originally published in Prime Number Magazine; All The Roads That Lead From Home, stories (Press 53, 2011); and By The Wayside, stories, (Unsolicited Press, 2017)
Suicides shot up that winter. By Valentine’s Day there’d been four. The victims walked out when the light was low, usually in late afternoon, say three or four o’clock. They stood by the rail (Josh Skinner, age 21, Indianapolis, Indiana, or Lisa Finklestein, age 19, Nassau County, New York) and waited while their classmates went by head-bent against the rising wind, lugging their textbooks home. Lugging their own heavy hearts, too, or so it was generally accepted, given the highly competitive nature of an Ivy League school. Then, when the crowd had thinned or was gone altogether, they jumped into the gorge. Not all went down in waking hours, though. Some crept out in the freezing night. One (Louis Kennedy, age 22, Santa Barbara, California) was found in his pajamas. He must have been so miserable, so intent on self-destruction, that even the deep cold couldn’t change his mind.
Kirsten’s study group lost interest in their Intro. to Econ. class and focused on the deaths.
“They’re like a cult,” Emily said. “They need a name. How about the plungers?”
“That’s a plumber’s tool,” Lee said.
“The divers, then.”
They all thought of bronzed cliff divers piercing the surface of a calm, sky-blue sea.
Lee wanted another pitcher of beer and offered to pay for it himself. Lee’s father sent him money whenever he asked for it, which was often. His offer was quickly accepted.
“Look, we better study for the midterm,” Kirsten said.
“We are. We’re maximizing our utility,” Tom said. His bushy red hair made him seem like someone you couldn’t take seriously, Kirsten thought, though he clearly was a serious person.
“Or, we’re capturing economies of scale,” Lee said. He looked bleary. He wasn’t a practiced drinker and wanted to be. He talked about drinking as if it were a sport, something you could win or lose at.
“To stand there, waiting,” Emily said. “That’s the moment your life changes.”
“Bull,” Tom said. “The moment your life changes is the moment it ends. The point of impact.”
“What about the fall?” Lee asked. “Because then you know it’s all over.”
“Okay, then, the fall, too. That long, long drop.” Tom lifted his hand and sailed it slowly down, back and forth, more like an autumn leaf floating to earth, Kirsten thought, than a body hurtling a hundred feet below.
The beer arrived and was poured out.
“No. It all happens before, when you first consider killing yourself. That’s the moment things change,” Emily said.
Emily wore nothing but black and pulled her red hair up in a bun so tight the skin by her eyes pulled up, too, giving her an Asiatic look. She had a reckless streak. Sometimes she drank too much, and went to bed with the wrong men, yet she kept up her studies, out of deference to her father. She was a good student, better than the rest of them. Kirsten was jealous of her for that. Kirsten struggled to get a B average. She sipped her beer. She didn’t like beer, and drank it for the sake of going along.
“Can we change the subject?” Lee asked.
Kirsten wished they would. For several nights, she had dreamed of falling, but never of hitting earth. In one dream, she willed herself not to fall, but to rise, and that was terrifying, too.
“But think about it,” Emily said. “Let’s say you go to the bridge, you want to jump, you’re ready to, then you change your mind.”
“And?” Lee asked.
“You go home. It never happened. You didn’t jump and you didn’t die. No one else would ever know. But you know. You’d always know how close you came. You’d be changed after that. How could you not be?”
“So, you’re saying that wanting to do something and actually doing it are the same thing,” Lee said.
“So, our whole lives come down to what we feel—what we desire—whether there’s any physical outcome or not.”
“Wait,” Tom said. “Wanting to kill someone isn’t the same as actually doing it.”
“Or wanting to die and actually dying,” Kirsten added.
She pulled her sweaty fingers through her hair. She’d just had it cut in a page boy style that even she had to admit looked like shit. The others had noticed, naturally, but said little. Emily, though, had taken her own hair out of its tight bun and let it drape around her skinny face and shoulders before lifting it once more from her neck. No doubt a way of saying, I still possess what you gave away! Before the cut, Kirsten’s hair had been long enough to sit on. The change was dramatic, and in the moments before the girl’s scissors had closed down, the moment before the first handful had hit the floor, Kirsten, in a panic, forced herself to say nothing and remember that hair, unlike lost lives, will return.
The bar was quiet. Tom, Lee, and Emily occupied their usual booth, fourth from the right by the game room, where two townies were shooting pool and not saying a word to each other.
Kirsten had begged off, down with a cold, Emily said. Tom felt he was closer to her than Emily was, and didn’t see why Kirsten hadn’t called him to cancel.
“She failed,” Emily said.
“What?” Lee asked.
“The midterm. Kirsten failed it. She told me when she called. She said that was another reason not to come today, because she obviously wasn’t getting anything out of the group.”
“Weird,” Tom said. He was worried about her. She’d been growing distant and quiet, even before the exam. When the group began last fall, she would laugh a lot. Tom could see she was nervous and trying not to be. Then she stopped laughing as the end of term approached. After the winter break, she came back looking haunted, as if she were listening to something no one else could hear.
Emily shrugged. They drank their beer, opened their textbooks, then closed them again. They’d all aced the same exam Kirsten failed, and it was as if they’d all come to the same conclusion at the same moment—they didn’t need to study so hard.
“What’s the deal with her hair, anyway?” Lee asked. “Major chop job.”
“Looks like she did it herself,” Emily said.
“No way. Really?” Tom asked.
“Sure. I can see her standing there in front of her mirror, going at it with rusty shears.”
“Oh, I don’t know. There’s just something decayed about her.”
Tom felt bad again. He didn’t like Emily. She was arrogant and cruel, but what she’d said about Kirsten was true.
The Econ. exam was one of three Kirsten failed. She was up to speed in her American History course, but when she opened the exam book to write the essay, she froze. Her mind ran down one path, then up another. Words raced through, and she couldn’t capture them, or even slow them down. Geology was a multiple choice, and what tripped her up there was a sudden obsession with filling in the ovals completely—perfectly—with no lead outside the line. The moment she finished one she checked it again and again. She erased several answers to start over from scratch, and when time was called, she’d completed less than half the test. Her failures took air out of whatever room she was in. She went to the health clinic. “I’ve got asthma,” she told the nurse. A doctor listened hard to her breathing, and disagreed. He asked if she was getting enough rest. “Well, you know, we just finished midterms.” He said to go and catch up on her sleep.
In her Econ. lecture, she moved to the back, away from Emily, Lee, and Tom. Tom turned back sometimes and smiled at her. The others didn’t. One day he caught up with her in the hall. She’d tried to escape and wasn’t fast enough.
“Hey,” Tom said. “You have time for a beer?”
She pulled back, against the wall, and hugged her backpack as if it were a stuffed bear.
“Sure,” she said, breaking out in a sweat.
“How are things?” Tom asked.
They left the building. Their path took them over the gorge. Kirsten walked on the outside, away from the railing. The sunshine was painful. Tom put on a pair of sunglasses. He looked like a movie star, she thought. Like someone important.
“We miss you in the study group,” he said.
“I bet you don’t. At least, Emily and Lee don’t.”
“Who cares about them? You should come back. If you think you want to, that is.”
“I don’t think I’d get much out of it. Besides, I’ve got a part-time job now, well, a volunteer job, really, and I won’t be around as much.”
“Really? Where are you volunteering?”
“The counseling center.”
Kirsten had never been into the counseling center, but she’d seen a flyer asking for volunteers. Are you good with people? Do you have time to listen? No special training necessary. Call today to attend an orientation session.
With two beers in her, Kirsten relaxed a little. For some reason, for the moment she felt safe.
“We should go out some time,” Tom said.
“We’re out right now.”
“I mean at night.”
“You mean, like a date?”
But Tom got busy with school again and didn’t ask Kirsten for a date.
The moment she walked into the counseling center, Kirsten knew she’d done the right thing. The potted plants were lush. Tropical. One was red and leafy. Later she realized they were plastic, and wasn’t disappointed. Keeping a foreign thing like that alive in the Dunston air—even heated air—would be hard. Yet, when she’d first seen the town the spring before, after she’d been admitted, having applied sight unseen, she found it full of life. Lots of thick green trees and deer off in the roadside woods. Growing up in Los Angeles meant both trees and deer were scarce. She hoped—at times she was dead certain—that coming to school there would mean a much needed renewal. Her own life taking shape and rounding out.
Her father wanted her to go to Stanford, because he had. Though he knew she wanted to escape the house he’d spent his whole life building, and the wife/mother he’d spent years trying to improve, the moment never came when he could admit it to her. “Do us proud” was all he said. Kirsten’s mother was devastated. They had never been close, yet she couldn’t bear being left alone with a man who thought she was his doormat. The mother knew her own weakness, her failure to take hold of her own life, had passed on to the daughter, who was equally meek. Yet there was a sliver of steel in her somewhere, her mother was sure. The question was where, and what would cause it to break the surface?
Kirsten was shown to an African-American man who sat at a dusty desk. An ivy plant trailed to the floor. It looked real. Her touch confirmed it. She was confused. The fake plants were in front, and the living ones were in back. Which meant you progressed from death to life, when it was really the other way around. If not, that meant—
“Pray,” the man said
“Name’s Pray.” He pointed to a piece of wood on his desk.
“Even before I was born, my mother was convinced my soul needed saving.”
“I’ve been pretty good so far, but it’s too soon to tell.”
His teeth were very white. The dreadlocks she wasn’t sure about. She’d always thought they looked stupid.
“So, what can I do for you?” he asked.
“I’d like to volunteer.”
“That’s great. Why would you like to volunteer here, as opposed to say, an animal shelter?”
Was he baiting her?
“Because people seem to be in trouble,” she said. “The stress seems to be building up.”
“That’s probably true. Well, Kirsten, why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself?”
It was like talking about someone else. Growing up in Brentwood, coming to the Ivy League to study—what, she wasn’t sure. Maybe theater, though she was terrified of performing; so maybe history, though the relevance of that wasn’t always clear because all of us, even historians, had to live in the moment, didn’t they?; so maybe economics, since that seemed to be what made the world go around—the trouble was she’d just failed her exam, and the grade report had already been sent home, and she could just imagine how it would be received. Her father could ooze disappointment like pus from a wound (she then apologized for her choice of words).
She talked more. It got easier. There were so many random points in her life, all these things off the side, like how her aunt tried to show her how to paint once and got fed up with her, or how she’d fallen in love with a palomino pony her father said was too much responsibility for her, or how her piano teacher once told her she was probably wasting her time. She told Pray she thought she was supposed to connect all the points somehow, like the picture puzzles kids used to do, because she was sure there was something underneath all the dots, if she could only get far enough away to really look down and see it.
Pray told her she should make an appointment with one of the counselors there. She thought he meant so she could learn what to tell people who came in, at the end of their rope.
“It never hurts to explore these feelings in a safe environment,” he said.
The moment she realized he thought she was nuts, she stood up and left.
The snow came on hard. A March snow was supposed to have less force, or so she’d been told. Or had she ever been told what snow was supposed to do, and if so, when? Kirsten’s roommate spent all her time at her boyfriend’s frat, leaving Kirsten on her own. It was better that way. Celia, the roommate, talked a lot and wore perfume that made Kirsten’s throat itch. The moment she left, taking the scent with her, Kirsten stopped coughing.
The snow fell for two days and three nights, and on the morning of the third day the world had become visible once more, and blindingly bright. All the sunlight in Southern California was nothing compared to this, yet Kirsten didn’t mind squinting her way across the main quad, across the gorge where icicles hung like huge teeth, around the athletic center, past the physics building, along the edge of College Town, then back to her dorm. She hadn’t attended any of her classes for ten days. When that time reached a total of two weeks, a letter would be mailed home, or so the student handbook had said. Her father had suffered the grade report in silence, but she was sure the letter would prompt a telephone call, or worse, his appearance at her door. But no, he wouldn’t waste his time coming all that way to fetch her back. He’d tell her to get on the next plane home. He’d make himself scarce when she did return, avoiding conversation, avoiding her, avoiding, avoiding, avoiding. Her mother wouldn’t meet her eye, and then one morning, Kirsten would awaken to find her sitting on the end of her bed, watching her sleep.
She couldn’t go home. Not after submitting herself so easily to failure. She’d have to stay right there in Dunston, and suffer it out, moment by moment.
Her room felt too small, even with Celia gone. She moved Celia’s dresser into the hall, wrestled her desk out there, too, and stripped her bed. The R.A. asked what she was doing. Kirsten explained.
“You can’t do that. This room is assigned as a double. Everything has to go back the way it was.”
Kirsten promised to replace the furniture. She locked the door. The room still felt small. She tore down the curtains and hoped the light would widen everything it fell on. It didn’t. She needed a shower. She hadn’t had one for four days. The sight of her own nakedness had become disturbing. There were too many mirrors in the bathroom. She thought they should be painted black to spare her having to see herself. She gathered what she needed—shampoo, soap, a towel that stank of mildew because she’d never once put it through the laundry, different clothes, none of them clean—and made her way into the bathroom. She turned off the light. Without windows, she stood in total darkness. This is what the blind experience all the time. That was both fascinating and terrifying. She inched toward the shower stall, put her things just outside it on the floor, and slid her hand along the cold, smooth tile until she found the lever that turned on the water. She stripped. She found her soap and shampoo, and got into the stall. As she was rinsing her hair, the light went on.
“What the fuck are you doing taking a shower in the dark?” The voice belonged to a fat girl two doors down. Kirsten had never learned her name. She didn’t answer.
“Oh, and you might want to close the curtain.”
Kirsten saw that she’d soaked the clothes she’d intended to wear because there’d been nothing to block the water. She pushed down the lever, wrapped herself in her wet towel, gathered her belongings, then returned to her room and wept.
Tom knocked on her door. He smelled of fresh air and the Indian food he’d had for lunch. His presence made the room warm.
“You look like shit, if you don’t mind my saying so,” he said. His backpack hit the floor.
“Have you been sick?”
“No. Just working hard.”
“You haven’t been in class.”
“I needed some time off.”
He sat down on the end of her bed. She’d been sleeping in a sleeping bag on the floor. When she heard the knock, she’d kicked the bag under the bed.
“You look like you could use some fresh air,” he said. “Let’s go for a walk.”
“It’ll do you good.”
They sat, not talking for a while. As he was leaving, he hugged her. She didn’t understand why. She felt his heartbeat through his T-shirt, and flannel shirt, and the sweater he wore over all of that, and the heavy coat on the outside. How could that be? How could anyone’s heart be that strong?
The moment the door closed behind him, the room rushed outwards, spreading like a stain. That’s stupid, she thought. It’s just a room.
The hour was late. She’d been up all night for the second day straight. She was hungry. A candy bar from the vending machine downstairs would really hit the spot, and then the thought turned her stomach. Tom had called twice. She hadn’t answered. If she saw him, she’d say her phone had run down. Out of juice, she’d say. Like a squeezed orange.
Then the moment came when she could no longer stand the confines of her room. She dressed in layers. Ice crystals lay on the black window, brightened here and there by the street lamp three floors below. Outside, the paths were black and the snow was white, but a dim white, as if the life and power had been drained from it.
Snow that lay in darkness must have a name, she thought. Night snow? But its color. What was the color, exactly? Were colors exact or approximate? Was this something she was supposed to know? Did anyone know?
Too many questions and not enough answers. That was her problem. How could she go through life in this state of constant ignorance? Was that why people ended it, because there were too many things they didn’t know? Or, was it knowing that they’d never find out? And seeing that death was the one big mystery, the one thing no one really knew for sure, they hastened it, rushed into it, all for that desperate need to know.
Her boots were silent as they hit the ground. No one was out. The world had gone completely still. The only thing moving was the silver plume of her own breath. She heard the water in the gorge well before she reached the bridge. The sound was like a song of defiance, because the water was stronger than the cold. The water did not freeze.
She felt nothing. Not the bitter air. Not fear. Not regret. She’d stopped thinking about the people she’d once known, how they would take her end, what their lives would be like as they moved forward without her.
The railing was under construction. Renovation, actually. A barrier was being placed that would prevent climbers from being able to jump unless they snuck by at either end. She stood there, aware of the challenge, but also of a change in the light around her. It was growing brighter. Dawn was underway. She’d never been awake at dawn before, never seen the sunrise. The first and last, she thought, then felt the idea was trite.
Then the light rose enough so that an icicle hanging from a dark ledge of shale was illuminated. It seemed to glow. Kirsten had never seen anything so beautiful. She didn’t understand how the light had reached the ice before falling on anything else. Soon other icicles were coming to life, turning a faint, warm yellow.
“My God,” she said, holding the rail with her gloved hands.
“Are you all right?” a man’s voice asked. She turned. All there was of him was his thick coat and wool hat. He asked the question again.
“Look at the gorge. Look at the light. Isn’t it amazing?”
The man turned. He didn’t seem to know what she was talking about.
“It’s damn early to be up and about,” he said.
“I work on campus. I have to be there by six. That’s why I’m out here freezing my ass off.”
She said nothing.
“What are you doing out here, if you don’t mind my asking?” he asked.
Suddenly, she no longer knew. She was cold. And tired and very hungry. She continued to look at the icicles and realized the man wasn’t going to walk off until she went, too. She gazed down, hearing the water rush, held by the dawn, feeling as if she herself were lit from within.