Driving with my eyes closed always makes me feel guilty, but tonight the fog is so thick that it almost doesn’t matter. Still, there is good reason to arrive at my destination intact, so I force myself to slow down and pay attention. I assume the hapless motorists sharing the road with me would also prefer that I keep my self-destructive tendencies in check, at least until I turn off the car. Even at this speed the mist reaches in through the open window to keep me awake with an infinite series of tiny slaps to the face. The water collects on my forehead, tiny droplets merging into bigger ones that weave their way into my eyebrows and dance, bloated and shiny at the periphery of my vision before succumbing to their growing mass and dropping down onto my cheeks. It looks so fresh and clean that I’m tempted to stick my tongue out for a taste, but this would require removing the hand that’s been covering my mouth for the entire trip, which is probably a bad idea. I can’t remember exactly what I’m trying to hold in, but I know it’s important.
As I round the last bend, the north tower of the bridge comes into view, its silhouette dark and indifferent above the swirling fog. With a ragged exhalation I drop my left hand, loosen my grip on the wheel with my right and allow the color to return to my knuckles. It feels like I’ve been holding my breath in that position for days. As I get closer, I find an unpaved parking lot out of sight of the guard booth and switch the engine off to let the car coast until the muffled crunch of tires on gravel lulls it to a stop. Fighting the impulse to rest for a moment, I will myself to open the door and then look down with faint surprise as my legs decide to follow this lead by creeping out of the vehicle one at a time to search for solid ground. A falsetto moan escapes as I heave my body out of the seat and stand there teetering over my feet. After two straight days of smothering my remorse under a thick coat of artificial euphoria, the veneer is now dropping off in chunks.
With one arm on the roof and the other on the door, I steady myself and let the ocean breeze fill my nose and mouth with the salty assurance that I am finally here. The aroma coaxes dim childhood memories out of the less corrupted areas of my brain, so I relax and let them flow – crowded car trips to the few swimmable beaches on San Francisco Bay, the bite of the wind made sharper by the cries of gulls overhead, my mother laughing as I threw myself shivering into the embrace of a dry towel she held open for me just beyond the reach of the water. I know I was happy then. I try to recall the feeling, but it scurries away like a sandpiper before an incoming wave.
With both arms I push my weight forward and start toward the bridge. After maybe ten steps I remember that I’ve left the door open, so I stop and stand there awhile, swaying in rhythm with the trees as I look back at the empty car. Going back to close it would be a waste of valuable momentum, so I keep moving forward. It doesn’t really matter much anyway. Security is only pertinent to the future.
By the time I reach the north gate of the sidewalk, the fatigue has bled into the marrow of my bones. I lean into the bars of the fence and rest my forehead against the cool iron like a convict waiting out the end of his term. Four-fifty AM, ten more minutes before I can make it onto the bridge, but I dare not sit down. The last thing I need is to pass out and get taken to the drunk tank again. No way am I screwing this up like the rest of my worthless life.
On reflex I reach back into my pocket and pull out the glass vial that has held the corpse of my joy for the past decade and check it once again – still empty, just like every other time I’ve looked tonight. It’s better this way, really – no distractions. If I had any more coke I’d be obligated to finish it, but like all the things I love, it was devoured hours or years ago. I hold it up to the streetlight and turn it slowly between my fingers, watching the rays dance inside the clear cylinder like so many captive angels and shake my head. This used to hold all the answers, the key to that first moment where everything was perfect and I was a God. Productivity, happiness and contentment were all there to be had; all I had to do was unscrew that cap and lay out a few more lines. How was I to know that paradise was such an ephemeral thing? Within months (or was it weeks?), that faint hint of doubt found its way in. For a while, I could banish this uncertainty by simply doing more coke, but it always returned, just a little bit larger, like a shadow under my feet growing longer as the day passed inexorably toward night. The consequences piled up until reality became intolerable, and all my choices dwindled down to desperate euphoria or abject terror. There was no choice but to do more, and I continued to crawl further inside as my world contracted around me. I squint my eyes until my hand, the vial and the light beyond all meld into one bright, swirling blur as I try to remember. When did it stop working? How did I reach the point where there was never enough coke, sex or money to make it OK to be me? The answer is out there somewhere, I know it, but I’m just too tired to look anymore. I heave the phial out toward the shore and listen as it shatters in a soft puff against the rocks. There’s only one truth that matters now: when your problem and your solution become one and the same, you are thoroughly and completely fucked.
The gate buzzes open just as the first blush of rose is appearing on the horizon to the east. Trying not to look as empty as I feel, I stride onto the sidewalk with purpose, like I have a destination on the other side. As I pass each successive light post, a growing sense of buoyancy propels me forward, and by the time I reach the center span I am effervescent with fear and hope. Leaning over the rail, I watch billows of grey fog drift around and over each other, parting here and there to offer ephemeral glimpses of the dark water underneath. I step back three paces and take one final look at the four foot barricade standing between me and the solace I seek. Years of failure and bad decisions gather around me, behind me, coalescing into an irresistible pressure that compels me forward in this one direction like toothpaste out of a tube. I allow the impulse to fill my body and my mind, crowding out all indecision. The answer is as bright and clear as a birdsong at sunrise. I don’t know why I couldn’t see it before. With a gasp of anticipation I rise up on my toes and lean my weight forward – and that is when I see him.
He is such a curious sight that I can’t help but stop and stare, and as I stand there transfixed I can feel the doubt and remorse that I had just banished crawling back to me like chastised dogs. It is obvious even at this distance that he is not a cop. It is a warm morning, but watching him sends a chill down to my soul. He is burrowed into his black overcoat as if shielding himself from the bite of some illusive wind, his shoulders hunched so far inward that watching him makes my own begin to hurt. He doesn’t carry himself like a man who has suffered a lifetime of defeat, whose muscles and spine have curved down over the years to cope with the incessant impact of one inevitable failure after another. No, he seems much more uncomfortable than that. He bears the stilted look of one who has been broken by some unexpected and incomprehensible loss, a tragedy suffered in the recent past or near future. Every step he takes is an exaggerated effort as he wrenches one foot off the pavement behind him before dropping it down in front of the other as if trudging through his own private snowdrift. Moving like he is, I half expect him to be wearing heavy boots, but as he draws nearer I see that his shoes are immaculate – black alligator buffed to an impeccable shine. His pants carry the sheen of a fine silk weave, rippling with every movement like the mist gliding over the waves below. An understated pale yellow tie is visible above the top button of his overcoat with a perfect Windsor knot to fasten down the last shreds of his dignity. As he continues to slog forward he sinks lower into his expensive coat, looking somehow for the supple leather to protect him from the elements that comprise his own personal plague. His face comes into focus and I note his full head of hair, well conditioned, sharp, battleship grey. A thin layer of sweat gives his face a subtle shine not unlike the fabric of his suit and the horizontal lines across his forehead bespeak the analytical mind of a man who is accustomed to solving big problems with bold solutions. But there is a slackness of resignation around his eyes and mouth, a bewildered acknowledgement of an inexorable failure.
He appraises me with similar interest, beginning at my raised heels and then travelling up my poised legs and torso before resting his eyes on my face. Piercing blue, they are a devastating combination of intensity and defeat. The overall effect is so striking that I take a step back, but I do not break his gaze. He seems only faintly surprised by my reaction as he stops and regards me for what grows into a very long time, until our bizarre encounter begins to feel almost inevitable.
The wind starts to pick up and the sounds of the bay below rise to fill the silence between us. I watch as his hair struggles valiantly to remain in place before yielding at last to the entropy swirling around him. As the first few wisps of silver fall down around his forehead, he tilts his head to one side with a somber smile. At that point it dawns on me as well – we are both here for the same reason.
He is straight and to the point. “Did you leave a note?”
I blink at him like a dim-witted owl, trying to buy time for my mind to catch up with my emotions. “A note?” He waits to see if I feel compelled to repeat the question, so I suppress the urge.
“For your family. So they know what happened to you.”
“Um, not really.” I find it somehow disturbing that this conversation makes sense. “Did you?”
“I left a letter with my attorney to be opened tomorrow.” This is great. I can’t even end my worthless existence without some suicidal overachiever coming along to make me feel inferior one last time. “How did you plan on people knowing you were number 1500?” he asks.
I go back to my idiot owl imitation.
His eyes narrow, and the annoyance spreads out to occupy the rest of his face. “You don’t know do you?”
“Know? No,” I echo my confusion.
He inhales like a patient tour guide addressing the one dimwit in every group who insists on asking asinine questions. “As of August 19th 2008, there have been one thousand four hundred and ninety nine officially documented suicides off the Golden Gate Bridge. Whoever jumps next will be number 1500. That’s not why you’re here?”
“Well, no. I came today because there was nowhere else for me to go. I didn’t really consider the timing.”
He frowns and nods his head once. “I have been waiting all month for number 1499.”
Now it’s my turn to be annoyed. “Is that the only reason you’re here?” I feel somehow territorial, like this place should be reserved for losers like me who have demonstrated a sincere commitment to systematically fucking up every aspect of their lives.
. “I am losing my business and my home.” He looks at me as though nothing more needs to be said.
That’s it? I think. You have pissed away more that I have ever had, and now your whiny ass is out here getting in the way of me solving my genuine problems? “You came here so that you could be number 1500? That’s a shitty reason to kill yourself,” I respond instead.
“No, I came here to spare my family the shame of watching me fail. I picked today because being number 1500 will be my final legacy.”
“Well I’m not here for posterity. I’ve already lost my job and my family, and not because you greedy suits crashed the economy for everybody else.” For some reason, I leave out the part about being a hopeless coke-head who gave up everything he loved one bump at a time.
He nods again like he totally gets it and I just shake my head. So now I get to spend my last minutes on earth with some arrogant prick who just can’t bear to part with his overpriced home and cushy job. I can’t even go out in peace.
“So who’s going to go today?” he asks.
“Today? What, is there some kind of 24 hour quota here?”
“Well, I was just thinking that if we both go, no one will know who was first.”
“Jesus! Back to the 1500 thing? Can’t you just commit suicide like a normal person?”
He gives me a sardonic smile, and for the next several minutes we stare at each other in what has now become a backwards duel to the death. When he looks down I begin to relax, thinking that he sees how lame his problems really are. He turns like he is ready to go home to his extravagant house with the upside-down mortgage when a sudden impulse of resolve comes over his face. He charges forward, knocking me down as he runs to the edge of the sidewalk. With the determination of a hangman he hoists himself over the rail, and holding on to one of the support cables turns to look back at me. I scramble to my feet and rush over to the fence, trying in vain to grab hold of his arm. My panic rises as he extends out further over the water while I reach for him like Tantalus. At this point it is all primal emotion. I don’t care why we are here or who goes when. I just don’t want him to die. For a moment, he suspends himself there above the void, and I wonder if he is going to reconsider his rashness and lean in to let me help him.
“Don’t,” I plead. “This is stupid.” Hoisting my torso halfway across the railing, I extend my arm another foot. As if I have violated his self-indulgence with my concern, his eyes and nostrils flare in a spasm of defiance. Our fingertips brush together for an instant, but it is only because he has opened his hand to release his grip on the cable. He looks down as his feet clear the ledge, surprised to feel that they no longer bear the weight of his body, and then gasps up at me in horror and wisdom as he realizes that they never will again. We watch each other helplessly as he reaches up in silent apology – to me, to the unfinished life he has abandoned, to the husband and father he has just murdered. For a three second eternity I stare as he recedes from the world into a vapor of remorse. Turning away from the ledge, I wince as I hear a solitary crack, drier than expected. The sun is now peering over the horizon and I stand there for a moment, disoriented by the light warming my face. My exhaustion is so complete that the idea of a new day is almost incomprehensible. Forcing my feet forward, I stumble toward the north guard station. I hope after we finish with the formalities that someone will give me a ride home.