Michael is an artist and writer in his early twenties. Gayathri is a novelist and taught Michael for two years at university. This is a collaborative, conversational writing project about the evening that Michael attempted to end his life, and revisits the transformative experience that followed.
Michael: An aspect of my mind seems to sew my throat and my tear ducts shut. We sit adjacent to each other in brown plastic chairs and you talk. I have come undone for the moment.
Gayathri: Our knees almost touch each other. Your head is covered in a disposable blue cap with elastic edges, and equally blue is the oversized stiff gown you wear. Feet bare, both wrists wrapped in white gauze, your eyes shift over the tiles on the floor. I remember a time I had come undone too.
Michael: Eight hours before our conversation, my roommate asks me if I’m okay and I tell him that I am, that I am just feeling suicidal. He is worried for a moment, but we share a smile and the moment has passed. Six, I stand on the lawns and look to your office; I cannot find it in me to be talked out of it. Four, warm water helps blood circulation but I don’t want my roommates to have to foot the bill for the electricity if I do end up dying. I wash and clean the blades. Two, you are leaving in mere moments for a movie and I am in a hospital bed.
Gayathri: Eight hours before our conversation, I am aching for my father on his birthday. It is the third day of January 2017. My father would have turned 69, if his alcohol-soaked liver had not given up. Six, I am fiddling with yet another draft of a memoir of my life with him. Four, I book tickets to the movies, I need to get my mind off death – the trapdoor that shut for me but took him. Two, I am at my desk in the office, writing, deleting, writing. The telephone rings. Your roommate is struggling for words, wondering if I can come to the hospital now. It is Michael, he says, an accident, he says, I found him in the bathroom, he says. And then it impales, I rush to the emergency room of the hospital.
Michael: The water is running, and my shirt is drenched. I text my mother that I wished that I could have stayed longer. The only fragment of a note or any explanation I had planned to leave behind. Beads of fat trickle out of my arms and into the drain. I watch them, a bright and almost joyous parade as I lay there. I think to myself that there are far worse sights to see before dying and I close my eyes. A moment passes and then another, I am still alive. My chest tightens and I realise that I am not dead yet. I am not even dreaming. I calm myself; the blood will not flow if I tense up. I am resolved. I cut into myself again and again, hoping that this time it works. My roommate is home now. He sees the blood; he hears the shower. It hurts. He tells me that it’s a sign, that it wasn’t meant to be. It hurts. He takes me to the emergency room, doctors come and go and you are called. It hurts. I am in surgery; my arms are anaesthetised; I am being stitched back together. A voice tells the surgery team to show me where my radial artery is so that I can do it correctly next time. It hurts. We sit in the recovery room with its blue walls and its pale white tiles but I am floating. I have failed.
Gayathri: I reach the emergency room, it is dusk, you are lying down, blood smudges over your clothes, both wrists turned upwards, fleshy slits weary of bleeding. I call your name. You look at the ceiling, you say hello, and then my name. Three young men, including the roommate, stand around you with glassy eyes. They step away as I steady my breathing against the edge of the bed. The room bustles around us. I try to find something to say. Your eyes are brown at the edges, yellow towards the middle, the despair fathomless. The night is only beginning. There is a policeman to answer, a paper you have to sign, a parent I have to call, a wait outside the surgery. A girl we both know calls to ask, “Is it because of me?” I don’t know.
I have no recollection of breathing till I am allowed to see you after surgery, in a large shapeless room where everything takes on the blue of patient gowns, the blue density of the air, the blue overlapping sounds of nurses and gadgets, the blue chills in our fingertips as the air conditioner hums. Soon they will decide you are ready to be wheeled to a bed in a ward. Whatever I say at this moment, I think, is the gossamer between life and the abyss. Or maybe the words are vapourising as they leave my throat. We sit close, we talk in low tones, and the weight of that moment, that truth, I am aware will never leave me. This is what it means to witness a rebirth, I say to myself. You now share a birthday with my father, I say aloud.
Michael: You tell me that I will live an exceptional life, an iteration of your past. I do not believe you; I have lived a bland, responsible life full to the brim with the expectations and desires of others. I study because it is the product of my mother, her sweat and her tears. I write for my father, his mind and his imagination. I live for my roommate, even now, even here in this room tinged in blue, I live for my roommate. I love for I am loved but not because I can. I do not believe you when you tell me that I will live an exceptional life. I simply believe that I got lucky but I listen because it is a comfort. But I listen because somewhere I itch for it to be true.
Gayathri: True, that is what I said – you will have an exceptional life. It came from a voice in my head, a voice of conviction. I had heard that voice, those exact same words, only once before, when I was lying in a hospital feeling utterly desolate, preparing to shed an old skin. You will have an exceptional life – in my head, in the second-person voice, and I had thought I must be going mad. It was a blessing that I had believed those words. I hope you believe it too. We are shaped in the image of our parents, in the image of what everyone around us tells us we should be, till we are gifted a moment of transformation, such as this, when every atom comes undone, so that we can exhume our exceptional selves. Trust me, it is true.
Michael: I lie in bed and I comfort my father. I sit up and smile so that my roommate knows that I’m okay. I can feel the stitches itching underneath the bandages but I grit my teeth and bear it. I tell myself that I’ve caused enough suffering. I tell myself that I have to be there for these people all around me now. My only solace in this time is talking to you, walking with you. A brief escape from my pretence. But as my wounds scab over so too do I and I pretend and I smile with you as well.
The corridor we walk bridges the old wing of the hospital with a new one. It is lined with windows faced away from sunlight and tiled with mosaics indented with tinier squares and my scabs reveal themselves to you. In that moment, you turned while we still walked. You asked me where my determination came from to cut again and again at my right arm. I have twenty-five stitches and only five blemish my left. I accept to myself for the first time what I have done. I accept that I wanted to die; I accept my resolve; I accept the weight of my own suffering. In that moment, I learn that I want to live again, but live as someone new.
Gayathri: In the hospital, the day after the surgery, I worried about the storm in you that had been temporarily tethered, I worried about leaving you unattended for even a moment, I worried about the surgeon who came on his rounds to cheerfully announce the wounds were healing well but did not make a psychiatric referral, I worried about hospital protocols and getting you as quickly as possible to the mental health professionals I trust. We get our first appointment.
That walk remains vivid – your wrists in bandages, across the serpentine corridors of the hospital, and the fear in my heart that this might happen again. What happened madam, the nurses have been asking me, love disappointment? exam tension? Leave him alone, I say. You have a long road ahead, of talk and medication, and I have to believe you will do the hard labour. I sit at the edge of your hospital bed, trying to read student assignments, talking mundanities – what would you like to eat? would you like to sleep? would you like to take a walk? My memory will sync yours. Each day we strolled through the hospital like people of leisure, past several corridors of waiting patients and caregivers, past close and open doors, past rattling stretcher wheels and dust-speckled window panes, testing different floors and routes, talking and listening.
Teacher in cotton sari, student in shorts and gauze, we had known each other then for just five months, and now this shared knowledge – like you, I had known perfect certainty in death, and from that edge we had returned. For once, I did not worry about the right thing to say. You were alive, walking, and that was right enough for me. Yes, you will live again, you will be new.
Michael: Living is a struggle. Living is acceptance. I shrouded myself in misery and believed endurance to be acceptance, believed the product of it to be me. It takes months of talking, of breaking down carefully constructed, rationalised sadness, of being uneasy. It takes me time. Therapy itself knots me into the idea that I am defective, that I am inferior. It takes me time. The medication feels like a heavy crutch. It takes time but both help me find some semblance of steady ground. I am no longer the boy searching for tips on a painless death; I am no longer as angry as I used to be. It has taken me time, but I am something and someone that I can accept in bits and pieces.
Gayathri: I watch from a space not too close, not too far, and often I don’t know what I am watching. You volunteer when we set up a centre to help other students in distress. You talk about your recovery, the gains, the setbacks, and I know it is a walk up an incline. But you are walking.
Michael: Death was meant to be the solution and being pulled away so violently from that edge left me ragged. I bore in my heart a single saying for a long time, a professor I never cared for once told me “You can do anything that you want in the world; you simply have to prepare and accept the consequences.” I was prepared for the consequences of death. I was not prepared to live.
I sometimes dream that I am already dead in that bathroom and that the days and months that have passed since are merely the ebbing tide of my consciousness. I sometimes hope for that dream to be true. I stifle it inside me though; I cannot afford to dream of death while I am still living. My mind splits into two, one that begs to resume my attempt and another that begs to piece together a life from what’s left. My mind is crumbling and you tell me that it’s okay. I don’t understand. You tell me that I can now for the first time be new again. You tell me that this is my birthday, a chance to shed my skin. I turn this over like a twisted root in my mind. You tell me that I can choose who I am. And the words in my heart crumbled and gave way to yours. I learn that I can be myself.
Gayathri: Our dreams of death are in truth an ache for the life we dare not imagine or wish for ourselves. And the skin that we cut is that rusty memory of feeling undeserving. If only we could find some way to undo everything, to go back to the moment before the start, and to float in ether as perfect spherical beings who can never be ruptured. I know of the stain that crushed childhoods imprint. Everyday I try my hardest to believe I deserve this air I breathe, this land I walk. I must be succeeding. You too. We are writing this to see through mirrors, aren’t we?
You come to my office with your paintings – bursting reds, churning blues, pensive violets. You bring me your latest photographs – abstracts of metal and pixel and melting form. You write a thesis on death and sex in Japanese novels. You tell me of a future life in a foreign land. I confess that I do not know the art of goodbyes. I have seen you as a nude chrysalis. A time of heart-splintering change. I have seen you release the anger, find toeholds in short stretches of endurance. I have seen adulthood seep through you. Your learning has been mine too. I have to believe that you will never return to the blade, the bathroom, the blood. I visualise good winds billow your sails. I trust the compass in your heart. And just to be extra sure, we are writing this to see through mirrors.
Michael: Somewhere in our hospital rounds and our tungsten-lit conversations in your office; somewhere between the safe spaces and the lived experiences, I feel a need to speak – a reflection of my every step to reach just this moment. Some days are still a trail, a struggle to convince myself to get up, to live; this is fact. Some days are a haze because I forgot my medication. Some days are emotional, hectic, tumultuous, tiring and tired.
This conversation is part confession, part confirmation, of a life I have lived. Some days, I remember, again, that this, still, could be a dream and that is okay with me. If that is all that binds me together, it would be okay; if nothing else, I tell myself that I deserve this, at least, just this.