Every day of the month before I committed suicide, I listened to Pink Floyd’s The Wall and was perfectly happy. It focused the mind wonderfully to know that, barring a miracle, in four weeks, then three, then two, I would no longer exist. At the same time, that slight possibility of a miracle, of a sudden reversal of fortune, lent drama to the entire proceedings, as did the secrecy of my plans. I felt like a beggar woman going about with jewels sewn into the hems of her rags. Nothing bothered me except occasional insomnia, and that hardly at all. I no longer had to be practical, no longer had to plan for the future. (Not even for next month! ) Never again would I have to get up in the dark of early morning and go to work in some stinking office. I could spend the rest of December — the rest of my life — entirely where I belonged: in the immediate present of my senses, and in the all-times-and-all-places elsewhere of my imagination.
By the end of the first week, I’d figured out nearly all the lyrics to The Wall, and I sang along, making up my own English-rock-star-goes-bonkers scenario to fit. (I was most pleased with myself for deciphering “the obligatory Hendrix perm / and the inevitable pinhole burns.”) I often sat at the kitchen window of my apartment on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, looking east toward the Cascades, studying the winter clouds. On some days, they hovered above the mountaintops like a whipped-cream Baghdad of sagging spires and melting minarets; on others, they scudded north, an armada of ghostly galleons driven before the wind. On rainy days, I could see nothing beyond the deserted tennis courts across the street. While window gazing, I jotted down ideas. I invented psychological syndromes and named them after people I knew (including myself). And I thought much about Tomas Gato, my deceased and greatly mourned cat. In short, I did exactly what I felt inclined to do, avoided measuring my success (or making other odious assessments), and, though restless now and then, was as content as I am capable of being.
All month long, I kept to a sort of schedule. Each day, I got up later than I intended and walked four blocks to buy a newspaper, letting the cool air clear away my mental cobwebs. I’d observe the winter morning — usually pale, often misty, always quiet — entirely without my usual cogitation, taking it as I found it: if not grandly good, then good enough. Back home, I’d breakfast on grapefruit, melted cheese on toast, and tea, and read the paper. With my second cup of tea in hand, I’d go to my desk and work on my novel. Since my desk looked out on my apartment building’s courtyard, I’d also watch the neighbors’ comings and goings. In the courtyard grew a venerable tulip tree that, on my arrival in spring, had flaunted a crown of pink-and-white blossoms, but now stood nearly bare. One pallid morning, two men in overalls came and hacked its branches back to ugly nubs as I sat rewriting my novel and listening to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and, of course, The Wall.
Despite the steady progress I was making on the novel, I knew that I would not finish it. This thought displeased me, but not unduly. Leaving the novel unfinished was a sacrifice I felt prepared to make, just as I was prepared to sacrifice my mother’s happiness. I refused to dwell on these consequences; they couldn’t be helped, and, besides, I wouldn’t be around to see them — although there remained the possibility of a miracle in the form of an acceptance letter from an editor. I wrote keeping one eye out for the postman. But all he delivered were rejections — two or three a week. I took solace from the story of van Gogh, whose letters I was reading. If Fortune had failed him during his lifetime, who was I to complain? Still, it kind of pissed me off (on my own behalf and on Vincent’s).
By the time I had rewritten three or four pages, enjoying the pleasure of being someone else, somewhere else, it would be past noon, and I would change into my sweats and big blue Nikes and go for a run: north half a mile to Aloha or Prospect, then left three blocks to Volunteer Park, where I would circle the hilltop before returning home through Capitol Hill’s tree-lined side streets. Though I hated running and always got either a side stitch or abdominal cramps, I enjoyed it once it was over. I often spotted money on the roadway — dimes and pennies mostly, but occasionally quarters, which convinced me I had good luck.
If the rain fell in torrents, or if I Just Didn’t Feel Like It, I would spend the early afternoon shopping or at the library, and then return home for a shower. Somewhere along the way, cat cuddling had replaced sex as my chief sensual pleasure, but since Tomas’s death, showering had taken first place.
Clean from the shower, I’d eat a late lunch, read a bit, and then prepare to go out again at four, winter’s blue hour. While dressing and putting on makeup, I’d turn the stereo up loud and dance until I felt high. When ready, I would don my black overcoat, tuck my notebook into my shoulder bag, tie my scarf on gypsy style, and, unless it was pouring (in which case I would reluctantly catch the bus), walk the two miles north to the university district.
After the indoor lamplight, the December twilight seemed to project a religious mood, pensive but not at all somber: the leafless trees starkly silhouetted against a sky of sheer, silken blue, or sculpted cloud banks in every conceivable shade of gray, from charcoal to dove, all tinged with purple. The infinite variety of the colors and shapes in the winter sky at dusk made me breathless and giddy, and I wished for a palette, a brush, a canvas, and the talent — no, the genius; it would require nothing less — to reproduce what I saw and the effect it had on me. In a way, though, I didn’t mind that I would never depict or even come close to describing it, because the sky itself was there every single evening, for anyone who cared to look up.
Walking fast, thinking my thoughts, and frequently talking to myself (though never out loud), I’d make my way along avenues of large houses set in smallish yards, where the shrubs and flowers had all died back, some for winter, others forever. I’d turn down a street of affluent brick houses facing the bramble wilderness of Interlaken Park, and I’d try to imagine the owners’ alien bourgeois lives based on what I glimpsed through their lighted windows. Then I’d follow an alley between the back yards of houses — almost a country lane, where the last fallen apples rotted underfoot and a few well-fed cats waited for the extravagant caresses I was only too happy to provide. At the bottom, I’d emerge at the Montlake Freeway junction and hurry across the bridge over the rush-hour traffic, a fuming, thousand-eyed dragon. I’d pause on the drawbridge spanning the canal between Portage and Union Bay to consider the perfect dome of evening sky. Then I’d continue on to University Way, “the Ave.”
I always headed first to the frozen-yogurt shop — avoiding, if I could, the Street Poet, who seemed to be sliding ever more rapidly into madness and despair. I wanted to feel sorry for the Street Poet, knowing he had been standing on the sidewalk trying to sell his poems to passersby for probably fifteen years, but I hated him. I hated him because he was shabby, bitter, and sarcastic. I hated him for being ugly and pathetic and an unsuccessful artist like me.
At the shop, I’d buy and slowly eat my frozen yogurt (raspberry-and-vanilla swirl, if possible) while watching the Ave’s motley denizens parade by. Then I’d join the parade myself, to go buy a cookie, the evening paper, and whatever necessities happened to be on sale. Finally, I’d push through crowds of punks, frat boys, street kids, and drug dealers to my favorite cafe, Espresso Roma.
From the Roma’s doorway, I’d scan the room, peering through the smoky haze to find a seat, preferably against the wall or near one of the central pillars. Then I’d drop my bag on the table and join the line at the counter. The counter help all looked like ghouls but were really nice kids in weird get-ups. My favorite, an emaciated, purple-haired woman of striking equine beauty (big dark eyes, big teeth), dazzled me with her smile every time. Close seconds were the two guys with dreadlocks, spiked bracelets, and tattoos covering every visible inch of skin. They joked together like a Gothic comedy duo, remembered my usual order — a double espresso and a glass of ice water — and always thanked me for the quarter I dropped into the tip jar.
At my table, I’d take off my coat and arrange my things just so, then eat my cookie, drink my espresso, and smoke two long, skinny cigarettes while sipping the ice water. Soon, my brain would begin to hum and rise like a UFO. I seldom spoke to anyone, but I would watch and listen, and put down in the pages of my notebook whatever impressions or thoughts came to mind. For instance:
Over at the next table, four Chinese guys smoke as if they can’t wait to get lung cancer. Unfiltered Camels. They take a mighty drag, hold it in — like pot smokers — and then finally let it out: whhhewww. A gray mushroom cloud rises over them.
Waking up is the worst. Being up and around is all right, mostly. And being asleep is perfect — that relaxed nullity I crave. But coming back to being me is like being forced to acknowledge a moth-eaten, dirty coat hanging on the coat rack. You turn it over, examine the lapels and cuffs, grimace, say, “I guess this is mine,” and put it on.
When I’d finished my second cigarette, I would close my notebook and head out into the now full darkness to catch the bus back home, where I’d eat soup for dinner and finish reading the paper. Then, seated at the kitchen table (I didn’t own a comfortable chair), I’d smoke and read while listening to music on my Walkman. I always had a stack of six or eight library books; at that time, I was reading novels by Henry James, Doris Lessing, and Hans Bienek, biographies of Jean Stafford and Nietzsche, and the selected letters of van Gogh. I’d keep a pad of paper nearby in case I got a Great Idea as I read. When a good song came on, I would get up and dance in the living room. (I loved my hardwood floors as much as I loved the winter sky.) By around 10:30, when I had smoked nine cigarettes — enough to make my hands cold — I would go to bed.
Each night, as I squeezed toothpaste onto the splayed bristles of my brush, I thought how bored I’d become with brushing my teeth, and how glad I would be to be done with dental hygiene. Once in bed, about half the time — especially if I hadn’t eaten since six — I would lie awake for at least an hour, my mind racing. I measured the severity of my insomnia by how many times I got up to pee. My next-door neighbor, Inconsiderate Sally, had moved out in early December, leaving her apartment empty, so at least I had some quiet. Sleep was my native element, my natural domain. I slept like an exile returned home at last, only to awake in the morning and find myself deported again.
Though I didn’t actively avoid my three friends in Seattle, neither did I seek them out; I didn’t see the point in reinforcing bonds that would soon be broken. Tomas was the only one I missed. With each day, more of my personality seemed to chip away, like flakes of cheap paint.
It was too good to last.
The next thing I knew, it was Christmas Eve, and I was on my way to Tacoma to visit my family for two days. Ordinarily, such a long visit tested the limits of my patience, but I wished to leave them with a pleasant memory, so I put on a jolly face and behaved better than I probably ever had. I even went so far as to attend church for the first time in twenty years. At Christmas Eve service, I sat next to my sister and struggled to sing carols pitched either too high or too low for my voice. A shockingly young minister gave a sad little sermon portraying his children as hyperactive hellions. Meanwhile, in the pew behind us, a small girl decked out in scarlet and black finery, as regal as a Velázquez infanta, wet her pants and was removed sobbing. After church, my whole family gathered for refreshments, and while the others talked about roofing and trips to Reno, I nibbled Christmas cookies and hummed Pink Floyd under my breath. My little brother, the only hip one in the bunch, eyed me quizzically.
On Christmas Day, I paced the carpeted floors of my sister’s overheated suburban home for what seemed like hours, silently reciting, I will not scream, I will not scream, as the TV babbled away in the background like the family idiot and my relatives said the same things they’ve said each Christmas for fifteen years. At dinner, no one spoke, except to say, “Pass the potatoes. . . . Pass the gravy.” We ate and ate and ate. I got so full that I was in actual pain. Then we opened gifts. (I kept wanting to say, “Oh, how nice; too bad I won’t be needing this.”) Finally, we gathered up our coats and said good night. I kissed everybody goodbye and went home to recover from my meal, check my mail, and enjoy the rest of my life.
I didn’t win the lottery; nobody bought any of my writing.
On Thursday, December 29, I counted out the last of my money and bought a magnum of Mumm’s champagne and a pint of Mr. Potato Head vodka. I went through my papers, tossed out the most embarrassing items, and stuck the rest in my file cabinet. I went through my dresser drawers and medicine chest and threw away masses of junk. I found this great fun, as I love throwing things away. I thought it a shame that I hadn’t gotten a job cleaning out people’s basements and attics.
All that accomplished, I wrote a brief letter to the police, asking them to send the medical examiner to remove my body after the fact, and dropped it in the mail. The letter would be picked up Friday morning and thus delivered Saturday, unless it got delayed until Tuesday (Monday was a holiday), in which case my body would have begun to rot, but that couldn’t be helped. I had reached the point where nothing could be helped, and this condition suited me ideally. I returned my library books and went to the cafe as usual to write my last notebook entry, a paean to the pleasures that had kept me going so long: light, music, wit, wood floors, the ocean, cats. I ended with the banal observation that I’d had “a full life.” (Banal or not, it was true.)
I returned home to read the paper and write an apology to my mother, asking her to give certain keepsakes to my three friends. I spent the rest of the evening smoking and rereading, for the first time since college, Great Expectations. I was absorbed but felt no sorrow that I wouldn’t finish it; I already knew how it ended, both versions. At 9 P.M. I ate a piece of dry toast (so I wouldn’t throw up later) and opened the champagne. I hadn’t had alcohol in a year and had forgotten how much I adored champagne. I toasted Charles Dickens; I toasted Virginia Woolf; I toasted the night. I refilled my glass until the bottle was empty. By then, my gums and lips had gone numb and my eyesight had begun to blur, obscuring a passage about Pip’s hopeless descent into debt. It was the sort of situation that made me cringe, so I happily closed the book on his improvidence. I thought smugly that I would never have to brush my teeth again.
I pulled down my Murphy bed, filled a glass half with vodka and half with club soda, and fetched a dry-cleaning bag and my stash of pills: phenobarbital, Valium, Dalmane, an old (and probably ineffective) Percodan, and a couple of antihistamines. Leaving the front door unlocked, I placed the note to my mother on a table just inside. Then I washed down all the pills with the vodka and soda, got into bed, and turned off the light. I was arranging the plastic bag so that it would soon suffocate me, but was not actually sticking to my face, when I remembered: I’d wanted the last thing I ever heard to be Bach’s second partita for solo violin. But now I had taken the pills and didn’t dare get out of bed to put on the tape, because I might just pass out on the floor and not die. I considered this for a moment, decided drowsily, Oh, it doesn’t matter, and, feeling entirely satisfied, fell asleep.
Off-white, creamy eggshell color, with a border of semigloss sky blue, and a globe light fixture, like the moon.
Just that: a ceiling.
Then with a breath came the realization: A ceiling up there meant eyes down here looking at it. Which meant me. Which meant I was alive.
Cold light filtered through the blinds of my apartment: morning — or day, anyway — and I was still alive.
Oh, fuck. I rolled over, pulling the comforter over my head. Maybe it wasn’t too late. But I knew it was. If I were going to die, I’d have been dead by now. What had happened to the plastic bag? Or my pillow, for that matter? I slept again.
The doorbell woke me. I got up somehow and floated, weightless, to the door. (I had gone to bed in my sweats; why not?) A UPS man handed me a padded envelope and showed me where to sign. My signature slid all the way across the page. The package was from my friend Mira in San Francisco. I let it drop to the floor and made my way to the bathroom, feeling like the incredible rubber woman. I peed and drank some water, then wobbled back to bed, actually running into the wall along the way — twice. I slept, woke in the dark, slept some more.
The next time I woke, it was light. Saturday, probably. This was not at all what I’d had in mind: stood up by Mr. D.! I was in a bad way. Physically, I felt fine, though still a little rubbery. I had, however, only two dollars and some change, and my whole damn life ahead of me. I hadn’t made a contingency plan.
I drank a cup of tea and then did about the hardest thing I’ve ever done — I called my mother and told her I was broke. And, because of course she didn’t understand, I had to tell her why I hadn’t thought I’d be needing money. She cried. Not every child gets to make her mother cry, only the ones too low for the dogs to bite. I cried, too. I tried to explain, but what could I say? That I’m not very practical? That I don’t like to get up in the dark? That I’d rather be a dead failed artist than a live administrative assistant? She still didn’t understand, but she said she’d send me a check right away. “Promise me you’ll go talk to somebody,” she said. To mollify her, I promised.
Then I called my friend David and asked if I could borrow twenty dollars until my mother’s check arrived. He agreed and invited me out for coffee, his treat. I knew he wouldn’t be shocked — or impressed, for that matter — by what I’d done; he was as bad as I was, and had been on the verge of killing himself many times, though he had never actually made an attempt. Instead, he would call his friends (usually late at night) and beg reassurance. “You can’t expect to kill yourself with phenobarbital and Valium,” David informed me. “You have to use short-acting barbiturates, like Nembutal. That’s what Marilyn OD’d on.” I didn’t tell him about the Dalmane I’d stolen from his medicine cabinet, or the plastic bag. Such unattractive details. (I later found the bag, along with my pillow, under the bed.)
Somewhat cheered by my talk with David, I called the local police precinct and told them to ignore my letter; they wouldn’t need to remove my body, as I was still in it. The woman who answered the phone said, “OK, fine. ’Bye.” I was relieved. I’d been afraid they would make a fuss.
I had nothing to do. My existence felt like an anticlimax, one more chapter in a long, dull serial. And it was the holiday weekend, too. I went back to rewriting my novel. I called my friend Roz and arranged to meet her for coffee the next day. I wrote to Mira and thanked her for the long black skirt — the contents of the padded package — and told her what my December had been like. (Mira was suicidal herself half the time, or so she claimed.) I went to the library and took out a new stack of books.
I spent the whole twenty-dollar loan from David on food, shampoo, toilet paper, and tampons. When I called him the next day to ask to borrow another twenty, he told me, in a prissy, disapproving tone, “You don’t want to get into debt now.” I hung up and called Roz, who said sure, no problem.
I made no New Year’s resolutions. I didn’t expect much good to come of 1989. I would have to get a job. I would have to keep brushing my teeth forever — or at least until they all fell out. I went for my usual walk to the cafe. The slanted light, the clouds, the speedy euphoria of double espresso chased by ice water, the two cigarettes, and my funny thoughts were all as good as ever, so I couldn’t be entirely sorry.
On Tuesday, January 3, I waited impatiently for the postman, hoping to God he’d arrive soon so I could get my mother’s check to the bank and not have to call Roz to borrow another twenty, or skip dinner — or, worse yet, run out of smokes. Forty dollars doesn’t last long when you’ve let yourself run out of everything.
I saw a flash of blue coat outside and went to the window. But it wasn’t the postman; it was a policewoman. She looked lost and was speaking into a walkie-talkie. My heart sank. I went to the front door. “Are you looking for me?” I said.
The policewoman, whose name badge said, DEBORAH PUPP, read my name from a piece of paper in her hand: “Kathryn Ellison?”
“Close enough,” I said, and invited her in.
The only place to sit, besides the floor, was at the kitchen table. Officer Pupp chose to stand and proceeded to read me the riot act for being a pessimist and a quitter. She gave me her suggestions for what I ought to do — get a nice office job in a high-tech firm and write in my spare time — and when I demurred, she told me I had a self-defeating attitude. Gazing beyond her indignant, dark blue bulk, I saw the postman walk by my front window at last, and I snuck a glance at my watch: 4:30. If I got rid of Officer Pupp, I could still make it to the bank before closing. I had to be careful, though; if I said the wrong thing, she could haul me off to Harborview (or “Harborzoo,” as everybody called it). So, rather than give Officer Pupp the vigorous argument I had in mind, I answered her questions as quickly as possible: No, I said, I was no longer suicidal. Yes, I would “go talk to someone” at the county mental-health clinic — soon.
Before she left, Officer Pupp had one more suggestion for me: a journal-writing circle once a week. Then she looked at me sternly and said, “You’ve just got to have more of a sense of humor about things.”
I had to run four blocks uphill to the bank, and I made it with only two minutes to spare. The next day, my temp agency called, and the day after that, I was back to work and thought no more about dying.
On the morning of Martin Luther King Day, I was hurrying to get out of the apartment — I’d promised to help David typeset his new witchcraft magazine and was late, as usual — when the phone rang.
“I’m coming, I’m coming!” I barked into the receiver.
There was a pause. “Ms. Ellington?” a voice said. “I’m Sadie Plotz from King County Mental Health. We’re concerned that you haven’t come in to talk to us.”
Officer Pupp had ratted on me.
“I’ve been pretty busy,” I said. “I went back to work, and this is my first day off. I would have come in today,” I lied, “except I thought you’d be closed.”
“No,” Ms. Plotz said primly, “we’re open.”
I told her I couldn’t come in now because I was on my way to meet a friend. (I didn’t tell her what for.) I promised to come in at the first opportunity. And when my job assignment ended two weeks later, I did.
On a drizzly Monday afternoon, I dressed all in black and rode the bus over to Harborzoo. The mental-health clinic hadn’t been redecorated since the 1950s — cracked vinyl couches, disintegrating ceiling tiles, flickering fluorescent lights. Abandoned styrofoam cups littered the end tables, and the staff sat behind a safety-glass-topped counter, like bank tellers in a high-crime neighborhood. I filled out some papers and then read brochures while I waited for someone to call my name. On the basis of the brochures, I diagnosed myself as an antisocial personality with a variety of subfeatures: schizoid, depressive, hysterical, megalomaniac. This pleased me. Still, I wasn’t half as crazy as van Gogh, or even Nietzsche.
It must have been a slow day, or else the other mental cases went to the emergency room, because I didn’t have long to wait. My social worker was a middle-aged, rumpled, bearded, bespectacled fellow named Richard. He mumbled and slumped in his chair. I wanted to tell him not to slouch and, for heaven’s sake, speak up! He was nice, though, and I rather enjoyed the interview. For one thing, I didn’t have to worry about being dragged off to Harborview, because I was already there. And I knew they couldn’t commit me involuntarily unless I were suicidal, homicidal, or severely incapacitated — which I might have been from time to time (the first two, anyway) but was not now. I even made Richard smile: when he asked me if I drank or took drugs, I replied, “Only when committing suicide.”
Richard gave me a list of free mental-health clinics where I could get emotional support if I started feeling suicidal again. I took it, even though, I told him, the support I needed wasn’t emotional but financial, because I’d never kill myself unless I were broke.
As I was putting on my coat to leave, Richard asked me, almost as an afterthought, “What happens when you die?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Absolutely nothing.”
He nodded, not in agreement, but as if my answer was exactly what he’d expected.
By spring, I’d gotten a better-paying temp job (which I hated nonetheless), and before the year was out, I finished my novel, something I’d never really expected to do. I sold a short story, then another. I wrote whenever I could steal the time.
I still don’t like this life much without Tomas, but the pain seldom stabs anymore, and my memories of him have become bittersweet as he recedes into the past. I haven’t replaced him with another cat, though, because that would just be more of the same damn thing.
Occasionally, I try to tell myself that a failure at suicide is a success at survival. Then I think that if l believe that, I’m dumber than I look. Most mornings, though, when it strikes me forcibly that my existence is insupportable and I can’t go on, I get up and go on.