by l.l. ballack
“In the quotidian, to no smaller a degree, death moves: in traffic accidents both realised and narrowly avoided; in hearses and undertakers’ shops, in florists’ wreaths, in butchers’ fridges and in dustbins of decaying produce. Death moves in our apartments, through our television screens, the wires and plumbing in our walls, our dreams. Our very bodies are no more than vehicles carrying us ineluctably towards death. We are all necronauts, always, already.”
-Manifesto of The Necronautical Society
Algernon Wybenga only survived his suicide attempt because the ligature he had made from his tie snapped twenty seconds in to the hanging. He wasn’t a heavy man, weighing just over 120 lb, but the tie was a cheap synthetic thing he had bought at the market a block away from his apartment. He should have known better than to trust an item he had got from that place to facilitate a task as important as ending his own life. He had looped a noose through the water pipe running from the boiler in the utility room. The pipe, he had ensured beforehand, was sturdy enough to withstand his bodyweight – he had done a pull up on it a few days earlier and had supported himself for over a minute. He had also checked the tensility of the tie a dozen or so times before he was absolutely certain it would outlive him. He had been confident that both the tie and the pipe would survive the three minutes or so it would take him to die from asphyxiation. He always liked to plan meticulously, and his suicide was not to be spared his fastidiousness.
His main concern was that his body might spasm after he lost consciousness, and that this would cause the ligature to break. This was, indeed, the cause of the rupture. The Wikipedia entry on suicide by hanging informed him that he could achieve death by compressing one or more of the carotid arteries, jugular veins and airway. For full compression to be achieved, the carotid arteries required 11 lb of pressure, while the jugular vein needed only 4 and a half, either of which could be applied through partial suspension, meaning he didn’t need to raise his feet from the ground to asphyxiate himself; he could have chosen a lower suspension point, applied downward pressure from his upper body while kneeling, and achieved the same effect. He would likely be unconscious in less than 15 seconds, though death wouldn’t occur for several minutes. By fatefully opting for full suspension he had spared his landlord the macabre discovery of his corpse, yet inadvertently disconnected the hosepipe from the washing machine as he crashed down next to the utility sink. It wasn’t until a minute or so later that he was roused by the jet of water pulsing onto the floor.
A wire flex or an extension cable would have worked better than the tie, and a man as obsessive about detail as Wybenga should have guessed this. Had a repressed survival instinct prevented him from going through with it perhaps? Had some anaemic waif of hope nudged him towards sabotaging his own demise with a shoddy neck piece, like a samurai warrior leaving his tanto at home before going to perform seppuku? Maybe he had willed the destruction of his own destruction. He had spent the weeks prior to the failed act with the sense that his malaise had to end somehow, but with only half-formed ideations of the drastic event preceding the snapping of the ligature. Even as he was making preparations, he didn’t quite understand the gravity of what he was preparing for. There were none of the moments of clarity or feelings of relief that often attend the decision to commit suicide in its most desperate protagonists. He didn’t leap into the figurative bathtub and discover the suicide principle in some eureka moment; it was more as though the water was slowly filling the tub as he lay in it, semi-conscious; and as the water got nearer the tub’s edge, a flooded bathroom became increasingly inevitable, but he was only half aware of why this was happening.
As with most suicidal men, Wybenga had been feeling pretty depressed about a lot of things. It is possible to feel depressed and remain unsuicidal of course, but the human capacity to endure suffering is finite; and while more people than is widely known have suicidal thoughts (slightly fewer than 10 million in the United States in 2013, with 1.1 million of those making plans to act upon their ideations), only a minority ultimately take their own lives. 41,149 suicides were reported in the United States in 2013, meaning 113 were committed each day; or one every 13 minutes. Men account for 77.9% of all suicides, with suicide being the seventh leading cause of death among them. Of this 77.9%, 7 out of 10 are white – those in middle age account for roughly half the total. Wybenga – white, male and forty-five years-old – was clearly at risk of adding to these morbid statistics. He was also at risk from drug addiction and alcoholism, though he didn’t drink or take drugs, so he wasn’t inclined towards the incremental euthanasia preferred by alcoholics and junkies. Death for Wybenga would have to be swift and, preferably, painless. There would also have to be minimal risk that accidental survival would leave him brain damaged or quadraplegic – there were some unpleasant statistics about that as well, and he didn’t want his experience to be some dire warning tale to others.
He had been unconscious for only ten seconds when the tie broke. His head had suffered a blow against the sink causing a terrific pain in his skull, which he thought might be a symptom of the brain damage he had feared. There was also an expansive pool of water beneath him, which had soaked through his clothes. It took him less than a minute to figure out what had happened. He coughed and a disjointed sound came out. His neck felt sore and he realised he had done some minor damage to his vocal chords. He clutched his head and felt a tumescent lump emerging through his hair. He was somewhat relieved that he had failed in his attempt at self-extermination, but was unsure why. Death was an unnerving state to imagine oneself in: a condition of non-being. Wybenga wanted his suffering to end, but that didn’t mean he no longer wanted to exist. He already felt that his life had expired to some extent, like a week-old carton of cream someone has forgotten to throw out. However, it wasn’t so straightforward just to toss his curdled existence in the trash. Suicide was more drastic than that – like stopping the cream at its source; murdering the cow that it came from; razing the entire farm; butchering all livestock on the planet to prevent cream from going off ever again. Whatever the decision to take one’s life resembled, it deserved a substantial simile. And now physics had absolved him of responsibility. His survival had not been contingent on his own free will, which was also a source of relief. Gravity had intervened without prejudice and over-ruled his mind. The exterior had triumphed over the interior. For a moment, he felt happy at this. The equation of his misery – his existence – had been solved; it seemed to serve a purpose suddenly – merely, to deceive death. His problems were no less severe than they had been minutes earlier, but the simple paradox of survival when survival is unwanted satisfied him momentarily. It was absurd, but then his whole existence was absurd.
He had come close to asphyxiation once before: with a woman called Gillian he had met at a Star Trek convention during his late twenties. His life up until then that had been a torment. As a child, he had never quite fit in; he didn’t quite belong. His parents had always been puzzled as to how they had come to produce him and could never figure out how he should be treated. Likewise, his teachers were unsure whether to recommend him for social adjustment counselling, or just to laugh at him. His youth and adolescence had been a torment; his early adulthood hadn’t been much better. At elementary school he had always gotten along better with the girls. He didn’t want to join in with the boys’ games; they were cruel and barbaric. The girls, though, were kind and sympathetic. Once he reached puberty, though, the girls had ceased to be kind, while the boys had become crueller and more barbaric. By that stage his ability to function in regular social settings had been ruined; ditto, his chances of getting a girl to like him. He fared little better at college. He had hoped leaving small town Alberta and heading to Toronto might change his fortunes. It didn’t. Failure stalked him across the breadth of Canada. At twenty-four he graduated from college in absentia, yet his virginity remained in full attendance – he hadn’t received so much as a kiss. By his late-twenties it was clear to him that something was very wrong. He had few friends and no sexual experiences to speak of.
Gillian was in her early-twenties when they met, though she looked far older. They visited Burger Kings and Pizza Huts; they held hands and laughed at each other’s jokes; they watched movies and shared popcorn and soda. They kissed a few times, but there were no tongues; neither of them willing to breach the 38th Parallel of lips. Their first attempt at fucking was a near-catastrophe, though. Gillian was also a virgin, her hymen yet to be bulldozed. They went back to her place – a tragic maisonette reeking of cats and discoloured by loneliness – to relieve each other of their sexual failures. It took Gillian twenty minutes before she felt able to remove her clothes. When she did, Wybenga felt nothing. He wasn’t repulsed by her body; he was indifferent to it. She cried, of course. The limp dick was the catalyst for an exudation of tears, though she hid them well. Her eyes were barely made moist; effulgent in the light as though she wasn’t crying at all, but just wiping away an eyelash. She had experienced this before. It was a perennial problem: she had tried having sex without removing her clothes, and even suggesting to her partner that he not look at her while they ‘made love’ – the term she preferred. She had been born this way and had imbibed the humility of the undesired. She had been taunted about her looks over the years, and although the jibes always hurt, she had resigned herself to her appearance. Diets and exercise didn’t interest her, and while she certainly admired female beauty, she wasn’t jealous of it. She didn’t want to be lusted after in that way; she just wanted to be loved. And then, when it became clear that love was just as remote as being desired, she simply wanted to feel less lonely. She envisaged evenings in front of the TV giggling at episodes of Will & Grace, following the adventures of Captain Picard, or whatever else a shared life entailed. Her suitor didn’t need to be handsome or good-looking; just kind and undemanding. She wanted sex, but would sacrifice this willingly for enduring company. She guessed Wybenga wouldn’t be turned on by her body, but she hoped his fear of loneliness would usurp his repulsion. She was to be disappointed.
“Oh, you know what, Gillian? I’m feeling kinda sleepy.”
“Oh, okay, well–.”
“I got an early start tomorrow and, uh, well, let’s just park the old coitus truck in the garage for tonight, eh?”
“Oh, uh, right.”
“Don’t want the old girl breakin’ down halfway to Longo’s.”
“No, no, well, I guess we don’t.”
Wybenga knew he had probably upset her, but there was nothing he could do about his cock. Anyway, women preferred men of decency and integrity to men who simply wanted to rut: those of the weaker sex – with the exception of sluts and harlots, who didn’t fit into that category anyway – didn’t really enjoy intercourse, they simply endured it. Gillian wanted a man of firm principle and resilience. She didn’t of course, and knew instantly that Wybenga possessed neither of these traits. The relationship continued, though, with Gillian anchored to a hope that the unremarkable pleasantness of their shared moments would sustain them for longer. The absence of sex didn’t seem to matter. Perhaps a feeling of fondness was all Wybenga required, she thought. Perhaps he was just asexual. After all, he didn’t react to beautiful women in the way most men did. He didn’t twitch or stutter or struggle to make eye contact when a gorgeous waitress took his order in a restaurant. He didn’t shift in his seat or incline forwards or dilate at the eyes when a woman appeared naked on TV. She suspected he was just uninterested in sex – either that, or he was gay. She considered homosexuality as an explanation, but then she hadn’t noticed him show any particular interest in men. He was decidedly intimidated by machismo and masculinity, a consequence of the bullying he had endured when he was young. The male presence during onscreen fucking perturbed him, having a far greater effect on him than some slavish lust for the actresses being fucked. It was a perturbation wrought by inadequacy, not homoerotic desire. Good looking guys just seemed to scare the shit out of him.
“Algie, can I ask you something?” she said one evening.
“Uh, ah, uh, y-y-y-yeah, sure.”
His mild stuttering had been recurrent since his teens: a weed of awkwardness around inquisition that had sprung in the fallow terrain of adolescence.
“Do you, um, you know, like, when you think about, you know, when you look at a hot girl, and she’s all, you know, she’s, well, you think – she’s outta yah league.”
Wybenga released a loud, disconcerting laugh.
“Oh gosh, Gill-bo.”
Gillian giggled discreetly. Wybenga never swore around her. He had some arcane aversion to uttering profanities around ladies. His was a quaint, benign kind of misogyny redolent of his retarded sexuality and a broad confusion about how ladylike women really were.
“Oh, never mind, it’s okay. I shouldn’t have asked.”
“Oh, well, you know, it’s not a problem.”
“It was just a silly thing.”
They paused and stared at the TV.
“I know which league you’re in, Gill-bo.”
Wybenga pinched Gillian’s nose impishly. She giggled.
“Oooh, feeling kinda sweet today, eh?”
“Well, let’s just say – if you’ve gotta pig roast at home, why go out for a hot dog?”
He smiled teasingly at Gillian, who winced with discomfort.
“Oh, uh, thanks, uh, thanks, I guess.”
Wybenga reached forward for a pretzel. He nibbled at the edges before putting the remains in his mouth, slowly dissolving them with his saliva. Gillian looked forlornly at the bowl. She ate nothing.
“Do you, uh, do you think she’s attractive?” she asked after a while, pointing towards the TV.
“Courtney Cox. Do you think she’s attractive.”
“Uh, well, I guess so. Isn’t that what attractive ladies are supposed to look like?”
“Yeh think she’s more attractive than me?”
Wybenga leaned forward and laughed nervously.
“That’s a silly question, Gill-bo.”
“Oh, it’s okay. I know she’s more attractive than me. Way more.”
They stared at the screen silently for a while.
“Would yeh like to…make love to Courtney Cox?”
“Jesus, Gill-bo. Oh, excuse me. I’ve turned into Mr Potty Mouth.”
In distress, he reached out for the glass of soda in front of him with too much urgency and knocked it to the floor.
“Oh, Algie, are you okay?”
Gillian leaned forward to comfort him as he got up immediately to clean the mess.
“Oh, shhh…sugar and shallots. That’s a stain, right there. Oh, goodness heavens and angels. Oh, yah, that’s a real old stain.”
“Mighty, mighty, my, oh, my. That’s gonna be one heck of a stain. I’m gonna have to go get my old friend, Mr Carpet Cleaner.”
“Oh, um, there’s some under the sink.”
Wybenga left in search of cleaning products and returned a few moments later with a bottle of carpet spray and a hard brush.
“Comin’ right atcha, Mr Stainy Face!”
He raised the bottle in his right hand and approached the surface of the carpet like a mediaeval warrior entering a battlefield; the bottle and brush his sword and shield.
“It’s no big deal, Algie.”
“What have we got here? Oh, my, oh, my!”
Wybenga scrubbed aggressively at the affected section of carpet, displaying a boldness and certainty Gillian hadn’t seen before. He held the brush with both hands, exerting vigorous thrusts.
“Gosh, Algie. You look so–”
“Gotta really work this out. Probably gonna take another twenty minutes.”
Gillian was unsure why, but she found her beau’s ferocious scrubs of the carpet terrifically arousing. It was as if a dormant volcano of testosterone had erupted, spewing a boiling manliness into the hard brush. Was it the short, increasingly earnest breaths accompanying the scrubs? Or was it the emphatic gloss of perspiration lustring his face? Either way, Gillian was substantively turned on. She could feel her clitoris transmogrifying into the orb of sexual fulfilment she had always known it to be, while a torrent of plasma gushed from her vaginal walls into the engorged crucible of her cervix. The sensation was truly overwhelming. She pushed Wybenga onto his back, and pulled down her knickers with the unwieldy furiousness of the cumbersomely-built. Wybenga lay down and mumbled in confusion, unsure what was happening. Moments later, he was blinded by Gillian’s oozing vagina. She gyrated on his face as though trying to free a wasp from her underwear. Wybenga could hardly breathe. His face was smeared with the malignant viscosity of vaginal foment; some had entered his nostrils and he was starting to choke. He tried pushing her off but this seemed to make things worse; his nose just seemed to go further inside her. His pleas for release were subdued by her perineum pressed against his mouth; pleas which would have been futile in any case – Gillian was approaching an orgasmic hysteria and her screams would simply have demolished his pathetic yelps. Fortunately she climaxed before he lost consciousness.
Now, lying in the flooded utility room, the thought of Gillian’s mucilaginous pudendum slithered back into his mind. He recalled how the debacle had ended – he ran, terrified, from her apartment to the bus stop, never to see her again. Being proximate to death was too much of a sacrifice to make for any relationship. The hosepipe jutted fluids towards his face; they were lukewarm, just like Gillian’s vaginal discharge had been, though they weren’t as glutinous. He opened his eyes and looked towards the ceiling. His laundry was hanging from the drying rail. He stared directly at a honey-coloured sock for a few moments, his mind distracted from the magnitude of what had just happened. There was a small dog woven into the ankle that looked like it had just emerged from a puddle. The dog seemed to be yapping at some invisible object – a cat, perhaps; or its master. The water had saturated Wybenga’s clothes and he felt heavier suddenly. He got up and hung them on the drying rail then went to the kitchen to make a coffee, but there was none left. He made tea instead. The milk was off. He threw it in the trash. He would have to get the pipe repaired. And buy a new tie. A belt would have been better.