Standing on the Wrong Side
by Hayden Sidun
I’m going to kill myself. That’s the decision I made as my feet hit the frigid hardwood floor after a long night of staring at a dark ceiling, and that’s a decision I’m perfectly content with. I pull my plain black hoodie, probably the only one I’ve worn since I moved to this godforsaken city, over myself and stand in front of my body mirror, trying to catch a clear glimpse of myself through the cracks in the glass. I still vaguely remember punching it, but perhaps I was trying to beat the image of an angry man making a disgusting stain on society.
My bedroom door eerily creaks as I close it behind me. Each creaking step down my ancient, falling apart staircase makes me clutch onto the railing a little bit tighter, and by the time I get to the bottom, my knuckles are as white as the moon on a clear night. My footsteps echo through the hallway as I inch closer to the front door with each careful step. The walls close in on me faster than a man can plummet off the Golden Gate Bridge. I can’t breathe, almost like my lungs are attached to an oxygen-sucking vacuum, and fat beads of sweat drip down my desert-dry face. That godawful wallpaper stains my vision with an outdated floral pattern as the echoes pound harder on my eardrums with each step. Has it always been so loud in here? I think.
The echoes transform into the deafening jiggling of my front door handle. I don’t think I’ve ever thought about it, but today, it doesn’t fail to murder my hearing. A single jerk sends the door flying toward me, and I stumble backward, saved from falling on my ass by a single echoless footstep. Sunshine floods my hallway as I pick myself up and walk outside. Slamming the door behind me, I force my key into the keyhole. A single quick rotation of my wrist and the familiar faint clicking sound that comes after secures the house. I grunt as I slide my house key off the keyring. They make these keyrings so damn tricky, I think.
I kneel to the concrete and lift the corner of the rough brown doormat with the very tips of my fingers. I place the key on the ground and smear the fingerprint of dirt off the key’s bright silver finish. Dust flies as I drop the corner back down and stand up. The echo still rings in my ears as I take one step down the concrete steps. Another layer of dirt coats my hands as they slide down the railing and guide me to the sidewalk. One foot in front of the other—at least, that’s how Mom taught me to walk.
I force a smile as I look at the three-story townhouse, complete with chipping blue paint and a design older than my great-grandmother, I call home. I started renting my bedroom in this house when I first moved to the city. With its horrid exterior paint and the countless, expensive maintenance projects I have yet to start on, the house became mine a few years later when the owners moved to Reno and sold it to me at the small price of my yearly rent. It seems like so many years ago that I was nothing but a stupid college kid with real ambitions. I still remember smiling with each sip of my morning coffee as I sat on my bedroom balcony and watched the sun rise above the horizon. The yellow layer of the morning sky that sat above the Marin Headlands still makes me warm inside. My creaky, wooden chair with its peeling white paint is still on the balcony—hell, I can see it from here. Damn, how times have changed.
Turning right, I begin my journey down the sidewalk, browned by last night’s rainstorm, outside my townhouse in Cow Hollow. Goosebumps cover my arms as the cold San Francisco breeze blows past me, and passersby bundled in their heavy jackets, scarves, and beanies stare at me as I shiver walking past them. On the inside, these people are taunting me. I can feel it.
My feet become more slanted as the hilly Divisadero Street becomes steeper. From the top of the hill, you can see the roofs of hundreds of houses and the very tops of luscious green trees that line each street. You can see Angel Island and the hills of the Tiburon Peninsula on a clear day, but today, the fog is so thick that I can barely see the water ahead of the Marina. The cold breeze hits me like a wave crashing back into the ocean, and my shivers become more violent as I pull my hood over my head and shove my hands in my hoodie’s pockets. I should’ve worn a thicker jacket, I think.
At the corner stands a towering street light that swayed in the wind. Few cars are waiting to cross the cracked graying road this morning, and I am the only person on the sidewalk for as far as the fog allows me to see. Across the street is a rundown drug store with a small and empty parking lot in the back, and across from that is a gas station abandoned long before I moved here. Attached to the street lamp is a dirty white placard boasting the word “Lombard” in large and emboldened black letters.
Lombard coils a few times somewhere behind me, and somewhere along the next intersecting road sits that house they used for that show I watched when I was a kid. I’ve always envied the kids on that show because they’ve always had something—well, frankly, many things—I didn’t have growing up: a family. I’ve never met my father; he left before I was born, and Mom never told me anything about him. Whenever I would ask, she would say to me, “There are far more interesting things to learn about, sweetie,” as she continued to do whatever it is she was doing. Mom and I lived with her mom on her farm, and she stayed there even after Grandma’s death and my move to California. Mom’s first time visiting me in San Francisco was three weeks ago, and the image of me sitting on the floor of my guest bedroom and sobbing as I held onto her cold, lifeless hand only a few hours after I picked her up from the airport will forever stain my memory.
God, I miss home. Waking up at sunrise to the crowing of a rooster at dawn and the sweet smell of hay bales each morning are far preferable to the annoying beeping of the alarm clock and the horrid smell of asbestos soaked into the walls. The sense of freedom I had roaming my family’s thousand acres beats the feeling of confinement I get sitting in traffic on my way to my dead-end job—until, of course, I was fired. Let me tell you, I would much rather have Grandma’s home cooking than a box of ramen every night if afforded the choice. I hated moving to the city, but I had to go after that college degree, that job at a failed tech startup, that potential for a life outside the farm; twelve years later, I have nothing to show for it but a crumbling townhouse and a job as a cable car operator. I guess I’ve always had the option to go back home, but all that would be left for me there now is a house furnished only with childhood memories and a thousand acres of overgrown grass.
The Presidio has always been my favorite part of the city. The swaying palm trees, the luscious grass, and the white buildings topped with red roofs complement the classic California beach vibe; even in the thick morning fog, it is as beautiful as it can get. Someone could spend an eternity here and have no clue that they’re in a massive urban city. Wooden benches and towering pine and cypress trees line the path that takes me to my final destination. The sound of birds chirping and the smell of salt that comes off the bay brings a tear to my eye as I continue my journey one step at a time. I’ve always hated hikes and long walks, but this one has never failed to enlighten my soul with a profound sense of happiness.
I’m not sure how much time passed before I reached the end of that path. The sheer beauty of the trail entranced me so much that I had forgotten I was even walking, and with each step, a new wave of happiness washed over me. The hike now appears in my mind as a blur, one that is slowly fading from my memory, as I stand before my destiny and watch as all the things that make me miserable play in my mind one after the other, like advertisements in a movie theater. The Golden Gate Bridge, with its crimson towers slowly being consumed by the fog, stands in all its glory before me as I swim in a puddle of my misery. Fixing my gaze at my feet, I begin walking.
Hundreds of people brush past me as I walk down the bridge. Some are on foot, some are on bicycles; some are from the city, some are tourists; some speak English, some don’t. Some are young, some are old. Some are in love, some are alone. A voice in my head is telling me that I won’t jump if someone stops me and at least tries to talk to me, but out of all the people who make up that diverse crowd of pedestrians, not a single one of them takes notice of my gloominess and pulls me aside to talk.
The bridge’s pedestrian path takes me past the first tower and onward to the next. I could continue to the next tower and disappear into the Marin Headlands, but I have to—no, I want to—follow through with a plan for once in my life. I stop walking a few feet past the first tower and turn toward the city as I rest my forearms on the railing, wet from last night’s rain and this morning’s fog. I can barely see Alcatraz sitting in the bay, and the city’s skyline, blanketed by the thick gray fog, is absent from view. Clearing my mind, I take a deep breath as I swing my right leg over the railing and pull myself to the other side of it. Passersby can only stare as I look at each of them with eyes pleading for help, but after a few seconds of invisibility, I turn around and face the bay once again. I try to force myself to let go, but something inside me is holding me back. Just do it, I think, but I grip the railing tighter as I picture myself plummeting toward the freezing ocean water.
“What’s your name, son?” someone asks. I jump upon hearing the voice, one that probably belongs to an old man, but I can feel my knuckles getting whiter.
A short pause passes before I respond, “Danny.” I can barely hear myself say my own name.
“And what are you doing today, Danny?”
I look down at the deep blue water as it ripples and waves. Two sailboats are moving toward the city in the distance, and a cruise ship is making its way toward the bridge. “I was thinking of taking a little swim.”
The old man laughs. “That’s what beaches are for! Bridges are for crossing.”
I look over my shoulder and see him in the corner of my eye. “Then I suppose there’s some symbolism in this.”
“Why don’t you turn around and look at me?”
I nod my head as I turn around. I look at the old man in his eyes, and he looks at me in mine as he runs his fingers through his long beard while crossing his arms. His head is covered by a checkered flat cap, and he sports a flannel shirt and corduroy pants underneath his full-body windbreaker. He nods his head as he looks at me, and I only hope that he will figure out how to help me.
“Are you just going to stare at me, old man?”
He keeps nodding. “You’re on the wrong side of the bridge.”
He steps closer to me as he removes his gloves from his hands. He puts the gloves into his windbreaker’s pocket and places his wrinkled hands on top of mine. I watch him smile as warmth exudes from his hands and onto mine, and in his curled lips, I can see the hope he has for me and a plea for me to live to see tomorrow. This must be what it feels like to be worth a damn to someone, I think, losing myself in his eyes. They’re as blue as the water I’m about to plummet toward.
“Why aren’t you standing next to me today?”
“I don’t know you.”
“You don’t have to know me to walk beside me.” He takes his hand off mine and waves his arm at the pedestrians before returning his hand. “There are hundreds of people on this bridge who don’t know each other, yet they walk beside each other. You see that?”
I nod, keeping my gaze locked with his. “I can’t continue to live.”
“Is it that you can’t, or is it that you don’t want to?”
“I have no will to. I have no family, no job, no money.”
I sigh as tears begin to run down my face. “I was a cable car operator until the city fired me last week. I tried to explain that I only stole fare money so I could feed myself dinner that night, but apparently, eleven years of employment means nothing when a wrinkled five-dollar bill goes missing.” Shaking my head, I continue, “And it’s not like I can get a better job. I dropped out of Berkeley because I was working on this startup, but the startup failed a few months later, and I couldn’t afford to go back to school.”
“I’m sure you have a family to fall back on. Perhaps you have someone to love and take care of you?”
I sniffle and watch sorrow and pity replace the concern in the old man’s face. “My father left before I was born. I have no clue if he’s alive or where he might be if he is. My grandparents died when I was young. My mom died a few weeks ago at my house while she was visiting me. Her first visit to San Francisco ended in her lying in a morgue with a sheet over her corpse. She was the only family I had left. I have no siblings, no cousins, no aunts or uncles, and certainly no friends or coworkers willing to take me in. I don’t even have a girlfriend.”
“I’m sure you’re capable of finding one.”
“Don’t you get it, old man?” I shout. “I’m incapable of being loved!” I bury my face into his chest and sob. He places his hands on my cheeks and holds my head as we lock eye contact once again.
“Son, I could give a shit about how bad you have it. What matters most is not the tragedy that strikes, but rather what you do when it does. When everything at home disappeared into thin air, so to speak, you came to this city seeking an opportunity to succeed in life. Now that everything here is going wrong for you, you’re responding by killing yourself instead of trying to take account of your life and find hope for yourself. And to think that nobody loves you? That’s pure bullshit. I love you enough to try to help you because you’re a human being with thoughts and feelings, just like me, everyone in this city, and those who let go of the same railing you’re holding onto.”
“I can’t be loved. Few have tried. None have succeeded.”
“Then let me be the first.”
I shake my head as he lets go of my face. “What?”
“I own a restaurant on the Embarcadero, and I have a spare bedroom in my house. You can live with me and work for me as long as you promise to continue living and live with a purpose starting right now.”
Mouth ajar, a nervous chuckle escapes my lips. “You wouldn’t do that for me.”
“Climb to this side of the railing, son, and I’ll prove you wrong.”
Through the sound of my deep breath, The voice in my head screams at me to trust this old man. He grabs my hands as I begin to lift my foot off the ledge, but the traction of my other foot escapes from underneath it as I do. My body violently wobbles as I lose balance and slip from the ledge, trusting the bridge with my life as I tighten my grasp on the crimson rail. My eyes meet the old man’s shoes until he kneels down and allows me to look into his eyes through the rail. He places his hands over mine and slowly nods as a tear rolls down his cheek. Pain rushes through my arms as my body calmly swings like a pendulum in the wind, and he moves his hands to my forearms, trying to pull me to safety.
For the first time in months, I smile a true, happy smile, only this smile comes with something I’ve never felt before: a shred of hope for the future.
Hayden Sidun is a high school student whose short fiction appears in The Dillydoun Review. Outside of school and work, he is involved in local politics and enjoys writing stories and listening to country music in the early hours of the morning. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, of which he is a proud native.