I spotted him like you might a bird through the top of a windshield; a man perched like a shooting gallery duck on the rail of an overpass. He looked like an easy target, or at least easier to hit than my car doing eighty, if you stop to think about the weight of a man, that specific correlation between velocity and mass. Measure that weight of probability, and if he’d aimed right, tried harder, thought longer, even practiced on a grassy verge before he’d jumped…
I’d have killed him.
You see: I knew the instant I saw him up there that the bridge wasn’t high enough; he needed a car. He needed someone else to do it for him.
Before he jumped, there was just a green overpass on highway 295, between Yarmouth and Freeport, Maine. It was a quiet Sunday morning in the northbound lane and I drank drive-thru coffee en route to an alumni meeting, housed in a stone mansion up the coast. I’d come from British Columbia, out of loyalty, which pulled me back, two years after graduation, to that familiar highway, to the air heavy with humidity, the scent of summer salt marsh and low tide.
Then, I saw him. Lit up by the sun, his body faced south. He wore clean chinos, a forest green shirt that I remember tucked in, even with two arms slicing at the air his shirt stayed belted at the waist.
What do you do with that?
Push your foot on the gas and swear into the empty space of the car: You f’ing bastard.
I could explain myself this way: my mother killed herself like this, but she did it effectively, in a dirty Toronto subway tunnel, a hundred or so feet out of the College Street station. She walked down the tracks. Maybe sat patiently, waited cross-legged or leapt out from a blackened wall in front of an accelerating car. There was a driver, and headlights on the train. So my family sent flowers to that driver. And I never stopped to think about that fact. Never thought to think what it would be like to have killed someone, to be implicated and scarred by their choice, and the last image of them, until the jumper came towards the roof of my car. It seemed like selfishness, then, purely defined, an etching burnt forever on the memory of one person by someone who chose to leave memory behind.
The jumper landed on the pavement in my rear-view mirror, a low bump in the shadow of the overpass twenty feet behind my car. On a slow-motion reel of swerving vehicles, I counted three cars and one tractor-trailer truck behind me. He got to his feet, swayed, stumbled to the side of the road and vanished as the highway curved out of sight.
Perhaps the body remembers first, instinctively. I swore, and swore and drove and swore and I did not stop, did not pull over or get out of the car, did not even reach for my cell phone to call the police. I drove fast, away, up an empty highway, just as I’d survived at eighteen by not looking back, by leaving Toronto and its memories behind me.
The jumper landed in my life twenty years after my mother’s suicide. For those twenty years I’ve missed her like a person might miss a foot; my own attempt at motherhood and creating a family, a clumsy, staggering success. Over that time, I’ve not judged my mother much, never borne more than a twinge of teenage guilt for her depression. I’ve sought instead to understand the reasons behind her dark journey towards Younge Street that day, sought to write my way towards answers to the questions that I can’t ask her. I took a young woman’s route towards and around grief, a path that didn’t lead me to anger.
Nearing the stone house, I assembled myself, then chastised myself for not stopping. Others would have asked the jumper: Are you alright? Leant over him. Rested a compassionate hand on his back and looked into his eyes. But I couldn’t do that. My actions weren’t those of a caring citizen or even those of the mature woman I thought I’d become. I’d found myself a teenaged daughter, in flight, enraged. The only question I’d have had for the jumper was one I’d never asked of my mother: How the hell could you do this to me?
No one was hurt, I later found out. A few cars hit the guardrail, but everyone, it could be said, walked away unharmed. The northbound lane closed for a while, and then the Sunday traffic resumed as people headed down east for vacation. Back on the highway after my meeting, I noticed the tide had turned as I drove south. Near Yarmouth, under the bridges, the marshes had filled with seawater. Maine sailed by my windows, the afternoon heat shimmering the road ahead. I leaned my head over the steering wheel to look up at the overpass maybe thirty feet above me. All I could see was a light sky, the kind you’d expect after a storm.
“The Jumper” previously appeared in the anthology: Becoming: What Makes a Woman, Nebraska, 2012.