CW: This story references self-harm and suicide.
Our current understanding of memory shows that physiologically, activating a memory stimulates the same regions of the brain that were active when the memory was initially encoded. To remember is not to recall; it is to relive.
On another side of the coin, to imagine an event taking place activates the same responses in the brain as actually witnessing the event in real life. To imagine a dog entering the room activates the same physiological responses in the brain as a real dog entering the room. Thus the lines between memory, imagination and reality become blurred.
I often find myself back in that room, running through the endless permutations of decisions I could have, should have made. I sit in guilt and shame for knowing better and not acting, embarrassment that these moments I could have changed weigh so heavily upon me.
Every decision is a crossroads, leading to futures unknown until they are lived. Sometimes we grow, sometimes we regress; sometimes we move laterally. Always, we carry the weight of our decisions, the times we fail ourselves out of fear, out of pride.
We carry these ghosts with us as we travel through time.
I am 19 in the winter of 2018, having travelled to Beijing, China with 18 other university students for two weeks. We stay on-campus at the Beijing Foreign Studies University for the duration of our visit.
It is the final night of our stay.
I am called to an upper floor by my friend Max (18). He asks me to bring rolls of toilet paper if I can: one of the girls had fallen sick and needs help. I exit the elevator on the 6th floor and see Max helping Mary (27), hobble towards the elevator. He tells me she is sick and needs some fresh air (at this point in the trip, many girls have caught food poisoning from the nearby restaurants). He asks if I would help clean the vomit off the floor.
I wipe up the vomit (black) and enter Mary’s room to flush it down the toilet. The lights are all off and a TV plays ‘In My Feelings’ by Drake and a strange smell hangs in the air. I notice bottles of various alcohols scattered around the room: next to the TV, on a bedside table, on the floor.
A darkness watches me from the bathroom. I sense the hairs of the back of neck prickle. I close the door and leave.
Max sends me a text:
Come down to the pond outside with an extra pair of shoes.
It is rainy season and the air outside is muggy. When I arrive at the pond, Mary and Max are sitting beside each other. I hand Max the shoes and he pats the ground beside him. He says:
Mary has been feeling down recently. Mary, would you like to tell Rushil what’s been going on?
Mary does not say anything. Max continues:
Mary, Rushil is a good listener, I’m sure you can talk to him.
What’s going on? I say. The night seems darker than usual.
Mary does not say anything. She looks drowsy and rests her head in her palms. Max says:
Mary, can I tell Rushil what’s been going on?
Max turns to me. He looks concerned, but then, he always looks concerned:
Ok then. Well, Mary has been feeling down for a while and tonight she took some pills.
What pills? I ask.
I’m not sure, Max says.
What pills? I ask Mary.
She doesn’t respond.
Max, I say, this is important. We need to know what pills they are.
Max looks to Mary. Do you remember what pills they were Mary?
She shakes her head.
Do you remember how many? I ask.
She shakes her head.
Ok, I say. Ok.
What should we do? Max says.
Give me her door-key, I’ll go up and check what pills they were and see if we need to get help.
Max asks Mary for her door-key and hands it to me.
I run to Mary’s room and find the pills by her bedside. Anxiolytics, for help with sleeping. I fumble with my phone to search for side effects; the internet in the building fails me repeatedly. Finally, I find a page. The end of a long list reads ‘CAUTION: DO NOT MIX WITH ALCOHOL. MAY RESULT IN DEATH.’
A draught blows in, whistling over the open necks of 9 bottles of alcohol around the room.
Our lecturer, Fitz, is asleep on the floor below. I should go wake him. No, I shouldn’t. It’s past 10. He has a wife and baby. We’re all adults here, we can deal with this ourselves. But someone might be dying. But someone might not be dying. How do you live with someone’s death on your conscience?
Can you live with someone’s death on your conscience?
Mary and Max stumble through the door.
She was feeling tired and wants to lie down, Max says.
We can’t let her lie down, I say.
I ignore the question. Mary, did you drink all of this tonight?
She mumbles a ‘yes’.
I guide her to the bed and ask her to sit up, please. I check her pulse. It isn’t weak. Is it? I don’t know. I don’t know what a weak pulse is. I should know what a weak pulse is. Right? Her breathing seems steady and she is lucid for now. Max takes a seat beside her on the bed.
I have to get Fitz, I say.
No, Mary says.
Why? Max asks.
Please don’t, Mary says. I’m fine.
You took a lot of pills tonight.
I’m fine, Mary says.
I pace. I stop. I think. I take a seat opposite the bed facing Mary and Max.
Okay. Okay. Would you like to talk about this?
This is my attempt at a compromise. Mary doesn’t want me to get help; I don’t want to feel like I’m useless. We talk about suicide or self-harm, but I am only half listening. Mary never looks me in the eye, never answers my questions directly, always speaks to Max only. She pulls up her sleeves and reveals cuts on her arm. I understand, I say. Mary doesn’t acknowledge my statement. On my left arm, my own scars burn.
There are four of us in here, I think.
Finally, Mary says she would feel better if John (24), another man on our trip, was here. John and Mary had developed a romantic relationship over our trip. Max says he’ll go while I stay with Mary.
Mary and I sit in silence. Her head begins lolling and her eyelids droop. I say I need her to sit up, please. She sits up. Her eyes begin closing. I feel her pulse. Weak, strong, I don’t know. The silence hangs for an eternity. Attempt at conversation is met by a word or a grunt.
Suddenly Mary snaps awake and begins gathering things. She needs to have a cigarette she says.
I should come with you.
No, she says, I want to be alone.
She walks out the door.
I don’t understand why my presence makes her uncomfortable. I had only a single conversation with her a few days ago, about what we were studying and it seemed pleasant at the time. Was I doing any good being here? Should I go to get help despite her explicit wishes?
The air in the room weighs heavy on my shoulders.
I decide to follow Mary, at a distance, to make sure she was okay. I walk out of the room.
The elevator hasn’t left the floor we’re on. Maybe Mary hadn’t gone downstairs. I look down the corridor to the balcony smoking area. Empty. I look back at the elevator. Hit ‘Going down’.
The doors open.
Mary is huddled in the corner of the elevator, eyes shut, head forward, her belongings clutched at her chest. I don’t move. She isn’t moving.
Then she opens her eyes and pulls herself up.
Mary are you- I start.
She pushes past me out of the elevator doors and runs back to her room. I hear the door slam shut. Leave me alone, she might’ve said, as she walked past me. She might not have.
This is the extent of my involvement with the events that took place this night.
I take the elevator back to my room and sit on my bed in shock, not quite sure what I had done, not quite sure what to do next. I send a message to Max telling him I am going to Fitz and he can decide what to do. Max says no, he and John were with Mary now and he would get Fitz if the situation worsened. I tell myself it is out of my hands now, that I am absolved of guilt should anything happen.
A cockroach in the wall tells me this is not true.
Mary did not die that night and the next morning Max tells me not to mention the situation to anyone: Mary is embarrassed about the whole thing. We leave in groups to the airport to catch our flights back to Australia. I am in Mary’s group of ten. She doesn’t speak to me, doesn’t look at me. When we split to get lunch, she sends me a message apologizing for what happened the previous night as she doesn’t remember anything. Max had told her I helped though, and she is grateful. The message ends with a smiley. I respond: It’s alright and are you feeling better today?
That is the last time we spoke.
Rushil D’cruz is a Malaysian-Indian rapper, currently practicing under the stage name SUSHI on Whadjuk Noongar Boodja.