Death is sometimes just a function of the mind.
He said quietly, “I’m dead, and no one will believe me.” I almost laughed, but something in his voice stopped me. He wasn’t joking.
I suppose that this admission makes me sound shallow, but I never paid Colm Cotard much attention. The only passion we shared was the obvious one revealed by our membership in the school’s GSA, and even then he might have been a straight ally. But, no. In the short time he had been attending, I had observed him enough in the meetings to know that he was, as I was, a friend of Dorothy and, I had concluded, not a very interesting one. He was just bland—bland in dress and expression—and he never drew my attention after an initial notice. He always dressed in a way that advertised a faint attention to style, but the style was everyone else’s. On the few times he opened his mouth during meetings, nothing very thoughtful emerged—mostly agreement with what someone else had said—never a disagreement. My heart did not pitter-patter when I saw him, but then the guys who did cause me palpitations were either straight or out of my league. I made no effort to know him as more than another in the small crowd of people who were gay or who supported us either because they believed or because we were a PC vogue.
I was surprised when one day after a meeting he lingered, apparently waiting for me to disengage from the little group that had formed around me. As I left, barely aware of his presence, I heard Colm’s voice.
“Can I tell you something? I can’t think of anyone else to talk to.”
Shallow I was, maybe, but not unwilling to help. “Sure. Here? Or, should we go somewhere for coffee?”
“Wherever, just somewhere quiet. People who might be alive make me nervous.”
Say what? As we walked to a little patio next to the vending machines on campus, I said, “You must be really nervous.” He didn’t smile.
He said nothing else until we sat at one of the little, round, metal tables. He looked about and, satisfied that no one would overhear, he told me he was dead, although no one believed him. I didn’t think he was a play-acting zombie-wannabe. I didn’t think he had that much imagination, but I thought I should give him at least a few minutes.
“But, you’re talking to me, and,” I said reaching out to touch his arm, “I can touch you.”
“You’re very nice to try, but you’re lying. Everyone lies to me, but I know I’m dead. I was hoping you wouldn’t lie. I’ve always thought you were truthful.”
I was embarrassed that he had paid me enough attention to form an opinion of my character because I hadn’t thought enough about Colm to form an opinion about him. “You mean as in dead inside? Maybe you’re depressed.”
“No. I mean dead as in no longer living. I’m surprised people can’t smell me rotting, but maybe they can and won’t tell me.”
This was weird but maybe I could talk some sense into him. “When did you first know you were dead?”
“I have mono, and it makes me tired all the time. Then last month, I understood that I wasn’t tired, I was dead. At first, I thought I had gone to heaven, but now I know I’m in hell. In heaven, people wouldn’t lie about being dead.”
Now he was beginning to frighten me. “So, everyone is dead?”
“I don’t know for sure, but I do know that I am.”
I don’t know much about psychology, but enough kids around here, particularly gay kids, have offed themselves that my original thought about depression seemed reasonable. I had to ask.
“You’re not thinking about suicide, are you?”
He gave me a look that seemed to convey that he thought I was an idiot. For a moment, I felt anger rise. After all, I was trying to help. Then it occurred to me. “No, I guess it doesn’t make sense to kill yourself if you’re already dead.” Colm just nodded.
“So, tell me how you noticed that you were dead.”
“After I got mono, I realized that I didn’t have any feelings, good or bad, about anything, and I knew that I was dead.”
“And you don’t mean dead inside?” I tried again to make him see what I thought must be garden-variety depression; half my friends are depressed.
“No, I’m not sad or depressed; I’m dead.”
I began to think that helping Colm would take more than a quick buck-up speech. “Why tell me about your death?”
As we spoke, I really looked at Colm for the first time and was distracted by the way his hair fell over his forehead and the shape of his lips or the smoothness of his skin. I hadn’t taken the time to see those features before. If he wasn’t so deeply disturbed, I might have asked him out on a date just to see if I had missed anything else about him.
“I’m not sure, but I think since you’re here that you must be dead and in hell with me. I need someone to hang out with.”
“How about everyone else? You said you’re not sure that they’re dead, too.” I hesitated for a bit, not sure if I should push him. I decided that telling him how I felt was all right. “I don’t feel dead, and I’m pretty sure I’m not.”
“It took me awhile to get it, too. I don’t want to go through this alone. Will you stop lying to me? We could help each other through this, even if hell doesn’t have an end.”
Hmm, not depressed but maybe just lonely. That I could relate to. Let’s suppose the common-wisdom statistic is correct—ten-percent of the males I see around me are gay. This is a very small pool from which to find the ideal partner: handsome, hung, incredible body, tender heart, brilliant mind, and natural humility. Besides, I think the ten-percent statistic is an overestimation created by people in need of hope. So, cut him loose or see if I can help? Then I heard my dad’s voice in my head, “When someone really needs help, step up.”
“All right, we’re dead and in hell. Why no flames, and where’s the Devil?”
“This hell isn’t mythic. Endlessness without the ability to feel any feelings at all. That’s the reality.” I suddenly found Colm much more interesting than I had before.
“But, I can…” I started to say feel, but caught myself. To Colm that would sound like a lie. “Okay, let’s hang out. Do we go home ever?”
“Sure. I know it's confusing, but I think when we die we create a world here that’s just like the one we lived in, except…no feelings, no real time, no end.”
Now I felt the need to escape, and I worried that this conversation could go on forever. “I need to get back to my…made up life for a while, but we’ll get together tomorrow, or what seems like tomorrow, right?” I hoped the last part didn’t seem too cynical.
Colm looked as if he might hug me, but he just said, “Yeah, that would be good.” His voice was flat, and his eyes—dark gray, almost like polished slate—had no sparkle. You know how people give their emotions away with their facial muscles? He had nothing to give.
I was a little afraid to leave him, but I had to talk to someone about this. Maybe Colm belonged in a hospital or something. So, I touched his forearm, looked into those gray eyes, and then walked away. Turning back, I asked, “Meet here for lunch tomorrow?”
He nodded his head, and I knew somehow that he was neither hopeful nor defeated.
The journey to Ms. Bolen’s office through the mostly empty hallways at the school-day’s end was peaceful, unlike movement during the middle of the day when I would be jostled by jocks and ignored by almost everyone else. I knew she would be in after the GSA meeting because she was the club’s sponsor.
I lucked out. No one else was pouring out his or her heart to her. She was a very popular counselor, and unlike some of the other PhDs on the school’s staff, she didn’t insist on being addressed as “Doctor.”
After inviting me into her office when I knocked, she stood, smiling, to greet me. “Seems like only an hour to ago that we saw each other. What can I help you with?”
I sat in one of the two upholstered chairs in her office as she came around her desk to take the other. For a school office, it was homey, with an old table lamp on the desk and paintings, photographs, and other artwork from students who appreciated how she had helped them. Ms. Bolen was old but never acted old, and she listened more than she talked. On the way to her office, I had figured out how to approach Colm’s weird problem.
“I’ve got a friend who has a problem, but he’s too shy to talk with anyone but me about it. Can I ask you what you think?”
“A friend, huh? Sure. Shoot.”
I suddenly realized that she probably heard that opening to a discussion a lot. Then, I told her about Colm’s talk with me in as much detail as I could remember. I included the question about suicide because I wanted to short-stop any conclusion about my “friend’s” feelings of self-harm that she might draw. The whole story took almost twenty minutes to get out, and I had trouble meeting her eyes as I spoke.
She didn’t interrupt me at all during my story. I concluded by asking her, “Pretty weird, huh?”
“Well, I must say that I haven’t heard anything like that recently.” I could tell she had abandoned any notion that I was the “friend,” because I obviously had a lot of emotions going on. I still wasn’t looking at her because I was nervous. “Look at me. This could be a very serious problem, and I think you should convince your friend to come in and talk with me, or tell me who he is so that I can take some action.”
“I promised him that I wouldn’t tell anyone his name.” That was a lie; Colm had no idea I was talking with her or anyone. “Could you just tell me what you think he needs to do? I’ll tell him.”
“Benjamin, this isn’t something a few words from you is going to fix, if it can be fixed. This friend needs professional help. I know he told you he wasn’t thinking about suicide, but I don’t think we can know that without evaluating him.”
The little balloon of my idea to get help for Colm deflated rapidly, and I felt heartsick at the trap I had created for Colm and me. I sighed audibly and finally said, “I’ll try to talk him into seeing you, and if I can’t, I’ll think about telling you who he is.”
“When will you talk with him?”
“Tomorrow. I’ll see you right afterward, I promise.” Ms. Bolen didn’t look happy, and I didn’t feel happy.
“What’s wrong, Pooh-bear?”
Mom had obviously seen my distress. I had long given up the battle to have her stop addressing me by her childhood endearment for me, and to her credit, she never called me Pooh-bear in front of my friends. I think she understood that it would seem precious and gay at the same time.
“Oh, a friend has a problem, and I tried to get him help?”
“Anyone we know?”
“No. I don’t know him well, or I didn’t know him well before today.”
“I see. By ‘know him well,’ I suppose you don’t mean intimately.”
My face turned beet red. “Mom! No, I don’t mean intimately.” Although I suppose being dead and in hell with someone is intimate, and then there were his eyes. In truth I had never been intimate with anyone the way Mom meant it, except myself, of course. I hadn’t been out that long.
“Ben, your father and I know that you’ll have sex eventually if you haven’t already. You can’t be embarrassed by that.”
I didn’t want to beat this drum. “Mom, this friend just told me some stuff in confidence, and I’m not sure how to help him without spilling the beans.”
“Has he committed a crime or is he going to hurt someone else?”
“No, of course not.”
“How about himself?”
I hesitated. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Does he need help coming out to his parents or others?”
“He might not be gay, you know.”
“Right. Sorry I jumped to that conclusion.”
“Well, right conclusion, but he’s out, and he’s in the GSA.”
“Did you talk to Dr. Bolen or one of the other counselors?”
“Yes. I’m going to try to talk him into seeing her tomorrow,”
“Sounds like you’re doing the right things. What’s the rub?”
To parents, things always seem cut and dried. To be honest, my parents were better than most at understanding the complications of my life. For the most part they let me try to solve my own problems, even if they think I’m not doing the solving very efficiently.
“Yeah, I just find this guy more interesting than I did before he talked to me.” I blushed again.
“Pooh-bear, you’ll have to see about that after your friend gets help.”
I nodded. I would have to do just that.
I paid no attention to anything in my classes. I hadn’t slept much. I was trying to figure out how to get Colm together with Ms. Bolen, and I couldn’t see a good way. If you’re dead, why go to a shrink?
Lunchtime finally arrived, and I made my way to the same table Colm and I had used the day before. He wasn’t there, and a knot bloomed in my stomach. What if he’d killed himself or tried? I realized that the thought of not seeing him again was painful both because he would be gone and also that would mean…no possibilities for him or us. Then his presence interrupted my thoughts.
“Man, I’m glad to see you.” I didn’t have to fake that.
“I wish I could be glad about anything,” Colm replied.
I really wanted him to be glad to see me. “You’re not glad to see me?”
“No. But please don’t leave me.” That was something, I guessed
I thought he might cry, but whatever feelings he might have produced were so far down that they couldn’t move him. “I won’t. How’s the mono?”
“Still taking the pills, and I’m still tired all the time.”
New information. I wondered if the pills were for depression or some other mental problem. “If we’re dead, why take pills?”
He started to reply, but nothing came out.
“Colm, I know this is a terrible situation, and maybe there’s no escape, but I have a friend who’s good with dead people. Would you be willing to see her?”
“No, this is the way it will always be—no reincarnation, no heaven for me. I don’t need someone to talk to; I need someone to share this with me.” As he said the word, this, he swept his right hand across the vista of the little patio on which we sat.
“I really think you should talk with her. I would go with you.” I didn’t know if I could keep that promise.
“No, let’s just sit until we go home.”
“What about classes?”
He just laughed a quiet and unenthusiastic chuckle. So, we sat for a couple of hours.
We didn’t say much as we sat, and finally I said, “I’ve got to go.”
“You’ll come back tomorrow?”
I nodded. “Yes.”
As promised, I went to see Ms. Bolen. She had someone in her office that afternoon, and while I waited, I made a decision because I knew I’d never get Colm to see her.
When we were seated in the easy chairs and before she could say anything, I blurted, “It’s me. I don’t have a friend.”
She leaned back in her chair and looked hard into my eyes. “You think you’re dead?”
She smiled a strange smile and asked, “Tell me again when this started.” As she waited for the answer, she reached for a pad and a yellow, No. 2 pencil from her desktop.
I repeated the story again, trying not to be excited. This time, I added the information about the mono, which I’d forgotten to add yesterday, and the pills. When I finished, trying to be as emotionally flat as I could act, she immediately asked, “There’s nothing on your health record about mono. Who’s treating you, and what pills are you taking for the mono?”
Shit. Why can’t lying be simple? Oh well. I knew she would have my pediatrician in her files, so I couldn’t lie. “Dr. McDonald. I forget the name of the medicine.”
“Call your parents and find out.”
Shit, again. “They’re not home. I can find out when I get home, and I’ll call you.”
Not looking happy, she said, “If I don’t hear from you this afternoon, I’ll call Dr. McDonald. I don’t think you understand how serious this might be.” She took a card and wrote her cell-phone number on it before handing it to me.
At the time, I didn’t know that she had seen through my brilliant contrivance. Later, I understood that if she had believed me, she’d have never let me out of her office. Now, I needed to find out from Colm what medicine he was taking. I raced back to the little patio where we had met, and with soul-felt relief I saw that he had ditched his last class and was sitting there.
He nodded to me as I sat. No time for pleasantries. “Hey, what medicine are you taking for the mono?”
“Why do you want to know?”
Shit. More lies. Helping is a pain but I really wanted to help Colm. “Well, I had mono a few years ago, and I wanted to know if it's the same stuff I took.” Another lie; I’ve never had mono.
“What difference does that make?”
“Look. I’m not lying to you, and I’m staying with you. Humor me.”
He took out his phone and went to the health app. He swiped down and said, “Acyclovir. It’s supposed to stop the virus from spreading.”
“Yeah. That’s what I took. You doing okay, I mean all things considered?”
“What’s not to love? Being dead is a blast.”
“But, you’re getting used to it.”
“Thanks for staying with me—and for not lying.”
My stomach lurched. “See you tomorrow.”
“Hey, Ms. Bolen, I got the name of the medicine. It’s acyclovir.”
Silence for ten seconds. “Listen to me, Benjamin. I want you to round up your parents right now, and then we’re all going to talk on the speaker phone.”
“Oh, I don’t think I can do …”
She interrupted in a tone I’d never heard from her before. “If you don’t follow my instruction, I’m going to call the police, and we’ll have the talk at the mental-health crisis center. Get your parents now.”
“Okay. Just a minute.” As I walked downstairs, one step at a time, I thought about running, but something in Ms. Bolen‘s voice ruled that out. I found Mom and Dad in the living room, and sat down near them, placing my phone on the coffee table between us. They waited for me to explain. “Um, Ms. Bolen wants to talk with you.”
I put the phone on speaker and said, “They’re here, Ms. Bolen.”
“Mr. and Ms. Conner, Benjamin’s been talking with me about a friend of his with a very dangerous delusion. Today, he told me that he had the delusion, not a friend. Is Benjamin being treated for mononucleosis?”
My father answered, “No. What’s going on, Ben?”
My mother then said, “Dr. Bolen, Benjamin talked with me yesterday about his friend. I assure you the friend isn’t Benjamin.”
Ms. Bolen quickly interposed, “This is quite serious. The delusion Benjamin described to me is very serious, and his friend needs immediate evaluation. This isn’t some story you’ve made up, is it, Benjamin?”
“No, it’s real. I just don’t want to get him in trouble.”
“He’s already in deep trouble,” Ms. Bolen replied. “Give me his name.”
I hesitated. My father, in a voice more kind than irritated, said, “Step up, Ben.”
“Colm. Colm Cotard.”
“Thank you, Benjamin.” Then she hung up.
For the next two days, I wondered if I’d done the right thing because I didn’t see Colm at school. On the third day, I got a call from Colm’s mother. “I want to thank you for telling Dr. Bolen about Colm’s problem, Benjamin. You probably saved his life.”
“Oh. Does he still think he’s dead?”
“No, and he wonders if you could come by the hospital to see him? He’s really a very sensible kid. I mean, he’s not …”
“No, I know he’s not. Let me know where to come.”
The next day I hesitantly entered his hospital room. His left wrist was wrapped in a large bandage, but otherwise he looked okay. He was facing away from the door, and I said as quietly as I could, “Colm?”
He turned his head, and his face looked as if a curtain had been pulled away. His eyes began to tear up as he looked at me. He was feeling again. He grabbed a tissue and wiped away the tears. “Sorry about that, Benjamin.”
“I’ve never been happier to see tears.” I walked to his bedside. “What did they do to you? Your mom says you don’t feel like you’re dead anymore.”
He held up his bandaged wrist. “I was on dialysis for a day and a half. The stuff I was taking for mono made me feel dead. Dr. Bolen said she’d only read about the condition in her training; the guy who first described it called it ‘the Delirium of Negation’; she’s never actually seen a case before.”
“Wow. All from a pill.”
“She told me that some people develop the disease for other reasons, and they rarely get better. I’m lucky that once they filtered the drug out of my blood, I felt alive again. Thank you so much for staying with me. Somehow I knew you’d help.”
I saw Colm’s mother at the doorway. Oh well, she must know he’s gay. Looking at him, now, my heart went pitter-patter. After all, we’d been through hell together. I leaned over the bed on his right side to kiss him squarely on the lips. “How about a movie or something when you’re out of here?”
His smile said everything I needed to know. Shallow I may be, but when a hidden gem appears, even I know what to do.
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