As a rule, I am inclined to doubt all public displays of feeling; and I don’t allow political rhetoric in my classrooms. Two students in my Freshman Composition course this semester were at Stoneman Douglas High School when the Parkland massacre occurred. For class assignments, they have written about the small, tight-knit community of Parkland in optimistic and nostalgic tones. With a respectful and tempered conviction, they have advocated for gun-control activism in class discussions. They must be grieving, I think. I know it doesn’t matter if the grief genuinely belongs to you or if you caught it in ignorance like a sickness. Grief will lodge deep inside you, begin its work. And I know--I’m a teacher at a public university in Tallahassee--I must not discourage my students as they struggle to find their voice.
During spring break, I went to New Orleans with two college friends. I had not seen them for a few years. They arrived at night and when we were catching up, I became very uncomfortable.
Idha, who is from Nepal, and finished her doctorate recently, asked me how close I was to finishing my novel.
“Two weeks,” I said.
“Do you have most of it written already?” she asked.
I said, “I don’t think so.”
“How much do you have written?” she asked.
I said, “I have pages but I am not sure if any of them will make it.”
She said, “Then how do you come up with the two weeks.” I tried to explain the matter to her, told her I didn’t like talking about my writing, that I worked on it and could feel it coming.
Then I said, “Say I write eight to ten pages every day, I’ll have a novel at the end of two weeks.”
Immediately, I felt ashamed.
Idha laughed. She said, “That’s only 140 pages.”
I said, “Don’t forget to double space it.”
Then I knew that this trip to New Orleans was a bad idea. It turned out to be the case. We drove to New Orleans the next morning, stayed for three nights, drank and ate heartily, walked the cobblestone streets, smoked weed every night and drank coffee every morning. The weather was perfect, a warm sun-soaked week, even the Mississippi river when I looked at it holding my cappuccino from cafe Du Monde was not brackish but pristine, as if purified by the generous sunlight. On the drive back, we stopped at the beaches, took a nap in Long Beach, saw the sunset on the horizon at Panama City Beach. Through all of these days, I thought only of the eight to ten pages that I had mentioned to Idha. A slow discomfort descended on me, took all pleasure out of my life, like a toothache that will not go away, that you cannot forget about. I tried to remain polite and succeeded. Idha spent a night in Tallahassee and drove away after breakfast for Columbus, Ohio, where she works for J P Morgan.
I was happy to see her leave. I changed my bedsheets, cleaned my room, lay down in my bed and opened the news websites on my computer. I saw that two students from Stoneman Douglas High School had committed suicide. I saw that Robert Mueller had finished his inquiry. I closed my computer and fell asleep; it was the best sleep I’d had for days.
One thing happened during the trip to New Orleans. Our friend Ben mentioned that he had suicidal thoughts after his divorce. Ben and I were sitting outdoors in a bar having cocktails.
It was late afternoon. We watched tourists cross the road in flocks. From Jackson square nearby, the sounds of a school choir reached us. Idha took photographs a few feet away but she must have been listening to our conversation because when Ben went to use the restroom, Idha came over and sat down.
She said, “I can’t believe he has had suicidal thoughts. That’s fucked up.”
I said, “I know many people who have suicidal thoughts.” I stopped to look at her, I could tell she suspected me of having them. Then I said, “Two of my close friends have told me about wanting to kill themselves.”
Idha said, “Thinking is overrated. If you brood too much, you are bound to realize that nothing in life matters.” She said this in her usual moralizing way, then began fiddling with her camera, as if to indicate the conversation was over. That was a pattern during the trip. I have to admit there was a grain of truth to what she said.
When I woke up from my nap, I opened the windows. Tallahassee is a serene town. On days like this, I am not sure why I have wanted to leave for the past three years. I wanted to begin writing again but I did not feel ready. My head was filled with the conversations and sights of the trip. My body felt a bit slow, probably due to the drinking. I don’t go out as much these days, as I am trying to write my novel. I don’t speak to people much either, except for my students. I sensed I needed to recover from this mental and physical exhaustion. I ordered chinese food, I lay in my bed. I didn’t leave my bed except to eat, go to the bathroom, that weekend. I watched season four and five of Sopranos to pass the time.
During one episode, I was particularly moved. Tony Soprano and Adriana were in a car accident late at night while trying to score cocaine. Tony was unscathed but Adriana received severe bruises on her neck. People gossiped that Adriana was giving Tony head before the accident.
When Chris, Adriana’s fiance, returned from an out of town assignment and heard the rumors, he went on an angry bender, beat up Adriana, and shot at Tony’s car. Tony took Chris to the emergency room doctor who treated him and asked the doctor to confirm that Adriana’s injuries indicated she was sitting in an upright position at the time of the accident.
“Do you believe me now?” Tony asked Chris.
“I guess I believe you,” Chris said. “But it doesn’t matter. I have to live in this world. How will I face the people?”
The camera focused on Tony’s face, where I could see recognition flash in his eyes. The episode ended with Tony, his wife, Adriana and Chris going to Artie’s restaurant for dinner.
Perhaps because Tony arranged it this way, most of the members of the mafia family were in the restaurant. One by one, they gazed across the restaurant at Chris and Tony eating together. Then Chi il bel sogno di Doretta from la Rondine began to play in the background. I love that song. I rewound the scene and watched it many times. I downloaded the score on my phone and played it on repeat that night. I knew I was ready to write. I had that old familiar feeling coming. I was tired of being tired. The road trip to New Orleans felt a distant memory.
The next morning, I woke up around noon and showered quickly. I didn’t shave my head as there was no time. This week I wasn’t lecturing, only doing one-on-one conferences. I put on jeans, a half-sleeve button-down and my new boat shoes; I applied some coconut oil on my lips, which felt dry. I stepped out of my house. I live in a housing society four miles from the university. There are large oak trees in front of my house and on sunny days the play of light and shadow through the wide, welcoming branches of the trees and the dull and bright shades of the leaves give me much satisfaction. I crossed the main road, walked fifty yards to the bus stop and waited a few minutes for the bus. When the bus arrived, I said hello to the bus driver, showed my university ID, found a seat and read through the news on my phone.
For years I resented the indignities of riding the bus but now I enjoy it. My mind can be in a cloud, my thoughts can be drifting, I don’t need to worry about driving, about parking, I get to walk and think. I read the story about Stoneman Douglas suicides more carefully. I remembered Snow, the Orhan Pamuk novel I read the year before. In a small Turkish town, school girls are told they cannot wear the hijab to school. One girl commits suicide in protest, many others in the nearby towns follow. Almost as if they are talking to each other, communicating in some primal language, the narrator in the novel concludes. But the Stoneman Douglas girl who committed suicide was suffering from PTSD, the news story reads. The other student is unnamed. One more story caught my eye. The father of a Sandy Hook Victim committed suicide. I stopped reading the news. I clicked on my email folder and looked for the names of my students who went to Stoneman Douglas. There were two. One of them was coming in for conferences. I noted her name. I glanced through her recent writing. I looked for her social media accounts; they were blocked. I looked at her picture on the class roster. I don’t remember names but I remember faces. Square-faced, blond, short; I remembered she smiles and waves her hand at the end of every class. I wondered if I should bring bring up the news story when I speak to her. I decided not to bring it up, unless she did.
I have never come close to contemplating suicide. When I was growing up in a suburb of Lahore, Pakistan, I remember often standing on the ledge of our apartment balcony and looking down at the greenbelt below. We lived on the second floor, the fall would not have been fatal but I was mesmerized by the idea of falling. I was not alone in this. All my cousins, my siblings, my friends who came to visit, when we played in the balcony, we held the metal grill that rose to our waists and stood on the ledge, looking down till a neighbor walking by scolded us or till our parents came to check on us. It became a game, a competition. We fought over who was brave enough to stand and stare down the longest. Perhaps it was the proximity of death, perhaps it was the idea of rupturing the imprisonment that childhood often felt like, perhaps it was only mystery of the unknown. Children are spiritual beings. Hurting oneself is probably a form of exerting agency; I am not one to judge.
A retired army Major who lived in our apartment building killed himself by lying down in front of the train tracks. He suffered from a mental illness, it was said. I used to watch the Major walk around the neighborhood. He walked very slowly as if he was on the beach and every step was to be savored a certain way so it could be remembered. If he saw a grownup he always stopped to talk. His son played cricket with us. His name was Sarfraz.
My best friend from high school told me on the phone last year that he thought of killing himself for years. He lives in Lahore. I call him once a month and we speak for hours, we speak till it feels that we have emptied ourselves, then we don’t speak for a month. His name is Saad. He didn’t say, like Ben, that he had suicidal thoughts. He told me about the quality of the kitchen knife, how he counted the steps between the living room and the kitchen, the precise places on his wrist he would slide the blade, the number of times he would do it, how the blood would drip onto the grey tiles.
I asked him, “Why haven’t you mentioned this before, Saad? Why are you telling me now?”
He said he felt comfortable telling me right then because of the way I spoke to him minutes before. I don’t even remember what I said. I was describing my life since I broke up with Sarah, my desire to leave America as soon as possible to be with my parents, my fears of living with my parents after twelve years studying in America and living alone, my fears for my writing, my fears and my competing desire for change, my dreams for the novel I was writing, my disappointment at the book of short stories I had abandoned, and my grandfather who was dying slowly back in Lahore.
When I first moved to Florida to start my PhD, Saad was working in San Francisco for a tech company. Like me, Saad came to United States for college. He hated his job, which required talking to customers, dealing with their complaints. He came to visit me one spring and we drove to the beach everyday. It was one of those rare weeks when the sun became bigger as the day progressed till I felt that the sun belonged to my country, my past, was an old friend. No sign of clouds, the Gulf warm enough to swim. We went to Saint George’s Island mostly, a beach where I would never run into my students. We brought beers with us, we read, told stories. I was still with Sarah then. Like most people in relationships, I checked my phone constantly and sent her pictures. I must have been inattentive to Saad.
At sunset, we would drive back to Tallahassee. I encouraged him to talk, told him frankly that anything he told me would help me with my writing, to think of this as his responsibility to me, a friend who wrote. Saad has never said no to me, in the years I have known him.
He told me many stories in those trips. I learned he hadn’t cried for fourteen years. You can know someone all your life, call them your best friend, share hundreds of meals, travel with them, live in the same street as them through part of your childhood, you can feel someone is like your brother, your family, a person you know intimately, and you can still be surprised by the things they haven’t told you. The secrets in hearts of men and women are endless. I don’t even pretend to know my own mother any longer.
One of the stories Saad told me was of his grandfather. Picture a village in south Punjab. Flat, irrigated land, low distant hills, rice and wheat fields. Saad was fourteen. He was visiting his grandparents. His parents were gone for haj. The village did not even have a name. Not far from the path of river Indus, it is still called Number Seventeen. It got power a few years ago.
One afternoon, the postman knocked on the door. Saad’s grandmother was sleeping.
“What about your grandfather?” the postman asked.
“He always goes out at this time,” Saad said.
The postman said, “Beta, will you come with me.”
“Why?” Saad said perhaps, perhaps he didn't even say that. He knew the postman, was familiar with the tread of his bicycle tires, of his voice calling names on the street, his whistle.
They biked through the wheat fields, Saad sitting in the front, holding the handlebar, he could smell the postman. It was a dry, sunscorched summer.
When they slowed down, the postman said, “I’ve called some people for help, beta, but we need to make sure first. Is that your grandfather?”
“On the tree.”
The postman thought he recognized Saad’s grandfather but could not be sure. He did not want to touch the body, in case it was someone else. For poor people, the police could make trouble. The police station was faraway. If it was Saad’s grandfather, the postman could take the body down.
Saad did not tell me everything and I did not ask. Saad must have seen the body from up close, from down under. Instead of rope, he used his pagri. He defecated himself, as people who hang themselves usually do. It was a banyan tree. That’s what Saad told me, that’s what he remembered. That was the last time Saad remembered crying.
I bought an egg sandwich and a large iced coffee from Dunkin and went to my office, which I share with five other graduate students. The office was empty, except for Nick. I don’t speak to him anymore, beyond pleasantries. We used to have long conversations, which began to distract me. As a foreigner, I am wary of the overt kindness of Americans, of their dubious secret intentions. Nick is a poet, I have read his poetry, and his poems are first-rate.
Students began to come in, I asked about their essays. They said they couldn’t make much progress during spring break. I said, okay. I reminded them of next week’s deadline. By the time, the girl (I will call her Natasha) came in I had forgotten about Stoneman Douglas. I was tired from talking about the same thing. Natasha came in and sat down next to me.
She said, “I want to change my research topic.” She was writing her research paper on gun-control laws, a popular topic among my students.
“You sure?” I looked at her.
“One of my friends passed away during the break,” she said. “I have been very distracted. I am having trouble focusing.”
She bowed her head.
I said, “That’s fine with me. Take some time. Grieving is important. Classes can wait.”
“Thank you so much,” she said.
I spoke to her for a couple of minutes, we agreed on a separate timeline for this new research paper, one yet to be conceived. I repeated, “Take care of yourself. That’s the most important thing.” I looked at her carefully, her large round eyes, her square face, her bare freckled legs under the blue shorts. A body can hurt so easily. Has she ever thought of hurting herself? I was sure I could be of no use to her, whether Natasha was in trouble or not.
Before she left, she thanked me again. I could hear Nick shuffling his papers on the other side of the office. Nick has written a book about addiction, I know there are poems about suicide in his book. I stood up and paced my side of the office. I glanced at Nick, across the room; he didn’t raise his head. I considered calling his name, telling him about my student, asking for his advice. Then I walked back to my desk. If I began talking to Nick, then tomorrow it would be hard to stop talking. I believe in being consistent in my conduct. Now that we don’t talk anymore, I consider it the height of indecency to seek Nick’s help. Still, even after all my students for the day had come and left, I remained sitting at my desk, thinking about Nick’s book. Has he ever hurt himself? Probably, I thought. Sometimes you can tell with people. Sometimes walking into the office I see Nick standing by the fridge, and I want to reach out to him and comfort him.
After a few minutes, I left without talking to Nick.
On the days I teach, I catch the seven o’clock bus from the bus depot in downtown. The bus depot is ten minutes walk from my office building. When I passed the Westcott fountain to leave the campus, I saw girls in graduation robes posing for photographs. I passed a row of sorority houses. Then I passed the old cemetery. I take this path because the oldest oak trees in town are here, and in the evening light, Tallahassee's old oak and willow trees, covered with spanish moss, are menacing, ancient, thrilling. A sign points to the grave of Napoleon’s grandson. He owned a plantation in this town, he was a banker, I know these things.
The grass in the cemetery is well-manicured, the surface is sloping. I can see pollen in the air. The gravestones are taller than even me, and I am six foot three. From the distance, rows of tall stones can seem like armed sentries, like humans posing for eternity. How many of them committed suicide? If they committed suicide, they would not have received a Christian burial, unless they were rich. How many of them thought of hurting themselves?
When I finally sit down in the bus, I plug in my earphones, listen to la Rondine. I look at everyone who enters the bus, try to guess if they have ever hurt themselves. Then I give up. I think about Natasha. Should I send her an email, ask her out for coffee, in case she needs someone to talk to. She probably has people she can talk to. Counselors, parents, friends. It would be inappropriate to reach out to her in this manner. I had a student last year who died in a car crash during spring break. Antonio. I think about his face. This happens to me always. Once a line of thought begins, I cannot stop it. Perhaps I don’t want to. Whether your grief is genuine or acquired, there is a sadistic pleasure in grieving also, I must not forget. I think about the the father in Brothers Karamazov, in the way he takes pleasure in festering, whether in grief or self-pity or anger. Am I becoming like him? Not yet, I decide.
Have I had a brush with death? Have I anything to mourn? Not really. My sickly grandfather did not remember my name when I visited in December. If the shadow of death was on him, then the shadow smelled of piss and an aching grief that made him cry hour after hour. I think about my childhood. In my country, the 2000s were a season of suicide bombings. Even as I recall them, the news reports blend together. I hardly registered what was happening, I hardly worried about it, I was rarely afraid. I watched a field hockey game in Gaddafi stadium, walked home and heard the bomb blast that shook the stadium parking lot. My friend Raza carried a gun in the glove pocket of his car because his shia family was receiving death threats. Someone shot Raza’s uncle, handed a note to his father at the funeral that read: You’re next. My cousin Faran stepped out of his dad’s law offices and saw a human head lying on the Mall Road after a suicide bombing, which I heard all the way back in our apartment in Gulberg.
Tomorrow, I don’t have to teach. I have to calm down tonight so I can write in the morning. Eight to ten pages, I said to Idha. I have not heard from Sarah in a long time.
Did Sarah ever hurt herself?
Would she have told me if she did?
The E bus turns on West Tharpe street and picks up speed. I look at my phone. I have a missed call from Saad from two days ago. I have a rule of not answering phone calls or messages before a week has passed, my friends know this rule, to concentrate on my writing, to not be distracted. Am I becoming a narcissist? If I was narcissist, I wouldn’t be aware of it. Good, then.
When Saad told me about wanting to hurt himself, I didn’t have much to say to him. As I am thinking it over, I know next time it comes up I will say, “Saad, you selfish bastard. The Islamic burial happens within hours. I will miss your funeral in Lahore. You will die, be at peace. I’ll be stuck in Tallahassee, seeing your face on their faces.”
I turn off la Rondine but it continues to play in my head. I look at the faces in the bus. I think about Natasha. I decide I will send her an email reminding her about the office hours. Nothing wrong with an email about office hours. I will say I hope you are well, Natasha. I just wanted to remind you that I am holding office hours this week, if you decide to come. Sincerely.
As for the two students of Stoneman Douglas and the father of Sandy Hook victim who committed suicide, I have no desire to know more about them, to know what was the last thing they said, if they left a note, if they were trying to send a message.
What am I supposed to do?
Grieve in the correct manner?
And is there some other way?