The morning starts out no differently from any other, except that Henry almost faceplants as he passes one of the large red support beams on his morning jog. There's someone standing — no, wait, sitting
— on the railing right beside the beam, her chucks dangling over the side, over the wrong
side of the railing. She’s small, with brown hair, a mousey sort of face, wearing a big, bulky jacket, and he stumbles as his brain processes the scene and declares an emergency.
"Oops," she offers with a grin, watching as he windmills, trying to catch his balance, before jerking to a stop.
"Uh..." he responds, trying to figure out what, exactly, he should be doing in a case like this. He'd been running the Golden Gate Bridge for a while, now, but this was his first jumper. His eyes dart around, but the traffic that's passing them is going too fast to care. Maybe if he raises an arm to flag—
"You should probably not try to do anything," she says pleasantly, in a lilting voice.
“Uh...” he tries again, and stumbles through his memory for anything that could help. “You know, your life matters and people care about you and it’s not worth it and you have friends and there are people that care and you should really reconsider—”
She stops him with a wave of her hand. “I’ve considered this a lot, actually. For almost decade, really. I think this is the right thing to do. And I don’t think you should try and stop me,” she finishes, with a look back down to the water, the threat explicit.
So he doesn't, yet. Maybe some other jogger will pass by, he thinks, and all he needs to do is delay her. Well, he can do that — he pauses for a second, waiting for her to say something else.
The pause stretches, but she simply sits, watching him. And no one comes.
Eventually, after a minute or two, he starts talking. And she answers, sometimes playfully, sometimes sarcastically, and they talk about the weather and the terrible San Francisco traffic and his job as someone who shuffles papers around and she tells him how much she loved making art in people's lattés and he starts telling her things that verge on more and more personal — that his best friend was drifting away from him, that he didn’t have enough money to keep his dog alive, that his mother seemed to be developing dementia — just to keep the conversation going.
She trades stories in return, about being teased and tormented through middle school, about an emo period that she grew out of in high school, about dropping out of college because she wasn’t able to pay the tuition the second year in. She talked about how much she liked film and how she would sneak into the indie theatres and watch completely incomprehensible films, how her first boyfriend was great but went off to war and how her second one was a complete dick.
It passes the time, and even as he tells himself to be alert to other people, to try and pass a message to them, it all fades into the background as it becomes about the next story, about the connection, about two people who are genuinely interested in what the other person has to say, instead of waiting for their turn to speak.
She's swung her legs around, saying that her neck hurt from craning it to look at him, and now she's on the right side of the railing. She's still sitting on it, but after a few curious looks, the passerby seem to ignore them, dismissing that this could be a serious situation — after all, the animated conversation they were having couldn’t possibly be a sign of trouble.
A park ranger comes around, but something in her eyes, in the tenseness of her body, tells him not to say anything, and after a perfunctory ‘is everything okay
’, that Henry nods at, the ranger departs. So much for that, he thinks; to distract her, he launches into another story, this time about his coworkers.
Eventually, though, there's less and less to say, and his anxiety returns. Why didn't anyone stop? Couldn't they tell that it was just hysteria coming out of his mouth? Couldn't they see how unnaturally calm she was, how poised she was?
"Henry?" she asks, startling him out of his anxiety.
"Yes?" He answers, tentatively, wondering if he should move forward? Back? Sideways? And instead does nothing, frozen in place.
"Thanks, Henry. It was a pleasure to get to talk to you. I'll see you soon, okay?"
And she smiles — what a smile
, he thinks — and walks to him, pulling him into an unexpected hug, one that he relaxes into after a few seconds, hugging her back, glad to have gotten past this terrible situation.
And then she lets go, takes a step back, nimbly hops up on the railing, and drops out of sight, all in one smooth motion. He rushes forward, but all he sees is the ugly grey jacket fluttering into the fog, which soon swallows it whole.
It's hours before he gets home, after he calls the cops and goes through the entire story, after he anxiously watches the coast guard patrol the area. They report back that they can’t seem to find anything, though there’s a jacket that appears to match the description that was picked up on the coast. They'll send divers out, they say, but given the circumstances...
He wants to yell at them, scream
at them that given the circumstances, the least they could do is find her body, that her name was Rachel and she was alive this morning, that they talked about art and cats and children and office politics and, and
, and how did he fail what could he have done better
— but instead what he says is alright, thank you officer
, over and over, as people tell him that it wasn't his fault, that there wasn't anything he could do.Bullshit
, he thinks. Bullshit
He has a terrible time sleeping, and he’s awake entirely too early, before the crack of dawn, simply staring at the ceiling. After an hour, he laces up his running shoes, throws on his usual clothes, and heads out, running, thinking about nothing in particular. Eventually, his route takes him to the bridge, and, after a moment’s hesitation, he decides to run it, as usual. His feet thud softly on the metal as he gets closer and closer, until—
—he finds her, there, again, this time without the jacket, in jeans and a t-shirt, leaning against the same pillar, the same railing, the same place, the same time.
“I’m going insane,” he says, out loud, staring at her.
“No, Henry,” she says, not smiling, and then takes a deep breath. “But I have to apologize to you, because I let you believe—”
“—that you killed yourself. That we spent three hours together, and that you killed yourself at the end of it. I reported your jump to the cops!”
She quirks a smile, for some reason, and he goes from incredulous to thermonuclear in a heartbeat. “Is this just all a goddamn joke to you? I reported that you died, I—”
“No, no, no — I’m so sorry, Henry. I really didn’t mean it, I just—” she looks down, shrinking before him. “I had a parachute, and I wanted to try base jumping from the bridge, but then you caught me and we had a conversation and… I've always been one for dramatic exits. But then I couldn’t find you, because I never got your last name, or I would’ve at least tried to let you know, and…”
She apologizes, over and over, and eventually some part of it gets through his skull, and the anger slowly, slowly
starts dissipating, though every time he replays the thought of her dropping over the edge, he gets a little bit angrier again.
“So it was all just bullshit,” he says, cutting into her explanation.
“No,” she repeats. “It was a conversation that I didn’t think I’d be able to have, that we had. I haven’t told anyone else about my brother — and you told me you hadn’t told anyone else about your relationship with your mom. Doesn’t that mean anything? I think it does."
And angry as he is, he can’t help but agree, that maybe it does mean something.
“Can you forgive me, Henry? Can I make it up to you somehow?”
Begrudgingly, though a large part of him still rails at it, he replays the conversation they had, he sighs.
“It was a cruel prank. I need to think on it, but — I’ll get back to you, okay? Are you still going to be around after my run?”
She nods, giving him a hopeful smile — that damned smile, again — and he sets off to complete his run, shaken as he is. Eventually, he loops back, and she turns from the railing to look at him. He offers a shrug, stiffly.
“Promise me you won’t do something like that again,” he says.
She seems to hesitate, but eventually gives him an ‘okay’, before asking him about yesterday night, and they’re talking again.
He doesn’t see her every day, but they catch up at least twice a week, and he starts building an extra hour or two into his schedule to spend with her instead of completing his run. After his eighth or ninth time meeting up with her — a Tuesday, he remembers — he’s about to head out to finish his run when she stops him with a touch on his arm.
“Henry?” she asks, plaintively.
“Would you mind staying here just a bit more with me? Today’s… not a great day for me, and I’d love some company.”
He doesn't hesitate before saying yes, and ends up there with her for hours, blowing off his meetings at work, taking the time to simply talking to her about the small things, the cars that pass, the clouds in the sky, as she dodges the more substantial topics. The tourists and joggers that pass by take a glance or two at him and then move on, shrugging.
At the end of it, she hugs him, eyes sparkling, and whispers her thanks to him.
He makes it in to work to receive a long and extended dressing-down by his boss; his explanation doesn’t seem to help much.
“Well, even if she were your goddamn girlfriend, you don’t have an excuse to miss that much of work — we had a client issue pop up and you were on the other side of the city, for Chrissakes! It can’t happen again. Tell your girlfriend to hang around closer to the office and maybe
I won’t fire you the next time it happens.”
His first thought is that it'll never happen, that she'd never hang out closer to the office — though as soon as he has the thought, he wonders why he’s so sure.
But she preempts him there, too.
“Henry!” she says, smiling wider than he’s ever seen. “I have something to tell you.”
He takes this as his perfect chance.
“Oh — Rachel, actually, before you do, I was just thinking… you know, we’ve hung out a lot here, and I was just, well… did you want to possibly get coffee sometime? ...Together?”
Some distant part of his mind marvels at how quickly she goes from happy to despondent. Her entire face falls, and he immediately backtracks, drawing the obvious conclusion.
“Er, no, forget it, it was silly of me, and I just mean—”
“No, Henry,” she says, cutting him off instantly. “I can’t — even though I want to.”
“What do you mean, you can't? Is someone stopping you? We could go right after my run and—”
“Henry,” she says, stopping him again, her voice lowering to a whisper. “I’m not what you think I am."
He blinks again.
"I’m… not even sure I’m here at all. Or rather, I am, but I’ve been here for ten years, now. You see, Henry, I... I jumped off the bridge here, last Tuesday, ten years ago, and I’ve been here ever since.”
He blinks, one more time.
“I was right,” he says, mostly to himself. “I am going insane.”
She smiles, remembering their second meeting.
“No, Henry,” she says, echoing her words. “But I have to apologize to you, because I let you believe…”
“—that you hadn’t
killed yourself,” he finishes, and she nods.
In retrospect, he wonders why he was so sure she was speaking the truth, how he understood what she was saying so quickly, despite the obvious impossibility.
They stand there for a long series of moments, an island in the sea of the joggers and tourists winding their way up and down the bridge, as the sun slowly climbs the sky.
“Why?” he asks, finally.
“Because through all the years, I never found someone who could just have a conversation with me. I never found someone who could see past the act and into the person. But I did, with you.”
She smiles, and he remembers thinking, right before the first time, what a smile
“What I wanted to tell you is that you’ve… set me free. There are rules, I guess, though I couldn’t explain them to you if I tried. The only thing I know is that I am absolutely certain that when I jump this time, I won’t be back. I’m ready to go on, to whatever is after, and it’s because of you.”
He smiles, shaking his head. “It wasn’t a one way street,” he says. “I think, maybe, we helped each other across the finish line.” He says it at the time because it's the right thing to say, but it's only afterwards that he realizes how true it is.
"Thanks, Henry,” she whispers. “It was a pleasure to get to know you, to be your friend. And… I’ll see you one day, but not too soon, okay?”
With his nod, she takes a step back, climbs the railing, and smiles for just a moment more. And then she lets go, falls back into the fog, one last time.