Thursday, June 27, 2013

To Save a Life

         It was a damp, gusty March day, and the man huddled deeper into the recesses of his coat as he walked to the station, striding quickly to warm his legs. He noticed the masses of pedestrians only as obstacles on his planned path. His mind was on greater things.

            It was all he could think about. He would immerse himself in his work, spending late hours bent over charts and newspapers, thermoses of black coffee standing all around him like sentries. Histograms, numbers, names he burned into his brain, glowing afterimages that floated through his dreams at night. Always, though, the dream came, like some creature that stalked him through the woods, pouncing on him when he least expected it. It would come as a physical blow, the dream of Theresa lying naked and gray in the tub, her long black hair floating around her like a halo. In the dream, she sat up, water rushing off her, and opened her arms. In the dream, she welcomed him, a smile on her face, her eyes blank and dead.
            The man walked faster now, shoving pedestrians out of his way, the brisk clack of his boots setting a swift rhythm. His face was closed and blank, a mask. The indignant cries of civilians did not reach him behind a steel wall ten stories high, a mile thick. Near him now, his destination rose gray and forbidding, harshened by the dour light. The station.
            The woman behind the desk looked up as he came in. “We have an urgent for you. Elmer Street, the Don Castro building.” She didn’t bother with greetings. They knew each other well. The man nodded, and walked briskly back out of the door, having spent little more than a moment inside.
            As soon as he came under the chilly white sky again, the memories hit him. He remembered the sound of Theresa’s voice, rough from the inhaler she used for the asthma that had plagued her from age six. It made him ache to recall it. After it happened, he had spent hours at the answering machine, playing her voice mail again and again. He remembered staring out at the ruthless sky, the phone creaking under his white-knuckled grip. The last thing she said to him was about the garden. He remembered her complaining about the cinder blocks strewn in the petunias, left over from remodeling. They were crushing the new seedlings, he heard her say. He had promised to help after school, but he didn’t make it. There was a boy with his father’s rifle, and that took priority. Those were the same blocks that had been resting on her thin chest, weighing down her down, when he walked in.
            He turned the corner onto Elmer Street. It was a kind of twisted irony that the daughter of a suicide prevention officer had committed suicide herself. He had been so busy trying to help the despairing and the desperate, so passionate about his work and the good he was doing in the world, that he had neglected his own daughter. He had been too busy to comprehend the signs of her depression, her growing inclination towards suicide. He hadn’t been able to convince her out of it. He hadn’t been around to convince her of anything. He hadn’t done his duty, as a suicide prevention officer and as a father.
            The Don Castro building came into sight, cordoned off with yellow tape and surrounded by onlookers. A murmuring crowd, staring at the tiny dot above it with a mixture of fear and excitement. He hated jumpers, had always hated them. He hated the splattered sidewalk and the desiccated bodies when he failed, the uneasy feeling of the building swaying beneath him. He hated the thrilled anticipation of the spectators, like it couldn’t just as easily be one of them. One of their children. He flashed his badge at the police lieutenant in a familiar gesture, and he let him in. He ducked under yellow tape and into the front door, ignoring shouts and queries all the way.
            The Don Castro building had stood in the city for decades. The wallpaper was peeling, the industrial carpet stained. It bore no resemblance to the grand Italian hotel it was named for. The spiral stairway was rickety as well--rusted wrought iron, that shook underneath his nervous grip. The door swung open before him, hinges shrieking. And then he was out, onto the roof.

            If it was gusty on the sidewalk, it was a hurricane up here. He hunched against the screaming wind, his breath coming out in crystalline puffs. His eyes automatically sought the jumper.
            She stood with ease on the edge, perched lightly as if the wind wasn’t tearing at her, sending her hair snapping and crackling around her. Her back was straight, at attention. Her gaze clear and bright, unlike the many dull, hopeless eyes he had seen, in person, and in death.  She was looking at him.
            There was a cluster of officers around her, close but not too close, talking into belt radios that squawked back chatter. They seemed absurdly like worshippers bowed in prayer to him, bent as they were against the wind. They broke apart as they saw him, heads turning in relief. One of them, a tall man named Tim, walked up to him.
            “Thank goodness you’re here. She won’t listen to us, to any of us. Just turns her head and stares at the view like that’s what she came for. Maybe you can do something.”
            He nodded, but his eyes were on the girl. She looked serene, and utterly unafraid. Amused, like she could hear what they’re saying, and thought it funny. All the man could see was that she was Theresa. From the hair to the pose to those clear, bright eyes.
            He walked up to her, straight and tall now, demeanor calm and resolute. He spoke to her, voice patient and gentle. It was an act. He was a wreck.
            “Come down, now. It’s not worth it. You’ve got your life ahead of you.”
            She stared at him, eyes no longer amused, and spoke. Her voice was high and fluting, so unlike Theresa’s that he was taken aback.
            “I have a math teacher, 7th grade. He teaches Honors Pre-algebra, and he once told us about a friend of his. He said he was a police officer, and his job was to convince people about to commit suicide out of it. He told us all about the banal things he convinced them with-things like it wasn’t worth it, and all their problems would pass eventually. Do you know what I said?”
            “I said if I was standing on top of that building, wind rushing in my hair, I wouldn’t be convinced.”
            The man’s shoulders drew back. He could recognize a challenge when he heard one. “I’m sorry you think that way,” he said.
            She regarded him, eyes clear, cocky, bitter. “Do you care?” she said.
            “Care about what?” That you do think that way? That you believe in it?
            “Care about me. Do you honestly care whether I step off this building or not? I can see it in your eyes. You’ve seen too many kids like me. You just want this to be over with. For me to be over with.”
            The man didn’t answer. Couldn’t answer. He thought again of Theresa, gray and lifeless in the tub. He thought of how this girl who looked so much like her was someone else’s daughter, someone else’s sister or friend or lover, maybe. Why didn’t I stop her? He wondered, for the thousandth time.
            “Yes. I do care.” He said. And this time he meant it.

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