by Elie Axelroth
The stranger who rescued him was a dark-skinned woman. He heard the swish of her silky dress, the clicking of high heels as she approached along the pedestrian walkway on the bridge. She must have seen him because he heard her gasp and then the sound of her high heels abruptly stopped, and all that was left was the moaning of bridge cables and cars on the overhead deck. Even without looking in her direction, he could feel her edging toward him, one cautious step at a time, so as not to startle him where he stood on the other side of the railing, leaning in the direction of the water, his feet tenuously planted on the steel footings.
It was a steamy, moonless night in early October, the kind of balmy night that cools off only reluctantly as dawn approaches. He’d spent the day alone in his brother’s tiny Brooklyn apartment, smoking pot, playing video games all day long to fend off the boredom. He’d been crashing on the couch; Roy and his wife and their three-year-old slept in the bedroom. Earlier that day, they’d invited him to go to Coney Island with them, but the thought of all those screaming children made him cringe. Two years after coming back from Afghanistan, he couldn’t bear to be around crowds or sudden movements or loud noises or flashes of light, all of which overwhelmed him, setting off spasms of prickly pain and searing headaches. It wasn’t just the lights and crowds, either; he avoided blind spots like dark alleyways and stairwells, and he stepped cautiously whenever he walked across an open field. Every once in a while, everything went quiet. That was scary too.
Leo’s hands were sweaty, but he didn’t dare let go to wipe them off on his jeans.
“Come down from there,” the woman said.
He reluctantly turned toward her voice. Only her silhouette was visible in the chalky light of the streetlamps.
For months he’d been thinking about the surest, cleanest way to end it all: his life that overflowed with desperation and offered so few moments of relief. He didn’t want Roy to find him, much less his wife or three-year-old nephew, and he didn’t want anyone to have to clean up the mess. The sticky puddles of blood and the lingering smell of explosives—he knew from experience what that was like. Online he’d researched about jumping from a bridge; the hard slap against the water would probably kill him, like being hit by a car at seventy-five miles an hour. The blunt force would shatter his ribs, his internal organs would be blown apart and his bones thrust upward. If all else failed, he’d drown, his last remaining breath bubbling to the surface with no one in sight.
The young woman stepped closer and reached her hand out to him. The pleading in her eyes made him question if he’d thought through all his options. Maybe there was someone out there who cared. After everything that had happened, he didn’t want his life to end in regret.
“Whatever you’re thinking, things can always get better.” Her tone was tender but unambiguous. It reminded him of the time his own mother had spoken to Leo and Roy with the same certainty, reassuring them that they were strong enough and smart enough to weather whatever happened. She’d died a few weeks later.
He looked down into the murky water beneath the bridge and then across the river at a string of lights. Lively conversation floated toward him, young people casually hanging out at a waterside patio. It was Saturday night. He imagined them sipping fancy blue drinks and locally brewed beer. A barge chugged slowly toward the mouth of the harbor, letting out a cheerless blast. A frothy blanket of oil coated the water, and there were scraps of wood and a plastic bottle carried lifelessly along the ripple of tide, and what looked like an abandoned fishing rod, garbage caught in the tangle of line. The air reeked of decay and indifference.
“Come on, now,” she said, taking one step closer—close enough so Leo could see that she was wearing a green dress with flowers and a matching sweater, delicate pearl buttons running down the front. She smelled exotic like rose petals.
Then sirens were approaching, and the red-and-blue lights of an emergency vehicle were flashing at the end of the bridge. Doors slammed. There was shouting, and then men in uniforms were running toward him, and for a moment he was back there, in Afghanistan, peering through heavy metal fencing and barbed wire. Then the woman was tunneling through the haze, motioning with her delicate painted fingernails for him to climb back over the railing. It was the simplest of gestures. Stern but loving. The kind of gesture he imagined his mother might have offered—if only she’d been alive.
The EMT’s loaded Leo into the ambulance; he was admitted to the psych unit at the VA hospital on the Lower East Side. The night nurse, Sonny, was a roundish guy with no chin and a receding hairline, making him look clownish in his blue scrubs and white sneakers. Leo might have found it funny but for the harsh florescent lights, the locked doors and bars on the windows, and the anxious smell that permeated the ward. Sonny coaxed him into a small interview room adjacent to the nursing station. The air was heavy, and Leo could hear snoring and feverish groans coming from the patient rooms.
Sonny offered him a paper cup with sludgy coffee, a packet of sugar, and some powdered creamer. Leo didn’t much like coffee, but he took the cup just to hold on to something. Without much of an introduction, Sonny fired away: Did he know where he was and how he’d ended up here? Who was the president? Could he count backward from one hundred by threes? Was he taking any medications or illegal drugs? Did he have nightmares? Flashbacks? Leo answered cautiously. He wanted to tell him: I’m not crazy. I just can’t go on feeling so hopeless and inept.
“Why’d you walk out onto the bridge?” Sonny asked. “Were you trying to kill yourself?”
It seemed too obvious to answer, but Leo, who hadn’t slept the previous three nights, was dying to go to bed. His only choice was to comply with the rules.
“Of course, he said.
But then Sonny wanted to know why, and Leo didn’t have the energy to tell him: He couldn’t figure out how to stop seeing Jerry D and Tommy Cutter and Brady with that stupid cowlick at the back of his head. On their last mission—the one that had sent Leo home—a kindly old Afghani had fed them hot chai and bread and told them about a stash of munitions in an abandoned building on the other side of the village. Twenty of them ran inside the building only to discover too late that it had been booby-trapped. Half his buddies died, including Jerry and Tommy, and another quarter lost limbs. Leo had suffered a concussion and temporarily lost his hearing in one ear. He was supposed to feel lucky, but mostly he felt guilty for having trusted the old man.
The next morning on the psych unit wasn’t any better. After runny eggs and cold toast, a psych tech escorted him to the group room. A dozen or so ill-tempered guys were seated in a circle, hands trembling, their hair unkempt. It looked to Leo like the group was being run by two medical students, barely old enough to shave. They seemed uncomfortable in their white coats with their slicked-back hair and freshly polished leather loafers. Leo had been promised a shower, but for now he was dressed in scrubs and paper slippers. He took a seat on one of the metal folding chairs. It was hard and cold against his butt and the back of his legs, so he scooted forward. Being the new guy, it was expected he’d go first. He told them about walking out onto the bridge. Which bridge, they wanted to know. Were you really gonna jump?
They were making it into a schoolyard dare, like he’d lacked the courage to go ahead with it. Maybe that was true. Even at the time, leaning over the railing, Leo had hesitated, and now he wasn’t sure about anything except the woman who’d rescued him. Who reminded him of his mother.
“I don’t know,” he said. There was no way he was going to leave himself open to ridicule in front of those guys.
Two days later, they released him with a checklist of appointments and his solemn promise to stay away from the bridge.
But he couldn’t keep his promise, at least not in the way the doctors had meant for him to. He couldn’t leave the woman behind and the memory of something unalterable that had happened. He was back on his brother’s couch, waking up in the middle of the night to her whispering in his ear, her kind words that had given him hope, the sweet smell of her, the softness around her eyes, the warmth in her fingers, the way her dress had fluttered in the nighttime breeze. Leo couldn’t remember ever having felt such longing, even during the couple of months when he’d been dating Cora from the veterans job center. She was a good listener, and she’d been nice to him in the beginning, before his neediness scared her away.
He fell into a routine, leaving work early to take a shower and scrub away the greasy garage smells oozing from his pores. Then he’d head out the door again. When his brother asked where he was going or if he’d be home in time for dinner, he was guarded, saying he was off to his support group at the vet center or an appointment with his shrink. It wasn’t a complete lie because mostly he did go to his appointments. But on the nights he was free, he’d take the C train—early enough to beat the crowded press of rush-hour bodies—and barricade himself by the doors so he could be the first one off the train. Once above ground, he’d search for open sky between the chasm of buildings, trying his best to tune out the acrid smell of smoke and diesel fumes, the noise of pigeons flapping and cooing, buses lurching away from the curb. On the way up the bridge stairs, he’d stop long enough to peer through the metal grid and cables at the pedestrians and bicyclists on the walkway above him. He’d remind himself not to get too close to the railing.
One afternoon, midway across the bridge, Leo paused to watch a construction site on the north side of the river. A crane operator was swinging long shafts of steel onto a towering high-rise. If he squinted, Leo could make out the vague outline of workers in hard hats coaxing the steel beams into place. The buzzing noise on the bridge faded with a lull in the traffic. Suddenly Leo could hear the clicking sound of high heels. Turning around, he saw the woman approaching, the woman who’d rescued him, her mint-green dress swishing back and forth as she sauntered in his direction. She was smoking a cigarette, her cheeks drawn in as she inhaled. Then she blew a thin spiral of smoke over her shoulder. Leo was surprised that the woman smoked: he’d imagined she was the kind of person who shunned unhealthy habits like drinking too much or overspending on her credit cards. His breathing quickened; it was the same jittery rush of adrenaline he’d felt on reconnaissance missions, crouched behind rocks, creeping through burned-out buildings. He took in a deep breath to try and calm himself—something he’d learned just last week in his support group.
The woman didn’t see Leo until he stepped out into the middle of the walkway, blocking her path.
“Hello,” he said. He smiled so she’d know he was being friendly.
The woman stopped, tossed her half-smoked cigarette off to the side then backed away.
He started to say, I guess you don’t remember me, but then he realized she wasn’t the same woman. The woman who’d rescued him had been taller, younger, prettier, carefully dressed with her hair straightened and tied back with a ribbon. This woman was wearing a waitress’s apron, and she smelled not of rose petals but fried fish and grilled onions.
He stepped aside. “Sorry. I thought you were someone else. Don’t mean to bother you.”
The woman quickened her pace, turning around to look back at him when she was nearly out of sight.
The next day, Leo showed up at the shop an hour late. A rusted-out Chevy pickup was on the lift; Roy was standing underneath with an air wrench, taking off the tires.
“Where were you last night?”
Leo watched as his brother sprayed the lug nuts with WD-40, squeezed the trigger on the air wrench, and then tossed them one at a time into an overturned hubcap. He winced with the spinning and the harsh metallic sound each time the lug nut hit the hubcap.
“I can’t keep from thinking about her,” Leo said.
“Jesus. You been out on that bridge again?” Roy was rolling the tire around to the back of the car. He stopped to wipe his hands on a rag, waiting to see if Leo would deny the accusation. Roy was shorter than Leo, and he was slim and cautious; he’d never gotten into trouble at school, never argued with his father the way Leo had. Being the older brother, Leo had always felt protective of him, although now it was the other way around.
“It’s not that easy,” Leo said. He could see how his brother would be scared for what might happen, but Roy didn’t understand that without that woman, he’d likely be dead.
Roy tossed the rag onto the workbench. “Just like before. You never learn, do you?”
Leo knew exactly what his brother was talking about. In high school, he’d almost gotten himself expelled for texting too many times to one of the girls in his biology class. His father had been called into a meeting with the vice principal. She claimed he’d been bothering her for months, that she already had a boyfriend. Maybe it was true. In any case, he’d caught hell when they got home.
“That was different,” Leo said. “Becky was leading me on.”
Roy stared at him and wiped a bead of sweat with the back of his shirt sleeve, leaving a streak of grease on his forehead. “Just one thing I’m asking. Talk to that shrink of yours about it. Will you do that for me?”
That evening, Leo stayed home.
It wouldn’t have surprised him if his brother had called Dr. Bender, told him about how he was trying to find the woman on the bridge, because at his next appointment Bender didn’t start in with his usual questions about the medication. Instead, he wanted to know about work and how was he getting along with his brother, details that had previously seemed unimportant or irrelevant. The questions were benign, but it felt like a trap. It reminded him of the times when he was younger and his father, angry over nothing at all would cast around for some hapless victim—usually Leo—to blame for his foul mood.
Leo glanced at the clock; his time was almost up. That’s when Bender came out with what he’d been leading up to all along. “Tell me about the woman on the bridge,” he said.
“Tell you what?”
“For starters, what’s important about finding her?”
“I just wanna say thank you.”
“Let’s suppose you find her. Tell her you’re grateful. Then what?”
Bender’s glasses had slid down the bridge of his nose, and he was staring at Leo over the rims. It made him feel pressured, Bender leaning forward on the other side of the coffee table, Leo having nowhere to hide.
“I was thinking she’d want to know,” he said, “that she helped someone. That it made a difference.”
“You must be hoping for some kind of reaction,” Bender said, urging him on.
Leo could feel his chest tighten. He looked away, hoping Bender wouldn’t notice how much the questions were getting on his nerves. He was afraid he might get angry or, worse yet, start sobbing. That was something that happened without warning from time to time, too.
“A smile? Her name? Where she lives?”
“I wouldn’t ask her that.”
“She was kind to you. It’s understandable that you’d want to see her again.”
Bender was expecting him to trip up, but Leo wasn’t fooled.
“No, sir,” he said. “I can see how that’s not a good idea.”
It occurred to Leo that the woman who’d rescued him might not work anywhere near the bridge. He found himself wandering the streets well beyond the bridge—to Battery Park, the Lower East Side, the old meat market near Chelsea. He sat on park benches, tossed the stale ends of his sandwiches to the pigeons, stared at the Statue of Liberty and the tourists lined up to take the ferry across to Ellis Island. From a pizza parlor on Old Fulton Street, he watched the business suits with their briefcases. Delivery men hurried by on bicycles with padded envelopes and express packages. He studied every dark-skinned woman in high heels. Was that her? The one in the tan raincoat? A couple of times he chased a woman down the street. But inevitably, she was too short. Or overweight. Her clothes were wrinkled. One woman had a mole on her cheek that Leo was sure he’d have noticed on the woman who’d rescued him.
Then he spotted her. At a coffee shop around the corner from City Hall. She was wearing the same green sweater with the pearl buttons, and her hair was tied back, not with a ribbon, but with hair clips. She was sitting in a booth by the window reading a paperback book, sipping coffee, eating a slice of pie one delicate forkful at a time. Leo stared at her from behind a streetlamp. Yes, it was her. This time he was sure.
He walked into the restaurant and slid into the booth opposite her. His hands were sweaty, and he could feel the scar on his forehead pulsing—the scar from that last reconnaissance mission gone bad. Wanting to make a good impression, he sat up straight and looked across the table at her.
The woman’s jaw tensed, and her eyes were darting between Leo and the restaurant patrons seated behind him.
“I guess you don’t remember who I am,” Leo said. Through the nervousness he forced himself to smile, as friendly a smile as he could manage. He understood why she was flustered but he was sure that in the end she’d be pleased that he’d taken the time to find her. He was hoping she’d see his confidence as a sign that he was doing better.
“No,” she said. “I haven’t a clue.” The woman was gathering up her scarf and coat; she shoved the book into her purse.
“I’m Leo.” He reached out to shake her hand, to reassure her that he meant no harm.
Instead, the woman motioned toward the waiter and mouthed, Check, please.
“Sorry,” Leo said. “I can see you’re in a hurry. I just wanted to say thank you for being so kind to me.”
The woman nodded and offered him a jittery smile, but it was clear to Leo that she still wasn’t making the connection.
“Don’t you remember? The bridge? You kept me from jumping off.”
The waiter brought her check. As she was sliding out of the booth, she pulled a twenty-dollar bill out of her purse and laid it on the table—way too much even with a sizable tip.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. It must have been someone else,” she said as she dashed out of the restaurant.
The next day at work, Leo was sweeping up; Roy was working on an engine rebuild. Belts and tools, nuts, bolts were laid out on the workbench. “I met her,” he said.
Roy didn’t say anything, making as if he was too focused on flipping through the manual, examining the engine specs, to be paying attention.
“She’s real pretty,” Leo said. “Like I remembered.”
His brother put down the wrench and turned around. “So you got to say thank you,” he said. “I hope that’s the end of it. For your sake.
“Sure,” Leo said. “Isn’t that what I said all along? That I just wanted to say thank you?”
His brother worried too much. He’d imagine Leo doing something impulsive or stupid. Of course there was no way he was going to tell him about how she’d run out of the coffee shop, her scarf haphazardly wrapped around her neck, or that he’d followed her into the subway station at City Hall. Or that he’d ridden the subway in the next car over all the way to Brooklyn Heights and followed her down Tillary Street, where she keyed herself into a high-rise apartment building. He’d crossed the street to stand back and get a better view. There was nowhere to sit, so he just stared up at the apartment building, wondering which floor she lived on. It was nine o’clock before he’d retraced his steps and headed home. But now he knew where she lived.
In the end, it wasn’t hard to find her name and phone number, even a college graduation photo. It was all a matter of patience and determination, a little snooping on the Internet, casually asking around. When Leo described her to the cashier at the fancy grocery store on the bottom floor of her apartment building, the man seemed hesitant to give out any information.
“I’m pretty sure her name is Nina,” Leo said. “I was stationed in Afghanistan with her brother, Paul. Real nice guy.” Leo knew from the Internet that she had a brother named Paul who taught history at a community college in the Bronx.
The cashier seemed relieved to have some kind of explanation for Leo’s snooping. “Sure. She comes in here maybe once a week. Picks up a bottle of wine and a quart of ice cream—pralines ’n cream. Works some place in the City.”
“I’m sure that’s her,” he said. Leo already knew she wasn’t married, but he wondered if she had a boyfriend.
“I wouldn’t know anything about that,” the man said, ringing up a stick of beef jerky Leo had purchased.
Nina Hawkins. Leo discovered that she worked at the Whitney Museum in the development office. So he was right about her being smart. One Sunday afternoon, he saw her drive out of her underground garage in a late-model Honda Civic. He couldn’t see what she was wearing, but she was alone. She didn’t come back until late that night.
It wasn’t lost on Leo that the woman reminded him of his mother, who’d died of ovarian cancer when Leo was ten. His mother had been kind and patient, and he sometimes wondered what his life would have been like if she hadn’t died so young. Or if his father hadn’t been abusive to her. All the drunken yelling, shattered beer bottles, Leo and Roy crouched in the corner.
Of course, his mother hadn’t been black; she wasn’t even that dark-skinned with her olive complexion and tight black curly hair. Her grandparents had been immigrants from southern Italy. As often as not she was mistaken for Puerto Rican or Haitian. The only photo of his mother Leo had was from a trip they’d taken to Montauk Point when he was a kid. He remembered the long drive out to the tip of Long Island, the sparse countryside, the fancy McMansions. Leo wondered what it was like to live like that. They’d stopped at a gas station to use the restroom; his father had bought them Corn Nuts and Popsicles, even let them eat in the car. In the photo, Leo and Roy and their mother were standing by the roadside. Just as his father snapped the photo, a convertible with the top down had whizzed by, a blur of red with white leather. Off in the distance, a sliver of ocean and the suggestion of sand.
What he remembered was having watched her walk up the subway steps and out into the wintry air on her way home. Then he’d stood on the other side of the street from her apartment, pacing to keep himself warm, watching buses and cars and motor scooters. A man on a Segway trundled by. Periodically he’d pull his hand out of his pocket and look at her phone number inked across his wrist. By eight o’clock, there wasn’t anything to do but call.
When she answered, he heard music in the background. Or maybe it was the opening credits to a TV show.
“Nina. This is Leo,” he said. When the line went dead, he immediately called back. “Please don’t hang up.”
A moment of silence, but this time she stayed on the line.
“Make it quick,” she said.
“I just want to say thank you.”
“You’ve already said enough. Besides, you’ve got the wrong person.”
After she hung up, he must have wandered for hours down Tillary Street, through the park, past the carousel, and then back to the bridge, where he stood until the morning light inched across the river. He didn’t understand why she denied having helped him. As much as he hated to admit it, his brother had been right. And Bender. All along, he’d wanted more than just to say thank you. And even that was too much for her to accept.
He stood against the railing. A ferry packed with morning commuters was chugging across the river. If he leaned over, he could see the Statue of Liberty and Staten Island. His brother would be wondering where he was. Probably he’d be relieved not to have to worry about him anymore. He looked over his shoulder. It was early enough that the bridge was mostly deserted. He counted to ten. There wasn’t anyone around to rescue him, so he counted to ten a second time. Still no one.
Leo was sorry the instant he let go. In the four seconds it took to hit the water, he pictured Roy and his little nephew, who squealed when Leo twirled him around the room. And the woman with the red hat and rusted-out Volvo who’d given him a gift card to Starbucks for making sure her car passed inspection. His mother the time she let him cut school and they spent the day at the movies.
The water was colder than he’d imagined, and the pain that wracked his entire body was unbearable. He’d been sure he wanted to die, but now all he wanted was to get to the surface of the water, to the light. This far down, it was hard to tell which way was up. Suddenly, he was bobbing up and down and choking on salty water. His whole body was shivering and he had the sense that his clothes had been wrenched off. There were sirens in the distance. And then he was underwater again and he could feel his arms foraging upward. Again, above the water he saw the foamy crest of a wave approaching; he tried to yell for help, but his lungs were burning and he couldn’t force out anything resembling a sound. He went down again. Please don’t let me drown. Then spotlights were blinding him; he was coughing. And breathing.
It was probably not more than ten minutes before the Coast Guard picked him up. They strapped him to a board, put on a neck brace, and wrapped him in blankets. He woke up the next night after the anesthesia from surgery had worn off.
That’s when he saw the nurse hovering over him, adjusting the IV, checking his pulse. He had a collapsed lung, and most of his ribs and a couple of vertebrae were broken, his spleen ruptured. “You’re mighty lucky,” she said. “Not many survive jumping off that bridge.”
He stared at the tag pinned to her scrubs. She had a kind face. Her name was Jessie.
About the Author:
As a clinical psychologist, Elie Axelroth, worked for many years in a university counseling center. She has published in Packingtown Review. Her first novel, “Thin Places,” won a National Indie Excellence Award. When not traveling the seven continents, Elie lives in San Luis Obispo, California where she hikes and blogs about creativity. “The Rescue” is based on a character in her current novel-in-progress.