NOTE TO READERS: I wrote this six months ago, when I was at an absolute nadir. It was never intended for public consumption: you'll see why when you consume it. This is me pulling myself up by my wordstraps, and should I ever sink that low again--I hope to all the gods that ever were that I don't--this life preserver ought to be preserved.
THE SUICIDE SHOP By Ken Breadner
“It won’t work, you know.”
“Killing yourself. It won’t solve any of your problems.”
She didn’t know what to say to that. It took most of her energy to come down to the Suicide Shop today, and the last thing she expected when she got here was somebody telling her that the only way out wasn’t a way out at all.
“But…look, I came down here to buy some pills. Just…just give them to me, okay?”
“Sure, I can do that. But they won’t work.”
She took out her wallet and upended it over the counter. Wadded-up bills and change spilled out in a flood. “That should be enough.”
The man took his time unfolding bills and organizing the coins. “Yes, there’s enough here for a lethal dose. That’s what you wanted, right? Enough to kill your body. So that’s the first step taken care of.”
“First step? What else could there be? I take these pills, I’m dead. Then what?”
“Have you written your suicide note? That’s just one of many things we can do for you.”
She was incredulous. “Are you trying to upsell me? On killing myself? You’re kidding, right?”
“Not at all. Most people like to leave notes, though, for the people they care about.”
“Not me. I care about people, the problem is they don’t care about me. A note won’t change that.”
She stared at the man asking all these stupid questions. He looked like a man who had graduated from Nerd School with high honours: short. kind of fat, with thick glasses. Bald head. Nondescript clothes. Not ugly, exactly, but not…anything else, either. Except the eyes. His eyes were hazel, and they weren’t just looking at her, they were seeing her. Nobody had actually seen her for about a year. She’d flitted through the world like one already dead. Like a ghost.
“Why won’t a note change that?”
How to answer that question? How to explain to him that no matter what she wrote, she couldn’t possibly make them understand?
“Do I have to answer all these questions? I just want to kill myself.”
“Well, yeah, actually. I’m sorry, but you kind of do. We need to make sure that our clients are of sound mind, that they know what they’re doing. That’s why you had to go through that web interview last week, and why you’re being recorded now. We don’t want to get sued by your estate or anything like that.”
She glared at him “My…estate. I’m pretty much flat broke.”
“Humour me. Why won’t a note work? Most of our clients write something. Some of them write pages and pages and pages, different notes for different people, accusing or absolving—“
“Those are cries for help. I’m beyond help.”
He peered at her again. It should have been creepy, the way he seemed to look right through her, but somehow it wasn’t. They locked eyes. After an unknowable time—
“Nobody’s beyond help.”
He stated that with a flat finality. It came out like a command.
“I don’t have the energy to argue with you.”
“So don’t. Just tell me what you’re thinking.”
“You…you know, don’t you?”
“I think I do, yes. But I can’t plant any suggestions in your head. Your estate, remember?”
The noise that came out of her throat felt alien, like a foreign word she hadn’t spoken or heard in years. It took her a second to realize it was a laugh. She drew energy from it, a lot more energy when it turned bitter.
“You don’t have time for this.”
The man moved with uncanny speed. He shot out from around the counter, went to the door that gave on the seedy street outside and locked it, flipping the sign around to say “closed”. He shuttered the windows and turned a dimmer switch. The lights brightened. All of this seemed to be in one fluid motion. He sat down in a leather recliner she hadn’t even noticed and motioned her to a love seat against the side wall.
“All I’ve got is time.” Again, like an order.
She walked over to the love seat and sat down, feeling like she was dreaming. Am I dead already?
She looked around, as if seeing the Suicide Shop for the first time. It didn’t look like a shop at all. It looked more like a doctor’s office: drop ceiling with fluorescent lights that buzzed faintly, a bunch of waiting room chairs, potted plants that looked fake, boring prints on the walls. A reception counter against the back wall. There were a couple of weird anomalies: the love seat and recliner, tucked off in a corner alcove. A huge fireplace that dominated the right wall. And him, the nerdy, bespectacled man who actually saw her.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“I’m Joe. You’re Tara. And you tell me you’re beyond help.”
“Okay, Joe—if I tell you all this, will you promise to give me the pills I came here for?”
He looked at her again. It was unnerving and empowering in equal measure how he seemed to actually look into her head rather than at it.
“If you still want them after you’re done, sure.”
His words hung in the air. She searched their tone for a hint of a challenge or a dare and found none, so she invented both.
“You think you’re going to stop me, don’t you? If I had a knife on me, I’d cut my throat right here.”
“But you don’t. I do—a really sharp one, locked up in the back room there, but I’m not giving it to you. We agreed on pills. And not until you tell me your story.”
She sighed. “Okay, Joe, story time. Sit back and listen.”
The mere act of gathering her thoughts exhausted her. She’d been living with just one thought in her head for the last month — I’VE GOT TO KILL MYSELF — and digging up the ground under that thought was hard work. Whole minutes went by and he sat there. calmly, waiting, not saying a word.
“I’ve been living online for the last three years.”
He nodded. She took a deep breath and continued.
“If you can call it living. I don’t, not anymore….
“I used to, you know. Back when I first discovered the Internet, it actually…injected life into me. Or it seemed to. I was…I was in university back then. It was awful, university. Professors acting like petty gods, you weren’t allowed to think for yourself. I spent thousands of dollars for them to read textbooks to me. Verbatim. And I had to buy the textbooks.
“My degree was English. Stupid choice. I had no idea what it would do for my future and didn’t care. I thought I was living in the moment.
“Then the Internet came. It was the exact opposite of my classes: I could write my thoughts online and people all over the world would look at them and praise them. Or mock them. It didn’t matter which…at least people were paying attention to me. I felt back then like I had so much to tell the world, if only the world would listen…
“I spent whole days online. I’d forget to eat. I’d get up after twelve hours straight to go to the bathroom and I’d be in there thinking maybe somebody just emailed me. Back I’d go to the lab. It was like crack cocaine.
“And I fell in love on the Internet after I fell in love WITH the Internet. Several times. It was so easy. Nobody had to look at me, this was back when the Internet was all-text. My weight, my mousy hair, my glasses, none of it mattered. My words mattered. I was good with words.
“The online relationships sometimes moved into real-world relationships and when they did that they petered out. Of course. I wasn’t suited for the real world.
“Eventually the inevitable happened. I dropped out of university. It…it fucked up my life even worse. I lost access to the online world—I didn’t have the money to buy myself a computer back then—and for five years I just…drifted.
“Nothing like how I’ve drifted lately, though….
“And then I met someone, a man. I met him offline—we were married within a year and a half. He didn’t actually fix me, but he showed me how to fix myself, and made me feel like he accepted me no matter what, and so life was good. Life was REAL. Do you understand?”
He nodded. “Yes, I understand.”
“Good, because I don’t.”
The lights buzzed. The traffic droned by outside.
“Have you got any water?’
“Right in front of you.”
“When did you—?”
“Never mind. You were saying life was good, life was real, but you still don’t understand. What don’t you understand?”
“Why I kept migrating online. I had everything I could ever want in my real world life, but I still went online. All the friggin’ time. It’s addictive, the sense of connection you get online, you know? Hellishly addictive. You know what they call it when you visit a website?”
“Yeah, a hit. That can’t be a coincidence.
“So many people writing so many pretty words. For a long time I didn’t notice they were all fake.”
“Fake?” Again his eyes caught her. They were so perceptive: hazel, flecked with green, a piercing gaze that didn’t miss much.
“Yeah, it’s a fake place, online. There’s a reason this is called “the real world”, right?… People say they care, they say lots of nice things. They don’t mean them.”
“Why do you say that? That seems like a blanket condemnation.”
“Oh…I have no doubt they think they care. I don’t blame them, really. It’s the Internet. The fucking Internet. It sucks all the reality out of…everything…and it sucks people into it. It’s a vampire, and I’ve been bitten but good. Maybe pills won’t work. Maybe I need a stake through the heart or something.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” Joe got up and starting pacing. “You say the Internet is a vampire and it sucks people’s…good intentions out?”
“Yeah. The Internet is a vampire.”
He looked even more confused.
“Joe, do you know how many times people have told me they love me online?”
“No, of course not.”
“Dozens. I’ve lost count. I’m a hit on Facebook, I’ve got a blog people love to read, I’ve got heaps of Reddit karma. I don’t tweet much, I hate the length restriction on Twitter, but every time I tweet something it gets favorited and retweeted. I’m not famous online, but in my own little circle, it’s like I’m adored.”
He sat down again. “That sounds…that sounds like a good thing.”
“Oh yeah…sure. And I was Problem Central. Got a problem? Go to Tara, she helps. That gave me my purpose in life for many years. I was good at it. A real problem dumpster. You know why I was good at it, Joe? Because I care, that’s why.”
“That’s great, Tara. You’re obviously good at helping people.”
“Yeah? Now ask me how many of my online “friends” have the slightest interest in seeing me OFFLINE. In the REAL world.”
“Ah. I think I understand now.”
“No, you don’t. For a while I’d try to set up meetings, for coffee or whatever. People would agree to them, enthusiastically, and then when the time came they’d beg off and say they had to stay home and wash the pipes or iron the cat that day. Sometimes they’d actually have reasons, not excuses, but I’d hear the same reasons over and over again…and more importantly, I noticed that I was always the one asking. I thought, maybe I’m too pushy. I’ll relax about this and they’ll come to me. They never did.”
He winced. “That’s hard.”
She continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “Each new acquaintance would work the same way. I might meet her offline…once. Then we’d keep in touch online, and it was as if…like…as if all the blood would get sucked right out of the friendship. It became a bunch of pretty words on a screen. And I thought, do they see me like that? Is online me fake, too?
Joe sat forward in his recliner. “No, Tara, it isn’t. Is it?”
“I don’t know, Joe. I really don’t. What I do know is that I can’t stand the online world, even though I’m drawn to it like a moth to a flame, and the real world is so…goddamn…desolate…maybe the next world is better.”
“You’re still married, though, Tara, right?”
“I am. He’s such a good man, he doesn’t deserve to have a hollowed out husk for a wife. And when he’s at work, I think…I think “I’ll go out for a walk, that’s what I’ll do, I’ll get out of the house and feel real sunshine and real wind and see real people. Sometimes I even manage to do it, to escape the pull of the computer for a while. And you know what I find out there as I walk around all alone? People walking around out there all alone too. Alone with their phones. Because the Internet has invaded the outside world, too, now. It’s insatiable. I don’t have a cell phone, Joe. It’s the last vestige of real Tara trying to escape the online world. Part of me wants a phone so bad, just so I can keep pretending.”
“I don’t want to pretend any more.” She stopped, and took another sip of water.
Joe sat and thought for a minute, giving her words real weight. “Okay, but you still haven’t answered my question. About the note.”
Tara looked at him as if he was an idiot. Maybe his eyes weren’t so perceptive after all. “I can’t write a fucking note, Joe”, she said, wearily. “If I put a note on Facebook it’ll look like I’m trawling for attention.”
“OF COURSE I AM!!” Tara screamed. She jerked herself to her feet, picked her half-full water glass up in her right hand, drew in back over her head, and hurled it with all her strength towards the fireplace. It struck the back wall dead centre and exploded, spraying shards of glass back out into the room.
Joe had gotten up with her. Mindless of her anger, he stepped towards her, arms stretched, and enfolded her. Tara was thrumming with tension and she didn’t even seem to notice she was being hugged, at first. Gradually, bit by bit, her body relaxed and her arms crept hesitantly around his waist.
Joe hugged her, hard. It looked intimate—it was intimate—but it wasn’t a sexual hug at all. It was two real human beings sharing a real embrace. A number-one hug, not the letter-A obscenity that passed for a hug nowadays.
Tara was crying, her tears staining Joe’s shirt. He pulled her even closer for a minute, trying to push as much of his life-force into her as he could. The nice thing about doing this, Joe thought for the thousandth time, was that there was an inexhaustible supply of that life-force to draw on.
Tara’s flow of tears slowed, then stopped. She snuffled snot and reached behind her, towards the table for a Kleenex. Joe sat back down and waited for Tara to compose herself.
“I made a mess with that glass.” She started to get up and Joe put his hand up to stop her. “Never mind, it’s no big deal. I’ll clean it up later.”
Tara regarded Joe carefully. “Thank you.”
Joe laughed a little. “For what this time?”
“For that hug. My husband hugs me at least three times a day and your hug felt like one of his.”
Joe’s gaze sharpened again. “He doesn’t know what you’ve just told me, does he?”
Tara looked around, guiltily. “He…he suspects, I think. But I don’t know how to explain it to him. I’m not sure I’ve explained it properly to you, just now. I think I’m afraid if I tell him he’ll think he’s not enough for me…or something…” she trailed off.
“Joe, I—I…all my life, I’ve been looking for connections. I want to feel like I’m part of the world—for a long time when I was a kid I didn’t feel that way at all. It’s like there can’t be enough connections. I want to heal people’s pain and be—not at the center of everything, I’m not that narcissistic, but…I just want to show people how much I care. For real.”
“And I’ve always said that real love didn’t have to be reciprocated, and I meant that—what kind of unconditional love only exists if it’s returned? But I guess I lied.”
He looked at her questioningly.
“I don’t care if I’m loved or not, but I care DEEPLY if I’m connected. Online is all about connections, right? You can connect to so many people so quickly. But you’re not really connecting to the person, just to the pixels. It’s not real. That’s what I’m telling you.”
My husband, Steve—he is a wonderful, wonderful person, I love him so much, and we connect so well. But most of the time he feels like the only real connection in my life and I know I’m burdening him with that. He doesn’t deserve to be burdened with that.”
Joe stopped her. “That’s where you’re wrong, Tara,” he said.
She sniffled again. “Huh?”
“Of course he deserves that. He signed up for it, and he loves you just as much as you love him. Really. You said in that web interview you’d been married fifteen years?”
“Ever cheated on him?”
“Of course not. Even if I wanted to, nobody else has ever even looked twice at me.”
“But he looks at you at least three times every day, when he hugs you, Tara.”
She brushed Joe’s words aside. “Yes…but…Joe..he’s it. There’s no one else. In all my life I’ve met maybe four people who really cared about me, and sooner or later they don’t any more. It’s me, I’m sure it’s me, but nobody’s honest enough to say what it is about m—“
“Tara.” The command he could put in his voice was amazing.
Joe had reached into a drawer and pulled out a poster. It said:
IF YOU HAVE ONE GOOD FRIEND, YOU ARE LUCKY.
IF YOU HAVE TWO GOOD FRIENDS, YOU ARE BLESSED.
THREE IS IMPOSSIBLE.
She gazed at it, feeling her inner world rearranging itself.
“You’re blessed, Tara. You’re blessed, and you don’t even realize it. You’re blessed with two friends, and you’re blessed with the perception to recognize that the online world isn’t real. Do you know how rare that is? I see people walking around with their phones, too. I go on vacation and wherever I go, there they are—not the people, just the phones. Nobody wants to experience anything any more. You still do. That makes you a pretty smart person, in my books.
The Internet?” Joe continued. “It’s a tool. That’s all it is. A way to keep in touch with information, and yes, people. It’s not meant for relationships and never was. Real friends see each other offline every now and again—as often as they can.”
“Joe, I’m telling you, there’s only St—“
“So, Tara”, he overrode her, “how about next Wednesday?
“I can meet you earlier, of course. Tomorrow, even, if you want. Unless I’m with another client, I’m pretty much free.”
She stared at him. “Joe, you’re just saying that.”
“I am”, he said. ‘Saying it, not typing it or texting it.”
“You can’t be real”, said Tara.
“Try me”, said Joe.
in memoriam Rev. "Uncle Roger" McCombe
and with warm thanks to Spider Robinson