Mauricio J. Almonte

One Daniel Ramos 



Often in the repeating islands of the Caribbean, Mauricio Almonte splits time between baking (a mean cassava bread), dreaming (of Pan-Caribbeanism), and writing (readerly experiences).  Recent publications appear in sx salonTHAT Literary Journal, and Culture Strike Magazine; occasional tweets @adifferntword.  

Dedicated to Martha R. Ingram, Nicholas S. Zeppos,

and the memory of Daniel Ramos Queiroz.


I’ve known no greater loss than that of an interlocutor. 

His name was Daniel Ramos.  Tall young guy from Venezuela.  An international student working towards a subsidized Ph.D. in Philosophy.  Started chuckling every time he saw me, break into laughter during our hyperbolic salutes.


— And how is my most illustrious scholar and sole heir to the seventh largest petroleum empire on Earth? 


He had at least one brother.  Older, I think.  One did not need much interaction to sense a terminal degree in Philosophy was not in the family plans.  Wealthy was far from accurate when describing his parents, at Vanderbilt.  Maybe a better word in Venezuela.  I met them once, late September of 2002, when they travelled to Nashville in order to see their son lay on a plush hospital bed, the centerpiece of a sealed, cold hospital room, in effect, a walk-in refrigerator.  With tubes nearly everywhere, Daniel seemed to be growing roots and branches in that place, as if determined not to go anywhere. 

Of all the ways in which one can deal with the disquiet that sometimes accompanies awareness of not knowing, the pursuit of an advanced university degree seemed the safest, we both thought.  And it really did trouble us, not knowing, which must have been part of the reason why we took pleasure in something as small and seemingly insignificant as the act of greeting, of seeing a familiar face sure to respond in kind.  

I still do not know if he ever opened his eyes before his middle-class parents presumably flew his body to South America, and it sometimes troubles me, though not nearly as much as the silence surrounding Daniel’s death. 


— Ah, ¡Monsieur Rousseau!


We had dedicated the bulk of an entire summer to reading as much Rousseau as humanly possible.  I was interested in the boisterous persona one hears in Confessions, Daniel in the younger person who penned The Social Contract.  As an international student on an F-1 visa that prevented him from working, he was utterly at the mercy of the university and whatever family members sent his way.  I, a naturalized person of color, was not exactly in a position to celebrate.   

Summers meant doing monk work for professors, seven or so dollars an hour, minus taxes, for a month or two; writing erotic letters, for pay, in response to indecent requests and propositions mailed from all over the country to what senders imagined to be a Texas born, Swedish looking platinum blonde living in Central California; surviving on a steady diet of canned peaches (a 48 oz. can for well under two dollars); and mastering the art of living without essentials such as napkins and toilet paper.  In short, we endured somewhat typical sufferings associated with graduate school, hardships often normalized in a way that magically preempts attempts at complaining, e.g., give birth to near automatic reactions such as, “That’s part of being a graduate student.” 

Not to be confused with debt, lack of money, I am somewhat convinced, does not rank very high on the list of effective causes moving a person to take his/her life. The wealthiest nations, and the costliest universities, it turns out, have some of the highest suicide rates.  

So, why did Daniel kill himself? Short answer is, I don’t know.  It’s not the question I remember pondering at the time, nor after.  What I constantly thirsted to know and failed to understand was, why did he do it that way?  To drink a liter or so of a somewhat common household item that promptly and utterly destroyed everything in its path:  tongue, voice box, esophagus, stomach, and all that follows.


— Let them listen to my confessions; let them blush at my depravity; let them tremble at my sufferings... 


Never told him that I myself had tried the thing.  Shortly after arriving at Vanderbilt, my second semester, I think it was.  Despite the university’s awe inspiring Reconstruction-era oak trees, its dark green magnolias, the entire landscape so carefully manicured by people of color, name and narrative about institutional prestige, I generally felt uncomfortable there, both out of place and out of time, a servant of sorts, easily replaceable, in a bad way.  Naturally, perhaps, during my first months there I used to drive all the way to Northern Ohio to see a sweet librarian I knew at the time, whenever possible, every other weekend, about.  When that ended, when there was no longer access to all the beautiful conversations said person had to offer, a dreadful certainty that all had ended came along.  If I had felt out of place in Tennessee then, I was now out of place in the whole fucking world.  But that, fuck no!  That never crossed the mind.  

The Marilyn Monroe route was far more attractive.  And so, it was sleeping pills for me, lots of them, Viagra blue. Washed the dishes.  Made the bed.  Ironed a bit.  Everything was nice and neat.  Tried reading but couldn’t, or didn’t really want to, and laid down to sleep.  Woke up at about three or four in the morning, breathing faster than an out-of-shape sprinter. 

It’s the worst hangover imaginable, to wake up after one has made such plans.  And what makes it so bad is that it lasts what seems like forever. And that lingering thought, Shit, this wasn’t supposed to happen!  One feels one has just missed the bus, the only way out of a place so shitty that there’s no guarantee it will be back anytime soon, if ever, and that feeling hangs on you.  Fuck!  What now?  

Got enough energy and/or courage to try it again a month or so later.  Same results.  Same hangover.  I gambled and again I’d lost.  And those were my two attempts.  The thought of there being other ways, what Daniel did, for instance, that never crossed this mind.  


Daniel’s death was thus a double surprise. First, weren’t philosophers, true philosophers, if it came to a negative answer to that —the only question worth asking, according to Camus—, supposed to take hemlock?  A greater surprise came by way of the utter silence about the thing within the university.  Nothing.  Le néant.  Nada.  Not a thing beyond a brief service at the university’s All Faith Chapel one sweaterish afternoon, late September.  And then, for several weeks after that, occasional comments, of murmured birth, that he was on medication, had stopped taking them, often accompanied by, “Don’t tell anyone I said that,” or “You didn’t hear it from me.”

And it seems rational somehow, that people would want to avoid the topic.  I should qualify and hopefully clarify: most people in the United States, a space where I’ve lived about three fourths of my life, not all of it, thankfully.  Within said space, suicide is very much a four-letter word, something to be muttered. Newscasters are often visibly uneasy when reporting such deaths, more often than not capped by a moralizing sentence or two and what seems like a near obligatory public service announcement about where an individual can seek help, “if you or anyone you know…”.  Laws, policies, and regulations instruct educators, police officers, medical staff and many others how to proceed when dealing with a person who speaks of suicide or provides indications of such thoughts. In short, talk of suicide seems regulated or channeled into a relatively small region where, in order to voice or take on said topic, a layperson who has attempted or considered suicide must adopt a confessional stance vis-a-vis a interlocutor turned confessor, that is, deliver such a narrative in the key of repentance with the implicit or explicit admission that what s/he did was not only wrong but also a sign of mental illness.  Depression, a common condition associated with said thoughts and actions, often receives an Aquinaesque treatment, elevated to the ranks of a First cause, an origin without origins, within said cultural space.  Quite often, there is not much to say when doing so invites undesired consequences.  


— Persuader sans convaincre. 


Ah, yes, a useful distinction; being persuaded is not the same as being convinced.  It’s much easier to persuade a person to act in a particular way, to say or swallow certain words, invariably anchored in the immediacy of self-interest, than to convince said person doing so serves a greater good.  A handful of factors may persuade us to remain silent, to clip our own tongues when it comes to suicide.  It’s doubtful those same factors would be nearly as effective at convincing us that such silence would bring any change in the general state of affairs that brought about the need to speak of it in the first place, in short, in any way modify a disquieting status quo.

I remember wondering, years after Daniel’s death, if part of the reason for that apparent reluctance to remember and speak about him at Vanderbilt was guided by a (mis)conception of silence as a form or subtype of nothingness, that is, conflating inexistence with absence, the fact that something did take place with a potential opposite.  Maybe that (mis)conception of silence, too, moves many to shy away from talking about suicide in a horizontal fashion, as equals, from one human being to another.  I don’t know.  


— ¡Tienes que ver Venezuela, chamo! 


True-true.  More than once, I did say or promised to visit Venezuela.  Things are not nearly as stable as they were decades ago, though, and so, I’ve come to Trinidad and Tobago; one can see Venezuela from here. 

In Port of Spain, a home base of sorts, I’ve befriended my host: a short woman born in Saint Lucia some eighty years ago.  She reminds me of my (dead) grandmothers, speaks of Old Testament characters as if they were relatives who’ve stepped out to get mustard seeds or saltfish at the corner store, feverishly defends (excuses?) a U.S. president I don’t, and watches news outlets I run away from.  Despite differences, we’ve become best friends of sorts.  Tells me stories about spirits, reincarnations and bush nights, gives practical advice whenever I’m hand washing laundry, and shows me how to read the sky.  I’m her only guest in a place with space for many more, and intuition tells me we both know there is no greater loss than that of an interlocutor. 

While in Tobago, not long ago, I rented a house from a taxi driver who occasionally took me along for rides.  On one of these, to and from  a town called Castara, a place so steep one often has to walk sideways, the driver-landlord told me of a messy separation from a former wife, of how he had considered and been driven to contemplate suicide, of how thoughts of his children and (dead) father, a pastor with a significant following whose house I was now renting, helped remove those thoughts from his mind. 

The passenger, too, a woman in her early thirties with beautiful dreadlocks and a knotty relationship with in-laws, soon joined in with her own story of suicide (contemplation).  God, she said, was her savior, and her two children.  A most natural conversation, it seemed, inviting, and a good thing.  

In a part of Trinidad sometimes called the “deep south,” pretty close to Venezuela, I squinted these eyes on a clear day, focused on a spot the color of caramel-sand. “That’s Venezuela,” people said, looked at me funny when asked if any boats were traveling there, and jokingly (?) warned there was no toilet paper in that place, clearly unaware of the many things I learned while at Vanderbilt. 

And I did see it. True-true. Yelled, “¡Daniel!” too.  Adding Venezuela to list of countries seen.  Writing (and publishing) all this just in case reincarnation does exist; Daniel would be in his late teens now and, who knows, maybe wanting or needing to talk about stuff. 


Speak with me.  






© The Acentos Review 2020