The Silent Plea was the second-place winner of the June Collins Elesiro Literary Prize & CFWriterz Freedom Magazine themed “Sweetness”.
“The problem with suicide is going through with it,” said Amu. “I’m not talking about the Catholic belief that in committing suicide, one essentially condemns oneself to an eternity in hell. Nor the idea that suicide is inherently selfish. I’m talking about the act of committing it. The actual act of killing oneself, that’s the hardest part.”
I couldn’t tell what he was thinking—if he was mocking me, or if he was being serious. I didn’t know him well enough, or at all, frankly. I had met him only a few minutes ago. He was with a group of his friends, all of them academics on a conference. They were staying at the hotel and from what I could tell, all of them were heavy drinkers and yet none of them could handle alcohol very well.
Amu had somehow stayed sober. I surmised that I was partly responsible for that. I didn’t drink, and I got the feeling that he was one of those people who liked to please everyone, to blend in, to be liked and generally to not be too different. As a result, he had limited himself.
Amu came across as polite. His friends frequently came to him to ask either for their wallets or phones. It seemed they all trusted him to keep their possessions safer than they could. And so, I surmised too, that he was the sort of person people trusted.
I remembered, quite vividly, how we had arrived at the very morbid subject of suicide. I had been sitting at the bar for three hours, slowly drinking my virgin strawberry daiquiri. I had a feeling the bartender felt sorry for me because he kept telling me about how beautiful Cape Town was at night. To stop him from making suggestions of places I could visit, I made a show of browsing through my phone.
But I hadn’t received any messages, emails, missed calls. I couldn’t even get annoyed at a telemarketer message since I didn’t have those, either. After two daiquiris, a glass of water and a toilet break, a crowd of suit-clad youngsters ceremoniously burst into the restaurant. There were eleven of them, and they all wanted to sit facing the waterfront, which had seats for just ten. So one of them became the odd man out. At least that’s what he told me when he joined me at the bar.
“Do you mind if I sit next to you?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “Go ahead.” I drew my bag closer.
“Are you also here for the conference?” he said, making himself comfortable in his chair. Looking at him, I judged that he was around thirty years old, he didn’t have a wedding ring, so I knew he wasn’t married. He was dark skinned, clean-shaven, and looked like he was a regular at the gym. I thought to myself: Where is the harm in flirting?
“No,” I said. “Are you?”
“Yeah.” He waved the bartender over. “It’s like a break away from work, you know.”
“I do. Do you all work at the same place?”
“Oh no,” he said. “We’re students. Postgraduates. I know only a few of the guys. Most of us met here. What about you? You’re just here to enjoy Cape Town?”
By then, the bartender had come for Amu’s order and he ordered something with vodka. I wasn’t paying attention. I had grown light-hearted when Amu sat next to me and so casually slipped into conversation with me. But he disrupted that by asking something I didn’t want to answer. I shrugged my answer.
“You know,” I said, “just wandering.”
He flashed a bright smile at me. “You wander quite expensively. I’d never stay at a place like this unless a scholarship paid for it.”
“Well, I won’t need money for very long. I’m spending it all.”
He nodded thoughtfully, not really facing anything and not really to anyone. He suddenly turned to face me and held out his hand. “I’m Amu, by the way,” he said. “I’m currently looking for a wife who would be willing to spend all of her money on me.”
I laughed. “I’m Amanda,” I said, taking his hand.
“See, it’s a match made in heaven. Our names match.” Then he suddenly became serious and said, “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. And I didn’t mean to be so nosy. I’m just so used to being around students, you know. The one thing we always talk about is how much we don’t have money. It’s funny,” he shook his head, “we’ve always been taught that talking about money is impolite but when you don’t have money, it becomes impossible to not always be consumed by thoughts of it.”
“Yeah,” I said. The bartender had returned with Amu’s drink; he smiled at me, as though to let me know he approved of my present company.
“Would you like a refill on your drink?” said Amu, gesturing to my drink with some confusion on his face. “What’s that you’re drinking, anyway?”
“Virgin strawberry daiquiri,” I said. The bartender lingered, perhaps hoping to catch snippets of our conversation, perhaps hoping that I would finally be adventurous and add alcohol to my drink. I shook my head and he disappeared, no doubt, to another customer.
“You don’t want something stronger?” said Amu.
“No, thanks,” I said. “I don’t drink.”
He nodded thoughtfully again. “Wise choice,” he said. “I’ll be carrying half of those guys by the end of the night. In the morning most of them won’t be able to wake up. And tomorrow night they’ll come back here and repeat every mistake they made. And on and on, it will go.” He chuckled and took a sip of his drink.
“It must be nice, though,” I said, “to be so free.”
“It’s not freedom,” he said. “It’s youth and stupidity.”
“Maybe they’re the same thing.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
I laughed more loudly than before. A few heads turned and I covered my mouth with my hands. Amu smiled at me. “We’re all going to the club later,” he said. “You’re welcome to join us if you want.”
I took a gulp of my drink, pulled my handbag even closer, and smoothed down my dress. “Thanks for inviting me but I can’t make it. I have somewhere else to wander.”
He whispered, “Of course.” The air between us was suddenly struck by a profound sense of awkwardness. From the way Amu stole glances at me, I guessed that he wanted to insist on his invitation. I guessed, too, that he wanted to ask about my wanderings.
But again, he seemed like the sort of polite person who simply couldn’t impose himself to that extent. I assessed that he had found me interesting enough to engage with but now, without warning him, I had disappointed him. It made me feel alone. I looked at my hands and, finally, I felt tears prick the corners of my eyes. “Do you want to know why I’m here?” I asked, unceremoniously disrupting the silence.
“Yeah,” said Amu. He didn’t look as jovial as I’d first perceived him to be. Nor as young. In fact, he looked weary, sleep-deprived, perhaps even hungry, for his cheeks looked suddenly hollow. I felt that in some way I couldn’t quite understand, he mirrored my own emotions.
“I came here to kill myself,” I said, quickly, before I could change my mind. I finished off the rest of my drink and waved for the bartender to bring me another.
A pregnant silence stretched between us, during which I was served another drink and one of Amu’s friends came by to ask if another of their friends had called yet. When we were once more alone, Amu said to me, “How are you planning on doing it?”
I hadn’t expected that question. I’d expected something else. I’d expected: Why? But not ‘how.’ So I said, “That’s not important.”
“Because it just isn’t.” I felt myself getting irritated. “Listen, I shouldn’t have said anything. It was all a joke. It was a very bad joke. I’m sorry.”
“I don’t think it was a joke,” he said. “I think you were being serious…”
“It’s none of your business if I was, anyway.” I shook my head in disbelief, slid off my chair and grabbed my bag. “It was very nice meeting you. Enjoy your night.”
Amu slid off his chair too and moved closer to me. He was taller than me; I had to crane my neck to look into his eyes. He said, “If you talk me through it, I can help you.”
More from shock than anything else, I lost my balance and he caught me around my waist. He was still holding me when he elaborated his offer.
“If you’re afraid of heights you can’t even begin to climb a building high enough to do the jumping kind,” he said. “If you want your family to have an open casket, you can’t do something as grizzly as an intentional car accident. Also, there’s the possibility that you could survive an accident. Then you’d have to deal with having to have your car fixed, and the medical bills, some of which might be continuing, depending on your injuries.
“If you don’t want to suffer or feel pain, you have to rule out things like cutting your wrists or drinking poison. That leaves something like a gun as your only option. I’ve been watching you and you always flick your hand towards your purse. I think you have a gun. But something tells me you’ve never fired one before. So you’re most likely to bungle the whole thing, in which case you might survive and have to live with the injuries and the medical bills.”
He let go of my waist and sat down again. “People think suicide is easy,” he continued. “But it’s not. It’s hard and painful, very painful. I would know because I’ve been trying to kill myself since I was thirteen. But I could help you…you know, if you want me to. Also,” he took a final gulp from his glass, “you should probably pay for your drinks before you leave.”
My head suddenly got hot. I felt breathless. It was as though while I wasn’t looking, something had disrupted the very essence of the world, and when I looked back, it was to find that something was terribly wrong. I returned to my seat.
“How many people have you helped?”
Pushing his glass away from himself, he shrugged and said, “Does it matter?”
“It should. Because that would make you a murderer.”
“Would you care? I mean, I’d be helping you. It shouldn’t matter to you whether I’ve helped other people or not. Like I said, the problem with suicide is committing it.”
“If it’s so difficult, why do so many people succeed every year?” I said.
“You ever wonder how many of those people had tried it before?”
“You think they’d failed at another time?”
“I don’t know. But I think there are way more people who fail than those who succeed.”
I nodded. Somehow, I found myself calmed by Amu, by the ease with which we navigated the morbidity of suicide. It still doesn’t make sense to me, but I felt better.
“Can I ask you something?” said Amu.
“Why here?” he said. “You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to. But why kill yourself here?”
Maybe it was his confession from earlier, that he’d been trying to kill himself for possibly two decades, or maybe it was that I simply felt comfortable with him, or desperate, or maybe…I don’t know, maybe I just wanted someone to know. I think…I think I was tired of being alone.
“Two months ago we buried a woman from my church,” I said. “Her husband died ten years ago. They never had kids so she was alone. Then two months ago she died. Her body was found five days later. It was the smell, see. That’s how she was found, the smell.” I shook my head. “I don’t want that. I don’t want to be gone for that long without anyone knowing. I don’t want the smell of my corpse to be the only signal of my passing. I know it’s not profound, but I think…I think I want someone to know.”
“Hotel rooms get cleaned every day,” said Amu, by way of processing what I’d said.
“Yeah.” I nodded. “One of the maids would find me.”
“That means you can’t use a gun.”
“It’s too messy. It would be traumatic for the maid who found you. You’d be killing her too, in a way.”
“That’s not fair—”
Amu cut me off. “But it’s true,” he said. “Listen, you can’t just give someone that kind of horror, of pain. It wouldn’t be fair on them. People like me and you know better than to do that to someone. Not for the morality of it or whatever, but because you just can’t.” He shook his head, as though trying to deny something he couldn’t quite voice, nor understand. Then he wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and drummed his fingers on the counter.
“How would you help me, then?” I said, interrupting the strained silence stretching between us. “Wouldn’t I be giving my pain to you if you killed me?”
“I already have so much pain in me, I don’t think it would make a difference.” He clasped his hands together and sighed deeply. He looked into my eyes and for a moment, I felt as though I knew the answer to my earlier question: How many people have you helped? But the moment passed and all that I saw were his eyes; they were deep and black.
“So how many people have you helped? I know you’ll say it doesn’t matter. But it does. It matters to me. It should matter…it should matter to you too.”
Amu shook his head. “None. I haven’t helped anyone.”
“Do you think you’ll ever be able to do it? I mean, do you think you’ll ever help someone…or yourself?”
He didn’t answer me. And I wondered, were we trapped—he and I? Could we keep ourselves alive? Could we turn ninety-one someday, and, surrounded by children and grandchildren, with our bodies creaking from the ailments of age, could we say we had lived full lives? In this fullness of life, no one would ever know that we had died so long ago. Could we keep ourselves alive?