This week, in remembrance of 9/11, I'm posting a short story I wrote shortly after the tragic event. Hope you enjoy it.
He struggles up the bridge's inclining sidewalk towards the center of the span with tiny, yet purposeful steps. The tap tap tapping of his bamboo walking-cane measures out his pained progress along the concrete walkway like a metronome marking time. Still wearing his lavender terrycloth bathrobe over thin-striped mustard yellow pajamas, he feels the sting of cold concrete on his bare feet and the morning wind biting into his flesh. The strong breeze blows his thin strands of hair wildly in the direction of the city below; he turns to see San Francisco shimmering like an iridescent pearl under the cobalt-blue autumn sky. To his left, beyond the lines of morning commute cars waiting at the toll-plaza, spans the Pacific, spreading out like a heavy cloak to that point of infinity where water merges with horizon.
It is 11, September 2001. Seeing the people sitting in their gas-guzzling SUVs and shiny BMWs, one person in each, he realizes that some of them have no idea that the world has changed forever. Several commuters smugly sit behind the wheel unaware that the towers have collapsed. They have not seen the television footage of people falling from a hundred floors up. He pauses to watch a lady behind the wheel applying ruby-colored lipstick to her mouth. Lucky you, he thinks, you still have a few more precious minutes to pretend you are safe and happy, and that your makeup is somehow important.
He turns back towards the city. The crush of tall, white buildings sprawling over seven hills now seems like so many piles of bleached bones decaying under the strong glare of morning sun. He slowly makes his way beyond the immense red-orange south tower - tap tap tap - the images still burned on his retina; unbelievable scenes of bursting flames, bodies spiraling through space, towers crumbling into massive clouds of gray soot. Sobbing again, he pushes his feeble body along, feeling like a criminal. His crime is appalling. The country, the entire world, has tumbled into a war of vicious hate where thousands have already died, and he still lives.
He has left Garrett a note. Only one note and only for Garrett, who should be waking up just about now. Up ahead a group of sixteen or seventeen runners come trotting towards him wearing shorts, sneakers and sweatshirts. They all have that well-fed, clean-cut, military look about them and he assumes that they are all army personnel stationed at the Presidio out for their morning run. How many of you will die on a desert battlefield? How many mothers and children will your bullets butcher? He can not look at their faces as they dash by.
He does, however, study their solid bodies brimming with vitality and he remembers that his own body was once like that. That is, before this disease chewed away his life a mouthful at a time. Yes, he was once strong but his strength has failed him. At thirty years old he is feebler than his grandfather. He was once a brilliant artist but the energy required to focus on a subject, much less hold a steady brush, has faded away. For a decade he was a loving husband and now this new horror will rent that away as well. Who was it, he wonders, that said death is a process of losing everything you cherish, one by one, hour by hour, until there is nothing left.
Garrett is his last cherished thing. He pictures Garrett's head against the white pillowcase, opening his eyes and finding the yellow-paper note on the other pillow. Garrett sits up, rubs the sleep from his eyes as he does each morning, takes the note and begins to read,
I'm not sure if we ever really get to choose who we love or how we live our lives. But the one choice we always have is whether we continue living within our circumstances. Today, I choose not to live in this world of hate, even if it means losing you. I can't go on minute after minute living with this terrible agony. The world has finally defeated me.
War will surely pull me further into despair and I cannot allow myself to keep dragging you down with me. You're free. I'm giving you a second chance at happiness, and I feel so very gratified to be doing this for you. Live again, love again, follow your dream.
My moments of true happiness in this lifetime of joys and sorrows have all come because of you. I love you more than the ecstasy of life, more than the comfort of death. Everything has slipped away from me now except the certainty of my love for you. The thought of your goodness warms my heart as I write this.
For you, let this war be a genesis, a beginning point, a second chance. For me, it is an untimely ending. A last gasp of horror before death.
Goodbye my love.
Shrill sirens. He pauses and turns back towards the toll-plaza. A police car races towards him, red lights flashing. Did the taxi driver radio 911? Perhaps a commuter using a cell-phone reported a lunatic in a bathrobe and bare feet hobbling along the railing.
He turns back and gazes towards the center of the bridge, which is still a quarter-mile away. He is certain of what he will do but now has less than a minute to do it before the cops stop him. He scrambles over the red-orange railing and crawls down onto a two-foot wide steel girder that forms an outer ledge. The bamboo cane is left behind, it's shiny handle lying against the dull concrete. He had originally imagined that he would leap from the center of the span, but no matter. He is over water and that's what counts. Now they can't stop me, he thinks, but even as this thought floats away he gets distracted. Clouds skirting between the sun and water are causing various shaped shadows to move over the bay's surface. They're mesmerizing from his vantage point, a kaleidoscope of muted colors.
He suddenly hears voices behind him, loud and rough. Are they just in his head or have the police reached him already?
He pulls off his terrycloth robe and it flies off on the wind. He stares wide-eyed at the queer sight of a ragged piece of lavender cloth sailing like a beautiful Chinese kite towards Alcatraz Island. He now understands why everybody who has ever jumped from this bridge, leaps from the city side rather than the ocean side. The wind. A strong wind always blows off the ocean and into the bay. Jumping from the ocean side would blow you back into the steel girders of the under-structure. On the city side, the wind blows you away from the bridge, giving you a clean, unhampered fall to the churning water below. Yes, that must be why, he thinks. The wind bites into his bare neck but he no longer feels the cold. It feels more like a steady pulse, a throbbing against his flesh.
Looking down three hundred feet to the Golden Gate Passage, he sees that the tide is rushing out to sea. He smiles, thinking that he prefers it that way. Perhaps they will never find him in that vastness. He should have worn something heavy to make him sink but it's too late for that.
Again he hears voices close behind him and he feels the sudden urge to turn back and climb over the rail, into the hands of the police who are trying to attract his attention. It is too late to take back the note, too late to pretend it was all a joke, but not too late to live; to continue living as the nightmare of war coalesce with the torment of this disease. Would that be kinder to Garrett? But even as these vertiginous thoughts swirl about his head, he leans forward, beyond the angle of repose.
Now the iron gray water is hurling to meet him. He has seconds left. His body screams something frightening and incomprehensible while arms and legs thrash against the onrush of air, as if trying to stop his fall. Then his body involuntarily goes limp. There is nothing to be done now. His thoughts are that this is exactly what the Trade Tower people experienced and he is happy that he is now one of them. Then he suddenly feels immense sorrow for Garrett, knowing that his lover will not understand. Having to deal with his death and the New York tragedy at once could very well break that magnificent spirit. Can he recover? Please forgive me, my love. This is his last coherent thought.
The water below becomes a torrent of foamy waves expanding to encompass the entire universe. Unimaginable pain sears though his being and then the sensation becomes a soothing one, chilly seawater incased within utter silence. Like a gentle lover, the ocean wraps its arms around his shattered body, slowly pulling him into peaceful depths, borne along by the current into the vast trackless Pacific. For a few seconds, a mustard yellow smudge remains on the surface of the sea, which then melts away and is gone.
Lambda Literary’s Good Calls.
2 months ago