THE MAN WHO DID NOTHING
By Amr Mekki
The idea came to him as he sat behind his desk, staring at a thick stack of papers. He hesitated to start going through them for fear of being detained and missing the dinner he needed to attend. It was not the meal that provoked his hesitation—he knew it would be no better than what he could put together himself—but the promise he impetuously made to his fiancé as he left for the office that morning. She expected a fixed date for the wedding from him, no less than the papers in front of him expected his attention and signature. She would not understand that he was forced to stay late by an abundance work just as she would not understand that he only hastily made the promise to satisfy her into silence. He needed to come up with something to say for the meeting he was expected to attend that morning and could not do so with her persistent questions confronting him.
At leaving the apartment, he cast away the initial panic he suffered at realizing what he said and decided to come up with a date sometime during the day; tireless and unrelenting obligation gave him no time to do so.
He was not the sort of man to make such a decision without severe consideration—it was this character of prudence that earned him the position which came with its own office, so dear and meaningful to him if only for the silence he found within. As he sat staring at the line that waited for his signature, he realized his predicament: by attending to the documents, he would be committing an offense certain to sever the tenuous bond that still remained between him and his fiancé despite countless arguments that often resulted from his devotion to work. But to neglect the papers in front of him would be to give those who waited for such a negligence the momentum they sought in their designs to claim his position for their own. These two aspects of his life had never corresponded without demanding some compromise from him. The longer he spent blindly looking at the demanding line, the more obvious it became that for the first time in his life, no compromise was available to save him—a choice was necessary.
Another man in his position would not have been met with such insuperable difficulty because he would simply choose what he preferred. But as he sat with his heart palpitating in duress and his palms accumulating the sweats of anxiety, he realized he had no preference. He liked neither his fiancé nor his work more than the other and he disliked them both with the same intensity which until then, had only been tolerable. He was fond of his fiancé for the reasons he ought to be, but those were no more significant to him than the ones that maintained his fondness for the position he held. It was nice to have her company just as it was nice to have his own office; just as it was nice when they were provided with cookies instead of brownies at the meetings—to him, none of it was remarkable. These niceties justified the burden he could not help but think himself to bear when he was inundated with some obligation to fulfill for the satisfaction of his fiancé or position, but only when they were presented to him individually.
His utter inability to choose between the stack of papers and his fiancé caused him to suffer the two obligations simultaneously. Everything that he was accustomed to bringing to his mind for justification proved powerless beneath the weight of both burdens at once. It was precisely then, as he sat overwhelmed by a weight his body and mind could not endure for much longer, that the idea came to him. He would devote himself neither to one obligation nor to the other, but to that alone which in his heart was of any value to him for its being without any oppressive demands; to that which was not there for him only if certain conditions were obediently met but always, benign and sympathetic beyond all else that he had to suffer only after some compromise was made at his expense. For the first time in his life, he became resolved to devote himself entirely to his own self.
The idea came as a susurrus and brought with it such relief that he did not hesitate to give himself entirely to its counsel. Before he could consider the intricacies of what it suggested, a knock came at the door followed by the nervous head of his secretary. In a tremulous voice, she told him that the client for tomorrow’s meeting was on line one hoping to reschedule for some time earlier in the day and that his fiancé was on line two—pity laced her tone as she observed that the latter sounded upset. The secretary stood still, half concealed by the door, and waited for the nod that would permit her to leave.
Inspired by the idea, he lifted his gaze from the stack of papers and instead of nodding, silently looked at her with a smile she could not have understood before he closed his eyes and fell from the chair as if in a swoon. He heard his name cried out in horror before a panicked yelp for help came from her. Footsteps shook the ground and he could hear them approach as his head rested on its side along the tiled floor—he could smell the product used to maintain its luster as though it had never been used until then.
A diverse array of voices called his name but they seemed foreign to him. They all held a quality of fear naturally absent in the discussion of professional matters. A cold hand slipped beneath his neck to lift his head from the floor he was only then becoming acquainted with. His reaction to the cold clasp was suppressed so it could not distort the still expression he adopted at falling. He felt the person who held his head kneel and pull him upright against their folded legs. It was not until she called for water that he recognized it was the secretary—he never noticed the smell of jasmine that clung to her until then.
She patted his cheek softly to rouse him then started to use more strength until he had to bite his tongue to distract himself from the pangs that threatened to provoke a wince. When the water came, he knew what was to follow and betrayed no reaction when it was poured over his face. He heard someone say that they needed to call the police and his heart skipped a beat only to be immediately calmed by his own assurance that he was doing nothing wrong—that he was doing nothing at all—and that they were only calling to send for an ambulance.
The thought that he was doing nothing wrong resounded and stifled the agitation within him. He replayed it as he listened, not without amusement, at the various conjectures regarding the cause of his state: stress, illness, and overwork were the base of their guesses. He did not succumb to the temptation of telling them all that they were all wrong, that it was no more than his volition responsible, because he decided that he no longer needed to tell them or anyone else anything anymore. He maintained his assumed, seemingly natural stillness as he was gently placed on a stretcher by the paramedics who arrived much sooner than he expected. The scent of jasmine became all that mattered to him before he was carried away. It served to gradually ease him into the reality of his decision as he was brought to the ambulance, where he was welcomed by a calm unlike anything he had ever known.
He felt the paramedics check his pulse and even force open one of his eyes to shine a light into it but so great was his calmed state that to this too, he did not react. The tones of panic he heard from them at first gradually shifted into perplexity as they tried to understand what was wrong with him. He nearly smiled at their confusion. It was only when he was under the influence of bliss that people wondered what was wrong, but when he was burdened with stress and superficial responsibilities they took him for right.
When they arrived at the hospital, he heard the paramedics convey their bewilderment to nurses and doctors before he was taken to a bed that was more comfortable than the one in his apartment only because it would not have to be shared. He felt a number of people set numerous hands on him for his pulse, heart rate, temperature, reflexes, and for things he could not understand with his eyes closed. To all of it he remained still, certain that it was only a matter of time before he would be left to himself.
He was enthralled by the foreign terms he heard those around him desperately put forth in trying to explain his state—each one was followed by some observation that apparently discredited the term. In the midst of the vigorous assessments he heard a familiar voice above those of the others. Despite himself, he felt his eyebrows twitch slightly as they always did when his fiancé spoke in her demanding, aggressive manner. No one else noticed his reaction as everyone simultaneously looked to the source of the hysteric demand to be let in to see him. He heard a door open violently and knew at once that she was in the room.
“What happened to him?” she asked as though they were responsible.
“Miss, please, I have to ask you to…”
“I’m his fiancé, tell me what happened!”
The man who responded to her did not try to finish what he was obliged to say to anyone who entered as she did. His surrender was not due to her relation to the patient, which he did not doubt, but because he understood what the nascent fury in her tone could escalate to. He knew there was nothing to be done but satisfy her if she was to leave as soon as possible and assumed a gentleness suggestive of experience in summoning compassion.
“Well, it’s hard to say. We were told he just fainted, but he would have come to by now if it was just a fainting spell. He appears to be comatose, but there are still a number of things we have to do before we can come to any conclusion. Now Miss, please I need you to…”
“You expect me to leave when you don’t even know what’s wrong with him?” she asked, louder than before.
“We just need a little more time and I’ll be able to give you an answer. Please just wait in the lobby and once we’re done you can come back in.”
“Fine,” she replied, conceding only because an idea came to her. “But just give me a few minutes alone with him now, so I can say a prayer. Just a few minutes and I’ll leave.”
“Very well, but it can’t be longer,” he replied, conceding only because he could not do otherwise. “We need to continue with the tests.”
“Thank you doctor, just a quick prayer, thank you.”
He heard the footsteps of those who surrounded him retreat and a sense of disappointment disturbed his calm. Although he was motionless and could not see her, that she was alone in the same room with him reanimated the agitation he thought was left behind in the office. He felt a sense of shame as he heard her footsteps grow louder until they stopped and the only sound he could hear became the humming of a machine. Her desire to pray astonished him because in all their time together, he only knew her to contemn religion. That she was willing to pray for him made his shame intolerable.
He could not resist the temptation of seeing his fiancé in such a humble position and slowly opened his left eye—he heard her approach from that side—to a squint that would allow him view of the sight. He was prepared to reveal himself if her laments were passionate enough. Instead of finding her seated or kneeling with hands clasped and eyes closed in solemn prayer as he expected, he saw her head directly above his, fixed in an expression of severe scrutiny. No sooner did he make the movement than she began in a triumphant voice.
“I knew it.”
“Shush.” He let out between clenched teeth and shut his eye again.
“What do you think you’re doing you worm, I knew right when I saw you. You think you can fool me like you fooled them? You forgot that I know you!”
“Don’t shush me,” she said in a lowered voice. “Get up, do you know how much this will cost? I knew you’d try to get out of dinner but I didn’t think you’d take it so far. Get up, we’re leaving.”
“No.” He said through lips parted just enough to let the syllable emerge.
“What do you mean no? You think you can just run away from your life like this? Get up!”
“No, I’m not running. I’m not doing anything. I just closed my eyes and lay down. They brought me here. I’d be in the office if they left me alone.”
“You let them bring you here! Why are you doing this? Is this your way of calling off the marriage?
Are you such a coward that you couldn’t just tell me?”
“No, I’m just…”
He paused, for an instant unsure of what he was doing. Without seeing her, he knew by an almost imperceptible shift in her tone that tears were filling her eyes. The sight of them never failed to deprive him of all resolve, but would not look at them. Suddenly the reminder of the great calm he enjoyed before she came to interrupt it struck him. The thought of it alone sufficed to strengthen and inspire him into determination.
“You’re tired? Then why come here? Why not come home and sleep like everyone else? What are you doing here?”
“But they brought me here. If they took me to the apartment, I’d be there. It’s good, don’t worry: there, I’d have to get up tomorrow and I’d still be tired, here I can stay as long as I like, until I’m ready.”
“You can’t just do this! What about your job, what about me?”
He was spared from having to answer by the sound of the door opening.
“Miss, I’m sorry but we really need to…”
“Just a minute!” She yelled with the force of all that she suppressed and accumulated until then—the poor doctor retreated without a word.
“If you don’t get up on your own, I’ll just tell them what you’re doing!”
“They’ll think you’re crazy. I don’t feel like getting up.”
“And do you expect me to just wait for you and tell everyone you’re in a coma? Lie to everyone because you don’t feel like getting up?” She mimicked him with a contempt that strengthened his resolve rather faltering it as she hoped.
“I don’t know what else to tell you,” he said after realizing the doctor was not going to interfere again.
“Well don’t! If you don’t get up now, don’t expect me to wait for you! Consider me gone if you don’t get up now!”
“So be it,” he said, thinking only of the calm he could finally return to. He inexplicably remembered the scent of jasmine.
“I can’t believe you’re doing this to me!” She cried, forgetting to whisper.
“I’ve done nothing.”
A smile came to his lips that would have provoked her relentless wrath if she had not already run out of the room. The amusement he found in considering that all of what happened came only from his refusal to act was so great that he had to dismiss the thought in order to stop smiling and return to his blank expression.
He could conceive no more as a potential obstruction between himself and indefinite peace. But it had been so long since he did not have some obligation hungrily impose itself on his thoughts that he naturally came to expect something that would surely interrupt the ideal he had inadvertently found by choosing to satisfy himself rather than an external obligation. His incredulity was born of the ease with which he came to know the peace he resigned himself to believe existed only in Paradise. He was certain that it could not be so easy as it appeared and anticipated that at any moment the doctors would see through his guise of infirmity—or else what good were all their lucrative devices and tests for?
Each test conducted was accompanied by his assurance that someone would come through the door and expose his awareness to everyone in the room, but there was nothing more than their sustained perplexity and his own disbelief. When countless conjectures were expended and disproven by a test that followed each one, he heard them resign themselves to the notion that it was simply a coma that he had enigmatically fallen into.
They prepared him as they would a comatose patient and for nearly all of the preparations, he remained absolutely still. The washing, changing of his clothing, and installation of the IV provoked no response that could be noticed, but as with any man who was still conscious, the process of equipping the catheters proved to be too intrusive to be suffered with indifference. Only by biting his tongue with enough force to distract him during the process was he able to limit his reaction to a fleeting grimace that would have betrayed sensitivity and awareness if anyone in the room was then looking at his face. No sooner was he equipped than he resumed the cold, still expression that concealed his childlike, exuberant joy despite his crushed tongue.
He attributed the haste implemented by his caretakers to their shared disappointment. Although they deemed him comatose, he was sure it was only the result of there being no other answer available to their calculated minds. He felt somewhat sorry for them: despite their undoubtedly vigorous learning, they could not reach the simple notion that he was doing no more than keeping his eyes closed. His pity expanded further when he realized that they might have reached the truth outside the room but did not dare to announce it lest they confront what their schooling had not prepared them for. They needed only to implement a defibrillator or an injection of adrenaline to remove the covers of his guise, but to his good fortune, liability would not allow for such drastic attempts. This pity for them produced the resolve to reveal that he was only keeping his eyes closed, if only so they could consider it as a possibility if another case like his should appear to them. But he would only do this at opening his eyes again. However much he felt sorry for them, it was simply insufficient to motivate an interruption from his new, perfect bliss.
He was so impressed with what he found for himself that he wondered how many before him or of his own cohorts did the same. It could be that no less than half of those understood to be in a comatose state were only resting their eyes like him, wearied by the world and from having to look at it without respite for so many years. If the room were occupied by others in a state seemingly similar to his, he would have waited until they were alone, revealed himself, and listened for a response, but only to satisfy curiosity. The peace he was beginning to enjoy felt like a miracle to him and he refused to imagine that it could be made any better if shared with a companion.
He could not discern the passing of time from his stillness and would not have cared to if he could, if only because he no longer needed to. It did not take long before his body became accustomed to both the intake and removal of the nourishment delivered through his IV. Once the nurses determined what quantity sufficed for him—his last suspicion of their revealing his consciousness was in assuming he expended more energy than other comatose patients for his activity in thought, but no sign came to validate it and as those preceding it, it vanished—they only entered the room to replace the vessels attached to the catheters and his nutritious solution. His mind was not prepared to assimilate so soon as his body and he still held that there had to be something to impede on his earthly paradise. With each, almost silent entry of a nurse, the idea of that imminent imposition gradually faltered until it no longer came to him at all. Thus his mind came to accept his new manner of living, perpetually recumbent and characterized by such peace as could only be otherwise found in death.
It was only because his mind had grown accustomed to the continual occupation of something—pernicious anxieties, cumbersome obligations, or frivolous concerns—that he was able to adjust to the nothing it secretly longed for. The strains of transition that would have distressed a mind not unaware of the pleasures of idleness did not occur to his and as a result, the shift was seamless. He wasted no time in becoming intimate with his bed and developed a unity with it as another might with a spouse. The one served to naturally fulfill the other: the bed did not have to alternate occupants only to be deprived of them soon after they arrived, and he learned quickly how to assume an inanimate stillness similar to that which it naturally practiced. He was so comfortable with it and its altruistic allowance of itself that before long, he was no longer able to distinguish where his body ended and its began. His assimilation did not stop there and when he came to realize that even to open his eyes when no one was around to threaten his peace was no longer necessary, he extended himself to occupy all that surrounded him.
Since he could no longer see what was around him, there was nothing to suggest that the humming of the machines, the consistent beep that followed the movements of his heart, or even the objects attached to him were not simply aspects of himself. It was not thought that led him to this but its absence, for thought would have associated a sound to its material source. Since he no longer had to work or see he naturally concluded that he did not have to think, and since no imposition to his stillness came to instigate thought he was able to seal the lips of his once loquacious mind. Without its banter, he eventually came to a state not unlike that which he was believed to have fallen into. He had grown so accustomed to all that constituted his serenity that his senses became slothful as his body did. They were no longer consulted and utilized so they allowed themselves the same convalescence his body and mind enjoyed.
Even the nurses were no longer perceived as they were initially. After all else had ceased to exist beyond him, they served as the final variance to his assumed stillness until eventually, inconspicuously, they were also incorporated into him. Despite his retired senses, their entrance shifted the air to provoke an instinctual awareness, independent of thought, that maintained his frail and feeble attachment to the reality he had all but abandoned. When the passing of time rendered the nurses no more than an extension of himself, the awareness they conjured became obsolete and consequently, the faculties responsible for its production spared themselves the toil of function and became idle.
It was long after he assumed this imperturbable state, immune from all that could arouse a man, that the door was opened at a singular time by his fiancé. She pulled a chair next to him and with a resolute manner that would have disconcerted him if he was aware of her presence, she began in a whisper.
“So you’re still at it. It’s been three weeks you know. I was serious when I said I wouldn’t come back. I really thought about it and, well, considering the promotion a few months ago and then having to think of the wedding…What I’m trying to say is that I understand, sort of, why you decided to do this. I guess I was thinking more about myself and didn’t consider the stress you’ve been under. Well, I just wanted to say that, and that I’m sorry for yelling, okay?”
She paused for a moment and almost heard the response that would initiate the fruitful conversation she envisioned as many times as she went through the necessary sentiments in her mind.
“Hasn’t it been long enough? Come on, let’s go home, everyone is worried about you.”
Another pause ensued, but her tolerance for his silence was already depleted.
“You don’t have to ignore me, I apologized, didn’t I? I was upset and reacted like anyone else would! I mean what did you expect? My fiancé is pretending to be in a coma to avoid deciding on a date for the wedding! How else was I supposed to react?”
She thought this would serve to provoke a reply and at realizing her error, she grew more animated.
“Look, just because I told you I wouldn’t come back doesn’t mean you can just ignore me! You couldn’t have thought I was serious anyway. Did you really think I’d break off the engagement for this? How could I explain myself when everyone thinks you’re in a coma? I’d look like a monster! I already apologized, what more do you want?”
She could no longer tolerate the silence and stood with an emphasis of pride and violence straightening her posture before she continued in a voice that threatened to step over the boundary of a whisper.
“You think this is funny, don’t you? You’re just waiting for me to leave so you could burst out laughing like I’m sure you did last time! Well, I won’t let you! I was hoping that I could convince you just by talking but you’re too much of a child for that!”
She reached into her purse and pulled out a glass vial and syringe.
“Unlike you, I’ve been pretty busy these last few weeks. I’ve been trying to figure out how to make sure you would get up. I had a feeling you wouldn’t listen so I got this!”
She tapped the needle on the glass as if to assure him that nothing of what she said was any less than the truth.
“I know you’re looking at me! Just because it’s dark in here and I can’t see you squint doesn’t mean I don’t know you’re looking at me! Well, I’m sure you see what’s in my hands too. Do you know what’s in this vial? It’s arsenic. I knew you wouldn’t get up unless I made you so I got this. I’m sure you know what this could do if only a little is swallowed. Imagine what would happen if it was injected into your IV.”
There was not the slightest doubt within her as to whether he would respond to this, if only to reproach her and demand to know where she found it. At being met with no more than the sounds of the machines, she was enraged and lost awareness of the controlled volume she succeeded in maintaining until then. She stepped to the IV and began with an animosity in her tone that infinitely surpassed what she would have employed if he awoke to scold her.
“You think I’m kidding? You think this is a joke? The only joke here is you! A grown man taking cowardice so far! If you don’t get up I’m going to put all of this into your pouch! Do you know what that means? It means you will be poisoned—it means you’ll die! Don’t think I won’t do it, get up!”
A sob distorted the last word and with trembling hands, she filled the syringe with the contents of the glass.
“I won’t ask you again! Get up, now or never!”
Her words became unintelligible with uncontrollable sobs and although the majority of her being beckoned that she abandon her resolution, the minority, constituted of her pride alone, would not allow her to do so. With a wail produced from the sorrow of her very soul, she plunged the needle into the pouch and pressed to release the poison into it. The sound she let out was so passionate, so genuine in its emotion that it effortlessly penetrated all that had slumbered within him to reach his soul, which alone, despite its vessel, maintained a flicker of life. This unexpected, spiritual arousal resuscitated him and he slowly opened his eyes to behold the familiar figure of his fiancé.
“Look what you made me do!”
He watched her limp with an irreparably broken gait out of the room, weeping without revealing to him the cause of her anguish. It felt to him as though only two days had elapsed since he last saw her, and yet she seemed to have forgotten that he was only resting his eyes. He immediately felt sorry for her and opened his mouth to call her name, but in vain. A bitter pang seized him and prevented any movement from extending beyond his mind. Pain eased into the gradual loss of feeling. Realizing that he must have only dreamt of her, he closed his eyes and returned to stillness.
About the Author:
Amr Mekki has no credentials or notable accomplishments that have not been read somewhere else. He would be tormented by compunction to know that he bored a reader with a list of trifles. To those who will listen to him, he says that boredom is the root of all evil. When his hands are idle, the devil does not bother with them so he tries to keep busy. He spends more time dreaming than writing and more time writing than laughing. It seems to him an appropriate way to live until he has to write about himself and realizes that there is nothing to say.