Someone in this coffee shop is going to die. Well, he wants to die. Well, he thinks he wants to die. He feels like he's already dead, a ghost who has commandeered a human suit but has lost whatever it is that drives people to lead vibrant, productive lives. It is this feeling, or lack of feeling, that motivated Adam to pull one of the tabs on the "Planning a suicide? Call this number" flyer on the coffee shop's community bulletin board. Unable to overcome his phone anxiety, he texts the number and receives an immediate reply to meet up this afternoon. He agrees and waits at his regular table.
The coffee shop is buzzing as the late afternoon crowd queues up for their post-lunch fix. It's always the same mix of business casual clientele bribing themselves with frothy treats to push through the rest of the work day, the bone-tired workers in danger of falling asleep again on their long commute home, and the telecommuters who ran out of coffee and clean pajamas at home. The other tables are full of the sort of characters you expect to see at three-thirty on a Wednesday afternoon. The gossiping high schoolers gab over caffeinated milkshakes near the window. Two business guys chug black coffee in their rolled up shirtsleeves while testing the boundaries of political incorrectness in banter and behaviour. Across the aisle, an ill-timed job interview is taking place. An employer's attempt to seem casual backfires as the overdressed applicant, already jittery from nerves, tries to overcome sweaty palms and dry mouth while sneaking sips of her latte between questions about what kind of animal she would be in an office emergency and what weaknesses will she have in five years. Adam's tiny two-top table tucked next to the condiment counter is prime observation real estate. He, however, is unaffected by the crowds, even as people lightly bump his seat as they load their coffee drinks with extra milk and sugar and the occasional dusting of cinnamon.
He takes no notice as Sue breezes into the shop and finds the quickest path to his table. Sue immediately recognizes the man who called for help—the ratty college hoodie, the neglected neck stubble, the faint aroma of someone who said goodbye to good hygiene some time ago, vacant stare into the middle distance—Adam displays all the classic signs of a man who's not only given up hope, he's driven it out to a desert, chained it to a cactus, sliced open its belly and left it to bleed out alone in the sweltering heat. He barely blinks as she pulls the empty chair out just enough to squeeze into it and sets her oversized leather handbag on the floor.
"Yes?" he confirms.
"Hi, Adam, I'm Sue. I got your texts."
"So! You’re planning a suicide!"
Sue's enthusiasm is just the thing to lift Adam's fog of indifference. He blinks and focuses on the young extrovert now perched across from him. Sue retrieves a business card from her bag and passes it off to Adam. The card reads:
Personal Mortality Strategist
Adam studies her as she scrolls through her phone to adjust notification settings. Severe is the first word that jumps to mind—her hair pulled back just a touch too tight and her bun just a little too neat. She wears a navy blue suit, polyester with a fake light blue pocket square peeking out from a fake breast pocket. The skirt length hasn't been in vogue since the early-aughts. The whole thing was probably bought in haste from a mall boutique for a job interview in the neighbouring corporate complex. She aims for successful entrepreneur look but falls just shy of a junior stewardess.
"Oh, erm, well…I have been thinking about it," he replies.
"Mm-hmm, well, as you know, suicide is a big step. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event for most people. I mean, it’s a huge commitment. And it requires more preparation than you might think."
Adam nods and says, "I understand. I just don’t know what my options are."
Sue reaches down to her handbag and pulls out an overstuffed binder which lands with such a thud as her sets it on the table that it even distracts the gabbing girls from their milkshakes and boy band debate.
"You called at the right time then. There are tons of options!" Sue opens the binder and starts flipping through pages of stationery samples, checklists, vision boards, and graphic scenes of suicide attempts.
"So, this is your first attempt at suicide, right?"
"Good. We can start from scratch. What people don't grasp is that suicide requires a LOT of planning. Like, you have to decide how do you want to be found, what you want to wear, is it a destination suicide or an intimate home affair? How much are you looking to spend? Do you want to go cheap or spend every last dime? If you just wanna do something simple at home, that's a popular choice, but it lacks oomph. If you want to stage your event somewhere else, you have to book the venue, make sure you have the proper permits, and, oh, you've gotta hire a clean up crew! No one ever really thinks about clean up. And it doesn't matter how simple or elaborate, there's always a mess, but once the guest of honour is gone, who's left to pick up the pieces?
"Now, as a suicide strategist, I can source venues and provide all the paperwork, even make arrangements for any pre-event rituals or activities. Legally, however, I cannot be on site or assist at the time of the actual event.
"Have you given any thought to how you want to do it? Where? When? Like, a sunset suicide is really dramatic if you prefer to hang yourself, especially if you find the perfect tree on a hilltop. A silhouette corpse dangling from a tree against a brilliant orange sunset. Soooo stunning. Very Gone With the Wind. But you could also set it at your childhood home or outside the home or office of your biggest nemesis. Lots of options to consider.”
Adam silently mulls the onslaught of suicidal possibilities laid out before him. 'Destination suicide? Who sets aside money to spend on killing themselves? Rich dying guys, probably. Is this what suicidal people think about, fantasizing over how they want to die? What if you haven't obsessed on your own dying moments, does that mean you're not serious in contemplating suicide?'
The delayed and subdued responses from Adam arouses Sue's anxiety. Sensing this prospective client requires some cajoling, she turns her attention to her binder, flipping through her specially designed forms and worksheets for the client suicide checklist, a document she created for people like, well, Adam, she guessed. She looks up from her binder and addresses Adam again, "So, have you decided on your method?"
"No. I mean, I guess I've considered a few things. I don't like pain."
"Who does, right?! Most of my clients inquire about painless and peaceful options."
"Like sleeping pills?"
"Surprisingly, sleeping pills are not that effective. There’s a lot of romantic notions about overdosing when the truth is it takes a looooong time and it’s not the pain-free escape that most people think. Overdosing is what you do when you’re actually hoping to be rescued by your lover when they’re about to break up with you or leave town. Actually, according to statistics, the most successful method in terms of lethality is the classic shotgun to the head. Go out with a bang is the surefire quickest method with the least agony, but it is messy and you’ve really got to have the motivation to follow through. If guns aren’t your thing, there are other methods but the pain factor increases as well as the time it takes. You can really put on a show and set yourself on fire or literally take a flying leap, depending on how theatrical you want your final moments to be. However, your risk of survival does increase with those methods, so you’d need to be prepared for that likelihood."
In his 43 years, Adam had never thought about death and dying as much as in these last fifteen minutes. He wasn't sure that he really wanted to die. 'Isn't there some way to just...stop existing for a while? Has science invented invisibility yet? How can you disappear, guilt-free from responsibilities and expectations, but still be able to watch television?' As he considers the expense of suspended animation, Sue pushes on with her suicide checklist.
"Oh! Have you written a note?"
"You really gotta leave a note. You don’t want to leave your death open to speculation."
"I guess not?"
"Now, these days, people don't like reading so much, so you could make a suicide video for YouTube or even something super short, like a Vine or Instagram. You don't wanna leave a Facebook status update because that'll never show up in the newsfeed. Just between you and me, my business has nearly tripled since Facebook. I mean, jeez, no one clicked 'like' on the meme you posted four minutes ago and you think that's a reason to kill yourself? Like, c'mon! What's your online reach?"
"Friends, followers, subscribers...what are your numbers?"
"Uh, I've got a few followers on Twitter. My network is pretty big on Google Plus."
"Is that bad?"
"I can see why you called for help. It'll be tough, but I think we can work with that. How far in advance do you want to organize this? Do you have a list of people to notify? Most of my clients plan about three months ahead, to give friends and family ample time to respond."
'Since when is death something to be celebrated and promoted? Are we really sending out invitations to our self-destruction? People arrange their own funerals,' Adam muses. He hasn't even told her that he wants to die. She hasn't asked. What would he say if she did ask? Does he even have a choice at this point? Adam decides it's time to speak up.
"Okay, I phoned thinking someone would talk me through this."
"Yeah, that's what I'm doing."
"No, I mean, help me get past these thoughts."
"So, this is more like a cry for help thing?"
"Yeah, you don't need a stranger talking you down. This is for close friends to rally around to give support. What better way to find who your true besties are than a suicide announcement?"
"Sure, we'll print some invites and send 'em to your nearest dearest. We'll work out all the details for the event. Or you could throw a bequeathal, kind of like a bridal shower but instead of getting gifts, you'll give things away. Or we could go really simple with save the date cards."
"Shouldn't you at least try to talk me out of killing myself?"
Sue closes the binder and feels her face flush from the realization of her faux pas. Here she has launched into full strategist mode without asking perhaps the most important question. Other clients were eager to divulge their suicide schemes to her without encouragement. She'd become desensitized to the process and now came to expect immediate immersion into the macabre.
"Aren't you even going to ask me why?"
"Why? Why you want to kill yourself? Why does anyone decide to do anything? Why do people get married? Why do they get divorced six months later? Why do they throw lavish parties for puppies and newborn babies? Why do people hire specialists to clean out their messy closets? Why do people move across the country or across the world? Why do they volunteer in third world countries? Why do we cut our hair and get tattoos and go along with pretentious diet fads? We're all just grasping at something, anything to give our lives meaning. We need definition and purpose to our lives, otherwise what's the point? It's like we're all set on this path that we're supposed to follow in order to live the Ideal Life. If you stray from that path at any point, you feel like you've failed. If you discover the path is ultimately unfulfilling, you feel like a failure. If you decide to avoid the path altogether, everyone else makes you feel like a failure. Adam, do you have a job?"
"Yeah, but it makes me miserable."
"Do you think being a 'suicide strategist' is my dream job?"
"I really want to say no."
"Of course I don't want to be a suicide planner! I haven't had a steady, secure job since before the recession. I've got a master's degree in event management but there's only so many events to be managed by one company. I've tried doing other things—I've been a wedding organizer, personal brand consultant, bark mitzvah planner, personal grocery logistics and transportation coordinator, flash mob supervisor, and a personal priorities manager. Sometimes you fall down and sometimes there's no one around to pick you up and you have to decide whether it's worth picking yourself up and starting over again.
"So, why do you want to die, Adam? And why should I, a complete stranger, try to second guess your motivation? Who am I to say a life should continue or not? Do you really need someone to spew a bunch of life-affirming cliches while you're in your darkest hour?
"Did your parents stop talking to you? You've had too many failed relationships? You've been swiped left too many times or that job never turned into a career, and all your friends moved on with their lives and left no forwarding address? Maybe you've had to start over again so many times that you're exhausted and no one understands how hard it is to get up in the morning and send out another round of CVs and face another day of silent rejection. Maybe you've tried everything and have become so numb that you find no joy in anything. Sunrises and sunsets and raindrops and brownies and Julie frickin' Andrews herself just don't do it for you anymore. You've heard all the music, read all the books, seen all the movies and none of it sparked joy or inspired an interest in life beyond the dark void inside you?
"It doesn't matter what's pushed you over the edge to rock bottom or what put the last straw on the camel's back. The fact is you're here, so why not get some attention? So we send out announcements and write thank you notes to the few people who are still important to you. We go through every detail leading up to that fatal day to make it seem like the most important day of your life. Because it is."
The late afternoon rush turns to an early-evening hush. Aside from Adam and Sue, a trio of elderly Ukranian women discussing Canadian politics over tea have replaced the gaggle of teenage girls. In the prolonged quiet following her monologue, Sue recognizes how callous she's been, not just with Adam but with all her clients and about the overall subject of death. She's self-conscious and embarrassed, wondering whether she should quietly excuse herself, remove her flyer from the community bulletin board, and consider going back to school to study economics or digital archiving. Instead, Adam breaks the somber silence between them.
"I never thought about all that. Death, life...living. I just shut down, became numb to everything. You've made some valid points. I failed or, rather, I feel like I've failed. I'm 43 with no family, no friends, no career. I was on the path and didn't realize early enough that I needed to take action to make things happen. I was always waiting for things to happen to me. And when things didn't happen to me, I just wondered what was wrong with me that I didn't get the girl or the job or the fruits of the middle-class American Dream placed in my entitled little hands without really trying. I was waiting for you to help me in the way that I've been conditioned to want help, all the while you have been helping me from the moment you sat down. I don't know how to fix my life. Can it be fixed? Can I take up a new hobby and find new passion without feeling judged that I left it too late? Do I want to? Is it too late to be discovered as an artistic genius or do I settle for being discovered some early morning, floating face down in the neighbour's above ground pool? It's not your job to tell me what to do or try to fix me. It's not anyone else's job."
Adam reaches across the table for the binder, pulls it around to face him, and starts flipping through pages.
"You're sure this is the direction you want to go?"
"It's a jumping off point. I mean, it's something to do, at least. Most people aren’t in control of their own death. Maybe some people buy burial plots and coffins, maybe people make a will, some create a mix tape to be played at their funeral. We tend to leave the actual dying up to fate. What if your death doesn't live up to your legacy? What if I can make my death more spectacular than my life?"
"Right. Okay. If you really want to start this process, here's my rate sheet. You'll see all the services itemized. Here, I'm giving a seminar on suicide planning at the Ramada Plaza this weekend. Why don't you come out, meet some of my other clients and get a better idea about services and whatnot?"
Adam turns to the invitation samples in the binder and pulls a simple cream-coloured card with a dark burgundy border from its matching envelope.
"This looks nice for a bequeathal announcement."
"That is one of the more popular designs. I just attended one last weekend. It's a really good way to clear junk out of the garage!"
The coffee shop staff grows restless as closing time nears, becoming more intrusive with nearby tables and cleaning up the condiment station. Sue takes the cue and loads the binder into her handbag.
"Well, Adam, it was a pleasure to meet you and I think, going forward, we'll be successful in embarking on your end-of-life endeavour."
Adam rises from his seat for the first time since arriving two hours prior. He notices a slight ache in the left buttock of his human suit, likely from sitting on the round wooden cafe chair for so long. The twinge doesn't set off the usual "all life is pain and why even bother" internal spiel. He grabs Sue's free hand with both of his hands and with all the sincerity his ghost pilot can muster, says, "Thank you, Sue. Really, thank you."
"No worries, Adam. We'll touch base soon."
With that, Sue quickly walks to the door and out onto the street before he can see the tears welling. She made too many missteps with this prospective client—too candid, too rough, too vulnerable. How often has she neglected the needs, the cries for help with other clients? How many people is she shoving towards the grave? No one has taken action, but she hasn’t actually tried to stop them either. Despite her glaring lack of compassion, a trait she's vowed to remedy in future encounters, perhaps she is saving lives in her own odd way.
Adam exits the coffee shop and starts off in the opposite direction of Sue. As he skims the back of the brochure for the suicide planning workshop, he notices how much lighter he feels. While not quite hopeful, he catches himself actually looking forward to the workshop and Sue. Beautiful, strange Sue. He's caught up in thoughts of Sue as he crosses the street that he is oblivious to the screech of the approaching truck.