty-seven kronor tip, wouldn’t you say? Maybe a twenty kronor bill would enough, though. Thirty-seven would be ridiculous. My mind bounces back and forth between 20 and 37 a few times then lands on 20. Okay, I’m leaving her a twenty kronor bill for a tip.
I check the time again, two-fifteen, sixteen. Fatherhood likes showing up early. Not this early though.
Another bus rumbles by outside. So many buses. Smoke billows out from its exhaust, extra thick and extra white with the cold. In third grade, a boy at my school slipped on the ice (or was pushed, some said) just as the school bus arrived, and he fell under the back wheels. Crushed by the back wheels. Didn’t die right away though. Died later in hospital. No one survives the back wheels of a bus. And no one should survive one hundred twenty-one aspirin, but this one certainly is. My mouth is very dry though, and I take another sip of the cooling coffee. And yet another bus. Is there no end to them?
Fatherhood could show up any time now. He likes being early. Probably wants to be here especially early today, to make sure I’m here too. To give him time to perhaps find me if I’m not. This is an important appointment. My future. He’ll be early for sure.
He does not like my long hair, hates it in fact. Will not walk beside me in town for fear that people will connect us two, father and son. He is that embarrassed about my long hair. Crazy embarrassed. Hates it.
How many have I taken now?
One hundred twenty-one. The palindrome number. I’ve taken them all now, so why is life being so stubborn about sticking around?
I don’t feel good in here. The coffee tastes like liquid cardboard. Or is it that I can’t taste anymore? Have I lost my sense of taste, and smell? I sip it again, searching for that coffee taste that I really like. Can’t find it among all the bits of stiff paper. My taste buds are dying.
Do you mean to tell me that my last cup of coffee, ever, will go down like cardboard? There’s something decidedly unfair about that.
Two forty-five now. No fatherhood yet. I bring out my wallet and pull out the twenty kronor bill. I fold it nicely and place it under the salt shaker. What a tip. Record tip. Four times the cost of the coffee. My very last cardboard coffee in this world. Ever.
Still no fatherhood.
Then I see his car. He’s crossing the bridge, pulling up to a parking space on the other side of the street. Did he bring motherhood, too? No, that was just an odd reflection on the windshield. Just Dad. I watch him step out, then lock the car. He always does. Even at home. He looks both ways and then jaywalks to the building entrance. He has not seen me yet. I pull back a little from the window to make sure he won’t either. I lose sight of him as he enters.
Then he’s right there, by my table. He must have seen me after all.
“Are you ready?” he asks me.
“Sure,” I answer.
That’s all we say in the café. He heads for the door. We take a very slow elevator up to the third floor.
Mid-ride he asks me, “Did you leave a twenty kronor tip?”
“No,” I lie.
That’s all way say in the elevator.
We arrive early. But the counselor is ready for us says the receptionist. Good. I’m not sure I could have handled sitting with Dad in the very warm waiting room, saying nothing, waiting, saying nothing, waiting, saying nothing.
At this point I’m beginning to realize two equally important things:
I am going to be sick. And sooner rather than later.
I am not going to die anytime soon.
The counselor shows up and shows us in and invites us to sit down in the two chairs he’s placed this side of his desk. We both sit down. The counselor walks around his desk and sits down in his chair. Dad sits to my right. It is very hot in here.
And now they begin to discuss me, as if I were not even there. As you discuss old (senile) people in their presence, or very young children. But my ears roar too much and my heart is racing too fast for me to really care. I should be pissed off, though. I know that. But I’m not. Pissed off is not available right now.
I have trouble following the back and forth of Dad and Counselor, who—I believe, now that I think of it—is supposed to be a psychologist. Is supposed to counsel not only me, but my dad, too, about the troubles I’m causing by dropping out of school and not getting a real job and God knows what else, for I’m losing the thread of things now. I can tell who is talking when, but that’s about it.
I feel like falling off the chair.
I really should fall off the chair. I’m not about to, not unwittingly, but I really should, wittingly. Make a statement. That would get their attention.
Now I’m no longer sure who is talking, just that someone is—my ears roar so loudly, and my heart thump-thumps with such determination, and I am so very sickly alive. This is definitely no quiet slipping away into a dreamed about nothing, into that tranquil blackness beyond, leaving behind a very sorry father, and a very sorry mother, and a very sorry she did not believe me Marie. A very sorry world.
No such thing. No, this is a body protesting its treatment like hell, while staying very much alive, thank you.
What the hell?
And I do not feel very well at all. Maybe dying is unpleasant. No, I don’t think this is dying. I’m not sure what this is, but it is not nice. At all.
And then I realize that they have both stopped talking. Neither says a thing. Both are looking at me. Waiting for me to say something. They’ve asked me something, one of them has. And I haven’t a clue who or what. Didn’t hear it.
“What?” I manage.
The counselor says something that I don’t catch, and now the first strand of fear springs alive and makes its way through my body. This is not according to plan. At all.
I feel more than see them both look at me. A shade of concern from Dad. Yes, I sense that. Something’s not right, he thinks, or feels. I can sense that.
“Dad,” I hear myself saying, though not looking at him. I’m looking at my hands, or the floor, or the front side of Counselor’s desk, or not looking at all. “I must tell you something.”
Next I know I’m in his car and Dad is driving faster on snowy city streets than would be advisable. I am only tangentially aware of the trip to the hospital, and only tangentially aware of someone—a doctor or a nurse—asking me to throw up.
Asking me to throw up? Aren’t they at least going to pump my stomach?
“How many?” she says.
“One hundred twenty-one,” I answer.
“All aspirin?” she says.
Then she says something to Dad that sounds reassuring, or would to Dad anyway—and if truth be told, sounds reassuring to me as well. “He’ll be fine,” is what she says. I catch that.
I don’t manage to throw up, well, perhaps a spittle or two, but the doctor or nurse does not seem too concerned about that. Apparently better briefed about lethal levels of aspirin than I am.
They must have released me after a couple of hours of not throwing up, for I remember stepping out into the cold darkness, and walking over to the car. Still no Mom, just Dad, being very quiet. Well, serves him right.
He says nothing on the way home, and I’m not very talkative either. I feel a little better, and I’m certainly not dead.
Dad is still locking the car when I open the front door and walk in. Mom is right there, just watching me enter. Concerned. Very. I’m not sure whether she has cried or not, though she certainly ought to have. Dad comes in too, and closes the door behind him. Neither says a word. I’m not sure what to make of this.
“Are you hungry?” Mom says finally.
Actually, I am, but I don’t answer. “Would you like some hot sandwiches?” she asks, knowing I love the way she makes them.
I shrug my shoulders to say, sure, I don’t care.
Dad says nothing. He sits down at the table, where he still says nothing. Then he says, to Mom, “He’s supposed to drink a lot of water.”
There is something strange in this atmosphere. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s very much to my advantage, I can sense that. It’s as if I’m a land mine that almost went off, and now they are tiptoeing around me, carefully, lest I explode.
In retrospect, I’m not proud of this, but I saw my power very clearly: I had demonstrated what I am capable of. Don’t mess with me or I’ll kill myself again. For real this time. They were afraid, if not of me, then at least of what I might do. That much was obvious.
I could take advantage of this. Big time. Really should.
Before then I had never smoked cigarettes at home. Mom, of course, would have smelled smoke on my clothes and such (although I wasn’t aware of that at the time), and I’m sure she would have told Dad—or maybe not, they were not getting along too well by that time, and were in fact soon to divorce.
But here goes: I took out my pack of cigarettes in clear view of both of them, shook one out, and lit it. I dared them to object. One word, and you know what I might do.
“When did you start smoking?” Dad finally said.
Mom said nothing.
“A while ago,” I said.