These Five Hours

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Amy E. Robillard

Steve and I head to bed at the same time in the same room with our two dogs. We kiss each other goodnight, assure each other of our love, and close our eyes to attend to our thoughts and memories, our worries and eventually our dreams. Steve has worn a CPAP since I’ve known him because he suffers from sleep apnea, and if he didn’t wear the hose and nose pillow that pushes forced air into his system as he sleeps, he might stop breathing and die.

We haven’t always slept in the same room. Only in the last three years, since we moved into the new house, have we been able to manage it. In the old house, the sound of the CPAP combined with the white noise machine Steve required to sleep was too much for me. I slept in a different room, in what I thought of as my own bed. I tried not to notice that these arrangements were exactly like the arrangements my mother had with my stepfather. As an adult, I recalled the times my mother would go into Warren’s room at night for a spell and then come back out to the couch-turned-bed she slept in every night. It embarrasses me to remember those times, even now, thirty years later. What did they do with Warren’s wooden leg?

When Steve and I moved into the new house, we got rid of the clunky old white noise machine, which wasn’t actually a white noise machine but an air purifier, and replaced it with a small, more reasonable white noise machine. We got a bigger bed. We put a white noise machine next to my side of the bed. And somehow we made it work. We all four slept in the same room. And it felt right.

But in the last year or so, it has stopped working. Ever since Steve came home from the hospital after his gallbladder surgery, something about the CPAP machine has been off. The hissing sound it makes is unbearable. We’ll fall asleep at the same time, but inevitably, I’ll wake up around twelve-thirty or one to use the bathroom and when I return, the hissing sound makes it impossible for me to fall asleep. I say his name to wake him, scaring the shit out of him in the process. He tells me I’m going to give him a heart attack. I tell him he’s going to kill me with that goddamn hissing. “Just adjust the nose piece, please.” He adjusts it. I roll over in bed. Ten seconds later it’s hissing again.

I tell my friend Hillary that if I ever do end up murdering my husband, my entire defense will consist of me imitating the CPAP hissing sound in court while others are trying to speak. I will drive everybody so crazy that they’ll find me not guilty. Psssssssssssssssssshhhhhhhhhhhhh. Take a breath. Psssssssssssssssssshhhhhhhhhhhhh. Repeat until they set me free.

•••

More than once Steve has told me this story: when he was a teenager on vacation at Myrtle Beach with his family, his mom vetoed his choice in a tee-shirt shop on the boardwalk. He wanted one that said, “The Ayatollah is a Assaholla.” (This was in June, 1980, at the height of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, so Steve had good reason to believe in the Ayatollah’s Assaholla-ness.) Interestingly enough, his mom didn’t have a problem with his getting one that said, “Football players do it in the end zone.”

For years, until so recently that I’m embarrassed to tell you, I thought that tee-shirt was ridiculous because, really, what a stupid pun. Oooh, a play on the words do it. So immature. And then a week or so ago, we got back on the subject of that story and I said something along the lines of how silly this shirt was. “Remember, I was barely sixteen,” Steve reminds me.

“I know, but still. You mom thinks it’s perfectly okay to get you a t-shirt with a really juvenile reference to sex but not one about the Ayatollah, who really was an assaholla. And besides, what does it even mean: football players do it in the end zone? Do they run into the end zone and suddenly celebrate by doing it right then and there?”

“I think it’s more about doing it in the end zone, you know, like anal sex?”

Pause.

“Oh my god. You mean that end zone?” And the uncontrollable laughter begins. I’m dying. I fall over on the couch. I can barely catch my breath, but when I am finally able to, I manage to spit out, “Your mother let you get a tee-shirt about anal sex but not about the Ayatollah?”

“I don’t think she realized it was about anal sex.”

“Did you?”

“Not until a few years ago.”

My stomach hurts from laughing so hard, so I cannot reply. Minutes pass.

I never met Steve’s mother. She died years before I met Steve, but what I do know about her is that she was unhappy. She did not delight in being a mother, she did not delight in Steve, and she rarely demonstrated affection toward him. I do not think I would have enjoyed meeting her. His father, though, was one of my favorite people on this earth. Kind-hearted, warm, funny, empathetic, and unashamed to eat blueberry pie with each meal because otherwise I or Steve might get to it first.

Finally, I find my voice. “What made you realize it was about anal sex?”

“I don’t know. I think I was telling someone the story and it just dawned on me.”

I don’t know how to write laughter. I don’t know how to tell you that my stomach hurt so badly from my laughing so hard at the absurdity of it all. Maybe it wasn’t that the story was all that funny. Maybe it had been too long since I’d had that kind of full-body laugh. Maybe my body needed that kind of embodied emotional experience.

“You do realize, of course, that that tee-shirt could very well be interpreted as being about gay sex, right?”

“Yeah, but it wasn’t the Ayatollah.”

•••

When I crawl into the bed in the guest room, the one with the memory foam mattress, I always squint at the clock to check the time. It’s usually between one and two a.m., which means I have about five hours before I need to get up. These five hours, I think. These five hours have to get me through.

Lately I’ve been noticing when I adjust myself in this bed, rolling over onto my stomach, that my left hip hurts. When I get out of bed in the morning, I have to take an extra second or two because of the pain.

•••

The few times I can remember an adult asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I can remember responding that I wanted to be either a fireman (masculine pronoun) or Little Red Riding Hood. I clearly had a thing for running into, not away from, danger.

•••

I teach undergraduate courses in rhetorical theory and the personal essay regularly, and one of the things I find myself telling students outright again and again, even though I know on some level that it is something they must learn for themselves from experience, is that the louder a person declares their strength or their smarts, the weaker or the less intelligent they actually are. A person who is strong or intelligent doesn’t need to announce her strength or her intelligence, I tell them. Pay attention to the quiet ones. They’re the strong ones.

I do this because I want to give students the benefit of knowing what, for years, I did not understand. I believed that the people in my life who shouted the loudest, “I’m strong, I’m strong, I’m strong!” actually were strong, and that I, who could never declare such a thing about myself, was weak.

When I tell students this, I characterize it as one of Dr. Robillard’s life rules.

•••

At first I attributed the hip pain to all the walking I do with our dogs, Wrigley and Essay. I’ve always walked a lot, even before I adopted my first dog in grad school, and the daily routine with the dogs now is two walks a day. A shorter one in the morning and a longer one in the late afternoon. I probably mentioned the pain to Steve once or twice, but even I will acknowledge that I’m a bit of the girl-who-cried-wolf when it comes to pointing out problems with my body. Having grown up in an abusive home, I have low expectations for this life and I’ve long been on the lookout for the thing that will kill me young. A particularly tenacious pimple becomes, in my telling, terminal cancer, and an upset stomach that lasts more than a couple hours is surely the first sign of stomach cancer. It is not, I am always reassuring Steve, that I want to die, but that I expect to die. It is hard for me to imagine a future for myself that stretches out very far. I understand now that people who have been abused know exactly what I’m talking about, and people who have not do not. People who have grown up in secure homes believe that I am a simply a pessimist or a hypochondriac because that is the easiest way of categorizing my beliefs.

But then one Saturday, the pain got significantly worse. It hurt to stand, it hurt to walk, it hurt to simply exist. I could feel my left lower abdominal area throbbing when I lay my hand on it. Eventually I began to limp. Steve walked the dogs on Sunday. I told him that if the pain persisted, I would see if I could get in to see the doctor on Monday. I began researching ovarian cancer symptoms.

When I was twenty-one, I had a very large ovarian cyst removed. We had discovered it in April, but my doctor had told me it would be okay to wait until I had graduated from college in late May and moved back home to do the surgery. By that time, though, the cyst I had named Henrietta had become impossible to remove by laser surgery, so they had to cut me open once she ruptured. I was in the hospital, miserable, for three days.

Now, at the age of forty-four, I had all the symptoms of ovarian cancer. Abdominal bloating or swelling. Check. Quickly feeling full when eating. Kind of. Discomfort in the pelvis area. Check. Changes in bowel habits, such as constipation. Not really. A frequent need to urinate. Always.

On Monday, the pain was worse. My primary care doctor listened as I told her that the pain had been there for at least a month, but I thought it was my hip. I could hear myself, could feel the narrative forming around my words as I spoke. You waited more than a month to see a doctor?

I pointed out where the pain was and she smiled. “That’s not your hip.”

“Yeah, I’ve figured that out by now.”

She ordered a pelvic ultrasound and told me that it could be another cyst. But she wanted to get this ultrasound done quickly, this week if possible.

“And then,” I’m telling Hillary on the phone, “she starts talking very quickly about how it could also be an abdominal muscle strain, but we both know she’s just talking to talk so that she doesn’t have to say the truth that we both know. This is ovarian cancer.”

•••

There is a feeling I get that I’m not sure I can do justice to in words, when I or those close to me are on the cusp of something dreaded. Where others might wish to run away, I want to run in, for I am most comfortable, I think, in the midst of suffering and pain. I want to hear others’ stories of suffering and pain. I want to see how they deal with it, how they cope. I am eager to live through the drama, if only to emerge on the other side with more strength, even if it’s only vicarious strength. Surviving dreaded situations is the only way I know how to develop strength.

•••

The results of the pelvic ultrasound were delayed. My doctor was supposed to get the results that same afternoon, a Tuesday. I didn’t hear back from her office until Wednesday morning. During that time, from about noon on Tuesday, after the ultrasound—when the head of ultrasound took what seemed like hundreds of pictures of my innards, sighed deeply, and wouldn’t look into my eyes—until Wednesday morning, I considered how I might react to a diagnosis of ovarian cancer.

And I surprised myself. I was actually afraid. I could tell that Hillary, the friend who has known me the longest, the friend who understands best my attitude toward life and death, the friend who also expected to be dead by now—she, too, was afraid.

I was afraid but I was resolved. I would do what I had to do. Steve offered to take time off from work to come to the doctor with me if she called and said she needed to see me (she had told me that she would only call me in only if it were bad news). I told Steve that he should save his time off for later, when things got real.

When things got real.

I think it’s time to get real. Rebecca Solnit, one of my favorite writers, says that “liberation is always in part a storytelling process: breaking stories, breaking silences, making new stories. A free person tells her own story. A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place.”

It feels dangerous to admit that I enjoy my life and I want to continue living. It feels like I am being unfaithful to my story to acknowledge that I can imagine a future for myself. I want so badly, I have for so long wanted so badly, to look straight at reality rather than squeezing my life into the narratives our culture offers us. Narratives of overcoming or narratives of triumph. Bullshit narratives. I cherish the personal essay because it insists that I run right in. Jonathan Franzen writes that the essayist “has to be like the firefighter, whose job, while everyone else is fleeing the flames, is to run straight into them.” I can do that! I can look at the ugly, the shameful, the painful. I know I can!

But can I change the story? Can I acknowledge that I want to continue to live?

•••

Steve’s mother didn’t want to buy him a t-shirt that simplified a complicated political situation, so she let him get one with a juvenile sex joke instead. Who knows what her intentions were? It’s easy enough to change that story.

I’m forty-four years old and I’m just now realizing that maybe I want to continue to live. I’ve been afraid of admitting this because I’m afraid it will be taken from me. So much safer to say that I’m not afraid of dying, that I’ve got nothing to lose.

I’m coming to see that all this time I’ve been saying that it’s okay if I die young, that I don’t want or expect to live a long time, that I am not afraid to die, I was voicing my actual fears of dying in ways that could be heard and responded to by others. Maybe what I’ve been saying all along about the people who proclaim the loudest that they are strong actually being weak has been true of me all along, too: my proclaiming for years that I am not afraid to die and that I don’t expect to live a long time is evidence, in fact, that I am afraid.

Somewhere along the way I began to expect things from this life. And I allowed myself to accept that I expect things.

That is risky.

•••

Steve is easy to buy for. Lately I’ve taken to buying him tee-shirts with funny sayings on them. If it were up to him, he would wear shorts year-round, so I bought him a tee-shirt that says, “If I have to put on pants, then NO.” For Christmas one year, I bought him a tee-shirt that says, “Please don’t make me do stuff,” but he is dismayed that when he wears it, I still ask him to do things. And one of my recent favorites is the one that says, “I was told there would be cake.” I tell him he can wear that one whenever I make him go somewhere he doesn’t want to go. He can just point to his shirt and look around the room expectantly.

There’s a part of me, a part that is steadily atrophying, that believes that I deserve pain. Or rather, a part that believes that I don’t deserve good things. I’m beginning to understand that these beliefs are vestiges of an old story, one that began so very long ago in other people’s pain, but one that I now have control over. That control is not simple authorial control, the kind that allows me to open a file on a computer and delete a few words here, a couple paragraphs there and, voila, a new story emerges. Rather, the control comes in the willingness to reinterpret the stories that have been fossilized, the ones we think we know.

The pelvic ultrasound found uterine fibroids, but they aren’t causing the pain. They’re relatively small, but I didn’t know that right away. From Wednesday, when I learned about the fibroids, through Friday morning, when I learned that they weren’t the cause of the pain, I imagined a huge red slimy fibroid about to rupture on my left side. I could feel it throbbing. I was afraid to bend over to pick anything up for fear it would rupture. Once I learned that the biggest fibroid is only three centimeters and that the pain is probably coming from a pulled muscle, I could no longer feel the throbbing. I walked the dogs more carefully, holding both leashes with my right hand instead of my left.

The last time I ordered Steve a tee-shirt for his birthday, I ordered one for myself, too. “I just want to pet dogs and throw the sexists into the sun. Is that so much to ask,” it reads. It’s really not so much to ask.

I think I expect more.

•••

AMY E. ROBILLARD teaches writing at Illinois State University and essays regularly for Full Grown People. She and her husband are the guardians of two special mutts, one named Wrigley Field and one named Essay.

Read more FGP essays by Amy E. Robillard.

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When the World Bends

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

Content warning: suicide. —ed.

By Amber Wong

Before the big splash, Elizabeth and I eased our sculling shells into the water and breathed deep the cool morning air. Fifty-four degrees, no wind: perfect Seattle weather for a Fourth of July row. Perfect timing, too. We’d be on the water at six-thirty and back before eight, so we’d beat the rush of pleasure boats—and their butt-soaking wakes—as they crowded into Lake Union for the night’s premier event, the 2017 Seafair Summer Fourth fireworks show. Up at Gas Works Park, where grassy mounds hid tons of hazardous waste that few Seattleites knew about, people would already be spreading out blankets, ready to wait out the day.

Overhead, high clouds began to blur and fade, turning blue skies even bluer, while freeway traffic rumbled across the Interstate-5 Ship Canal Bridge. Just beyond our dock, the narrow bend of water linking the lake to the bay smoothed out like a fan, rippling lightly at the edges. Conditions couldn’t be better, I thought, as I settled into a shell barely wider than my hips. My fingers tripped lightly along the dock edge as I readied to launch.

“To the Cut?” Elizabeth called out above the traffic din, and I nodded. The Montlake Cut, a crucial navigation link between the fresh water of Lake Washington and the salt water of Puget Sound, is the gateway to the University of Washington’s crew training course. Along the way we’d pass under two drawbridges that carried car, bike, and pedestrian traffic.

As I slid into the shadow of the Montlake Bridge, I felt my chest tighten. I stared at the stern of my boat, refusing to watch the parade of feet and undercarriages undulating overhead. My shoulders tensed when something—water? bird poop?—dripped on my cap. But I kept my hands loose. The moment I emerged back into sunlight, my lungs reopened. I gulped at the fresh rush of air.

Even after eight years, rowing under bridges still spooked me. I could almost ignore the steady drone of tires across the University Bridge’s steel deck grate, but not the teeth-clenching ka-chunk ka-CHUNK under the Montlake Bridge. The irregular thump of tires hitting uneven bridge joints, amplified by the concrete walls of the Montlake Cut, thundered in my head like a runaway train. But Elizabeth and I had an understanding. Over the years she’d talked me through enough rough water that I trusted her implicitly. In her encouraging banter—Relax your grip, I’ll never let you fall in—I heard a deadly serious promise.

Legs pumping, I pressed hard, pausing briefly to enjoy the blue heron standing, in perfect profile, on a rock outcrop. Overhead, our resident bald eagle—his light and dark plumage unmistakably outlined against blue sky—circled slowly, fishing for his next meal. When I reached the mouth of the lake, I lifted my oars and glided next to Elizabeth. We spun our boats and reached for our water bottles.

“Mountain’s not out today,” she announced, nodding to the south. Mount Rainier sat cloaked in clouds. A typical day.

Water traffic was picking up as we headed west back to the boathouse. As we approached the Montlake Cut, two motorboats overtook us, kicking up a wake. “Slow down,” we yelled, and in a rare bit of courtesy, they did. Emerging from the Montlake Cut, we skimmed past a cluster of rowers awaiting instructions from their coach. When we cruised into home stretch, we pulled to out of the boat lane and angled our boats south toward the dock. Under the roar of the bridge, we watched for east-west cross-traffic and waited for our turn to sprint the last forty feet across the waterway.

Elizabeth went first. Dashing south between a westbound motorboat and an eastbound eight-person shell, she approached the dock, then slowed to let another woman in a single scull and a standing paddleboarder cross in front of her. I watched over my shoulder, waiting for my opening.

Suddenly, just off the corner of the dock, I saw a huge splash. Heard a deep WHUMP. Waves burst from that point like an underwater depth charge, rebounding off the dock, colliding in a wild interference pattern. Barely five feet away, the sculler and paddleboarder struggled to keep from capsizing. Elizabeth, caught in the erratic water, quickly braced her oars.

What was that? I scanned the shoreline for clues. It was too big and too loud to be a coxswain, who by tradition gets tossed off the dock by teammates after a race. Even a hefty dog would never plunge that deep. As a dark, motionless blob slowly broke the water surface, I bit my lip to keep from gagging. Here was a person, prone and still, and the only place they could have come from was the Ship Canal Bridge, 182 feet overhead.

Disbelief paralyzed me. A suicide jumper? Here? Amidst the fractured waves I strained to see signs of life while my thoughts bounced like a rain squall on granite. They’re blocking my way to the dock! Can I slip by and not try to help? But if I take my hands off my oars I’ll flip over. Without a life jacket I could drown! Must I risk myself for a stranger who is trying to commit suicide? What’s my responsibility here?

Frantic shouts cut the terrible silence. “What was that? Some fireworks?”

“A cherry bomb? Who threw it!?”

“Oh my god, it’s a person! Who knows CPR?”

“I do,” said Elizabeth. “But…”

“Jump in and do CPR!”

A coaching launch zoomed by. I took a few strokes closer and saw no movement, then lost courage and gave the blob a wide berth. The launch slowed and stopped, drifting in the water for what seemed like minutes. Suddenly it made a tight U-turn and roared in close. Had the rowing coach seen something fall? Had she quickly deduced the horror of what had happened? Alone, on her knees, she leaned down to drag the limp body aboard but couldn’t get enough leverage. Still she held on, struggling to keep the person’s head above water.

From way too close a megaphone voice boomed, “Get out of the way!” I looked up in alarm as a crew team and its coach rounded the corner and bore down on us. Couldn’t they see the coaching launch? I couldn’t flag them down so I yelled for them to stop. They didn’t. I wasn’t lined up with the dock, but I took a big stroke so they wouldn’t hit me broadside. Someone on the dock reached out, grabbed my oar, and reeled me in. I cursed at the coach as he raced by.

Sirens wailed from both shores and from mid-channel, growing louder and louder, finally converging on this spot. Blue police lights flashed on the far shore, red fire truck lights on ours. Medics came running to our dock as a speeding Seattle Harbor Patrol boat cut its siren and pulled alongside the rescue launch. Within a minute the Harbor Patrol moved the body to the dock on the opposite side. Three—or was it four or five?—Seattle police officers stood ready. We crowded the edge of our dock but by then the rescue was shielded from view. Behind us, unsuspecting rowers carried their shells out of the boathouse and slid them into the water. The world had bent in a handful of minutes.

What else could we do? Nothing made sense. In a fog we wiped down our boats, put away our oars. As Elizabeth and I left the boathouse fifteen minutes later, another rower approached with an update.

“He’s alive. His eyes were open and he was breathing.”

Elizabeth and I sighed in relief. But I hated myself for my gut instinct for wondering, for how long?

“He was swinging a hatchet on the I-5 freeway. Drivers yelled at him to stop. He lost control of the hatchet. It dropped just before he did.”

•••

At sixteen I was an Explorer Scout, a division of the Boy Scouts. In 1972, Explorer troops were supposed to be all-male, but my friends and I exploited a loophole to start a co-ed troop of Medical Explorers. We scheduled lots of lectures and field trips because several dads, including mine, were doctors with connections. We even got to volunteer in our hospital’s emergency room. During one evening shift, I pressed fist-sized wads of sterile gauze on a motorcyclist’s leg as he lay moaning on a hallway gurney, then watched a doctor pull glass out of a screaming kid’s foot. I peeked around nurses and doctors as a silent Code Blue was whisked in and pumped for an hour before being wheeled to the morgue.

When the hospital pathologist invited us to watch an autopsy, I thought, oh, just another activity. But when I asked Dad to sign my permission slip, he shook his head.

His eyes were steel. He growled, “I don’t recommend it. That’s not something you want to see. Not at your age.” I was still hopeful, thinking, that’s not a flat denial. As if he’d read my mind, he continued, “I’m warning you for your own good!” His tone dropped ominously. “Because once you see it, you can never unsee it.”

•••

Two hours later, Elizabeth texted me. Feels a little surreal, huh?

I was home drinking coffee, eating a bagel, deciding whether to try to remember or try to forget. Turns out that’s a false choice.

I texted back. Yes. How are you doing?

Feels odd to just go on with your day. Concerned for the person of course. But it was a really close call for all of us. Need to just sit a bit.

Exactly. I’m still sitting.

Alone in my sunlit kitchen, I set down my coffee and choked back the sour in my throat. Elizabeth’s comment put me on edge. Right after the awful splash, my thoughts had flown to the jumper: How can I help? Will he survive? But in the silence of home I focused on me and my tribe, the rowers on the water. In one blind moment we could have been killed. We were open and unprotected. Any heavy mass from 182 feet—an errant chunk of concrete, a thrown backpack or garbage bag, a one-hundred-sixty pound person—would crush like a cannonball. The aftermath would have been gruesome as a bomb explosion. A war zone. I’d never seen one, but my husband and stepson had. Never would they unsee the horror.

I sipped the last of my cold coffee, tried to still the ache in my chest. Repeating the salient, immutable fact—none of us got hurt!—I walked to the kitchen window, away from mental carnage that didn’t exist. Below, the yard was drenched in shades of green. Beyond my neighbors’ rooftops I saw a glimmer of Lake Washington.

I imagined the view from the Ship Canal bridge deck: the 182-foot drop, the flatness of the water, and the vast three-dimensional space between. Images could get distorted, narrowed, especially through desperation’s lens. With boats large and small, from barges to sculls, did we move like targets in a video game? Factor in wind speed—after all, I’m a civil engineer—and the open water below the Ship Canal Bridge could constrict to a pinpoint. If the jumper intended to avoid us, he chose the slimmest margin of error. If not, that same margin of error was our salvation.

Would knowing the jumper’s intent have sharpened or blunted the horror?

Each day we live with incalculable risk. Animate and inanimate objects fall from the sky. Meteorites fall. People fall. No one really noticed, but hatchets fall too.

•••

“So did he die?”

Sitting around the kitchen table a day later with my mah-jongg group, four women I’d known well over twenty-five years, I lifted my glass of wine and felt a gnawing unease. Everyone’s first question was always about the jumper. Why did his presumed death garner so much sympathy? If he’d survived, would the tragedy seem more equal, both of us escaping death by inches? How does his willful jumping—and my sheer vulnerability—factor into the equation?

I gritted my teeth and shook my head. “I don’t know.” I’d searched the news but turned up nothing, so there’d be no resolution. As their voices grew louder, each person positing the jumper’s fate, I signaled “timeout” and interrupted. “The Seattle Times’s policy is not to write about suicide jumpers. Unless a lot of people witnessed it, that is.”

“Did a lot of people witness it?”

Tersely, “I don’t know.” Why did it matter? I had.

“How long was he in the water?”

“Ten minutes?” Why this unnecessary detail? My temples pounded in frustration.

“So how close was he?”

Finally. Like a fever breaking, a welcome relief—someone acknowledged my trauma, my anxiety over the random fragility of life. As I gestured across the length of the table, my voice turned unnaturally shrill. “About ten feet. He was so close! If he’d hit us, he could’ve killed us!”

There was a moment’s silence, followed by a quick chorus of retorts. Clearly my words hadn’t had the intended effect. Instead, I felt like I was being scolded.

“Whoa, you sound angry!

“It’s wrong to blame him. Of course he wasn’t aiming at you.”

“Think of his horrendous mental pain! It must have been overwhelming!”

What I heard was this: What’s your problem? Don’t you have a heart?

•••

Four days later, Elizabeth and I eased our shells into the water. Earlier that morning I’d debated with myself—Get back on that horse! Or not…—but the weather promised to be perfect, a promise that Seattleites are unable to resist. I was kneeling on the dock securing my oar riggers when a motion high above caught my eye. My head jerked up. Elizabeth saw my reaction and glanced up too. On the bottom deck of the I-5 Bridge, a cherry picker bucket was slowly lowering two men just below the bridge deck. I sighed in relief. In their hard hats and orange vests, I pegged them as state highway inspectors, likely testing for loose concrete. The bucket stopped with a light bounce. I tilted my head, visually measuring their relation to the water. They were about ten feet south and twenty feet below the spot on the upper deck where the person must have jumped. I stared a little too long.

Elizabeth knew exactly what I was thinking. If they fell, would they hit us? With a forced laugh she said, “Well if it’s your time, it’s your time then.” I could hear the thinness in her voice.

I frowned. I didn’t want Fate to be so lazy. Nervously I snipped, “Nah, I think they’re okay.” As soon as I spoke I was sorry. Why was I so rattled? Was I truly afraid they’d hit us? Was I ashamed to be caught thinking only of myself?

Or was something submerged now coming to boil? Was I reacting to the suicide jumper, how furious I was at him for terrifying me, yet how constrained I felt about expressing that anger? Four days of talking to my husband and close friends hadn’t helped—their comments felt way off the mark, strangely off-putting. So because I was alive, physically unhurt, I was expected to stifle my rage, ignore my feelings, and cluck sympathetically about his plight? How much empathy could I muster? Was it better for me to think of him more like a falling chunk of concrete—an object with no agency—than a suicide bomber who launches himself with intent to kill? Must I absolve him at all? Even if he wasn’t trying to kill us, the fact remained: he terrorized us. I felt like screaming, “There’s more than one victim here!”

Could I never unsee that concussive splash just ten feet from where I was kneeling?

I rose to kick off my shoes and heard the gentle lap of water. Shielding my eyes from the sun, I looked out beyond the dock to the west. There, at the wind-induced open water line between chop and calm, was a sharp demarcation drawn by the form of the land, the bend of the water, and the face of the wind. A warning: do not cross this line. So we’d go east then. I scanned the familiar scene across the channel: the white ferry, the concrete bridge supports belted with graffiti, the row of boats comfortably tucked in their berths. Ivar’s outdoor dining deck, its red and blue table umbrellas snugged down for the night, its dock empty now. All as it should be.

Absently I pulled on my cap and threaded my ponytail through the hole in the back. I stretched my arms wide, felt the air fill my lungs with cool deliciousness. Suddenly I couldn’t wait to get to look for our eagle again. I grabbed my oar handles, centered myself down on my seat. As I pushed off the dock, an involuntary glance—up at the men in the bucket, and from there, to the upper bridge deck. The railing was empty. But from now on I would never stop looking.

“Annual inspection for bridge cracks?” I started at the unexpected sound of Elizabeth’s voice right beside me, her boat so close that our oars almost touched. I couldn’t mistake the drollness in her tone.

As her words slowly registered I began to laugh. She’d caught me looking up at the bridge again, searching for ghosts. Nested within her seemingly benign engineering question was a deeper concern: Are you okay?

Until that moment, I hadn’t quite realized how not okay I was. My feelings sat like a jumbled weight on my chest. Like Elizabeth, I’d always prided myself on my ability to stay calm and reason things out, yet these days I felt so roiled, so defeated. Silently I ranted, Why can’t I just get over this?

But with that laugh, that loosened eddy of air, the atmosphere suddenly changed. My internal smog cleared enough so I could see that she was troubled too. In our exclusive club of rowers-who-barely-missed-being-hit-by-a-suicide-jumper, we were virtually the only ones who could reassure each other, You’re not crazy, I was there, too. We had much to discuss. I would soon talk her through her fixation on the hatchet’s trajectory—I heard it splash, did it land right behind me? It wouldn’t fall blade first, would it? I’d feel her first flash of anger when she thought someone was throwing fireworks, trying to scare us. She’d wade with me through my swamp of guilt. Together we would reshape the story into something we could understand, something we could only arrive at after dissecting every detail and every “what if,” hailing our luck again and again, until the day lost its power to haunt us.

•••

AMBER WONG is an environmental engineer in Seattle who writes about culture, identity, and her firsthand knowledge about risks posed by hazardous waste sites. Recent work has been published in Lunch Ticket (Summer/Fall 2017 featured essayist), Slippery Elm, and Metaphorical Fruit, and her short piece, “How I Learned to Write,” won the Writer’s Connection essay contest. Amber earned an MFA from Lesley University and a master’s degree in civil engineering from Stanford University. She is working on a memoir.

Jack and Jill and the Memory Test

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Barbara E. Murphy

Jill is a stockbroker, my nurse practitioner begins, and I listen with attention not just because I’m a sucker for a story and will give any once-upon-a-time a chance to pick up steam but because this is an assessment—a test, really, but no one uses that word anymore—of my alertness and mental acuity. I’ve heard it referred to as The Montreal Test. This session is part of the protocol covered by my new health insurance, the kind of insurance that kicks in when you hang up your spurs or cleats depending on whether you rode or ran or sat—as I did, at conference tables or a desk—and move into the post-work phase of your life.

Jill, meanwhile, has fallen in love with and marries Jack and they move (from where, we aren’t told, though it’s the sort of detail that interests me) to Chicago. About him, we learn only that he is dazzlingly handsome. Really, that’s how he’s described. No more information than that and I risk distraction to wonder who wrote this? A doctor? A psychologist? Male or female? Before or after the recent election? And why does the stock market continue to do so well anyway? Not that dazzlingly handsome isn’t force enough to sway a woman to change her life. It is and dazzle can last a surprisingly long time but almost only if it comes with a good sense of humor and one or two other traits like skill at working the remotes and possession of a valid passport.

What come next are two children. We don’t learn whether they are twins or singletons, adopted or birthed by Jill. Did she have any trouble conceiving? Did Jill have an easy pregnancy or pregnancies? We don’t know her age or whether her insurance covered everything. We do learn that Jill left her job to stay home with her kids—we assume they switched to Jack’s insurance—and my nurse practitioner is silent on how Jill felt about stepping out of the work world. Was she happy beyond reason as a fulltime mother? Did she miss the companionship of her fellow brokers? The thrill of the buy and sell? And Jack: who knows what he was up to except it must have been pretty good work since he’s now supporting a family of four.

The story takes a turn when the kids become teenagers and Jill makes the decision to go back to work. Were she here, were she real, I could ask her to reconsider and hold out for a few more years. Driving them to middle school soccer practice is one thing; watching them get behind the wheel of your or, worse, their own car going who knows where is quite something else. They are about to start hanging out with those kids you told them to avoid, the ones whose parents are telling them not to hang out with your kids.

Risking further distraction—I know I’m going to have to recount this tale or answer some relevant questions—I can’t help but wonder if Jill returns to a diminished salary, how severely she is suffering the mom penalty after her absence from the workforce; I wonder if her technical skills have kept up, if she still thrills to the chase of the market.

And how does the change in family income affect the Jill-Jack household? Do they take more vacations, send the kids to private school, or does the money just get swallowed up and assert itself as the new normal? I’m guessing Door Three.

Jill’s return to the market marks the end of the story as told to me.

I am asked by my now slightly embarrassed practitioner—Jess, is her name —what Jill’s profession is, what made her leave work and when did she feel safe enough—my words, not Jess’s—to return to work. Then the trick question: what state does Jill live in? Funny how this remains exclusively Jill’s story. Maybe Jack’s fading dazzle lessens his role in the drama. The kids remain nameless and absent to us.

My recall is excellent, at least in this particular setting. And, I shine again as I name—freestyle, this time—twenty animals, zoo or farm categories both allowed. Jess does not seem interested in the fact that I cannot always recall the first names of my favorite poets, and increasingly I remember what I once knew as whole in fragments as if the world is repackaging itself in haiku not seamless narrative.

But the world is not seamless and it veers more toward lyrical than narrative. Stories don’t seem to proceed the way they used to: beginning, middle, then the earned ending. Most days, it seems to be all middle but with a blessedly generous supply of chances to begin again. And even the adventures you thought had ended—a career, a first marriage, your children’s childhoods—haven’t exactly finished. Jill will figure this out, too.

•••

BARBARA E. MURPHY is a poet and essayist whose work had appeared in publications including The Threepenny Review, Green Mountains Review, New England Review, and The New York Times. Her poetry collection Almost Too Much was published by Cervena Barva Press. She was a college president for twenty years in the Vermont State Colleges system.