Zai Apte‘s short story: The bridge

There is a beautiful bridge near my house. I walk there while getting home from work everyday. I compulsively pause there each day and watch the ducks. I have made a couple of important decisions on that bridge and regretted some others too…. I have halted under the Tipuana tree that arches over the bridge. I have happily accepted the honour of walking on its thick carpet of yellow flowers in the sweltering summer. I have hung my day for a few hours on this bridge to have long conversations with someone at the other end of the world. I have often wondered when I will  join the person at the other end…. If the bridge that holds us together is strong enough…. And if the bridge will stand strong until I prepare myself to cross it…?  

It is one of the most beautiful bridges I have ever seen. I go there to look for hope after scrapping every bit of it off my day. I imagine that the leftovers of hope are stored at the bridge. The trees, the canal that flows under it, the ducks, the sunset and the sunrise… It is all picture perfect. I walk there and remember how I have seen such landscapes painted on a sewing box. Sewing boxes were objects of fantasy for me. They wore pretty pictures either of beautiful landscapes from far afar or of luscious bites of chocolate and cookies. Their cold and smooth tin-touch promised a world of magic inside. Once opened though, all one could see was a chaos of threads, needles and bobbins. One has to sort the chaos of entangled options, pick and choose the right threads, gather one’s focus on the eye of the needle, stitch the pieces together, patiently implant a button, singe a buttonhole by running the thread around it, draw one’s fantasies through the lines and curves of embroideries and see one’s life take shape on a piece of cloth… a sewing box contains so many promises. Maybe that is why their lids were so pretty. They had lakes of placid waters, a pretty girl with a large hat covering her face sat at the lakeside, there was an assuring sun somewhere, little flowers and prismatic birds punctuated the picture…. And there was always a bridge whose parapets were draped with climbers like Wisteria. When I walk on my bridge, I remember the sewing box lids and their power let me access the landscapes I have never even seen. 

After a dismal day, I decide to stroll on the bridge last night. I reach the bridge and saw that it is swarmed by police vans. The sinister red hot light flashes on my face as I walk towards the bridge with increasing heartbeats. A dazed woman is watching the sinister show from afar. She nearly faints when I asked her, “what happened here?” 

“I think it’s my husband on the bridge. He committed suicide.” 

I then realise that the woman is my neighbour. She and her partner had separated a month ago. We had an eerie chat about it when we ran into each other at the laundry house at midnight. That’s a typical scene from a PhD soap opera. People perpetually pissed at themselves, walking with puffy eyes and dark circles, taking walk breaks in the middle of nights and calculating to-do lists, perpetually daydreaming about striking off all the tasks and marking them as completed, though covering their face in shame while looking at ever stretching list, avoiding the glare of not-yet-done writing, not-so-perfect lesson plans, half-written research proposals and hurriedly sent abstracts. I had complained to my neighbour around 2 am about how my summer had been mildly productive but I was not close to where I had imagined reaching. My neighbour had thrown off her hands in the air claiming, “oh mine was productive AF. I got divorced from my husband. I moved into a new house. We fought over the custody of our child. I don’t think it could get more productive than this. I am going to tell the stories of my productivity to my committee.” 

Has her researcher husband decided to throw off the to-do list and do something spontaneously? Throw off the sewing box which stitched his life together? Did he decide to rip the cloth apart? Did he hang himself on one of the limbs of my beloved Tipuana tree? 

I ask the trembling neighbour to stay put and I decide to find out the identity of the dead man. I walk closer to the bridge with my shaky legs and wave at the police. I manage to avoid looking at the body. The police has a friendly face. They listen to me and one of them walk to the neighbour and ask her to show him her husband’s pictures from her mobile. He shakes his head looking at the pictures and our hearts begin to sink… we don’t know if his head shake is out of despair or a simple denial… He then says that it is difficult to establish the dead man’s identity at this point, though he is 95 percent sure that it’s not her ex-husband. The dead man has short hair. Her ex-husband wears a bun. 

I walk her back to her apartment. She blurts while trying to regain her composure, “fuck! What a night!” and we hug. As we untangle ourselves, I see a different person emerge out of her. “Would you like to come in and eat a piece of pie? You know… to celebrate the news that my insane ex-husband is most likely still alive?” 

I politely decline the invitation citing the fact that I have gobbled a big piece of chocolate cake and I have been berating myself for it. I say I would accept her invitation only if she would offer me a bowl of crispy salad. 

“Woah neighbour! You are way too uptight!” We heartily laugh at it. Here is the woman who nearly collapsed a minute ago fearing the father of her child had ended his life, now laughing at my derailed determination to eat right. Life is weird. I walk back to my house and sleep. The whole night I suspect someone wailing. Even in sleep I ransack my whole mind to look for the possible identity of the dead man. “Hope he is not one of my neighbours.” 

Last few months have been the months of destruction. I have been trying to come to terms with the destruction of my hometown brought on by the raging floods, with the loss of my home where I grew up, with the murder of my tree who wore 200 years of his life on the trunk with pride, with the wildfires of California which licked off the dense forests and choked my city with angry smoke, with the defeat at my writing, with the near disappearance of one of my beloved… 

I involuntarily went to the bridge to look for crumbs of hope every time I heard bad news. Now even the bridge is sullied with the blot of violent rejection of life by an unknown dead man. Will I walk there and compulsively look at the branch where he hanged himself? Or will I still be able to watch the wild ducks, smell the Tipuana flowers and make peace with my defeats and start anew? 

I take up my left-off tasks in the morning, make new mistakes and stumble at words while writing. The children are playing outside screaming wildly. I feel bitter for not being able to scream in pain or joy. “I can only make words out of my miseries”, I fume. Although I halt when I hear one of the kids shout, “I want to die somewhere….” 

I get startled and push myself towards the window to see the kid. He is standing right beneath my window with his tiny bicycle. He shouts again, “I want to drive somewhere. Come with meeeee”  His friend rejects his offer from afar. The kid doesn’t relent. He drives himself away on his bicycle. There is a difference, I tell myself, between die and drive. Even though it is a difference of mere two consonants in the monosyllabic words. Until one can distinctly pronounce the R and V, one is fine I guess. The R needs to be well-rounded, like it is when Italians or Indians speak. One should not be mistaken for wishing to die or dive. One should not drop one’s R and V. 

“My R is fine for now. I won’t let it fall off.” I assure myself and begin to add the tasks-to-do on my list while trying to pay my respects to the unknown man who did drop his R and V last night.

Zai is a film-studies graduate who is pursuing a PhD candidate in California. loves poetry, adventure, travelling, being in nature and has been exploring different forms of writing, creative writing being one of them.

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