Bridges

New prose by Shari Winslow

“This is what happens when you teach high school,” she said. “You connect if you can, and you love them even when you hate them, and you just care so damn much. And then they’re gone in some way or another.”

 

I saw her on the street. First Avenue, on my way to the bookstore. She’d cut her hair; instead of her long, thick braid she sported a choppy bob, her dark blonde edges brushing the top of her collar. Her black pea coat was the same, though. One arm hung loose against her side. For awhile she’d tried wearing a prosthetic arm, but she hated that. She’d gone her entire life without a left arm, and trying to fit one into a space where she’d never missed one before made her feel even more self-conscious.

“Hey,” I said. “You changed your hair.”

She turned and smiled.

“Yeah, well. It’s almost the only thing I can change. So why not?”

Snowflakes drifted in the damp, gray air, swirled in the glow of the Christmas lights still on the trees, but didn’t land, didn’t stick. It was early January. She had been dead for nearly a year.

She walked away.

I saw her everywhere. Not every day, not all the time, but everywhere: in the produce section at Fred Meyer. In the food court at the mall. Striding down Pacific Avenue in downtown Tacoma, towards Union Station. But of course it never really was her. She would turn around and look right through me with a stranger’s face. Her perfectly functional right arm would clutch a purse, her left arm swinging free.

In late February of the previous year, the head of the English department at the high school where I taught said, “Did you hear? Bethany killed herself.” Her eyes gleamed with the juiciness of the gossip. She loved being the one to break the news. She had taught Bethany for one semester of IB literature, but Bethany was in my sophomore class the entire previous year. Halfway through her junior year she asked to be my TA after she dropped calculus. Most of the time she sat at my desk and read while I walked around my room, gesturing wildly at my sophomores. Sometimes I caught her smile when I paused in front of a kid’s desk and said, “The life you save will be your own!” or “You might think this is just a notebook for English class, but this is the essence of your soul!” She entered grades into my green spiral grade book with the vinyl green cover. Her handwriting was perfect.

She borrowed my copy of The Awakening and spilled coffee on the cover. Just a corner. It barely warped, and it didn’t matter. Of course it didn’t matter. But she couldn’t stop apologizing.

I didn’t count the number of times I walked her up to the counselor’s office. I didn’t ask how she managed to cut her right wrist when she didn’t have a left arm. I just watched as she sipped from a styrofoam cup of water, and when she finished, she used her perfectly manicured thumbnail to shred that cup into a perfect spiral, her jaw clenched.

Her counselor was short, feisty, warm, with a Peruvian accent. I can still hear the way she said her name: Bay-thany.

Bethany shredded her yellow paper hall pass next.

Her counselor called her mother. Again. Bethany already saw a therapist, already took medication, but her counselor explained to her mother that she was sitting there in her office, sobbing, with fresh cuts.

Her mother wanted to know how her math grade was.

I wrote Bethany’s letter of recommendation, because she was brilliant and because I wanted her to get out. She lasted one semester at Mount Holyoke.

My department head said, “I heard she was sexually assaulted and just went crazy. She didn’t even go back to school second semester.”

I walked back to my classroom. My sophomores arranged their desks in a circle for their Socratic Seminar on All Quiet on the Western Front. What is worth fighting for? I half-listened, trying to take notes. My kids glanced at me, trying to see if I was writing when they were whispering and giggling and having chatty side conversations. I looked at my paper. The only thing I could write, sitting safely and miserably in a circle of sophomores, was a single sentence: Bethany killed herself.

After lunch the counselor called me up to her office.

“I wanted to make sure you’re okay,” she said.

“I’m okay,” I said, but I cried, and so did she.

“This is what happens when you teach high school,” she said. “You connect if you can, and you love them even when you hate them, and you just care so damn much. And then they’re gone in some way or another.”

You lose them all eventually, in so many ways, so many ordinary ways.

And then you lose some because they die, because they drink too much and drive on the wrong side of Peasley Canyon Road. Or they slip and fall when they’re hiking on Mount Rainier on a family vacation.

And you lose some because they kill themselves.

You lose one because she jumps off the Aurora Bridge on an ordinary day in February.

They call it the Suicide Bridge; I read one article that claimed a person died each month. Sometimes bodies land on the pavement, or on cars. The dot-com employees working below the bridge talk about grief counselors being brought into their offices.

Sometimes the jumpers land in the water, and they might not die right away.

Bethany landed in the water. Bethany. Bay-thany.

But I didn’t hear anything until afterwards. After she died, after the funeral. My department chair’s eyes gleaming with gossip. The counselor’s eyes closed with grief. You lose some. You lose some.

The last time I saw her, really saw her, she was visiting one of her friends on campus during her Thanksgiving break. They hugged each other, smiled, giggled. I caught her eye and waved and thought that maybe she’ll be fine.

Shari Winslow writes and teaches English in the Pacific Northwest.

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