Asad Zaidi was born in England and moved to Pakistan at a young age, where he did most of his growing up. He has a BA in Biology (with a minor, he is quick to tell people, in English) from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. He is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where he is working at a public health organization.
Secobarbital is a short story about difficult discussions and decisions, and the complicated natures of life, love, and loss. Readers are advised that this piece contains themes, conversations, and scenes on the subject of assisted suicide.
My mind was elsewhere as my feet carried me through the corridors as they had done every day for countless days before that. I stopped at the right door and knocked. Salma opened it.
My heart ached at the sight of her. Her cheeks were hollowed; her eyes had puffy bags under them. It was as if the flesh of her face had been reshaped by worry and sorrow. Her hair had escaped its usual silver bun to form a limp frame around her face. She had been crying.
Despite the June heat, Salma drew her gray shawl on her shoulders tighter around her body.
“He’s resting,” she said in a low voice. The tightness around her eyes slackened. “But it’s your turn.” She opened the door wider to let me in.
The room was dimly lit and stuffy. A mud brown carpet lay on the floor. The single window looked into the next building without offering the tiniest glimpse of the sky. The air in the room, stirred by a wizened ceiling fan, smelled of old flowers. Saleem’s bed sat in the middle of the room, a mass of steel and white linen.
The only splash of color was a dresser at the far end of the room. It was laden with dozens of bouquets, cards, letters, and collages. Someone had even placed a digital photo album there, its screen displaying a loop of happy moments. People had been streaming in and out of the room all week to see Saleem, but today was only for Salma.
And for me.
Salma gave me a small nod and left the room as I sank into her chair by Saleem’s bed. It was still warm. I studied my friend. His eyes were closed, but his expression was still tight and contorted from the pain. New wrinkles seemed to line his gaunt face every time I looked at it. I could not get used to how big his ears now looked. Tufts of white hair sprouted from them. Not too long ago, Saleem would not have tolerated that; he had always hated looking untidy. The wispy hair on his head was white too. Once I had taken in as much of Saleem as I could, I cleared my throat.
He opened his eyes and turned his head towards me. A mischievous grin spread across his face and for a second he was the Saleem from decades ago, the Saleem branded into my memory, the Saleem who surfaced in my imagination whenever I thought of him. “You bastard!” he said. His voice had been smooth and deep once, but the coughing had made it raspy. Wincing, he propped himself up against his pillows. “You’re here.”
“Of course I’m here” I said. I didn’t even try to keep my voice steady. “It’s—it’s…”
“It’s my last day,” said Saleem.
He continued to smile, and held out his hand. I grabbed it and returned his grip. Once he had been able to crush my hands but now I was the one taking care not to hurt him. I closed my eyes, damming them shut, and bowed my head. Saleem did not need my tears today.
The lump in my throat hadn’t subsided when I opened my eyes again and looked at him; Saleem was busy examining our intertwined hands. For most of his life, his hands had been pudgy. Salma and I used to tease him for having sausages for fingers. But now they were frail, their bones jutting out, their veins protruding from behind translucent skin. My hands had changed as well, weathered and wrinkled now, when once they were pale and slender. “Dainty,” Saleem used to call them, “just like Salma’s”. Once, back when he and Salma were dating, he had dragged me to a jeweler to try on a ring he wanted to buy her.
“We’ve grown old,” I said. My voice sounded hollow.
“We’ve grown old together,” said Saleem. I tried to smile at that, but my face would not move the right way.
“You know,” he continued; I knew that ‘you know’ well. “I’ve been thinking about how to make my exit. When they’ve made me sign all the forms and I’ve taken the pill they give me, I’m going to do this–” he took a deep breath, raised his free hand as a fist and stuck his middle finger out “–and say, ‘So long, suckers!’”
He grinned at me, but his eyes looked tired. I scowled at him and he laughed a surprising, full-throated laugh, the sound reaching out to me from the years before his illness. I never wanted it to end.
A coughing fit cut short his laugher. His eyes bulged and veins popped up in his neck. His body convulsed, spasming with each cough. I leapt onto the bed, grabbed him by his shoulders, and pinned him to his pillows. He had injured his back in spasm like that some weeks ago. I held him until the coughing subsided. When I let him go, he wrapped his arms around me and buried his face into my chest, whimpering.
“I can’t do this anymore,” he said. “I don’t want to. I can’t do this, Afsar. I’m in pain and I’m tired. It hurts so much.” He shook as he spoke and I knew he was crying in my arms.
I wanted to shake his trembling body by its shoulders, to plead and beg him to try, to continue, to not leave me behind. I thought about all the angry letters I had written to him, to the medical community, to God, to myself. I swallowed the feeling rising up my gullet and held him tighter. I kissed his head and rubbed circles into his back.
I let go when he stopped shaking, and he eased himself back into his pillows. I made to get back to my chair, but Saleem placed a hand on my arm.
“I’m doing the right thing,” he said.
Before I could stop myself, I unclenched my jaw and turned to face him. “Who is it right for?”
Saleem took his hand away. “We are not having this conversation again,” he said, his tone venomous. “I’m dying anyway!”
Memories of arguments we had had over the years–many bitter, some that had almost ruined our friendship–surged through my mind. There was no time.
“You’re right,” I said, my voice small.
Saleem sighed. Then he gave me a small, sad smile. “You will be there, won’t you?”
Somehow I had never thought this would actually happen. I had never planned for that dreadful moment, never thought that I might have to watch. “I…”
“You’d leave me when I need you?”
“But Salma…” It was a time for the two of them to be alone.
“I need you, too,” he said. “You’ve been by my side for every big decision I’ve ever taken. Stay. Please.”
I swallowed and nodded.
“Any way it happens, I’m about to die soon. Any way it happens, it will hurt you. That breaks my heart. I’m sorry, Afsar.”
The sound of my name hung in the air, the final note of a sad symphony. My mind stretched into the past, replaying moments I regretted, moments I cherished, things I should have said, and things I should have left unsaid. I scrambled for words to share with Saleem, my friend, who was dying in front of my eyes. I had always been able to trap him with an intriguing conversation. I wanted to start an endless dialogue with him and perhaps distract him from his own death.
The door swung open and a bald man wearing a white lab coat walked in, wheeling an empty wheelchair. Behind him was Salma, her hair back in its bun. I was keenly aware of each thud of my heart as it crept towards unfathomable loss. I wanted to slow it down. Or stop it. But it was time.
Salma wheeled Saleem down the corridor, the bald man beside her. I followed a few paces behind them. We shuffled into an empty waiting area with plastic benches and fluorescent lighting. A woman, also in a white coat, was waiting for us there. She gestured for Salma and me to take a seat. Salma stiffened. The woman, noticing the hesitation, placed an arm on Salma’s shoulder and gave her a reassuring smile. There was some final paperwork Saleem had to sign off on, and he had to do it alone. We had been briefed about the process so many times that I could hear the phrase ‘standard procedure’ echoing inside my skull.
Salma let the woman take over Saleem’s wheelchair. She and I took a seat. Saleem turned around to give us a small wave as he was taken out of the waiting area, his mouth a straight line. She returned the wave with an encouraging nod and I lifted my hand up in farewell.
There was nobody else there. My mind wandered, desperate to latch on to something as we waited. The flat-screen TV hung over our heads showed some singing competition on mute. I played with a hangnail until it bled, chewed on my bottom lip, ripping off small pieces of skin, and counted the leaves on a potted plant in the corner. My stomach churned. I gripped my knees to keep my hands from shaking. The silence in the room was viscous, the oppressive stillness before a downpour.
I could tell Salma was watching me. I heard her take a deep breath.
“I’m sorry,” she said to me.
I didn’t look at her.
She paused for a moment. “I’m sorry about yesterday.”
I turned to face her. She was crying.
“I didn’t mean it…” she said. “I didn’t–oh, Afsar–I didn’t. I swear. What I said about family… You are his family. Saleem loves you so much, and I know you love him. I was wrong to tell you to stay away. You–you’re my family, too. We need you. Afsar. I’m sorry.”
I bowed my head. I didn’t know what to say.
The woman in the white coat returned.
“The paperwork is complete,” she said. I marveled at her businesslike expression. “You may visit him in suite 4A. Please note that a nurse will be present in the room throughout. That is standard procedure. All the best.” Then she left.
Gathering herself, Salma took a deep breath. “I would like to spend some time alone with him,” she said.
“You don’t need my permission.”
She nodded and stood up. “I have something for you.”
She began to pull off one of the many rings on her left hand.
“What are you–” But she was already pressing it into my palm. It was simple band, golden, unadorned. I knew it well.
“But it’s yours,” I said, trying to return it to her. She shook her head.
“It’s–it’s from the both of us. And besides,” said Salma, with a small smile, “you wore it first.”
She left the waiting room. I stared at the ring in my palm, my mind transported to a hot Sunday decades ago when a young Saleem had dragged me and my dainty hands to the gold market. Numb, I slipped it on my little finger.
I watched the clock on the far wall, certain that I could hear it ticking from where I was sitting. Five unbearable minutes went by. I thought about leaving. Saleem had Salma. But I had said I would be there for him. Another five minutes. Had I missed some instructions? Would I be told when I was supposed to go into the suite? Had I failed to catch a signal that Salma didn’t actually want me there?
I got up to start pacing when a man with a clipboard walked in.
“Suite 4A?” he said, looking up from his clipboard just long enough to see me nod. “You can go in now.
Suite 4A was airy and bright. Saleem was in bed with his arm around Salma who was curled up beside him with her head on his chest and her eyes closed. Saleem looked drowsily at me as I entered.
“Afsar,” he said. It was barely a whisper. He gestured to a chair standing right by the bed. “I did it.”
My breath caught in my chest. I was both shocked that he had actually gone through with it, and grateful that I hadn’t had to see him take those pills. I held his free hand. He thumbed the ring Salma had given me and smiled.
“I hope you keep it around,” he said. He was starting to slur.
“Always,” I said.
“I had it engraved.”
Salma buried her face deeper into his chest. She was crying. He stroked her hair and kissed her on her forehead.
“Thank you,” he said to her, “for making my life as good as it was.”
He turned to me. “And thank you,” he said, “for a lifetime of friendship.”
The lump in my throat was back. “Always,” I croaked.
“I’m going to close my eyes now.”
Silence descended on the room. The late afternoon sun slanted through the window and tinted everything orange. For what felt like hours, I stared at Saleem’s chest as it took longer to rise and fall each time. Then his grip on my hand slackened.
“Saleem?” I said. He was gone.
The attending nurse sad something, but I wasn’t listening. I felt as if I had been torn in half, as if a hot, searing hole had opened up in my chest. I wanted to claw back time, snatch back the seconds and return to when he had been right there, tightly holding my hand. I wanted to grab him and shake him until he opened his eyes and confessed that it was all a joke. I wanted to rage and scream and break things instead of confront the enormity of the fact that he was no longer in my life, that he would not be in it tomorrow, nor for every tomorrow to come.
I continued to hold his hand, tracing its veins and circling the knuckles with my finger. I did that for as long as I could bear and then I kissed it and arranged it beside his body. I did not look at Salma – I could not bear to.
Instead, I pulled off the ring and turned it sideways. There were three words engraved inside. ‘See you later,’ it said. Unlike me, Saleem did not believe–had not believed—in a later. I began to cry.
Asad can be reached via his email, email@example.com.