I walked on the bridge at night in winter. It was cloudy and cold, and I shook an iron cable with both hands, sending it clanging. The river was slow, so I looked up at the towers, feeling my legs, so jelly. I can still see it, I told myself. It’s still moving at the top. I can still see it. I repeated it until I couldn’t see it anymore. And then I started walking again. I put in an earbud. I chewed on a thumbnail.
Someone came toward me in the dark. I thought of her as an approaching coal train. I squinted. I saw that she was running. A bony, wide-eyed girl with holed leggings. She barreled nearer on the walkway at full sprint, blonde hair billowing in tangled nests behind her. Her lipstick smeared, her mascara drooled, she shrieked in a high voice. An about-to-be dolphin dive.
I had an ex with whom I shared a toxic friendship and brief, truce-like moments. When we were either too drunk or too tired to fight, or we were feeling nostalgic and full of good form. Sometimes I sent him drawings of small children with puppies. Sometimes he sent me links to songs he thought I’d like. But then, other times, he got drunk and typed long, seething diatribes. Litanies of my failures, which were vast and legion. He sent them, and I read them, over wine and big fat lasagnas.
So I stopped on the bridge. I had no choice. I blocked the girl’s path, I grabbed her head, and I held her to the bridge as she started her dive over the handrail. My fingers stuck in her rabid hair as she mauled. Six, maybe seven times, she tried to fling herself into the river. Then, coolly, she recoiled and became very still and quiet in one second. I yanked my fingers out of her hair, I sat her down—leaning her against a bridge tower, and I asked her to please. Please, try to relax. Please, try to breathe. Her eyes found mine, manic like feral, and the girl spoke to me like she was trying to look around me. Maybe through me. Perhaps, forgive me, inside me. Why are you on this bridge?
Suffering is probably hereditary, right? A hole in an ancestor’s pocket where his lost dreams fell through. It passes from grandparent to parent. Parent to child. Even if it, the suffering, happened a long time ago. It’s like double-jointedness, or crossed toes, or dyslexia. A leak in a dam about the size of a pin. This girl had big blue eyes, and on them reeled scenes of genocide, sewers, rape, gravel, even when she smiled. Which she did, when she again asked the me behind me. Why are you on this bridge?
I thought about it, and I felt my knees starting to sear. Hell hailed no un-mutated river monster, state or city to un-sear those knees, and the question was something doomed, like a wax effigy of Cher’s daughter who’s now a man. It made me panic and want to cry. Her question, really, was why did you stop me, and I felt my head falling toward my chest, slowly, like a snowflake. I could see lights in the houses across the river. I saw people laughing in windows. I could make them invisible with the tip of my finger and one eye closed. I began to cry, and I apologized to the girl. I felt like a part of me was going to die on the exact same day as her. Like years she felt were, to me, only wallpaper, or spit on a baby. I said I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. And she laughed. A full laugh. A laugh you laugh when something’s really, really funny. The kind of laugh you’re happy to be a part of. Her arms stretched out on the metal grate ground of the walkway, her empty palms upturned, in the shapes of little cups.
I pulled back and picked my phone out of my pocket, ready to phone an ambulance, when finally she said Hi, I’m Molly. I nodded and tried to smile as I counted the clicks from typing numbers into the screen. I pushed end at the last second, though, and I chucked my phone into the river. Ok, I didn’t throw the phone into the river. I stopped myself fast and muffled something toward Molly like tongues.
Molly had thirty dollars on her that night, and we used the money at an Indian buffet, because, as my friend Alice said about times like those, you still had to eat. Over dinner, we discussed jobs, lives, homes. Molly lived in Walnut Hills, was the daughter of a plastic surgeon. She worked as a receptionist in a law firm. Her brother had disappeared mysteriously two years before, one night driving. The police found the car. The police never found her brother.
I told her that I once saw my therapist get crumbled in a landslide in northern Maine. Molly laughed. When she laughed, I felt that I should not be there in the same room with her. There were maybe twelve people in the restaurant for the buffet, but Molly’s was a private pain. And when I say private, I mean by that unknowable.
I walked Molly to the base of Mt. Adams, from where she would walk uphill, home. The basilica stood strong and overlooking at the top of the hill, casting a phallic light out and onto the river. I took Molly’s phone number, and I texted myself the name of her workplace. I wanted to ask her a million things, but instead I hugged her softly, turning to walk the thirteen blocks to my apartment. My questions hung inside me, sick and plane-sized. I felt, above all, fraudulent and meaningless. Tomorrow, I thought, I’ll see her drowned face on the cover of the Enquirer. They’ll be recovering her body, half eaten by mutant oil fish and what the hell. You made her have to do this twice. You are frivolous.
I felt like I needed to get as close to God as I could, but for what I couldn’t say. To either pray or maybe chop off his penis. Or maybe to thank him. I felt devout to nowhere. Do you ever think about God’s ears? My mother gave me advice once, when I thought I’d never feel OK. She told me that even if you don’t believe in God that it’s sometimes nice to close your eyes and list the things you’re thankful for. I sat down on the sidewalk and looked up at the church from my valley. I closed my eyes, and I heard my mother ask me in my head. What are you doing? Why are you on this road? Are you tired?
I’m making a list in my head, I told her.
Things I’m grateful for.
Am I on it?
Are you on it! I said.
A doctor once told me that I feel too much. I said, so does God. Do you ever wonder why you can see the Grand Canyon from the moon?
I thanked God for curry, and I got up and I walked away.
Before I made it to my apartment, a homeless man asked me if I’d buy him a taco. I said sure. I had no choice. Gomez? I asked. I don’t know that place, he said. Let’s go to Alabama Tortilla. I followed him ten blocks to a place that turned out to have shuttered itself three months ago. Aw damn, he said. I guess I’ll just take the cash. I sighed. I told him honestly that I had no cash, and he called me a punk-ass bitch before turning away from me.
I started walking back toward my apartment, and there was a woman eating a taco on the sidewalk across the street from me. I heard her chewing as her toddler son cried for a bite. She smacked him. He stopped.
At home, online, I saw that Molly’s law firm was award-winning and apparently humanitarian. Besides the ketamine habit, she was tall and beautiful and had a 9-to-5 at a deity firm that won awards every year for both its vision and its data-driven efficacy. I quit a law firm once. I quit, and they escorted me out with a box of my things, and then a homeless man spat on me, calling me a bougie-ass bitch. An evangelical family rushed me, cleaning the phlegm-mascara drool mixture off my cheek. It helped, actually.
Downtown, the Findlay Market was deserted each morning until four a.m., when suddenly the fruit and meat vendors took to the streets, wild streams of limes, apricots, pomegranates, tangerines. Further down, toward Elm Street, muted browns and reds, honeys and autumn squashes. The buying and auctioning and loading went on in peaks and valleys until sunrise, when the last load was loaded and the white restaurant owners drove off in black SUVs, a lime streamer stuck in an expensive car door. I woke up to their horns and clanging pans.
Then it was the morning, and I was hungover. My eyes were rimmed with purple and drooled mascara, and there was a thin crusty line of red wine across my teeth. My hands shook. I rubbed the wine off and brushed my teeth with my finger. I tried to scrub at the mascara, and I made everything worse. Goulish. The river was high. A pine candle flickered, and I dabbed it out with a cigarette butt. I walked for coffee. Double double double triple, and I turned away from the stack of newspapers, afraid.
Everyone was either a heroin addict or a non-denominational Christian. The heroin addicts, they were people on the proverbial go. They’d be sent to Utah, or New Mexico, or Arizona, to cult de-wiring facilities, where the staff performed exorcisms and extracted demons. The addicts escaped on foot. Later, I saw them under overpasses on Interstate 71.
People ask: yes, but how does this happen? We have PayPal and barbed wire and lasers and sunscreen. We have deadbolts and motorcycle helmets and crosswalks and spinning classes. With all of this, the killer can be within us? As I walked, I thought about the time when Michael Jackson dangled his infant over the balcony at that hotel in Berlin. Don’t think about it, I thought. Then, I thought about Molly.
Pigeons were moaning across the rooftops. Their oil feathers gave me a stomachache. I thought about that Tracey Jordan quote. Stop eating other people’s French fries, Pigeon! Don’t you know you can fly? I saw a girl, Jackie, on the sidewalk. She was walking toward me, and I waved a quick hello. She was a friend of my neighbor, Tobias, but she stole shoes and jewelry from local renaissance fairs. I’d known her since we were eleven. She converted to Hinduism one autumn, but then she actually got meaner. We stopped in front of each other, and Jackie told me that she’d had a good year. Lots of ganja smoke from her chillum. A firm sense of right and wrong. She hairflipped a dreadlock, almost smacking me, and I dodged, just in time. When I told Jackie that I’d held a girl back from suicide the night before, she forgot herself and started a Hail Mary. She tried to recover with a weakly executed Namaste, but I felt trapped on the inside of my face. I imagined that the street wino was yelling for me. Chasing me. I told Jackie that I had to go wash my hair now, and then I left her, standing next to a holly bush.
I walked home and got in my car. I gripped the steering wheel as hard as I could until my fists cramped up and my fingers turned white and I hissed out shittttttt. I’d have punched a big hole in the window if I’d have thought it wouldn’t hurt or be expensive or be bad when it rained. I drove around the city like a dog marking its territory. Over overpasses and under underpasses. The city was mine. Nothing bad would happen if I patrolled enough, like Batman. I drove the car like it was a Ferarri and like the streets were my enemy. I was feeling bad and stupid and mean. I thought about seeing another therapist. Then I told myself I couldn’t afford a therapist. What would I even say to a therapist? I figured I’d keep the 150 an hour and buy a bag of weed and a big bottle of Velvet Red Blend.
As a kid, when I found a new food or song that I liked, I’d eat it or listen to it on repeat until I hated it and it tasted ridiculous to me. The car thing was a little bit like that. Like a controlled experiment in endurance. My own mobile capsule of rage. I could sit in the car and say things as many times as I wanted until they finally lost meaning. People looked in at me from the sidewalk and thought I was insane. They looked away, which was the same thing as being invisible.
In fourth grade, the yearbook PTO mothers asked all of us what we wanted to be when we grew up. The answers got printed below our pictures, and I told the woman at long last that what I’d really like to be was invisible. The idea kind of stuck.
Then, once, I got a book from the library about an invisible rhino. After that there was no stopping it. It lead to stalkings, which I didn’t count as stalkings. More like how you’d follow a bear before shooting it, mounting it, trying to eat it. I didn’t own a shotgun, but I’d have liked one. I followed at least six gang members. I set a girl’s hair on fire. I bet Molly hated her brother because he learned how to be invisible. I got suddenly scared that I’d felt every single thing that I was ever going to feel.
So that’s how I started following Molly. I showed up in places I shouldn’t have been. I’d watch her order pho on my lunch breaks. I’d be proud of her for eating. I’d follow her to Whole Foods. Whole Foods was an expensive healthy grocery store that I never shopped at. I went to a place called Shop-N-Save. Molly waved to me from the inside of the Punch House once. She ignored me as I followed her to her dealer. She seethed when I sat in a pew during her confession.
I had an idea for saving her life. I wanted to have Molly parachuted to a horrible place, like Burundi or Antarctica where she’d be forced to eat sticks and drink rhino pee. It was a dicey plan. She could let the locals eat her or hire a child soldier to kill her and that would be that. Tom’s your uncle. Or, maybe Molly would be catapulted into a totally new realm of aliveness. Her endorphins would soar and she’d be motivated to outwit her attacker. Of course, she’d be alone. And I’d have to install some sort of Truman Show system for monitoring her progress. Just when I was convinced that Molly had formed a new life policy, that she’d come to thrive on the challenge, that voila! she didn’t want to die anymore, I’d pull her out and chopper her home and we could go for Indian food and a movie and buy green bananas and firm pears.
But Molly preferred the ketamine. When I saw her like this, or the taco homeless man still on the street, or the taco-less toddler now stoic, I suddenly felt like I didn’t have enough skin. Parts of me that should’ve been covered were always feeling cold and bare.
I went to Findlay Market to buy sliced ham. At the market, there was a short billionaire plastic surgeon in faded Levis who believed that God had blessed his finances. His hair was patchy and wild, knotted into nests and stuck in his button-up’s collar button. His resume probably qualified him for anything, from Astronaut to Marine Botanist. From Alzheimer’s RN to Fine Monarch. From Aeronautical Operations VP to Real Estate Mogul. It was weird because I kept seeing him there. We were always there at the same time. Some weeks, I went on Wednesdays at 5:30. Other weeks, I went on Fridays at 2. That day, it was Saturday, and I was there at 11:15. Every time, he was already there. We never talked. That day, our eyes met in the glass in front of the hams.
His name was Bill. He bought me a pound of sliced ham. I thanked him, and he nodded his globular head, which pulled at the hairs stuck in his button. He grimaced, but only a little. I pretended not to see. He asked if I might be interested in having a conversation about Christ with him over a coffee. I twitched and stammered and said with a shaking voice for an eternal second that I needed to go buy corn now, and I left him standing next to a custard counter, picking at his hair-stuck button.
As I walked home, there were cops with guns. Fat men with Swiss Army knives. Everyone was packing a pistol. It was the Second Amendment Place. Some bullets could pierce through metal. Others could burst into a hundred mini fire-ball pellets upon ejection. My heart was roofed in ammunitions. Nine-year-olds brought six-foot spears to their schools. They tied them to the bike racks with their training wheels.
I got home, and the bag fell to the floor in an effort that looked like a collapsing shelf. I had a bug infestation. My landlord believed that it had something to do with the degree of filth in my apartment, but I suspected that it probably had more to do with the degree of natural decay in the universe. I took off my coat and looked out the window into Tobias’s living room. He had started watching daytime television. He’d stopped bathing. He’d taken a first step toward a nervous breakdown. Slowly, his physicality had started to vaporize entirely. Components of his life started to strip away. He could no longer afford the television. He entered into repetitious bleakness. Tobias plucked continuously at a very over-wound string. He had neither thoughts, nor moods. I was a useless person, my God.
I had a dream about Molly. I followed her into a party and found her nose deep in a mountain of drugs. She told me I was surprisingly attractive considering my features, which made me want to break down and bawl with gratitude. She kicked her legs out and made animal noises. I told her about the YA novel that I wrote once about a Loch Ness rhino who turned into a teenage trans boy and had to keep his mythical secret from his mute brother, who turned out to be a centaur. Then, somebody called her an ambulance. At the hospital, Molly walked into the waiting room and started talking to me. She said you know I’d just like to inform you that my gown is open-backed. I’m going to do a little twirl for you here, and you can sneak a little peek at my ass, but only just one. It’s not my best feature, as you’ll learn as we get to know each other better, but thank you for caring. She listened to me as I begged the nurses to not let her leave the hospital. Don’t let her leave. Please don’t let her leave. They reassured me, and Molly smiled, and her smile was an event. She laughed so hard. She got surprised. Her eyes opened wide. OK, thank you, I said.
I woke up quickly, like a fish in a dirty bowl. I looked up and gasped for air. Somebody put his armpit in my mouth while I was trying to breathe. It tasted like Taco Bell. My genitals were thrown into a sandbox. Sadness held my bones in place. Everything was oozing out of my body now. Blood, sweat, tears. Like a fire sale. Everything had to go. My right eye exploded because it was winter. It puffed out and went dark around the border. It had to. I couldn’t contain another thing.
In the morning, I woke up to horns and clanging pans. The homeless man was holding a bag of frozen steaks. It felt like someone was throwing darts at my head, five seconds apart. I walked to see my favorite barista at the Coffee Emporium again. In a scattered Enquirer, I saw billionaire Bill’s face strewn and stretched. A young Ghanaian girl had knocked on his door at midnight. She’d asked to use a telephone. Bill shot her twice in the face with a handgun, and she was pronounced dead at the scene. They found her car on the side of a narrow road, a quarter mile from Bill’s driveway. She’d had a flat tire. A woman behind me read about Bill, and the girl over my shoulder. She spoke in a voice three octaves above base, like she was talking to her cat. If she talked into a garbage disposal with that voice, it’d shoot feathers at her. Pieces of red meat. Fingerless hands.
I thought again about the plan I made for Molly. The brain is an organ that’s meant to solve problems, no? So if the problem is life and its unlivability, then it’s only rational to stop living it, right? It sounded awful to me suddenly to say you must live. You have to want to live. Live. She was fucking Sylvia Plath or one of those guys who was too cool to keep going. Too smart or in-tune with the tragedy of it all or whatever. I was the one who wanted a pathetic, stupid life. My fingers hated me. I couldn’t think or move. I was afraid I would go back to bed that night and wake up with my hands around my throat.
The sun moved behind a cloud. I exhaled. I inhaled. I couldn’t go around terrorizing people and making them feel small and shitty when they destroyed themselves. I waved goodbye to successful people. I drove my fists into my eyes. I went to the bridge and looked at the penis. I apologized to God for having dirty fingernails.
I had photographs and folklore. I had sweat and callous. I could sell Tobias’s sofa and my car. I could fix the seared knees. I could build a new bridge and dig a new river. I could talk into the water and into its coal barges, and sometimes I could hear my own voice echoing. I’d met the plastic surgeon’s daughter. There was no hell for her. Nothing she wouldn’t burn. The strangers at our doors spoke into the waves. Their words just came back to them, like a boomerang.
Caitlin Rettenmaier has lived, taught, and studied in Chicago, Italy, and Japan. Her work has appeared in various literary journals and newspapers across North America and Europe, and she currently resides in the largest intact historic district in the United States.