Sally’s Suicide Checklist
Returning home after having her stomach pumped was not one of Sally Biddle’s
favorite activities. The dining room always needed dusting, her refrigerator needed replenishing, and blood often needed to be hand-washed from the hickory hardwood floor. But here she was again, in the passenger seat of Adam Navarro’s black BMW with its spotless windows and new car scent, pulling up to her small house on the hill.
“If twenty people are on the other side of the door waiting to yell ‘Surprise,’
I won’t speak to you for at least six months,” she announced.
“I’d never let twenty people see you looking like such hell,” he said, holding onto her arm to keep her from falling and breaking some appendage while hobbling up the winding brick path. “You look like you just spent two weeks at Bergen-Belsen.”
“Oh my God!” Sally shouted. This startled reaction wasn’t the result of seeing
a cluster of well-meaning friends peeking from behind her living room curtain; it was
a reaction to the eight newspapers haphazardly piled on her worn welcome mat. She stared at these editions of the New York Times and Orange County Register with absolute horror. “I was only in that hospital four days,” she said, “and it looks like I’ve been gone four months.”
“That’s because you get two newspapers delivered daily when most people only get none,” Adam said.
“But do you realize what this means?” she asked.
“It means you have some catching up do to on world news, not to mention opening night parties of local clubs and restaurants,” he said, trying to sound undaunted by his closest friend’s brush with the beyond.
“Adam,” Sally said, “I might as well have put up a sign saying Not Home, with a giant arrow pointing to my door. Some sociopath could’ve broken in and absconded with my pills.” She didn’t seem the least bit concerned about her computer, furniture, flat-screen TV, first edition copy of Love in the Time of Cholera, sterling silver asparagus tongs, her mother’s diamond bracelet, or even the five hundred dollars in cash stored in a box of dog biscuits in the crowded kitchen cabinet. She was distressed that some maniac might’ve hit the road with her prescription medication.
“I guess you’ll have to hide those babies more carefully,” he advised.
This particular hospital visit occurred immediately after Jill DeHaven-Arvisse found Sally unconscious on the dining room floor with blood dripping from her mouth, creating a raindrop-shaped puddle of maroon. (Jill was surprised the blood wasn’t brighter in color.) Sally had swallowed one or two or four too many oval white pills along with more than several tiny yellow ones, and her svelte 34-year-old body just couldn’t handle them. After the pumping of Sally’s stomach, Dr. Elena Merrill suggested four or five days in the Middleditch Mental Health Facility for observation. “I could think of more interesting people to observe,” Sally told her astute psychiatrist. “Why don’t you call the French Rugby Team?” Over the previous few months, Sally had made a strong and semi-successful effort to reduce the number of pills she took on a weekly basis. Dr. Merrill told her a 50 per cent reduction was extremely commendable but only halfway to the finish line.
“Thanks for getting me home,” Sally said to Adam.
“Sure you’ll be all right?” he asked.
“Of course. Killing myself is the furthest thing from my mind unless Jill
“You really ought to talk to her. If it wasn’t for Jill Dehaven-Arvisse, you’d probably be dead.”
Sally just loved the way she and Adam referred to their mutual friend as Jill DeHaven-Arvisse. They’d known her since all three were sophomores at San Francisco State, trudging through Fundamentals of Literary Analysis, when she was just Jill DeHaven. Since marrying the lanky Julian Arvisse, a postdoctoral research fellow, adding his surname to hers and becoming a pompous bitch, Sally and Adam never referred to Jill as anything but Jill DeHaven-Arvisse. “I’m in no mood for Jill DeHaven-Arvisse’s advice right now. Maybe later.”
“Fine,” Adam said, as if this were some kind of compromise. “She’s going to invite you to her End of Summer party, by the way.”
“The summer hasn’t even started yet.”
“You know how she hates it, with that fair skin,” Adam said. “She’s agreed to acknowledge summer for two weeks, then she’ll pretend fall came early this year.”
“And they put me in a mental ward,” Sally mumbled, leaning against the side
of her soft leather sofa. “Give Raffles a hug for me and tell her I’ll pick her up tomorrow.”
Adam embraced Sally the way a deeply caring gay friend embraces a beloved straight one who just survived a close encounter with mortality. “Love you,” he said. Then he was gone. Sally bolted her front door from the inside and poured herself a tall glass of cranberry juice. (She always had cranberry juice on hand because it never seemed to go bad, unlike every single thing else.) Then her eyes caught sight of the newspapers she and Adam had kicked into the living room. The mound of black and white made her stop and gaze. There was something about the heap of them, the messy pile, their sheer volume that struck Sally in a strange, curious way. She had made it this far, halfway through her 34th year of life, and these newspapers were delivering some kind of message…but what?
Cranberry juice in hand, she traipsed up the staircase to her second story bedroom and sat on the white wicker chair facing the window where she could see a sliver of ocean. Her eyes wandered to a framed photograph of her ethereally beautiful mother Renata taken shortly before she died. Sally had always wished she looked less like her English father and more like her Spanish mother.
It didn’t take long, two minutes maybe, when a rush of inspiration came bubbling to the surface. She grabbed a pad of paper and began writing. It had already been established that the delivery of her newspapers should’ve been halted, at least temporarily. If she had really intended to kill herself, there were a host of tasks she should’ve addressed like canceling her magazine subscriptions and alerting Visa that any forthcoming charges would be fraudulent. Sally decided it would be an invaluable service to come up with a suicide checklist, a detailed record of responsibilities to be considered before the slitting of any wrists, ingesting of any poison, popping of excessive pills or blasting of any gunshots.
The telephone rang like a fire alarm, startling her. She grabbed it to stop the earsplitting sound. “Hello,” she said.
“Hi,” Trevor responded. Trevor Sixsmith. The heartbreaker. The one who stole her spirit. “I heard you were back from the hospital. How are you doing?”
Sally’s heart pounded the way it only pounded when Trevor was on the line or in her face. She abhorred this intensity of cardiac activity and knew exactly what she needed to do, pronto. “I’m doing great,” Sally said. “Sweet of you to call.” With that, she gently placed the receiver in its cradle and lowered the volume of the ringer.
It would take Sally’s heart two painful minutes to resume its normal pace. She still loved him deeply and made no secret of the fact, but Trevor wasn’t ready. He wasn’t ready for that all-consuming thing Sally wanted with him. (She hadn’t ever wanted it with anyone else.) Her heart was pounding so violently it felt like it would break open her chest. She hadn’t experienced such a powerful jolt (with the exception of the split) since the time she visited her family home in Phoenix and saw that her old bedroom had been turned into an office.
She fired up her computer and began writing furiously. An introduction
would be composed at a later time; right now she wanted to get to the meat of it.
With urgency, she wrote:
It’s imperative to put aside agonizing feelings of hopelessness, futility and despair for a short while in order to focus on the following matters. Every one of these tips will become vital if and when the decision is made to stop participating among the living.
- Cancel all newspaper and magazine subscriptions.
- Pay off all credit card debt.
- Find new homes for pets.
- Alert post office that mail should be “returned to sender” because new address is unknown.
- Delete embarrassing items from computer.
The suggestions came gushing out, one idea zooming into the next. She wrote
like mad, feeling profound satisfaction, as if she had begun to make a valuable
contribution to a special portion of the population. She lost herself in this, for hours, and marveled at the fact that writing about death could generate such a surge of life.
Once you’ve taken care of the tasks at hand, you deserve to blow any leftover funds on pure, unadulterated pleasure. Treat yourself to a gourmet meal and a Swedish massage. In fact, go for the whole “day spa package”: herbal wrap, body scrub, aromatherapy.
A crucial question arises: What if you change your mind at the last minute? What if you decide to give life one final shot? If this happens, the unfortunate reality is you've left yourself with no money, no clothing, not even the latest issue of People. This is the risk involved, and it’s not particularly pretty.
Sally was clear to state that suicide should only be considered as a last resort, and she made a point to discourage these ideas from children, animals, and anyone who has a hefty inheritance coming his or her way.
Since the age of ten, Sally Biddle had been fascinated with death. She had attended the funeral of her grandfather and was awestruck by the spectacular pomp and ceremony. She hadn’t expected anything quite so festive: everyone all dressed up, catered food, several choices of cake. And the eulogy! The beautiful words spoken during the eulogy mesmerized her. “I want my eulogy to happen when I’m alive, so I can hear it,” she said to her mother.
“No,” Renata told her daughter. “You do not die until you are very old, and you cannot hear anymore.”
Two years later, Sally arrived home one late winter afternoon to an eerie silence. Her mother wasn’t in the kitchen, or the bedroom, or the den. When Sally approached the bathroom, she noticed a candle burning in the darkness. She stepped closer, and closer, until she saw her mother in the tub, her body stretched out, head leaning against the marble wall. The water, filling half the tub, was red. Young Sally leaned against the sink, then slowly slid to the floor. The candle flickered and died, allowing pitch blackness to fill the room like thick smoke. Sally delivered a eulogy to her mother right then and there, sitting in the dark on the cold, white linoleum.
The following day, when funeral preparations began and the house was filled with weeping, wailing relatives, Aunt Maribel said, “34 is too young to die.”
“But Aunt Maribel” Sally insisted, “if you’re 34 and you want to die, it’s the perfect age.” Sally was convinced her mother was where she wanted to be.
* * *
Adam gave Raffles a gigantic hug before Sally guided her much loved chocolate lab into the car. After picking up the dog on this delightfully cool June morning, Sally picked up a few groceries, then she picked up a cute guy in the shaded parking lot of the grocery store. She didn’t actually pick him up; they exchanged phone numbers and made a date for the following night. Buzz Kessler was a bit on the young side, early twenties, but the electricity between them was high voltage. “Have you been to this new seafood place?” he asked. “It’s right on the water.”
“No, but I love seafood,” Sally said. “Fish oil is good for the brain, keeps dementia at bay.”
“How’s tomorrow night?” he asked. They made a date. Buzz would pick Sally up at seven o’clock.
The following evening, seafood was never seen. Sally and Buzz mauled each other the minute he stepped onto her hardwood floor. The kid had the body of a gymnast, all muscle and curves, with a tan, a tan line, and a tongue that never stopped. He made love to her with youthful exuberance, the kind of pure abandon absent in most men over thirty, each kiss, caress and movement conveying the message: “Thank you so much for letting me do this.”
Despite the fact that Sally was smitten, she wouldn’t let the affair interrupt her work on the book which she decided to call Sally’s Suicide Checklist. After completing the first few chapters, she sent them to her agent Helena Pildgristle who turned out to be ecstatic about the project. Less than two weeks later, she closed a deal with a small but respected press based on these chapters. Adam suggested they throw a huge book party.
“You think we should?” Sally asked.
“Absolutely. But I have an even better idea,” he said. “Let’s go to Jill DeHaven-
Arvisse’s End of Summer bash next week and have our own party within a party. This
would save us the cost of refreshments.”
“Sometimes your brilliance boggles my mind,” Sally said.
“I’m just enjoying a high IQ day,” he told her.
* * *
The End of Summer party was in full swing in the designer-decorated home of Jill DeHaven-Arvisse. This was a woman whose identity lay entirely in her social status; the house was in a posh neighborhood, the guests included affluent members of the community (two plastic surgeons, the high school principal), even the catering company was the most au courant.
The gigantic living room with its white, Tuscan-textured walls, plush white carpet and ubiquitous white roses, seemed like a floating cloud. Haughty, Armani-clad heterosexuals sipped Dom Perignon as they chatted about children and hedge funds under dim recessed lighting. The spacious pine deck overlooking the ocean was peopled with hungry guests nibbling on nuts and Parmesan crisps while holding pink or green drinks in martini glasses. The kitchen was a hubbub of activity as four caterers prepared two lasagnas: one meat, one vegetarian. Jill DeHaven-Arvisse, certainly not the sweetest cookie in the jar, sure knew how to throw a shindig.
In the cozy den down the hall, a more private affair was in progress. Sally held court in a silk camisole dress and plum suede pumps. Buzz, in a dusk blue, button-down linen shirt he bought specifically for the party, exuded the energy of a puppy on its first visit to the park. Adam, Henrik and Irma were equally decked out and feeling giddy. All drank champagne and Chardonnay while sharing fantasies of murdering Jill DeHaven-Arvisse and making it look like a suicide.
Adam was just about to speak when the fair-skinned lady herself materialized in the door frame with a goat cheese stuffed radish in her hand. “What the hell are you doing?” Jill DeHaven-Arvisse asked in a state of quasi-hysteria, as everyone stared at her mustard-colored monstrosity of a dress. “It’s unthinkably rude of you not to mingle in the other room. Finish your conversation, then start moving. The lasagna is about to be served.” The self-absorbed hostess tossed her head back and rushed away brusquely. No one bothered to tell her she had berry blush lipstick on her teeth.
“I would love to shove her through a plate glass window,” Adam warmly said.
“That wouldn’t necessarily kill her,” Irma told him.
“If it was on the 29th floor of an office building it would,” he explained.
“When did she turn into that?” Sally asked Adam quizically. “She used to be sweet.”
“It happened gradually.”
Sally nodded. “Well, let’s be polite and mingle.” The foursome followed their leader into the living room where they were hit by the potent scent of garlic. The lasagna was being served on a white-draped table in the nearby dining room. Sally and friends kept moving until they reached the deck, where the strong odor of garlic was replaced with the strong smell of ocean salt. The mammoth Pacific seemed like a dramatic, shimmering backdrop to the movie of Sally’s life.
Just hours earlier, the water was a magnificent azure blue; now it appeared black. In the distance, a couple strolled barefoot on the sand. A woman jogged, flanked by two large dogs. A man sat by himself. Sally noticed a surfer emerging from the water even though the ocean seemed to be at rest, offering little chance of encountering that awesome wave. She began thinking about her crazy, inchoate life—friends, lovers, pills, dog, therapy, a promising but stalled career. She felt no urgency, no primal desire to keep living. She was merely riding the calm water, waiting for that awesome wave to come along and show her what life, or death, should be.
Dr. Merrill had prescribed antidepressants. They worked for a while, then stopped. She prescribed different ones. They worked for a while, then stopped. Sally concluded that most people were born right, but she was born wrong, defective.
“Don’t move,” Adam quietly said in Sally’s ear. “Trevor’s here.”
“How could she invite Trevor?” Sally asked. “Is he alone?”
“No,” Adam said, leaving it at that. He didn’t want to tell his unstable friend that Trevor’s eye candy was a pencil-thin princess with glossy blonde hair.
Sally took her time turning around, as if moving her entire body clockwise, at a snail’s pace, was a natural thing to do. She studied Trevor for a few seconds before he noticed her, and when he did, he instantly darted over, bony babe in tow. In a Pink white shirt, black blazer, tight jeans and boots, he landed in the top percentile of hot men present. “Hey Sally, you look great,” he gushed, as if he expected her to appear haggard and frail, possibly spasmodic. He didn’t know whether to embrace her or take her hand so he did absolutely nothing. “I want you to meet Gia.”
“Hello,” Sally said, suddenly feeling like a pork sausage. She wasn’t sure what she loathed more: Gia’s perfect, sculpted nose or her mile-long legs. She looked into Trevor’s eyes and acknowledged the remains of their tumultuous relationship: a smile, a few words, a sense of caring but only up to a certain point.
Adam jumped in to break the lugubrious silence. “This is Sally’s date Buzz,” he
announced. One thought and one thought only popped into Sally’s head: she was glad she’d taken a cue from Anne Sexton who never ventured anywhere without her “kill-me pills” in her purse. Sally‘s Miu Miu leather bag contained a sufficient amount of medication.
Adam leaned into Sally’s ear again. “If she lost anymore weight she wouldn’t be there.” Sally erupted into raucous laughter and suspected Gia knew the joke was on her. Ironically, it was Jill DeHaven-Arvisse who saved the moment. In her cool, imperious manner, she called for everyone’s attention. All eyes turned to the living room where Jill and Julian Arvisse, looking like siblings with their pale skin and pouting mouths, stood side by side against the white marble fireplace. Then came the announcement: “We’re pregnant.”
Cheers and whoops and shrieks rocked the place, along with some serious jumping up and down. “I thought she looked a little chubby,” Adam whispered. Sally looked strange, like lava was about to spew from her lips. “You need a drink, doll,” Adam said.
“A martini, please. With a cyanide chaser.”
“Coming up,” he said, gliding away. Sally removed her shoes, grabbed her bag and told Buzz she’d be back. She pushed open the gate on the side of the deck and stepped down to the sand which was colder than she expected. She desperately needed to cleanse her palette.
Trancelike, she gravitated toward the water. Sally found it ironic that this was far from the most despondent moment of her life yet she felt a profound compulsion to end it. “Why?” she asked out loud to no one in particular. She was wise enough to realize Trevor was only the manifest crisis; she certainly wouldn’t kill herself over him. No one was worth that. But something was definitely wrong; the pieces of her life had never come together the way they had for Jill DeHaven-Arvisse and for that matter—everyone else she knew. These people relished their systematic, sun-dappled lives; they couldn’t wait to wake up in the morning. Sally felt none of this. She’d searched for love and almost found it. She’d wanted to be published and came so close. She’d carried the baby for three months before she lost it. She felt like Sisyphus, having to start over and over and over, always finding her hapless self at the bottom of the mountain. She wanted to be at the apex for a change, beaming with light, ablaze with passion. She’d been climbing for an extraordinarily long time and consistently came up empty-handed except…
Except for her pills. Her pills made her feel whole, happy, worthwhile. Her
painkillers did what they were supposed to do: they killed her pain. They were her gust of joy. But everyone told her to stop taking them because they were killing more than her pain. So she obeyed. She cut down by half. And her joy was cut in half. Her will to live was cut in half, and she honestly didn’t know if this was a wise move.
She allowed the surging water to brush her feet; it was ice cold and shocking.
A quick glance back at the house turned into a lingering stare; the party seemed surprisingly far away, its muted light a mere speck in the distance. Still, she knew an entire universe existed there: Civilized adults with jobs and jewelry and timeshares were engaging in what they considered intelligent conversation, taking themselves very seriously. This was an alternate universe, a place that welcomed Sally as a guest but rejected her as a resident. She simply didn’t live there, in the world of the functional. She perpetually remained at the children’s table, watching the grown-ups from afar, the motherless teenager on Mother’s Day.
Suddenly the stars seemed a little brighter and more numerous than they’d been just minutes earlier, and the quarter moon hung like a neon slice of melon. Sally breathed in the scenery with an astonishment that momentarily lit her depression and lifted her off the beach into glorious flight, soaring with intoxication. All too soon, a freezing gush of water grabbed her ankles and startled her out of her reverie. Instinctively she ran toward the light of the activity.
Adam kept watch like a lifeguard, his eyes on Sally. She had friends, close and caring friends, and for a while they were enough. But at 34, the age her mother Renata decided the struggle was too overwhelming, Sally needed more.
She brushed the sand off her feet and climbed the few steps that brought her to the deck. Adam took her hand. “Your martini,” he said. She kissed him on the cheek before he accompanied her back into the bustle of the living room. By this time, almost everyone had imbibed two or three too many cocktails. The cacophony of the party—the laughing, droning, yelling, yammering, even the music—was blaring and obnoxious, and the room still reeked of garlic. Just before midnight, Sally furtively slipped out the front door, as some wobbly guests had been routinely doing for some fresh air or a quick smoke.
A blissful, splendid silence, like a shot of morphine, greeted her. She leisurely strolled down the wide, tree-lined street with its five-bedroom houses and immaculate lawns, as the sweet, seductive smell of jasmine soothed her. The clacking of her heels on the pavement, a metallic tick tock that always reminded her of her mother, was the only sound for what seemed like miles. Sally felt as if something buried deep inside her was gradually, inexplicably rising to the skin. Each step, each moment brought her closer to wherever it was she needed to be, whatever it was she needed to discover. Something, some intangible thing, was being perceived. Though slightly dazed and a little wasted (from the vodka, the noise, one valium, Trevor), she felt newly awake, unfettered, in curious, uncommon control of her destiny.
Two weeks later, when Adam, with the assistance of a caring police officer, came to the conclusion that Sally either killed herself or vanished voluntarily, he began to go through the motions. Sally had given him a copy of her suicide checklist as soon as it had been completed, and he decided to use it as a guide.
- Cancel all newspaper and magazine subscriptions. He attempted to do that for Sally, but it had already been done.
- Find new homes for pets. Before disappearing, Sally had dropped Raffles off at Adam’s house with a note: Please watch her. I know you adore her like I do. Love, Sally
- Alert post office that mail should be “returned to sender” because new address is unknown. This had also been taken care of. Sally obviously followed her own guidelines to a tee.
* * *
One year later, Sally’s Suicide Checklist hit the New York Times bestseller list at number three. No one seemed to pay much attention to a small chapter toward the end of the book. It read, in part:
If you could move to a different city and live anonymously for one or two years, what would life be like? For instance, you pick up and go to the South of France. Or the North Pole. Or the south of North Dakota. Or the north of Southampton; it doesn’t matter. The important factor is that nobody knows you. You’re an intriguing new face, with a refreshingly clean slate. Would you enjoy the experience?
* * *
Sally Biddle found a small, elegantly furnished apartment not far from Plaza Catalunya in bustling Barcelona, a city she cherished. A stranger in a faintly familiar town, the birthplace of her mother Renata, Sally had the vague sense this was home. Vibrant, restless Las Ramblas, the haunting Sagrada Familia, the lively beaches of Bogatell and Mar Bella, the biking on La Diagonal, the food, the fun, the spirit, all of it seemed seeped in her soul.
She wasn’t sure how much time she’d give this colorful city to illuminate the path to that missing part of herself, but she knew at the very least, she would stay six months. At the most, forever.