Summer decided that summer had gone on far too long.
The kids were back in school, the university halls packed with the heady pheromones of possibility. Labour Day already a waning memory. Yet someone had forgotten to inform the actual seasons. Achingly blue skies still dominated, the city's abandoned splash parks and outdoor pools turquoise daubs of melancholia beneath the bright gold of an endless late summer.
Unlike the season, however, Summer—for her part—did not intend to overstay her welcome. This had been a summer that only reinforced her belief that such a stark world was not, nor ever had been, designed for one so fragile as she. The name bestowed upon her at birth by a sympathetic nurse now doubled as an ironic millstone around her metaphorical throat. A cosmic joke.
As befits someone abandoned as a newborn in an alleyway somewhere between Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside, her story had followed a sadly predictable script. Foster care and group homes. Occasional violations from clammy fingers. Or foreign objects. Alternate schools, petty crime, counseling, addiction, an adolescent eating disorder surprisingly conquered in adulthood, a rare and welcome rainbow in otherwise stormy skies. Summer's twenties were a grey blur between polarities. She was still only twenty seven, although she felt seventy two.
Nothing had worked. Friends—all gone, via indifference or betrayal. Boys—pretty much the same script. Losing herself in drugs, booze, loveless sex. Sometimes cleaning up. Transplanting her various addictions onto the narcissistic rows of ellipticals and stationary bicycles, smeared wall-length mirrors as tawdry witnesses. First World problems. Trapping her nonetheless. McJobs, unemployment, McJobs. Leaving any one of these dull shifts, she would walk the evening streets toward her bleak one-bedroom apartment and wonder how many others felt this same emptiness tinged with horror at an approaching future that apparently bore only more heartbreak. How many other heads contained nothing but one vast, endless scream.
Now, she sat on a bench on the waterfront, overlooking the deep blue inlet and the north shore mountains. Sapphire and teal, azure and jade. This wasn't her turf, never would be; this was a pretty land of wealth and poise, of audacious cocktails on sunset balconies, of condos, candelabras and Cadillacs. Wheeling overhead, a gull laughed harshly, as if in agreement. There were days when she didn't see the beauty. Couldn't, even. Or saw it, yet didn't absorb it. She tried now. The dog walkers, the cyclists, the tourists, the floatplanes gunning their takeoff roars, the cruise ships and barges slicing the sparkling waters, the container ships massive and rusted silent in the deeper waters, watching. The slick, wet terrier heads of harbour seals, bobbing like buoys. Surface-skimming cormorants. An SUV behind her, blasting hip-hop beats, or dubstep. Nothing. She felt nothing. Except a trickle of sweat down her side, an ineffable sadness like a lodestone in her heart.
"So unhappy." A voice, approaching her. She started. And saw a man, a plain man with rodent-brown hair, possibly in his mid-30s. Uninvited, he sat beside her.
"I'm fine." She shifted away from him.
"If you are fine, then I too am fine, sister."
To which there was no sensible reply, so she sat Centurion-straight and stared out at the waters, counted sailboat masts in an effort to slow the odd sense of panic fluttering in her chest.
At length, he spoke again, his voice marble cool.
"A beautiful day. This city..." A sigh and a shake of his head, sensed more than seen. She kept her eyes on the inlet. "Later today, I'm going to jump from the bridge to my death."
Automatically, her gaze shifted beyond the dark conifers and gathered bulk of the park to the evergreen suspension bridge that connected the latter's steaming mass to the north shore. She felt her heart draw itself tighter. Then she looked back at him. His pale face was that of a mime, no sign of mischief, mockery or pain.
"I don't know why you'd say such a thing, but I'm in no mood to hear it. You want me to feel sorry for you, is that it?"
"Not at all. I want you to mark my passing. See me go over the edge. Not in the literal sense, necessarily. But there is no one else, and you look like someone who knows."
"This feeling. It's both numb and heavy, freezes the love right out of you while weighing your insides down. You know what brings us here. Like lemmings."
"There is no us." Her own face a mask. To hide the jackhammer of her heartbeat. Summer could feel more sweat trickle down her sides, wondered if it showed on the forget-me-not blue of her dress. For a second, she cared about that, didn't want to be seen so pitiably human. Her resolve made of her frame a mannequin; no stranger would rob her of that adopted insouciance, however forced its genesis.
"Look. I don't know you. I don't care if you agree or disagree. I was sitting here alone and I'd appreciate it if you would leave me that way. We all have our crosses to bear. Mine's heavy enough, I can't carry yours as well…" She bit her tongue. Already she had said more than she'd meant to.
"Ah. I knew it. As I said: so unhappy. Misery has an instinct for its wounded kinfolk."
Instead of eliciting a screaming, as she'd intended to do, something in his words touched her. A certain dark poetry. She felt her obduracy dissolve.
"Why are you jumping?" She asked quietly.
"I can't answer that, but probably similar reasons to why you also intend to bow out, wouldn't you agree?"
"I don't know." Her head dropped. She felt the acid heat of uncried tears. Heard the distant howling of eternity, as it prepared to rush toward them, heard the world creak on some cosmic fulcrum. Sensed that if she gave in to the deep sob, a vast, trapped bubble yearning for the ocean's surface, she might avoid some fate she'd hitherto seen as fixed, unavoidable. She let them come, the tears, the hiccuping sobs, the deep-sea bubble, a ravaged young woman in a powder blue dress jacknifed by grief on a public bench beside a quiet stranger. She let them pass through her; the images, the sounds, the smells, of betrayal and cruelty. A face misshapen by rage. Calling her a cunt, a thundercunt. Inserting something into her. Hurting. Hot breath stinking of onion, sour mustard and oatmeal stout. Another face, mismatched eyes, laughing cruelly. Indignities. Mockery. More names: savage, bitter, merciless words... Might as well have been aborted, sucked out of her whore mother dripping pink-red ropy gouts in that same rain-drenched alley. Oh, there's more, always more. In a way, she had been aborted. First the rending pain, then the dull, hollow loneliness of it all.
He sat and waited. For the summer squall to abate. Which it did, and almost always does: tempest to gale to breeze to stillness.
"So, how were you going to do it? Fill your pockets with rocks and walk into the water? The Virginia Woolf method?"
"I have no idea who Virginia Woolf is. And no."
He stood, suddenly. As if he were a lockpicker and pins and tumblers had shifted and clicked into place. A look of stubborn surprise spread across his face, and he blinked.
"You know, now feels like a good time. Though I got a bit of a walk ahead of me. Will you walk with me, even for part of it?"
She looked at him. At his eyes. They were eroded to blanks by whatever unasked-for pain had been his burden. But she was no lemming. The camaraderie of annihilation was not for her. She would ache for this nameless man when she heard the news reports of a jumper on the bridge, but she would not throw in her lot with him, hitch her fate to his.
And he saw it. For a second, she saw the blankness in his eyes melted to pure pain, the realisation of his utter aloneness descending once more, as it no doubt had done when he'd made this call in the still, small hours, or whenever that awful moment had arrived in which his tenuous ties with life had finally come undone. He winced, paled further.
And she stepped forward and hugged him. It was all she could do. Held him as he sagged against her. Her route through the tangled undergrowth was not to be his. No two of us are alike, it seems.
When they parted, set out in opposite directions, one toward loud car stereos, dog shit, bar fights, perimenopause, film, sinks full of dishes, sleepless nights, music, abandon, spiritual inquiry, aching tender love, g-spot orgasms and sporadic health concerns—life, in other words—the other toward quiet, irreversible oblivion, something made Summer stop and turn and say:
"Oh, right. Yeah. I was gonna grab a 40-pounder of vodka, go home to a drawerful of Xanax, make a low-class cocktail of sorts and watch the sunset. Worked for Whitney, apparently. Although she was high class, I guess, but still..."
And with that and the most rueful of smiles, she turned and walked away.
Summer had lasted too long. But it was a false thing, really; however cunningly it faked it, there was no hiding the steady, earlier encroachment of darkness each and every day, a slow imperative. Either way, she would set out now into its still-warm, sticky glare and wait to see if fall, in its acceptance of that darkness, would yet prove a more bearable season.
* * * * *
Ed Lorn has written an excellent response to this piece on his blog, Ruminating On. Anyone wanna tackle winter? ;)
Update, 18 September, 2012: JD Mader stepped up to the plate for the winter segment and the ball is still somewhere in the stratosphere collecting ice. This has turned into a fantastic exercise, a new Four Seasons for the 21st Century. Who needs Vivaldi? Okay, that was stupid. But this is very cool.
Final update: Jo-Anne Teal rounded this whole thing off beautifully. Thanks, all, what a fantastic exercise.