Trigger warning: suicidal ideation
The whole scene could have been a stock photo--the park grass was the kind of green and the sky the kind of blue that only came with late summer. There were kids out chasing a soccer ball around a boundless field. The smell of grilling hotdogs and burgers wafted from some charcoal grill. The laughter and chatter of carefree summer conversations were carried along by a pleasant, gentle breeze. I had brought chips to contribute. Everyone brought chips. It was that or the Oreos.
“Meredith! So glad you could make it!” My friend broke away from the cluttered picnic tables to greet me--all smiles. “Have you met everyone here?”
I glanced around--it was always so hard to tell which people belonged to which summer barbecue at these kinds of parks.
“I don’t know…”
“Oh! Here’s a friend of mine, I don’t think you’ve met him yet,” she said, waving someone over.
A young man turned from where he was arranging things on one of the picnic tables. Probably trying to fit another bag of chips between the Oreos and hotdog buns.
“This is Mark,” my friend said.
His eyes were bluish-grey. And I knew them.
Did he remember me?
I could still taste the night air and the bitterness of coffee dregs that lingered on my tongue. My heart bounded around in my chest, a rabbit avoiding a non-existent predator. The road glistened darkly with rain, and far-off stoplights collected pools of blurred color beneath them. The midnight sky sprinkled my face with light tears. It could have been beautiful. But the air was too heavy with humidity, too warm. I had thought that being out in the air would help, but instead I felt like I had walked into a sauna. I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t catch my breath.
Weren’t these scenes supposed to have a kind of poignancy to them? Weren’t you supposed to stand on the bridge above the water--too full of grief or too empty of it all? No one had told me of this desperate insomnia, of the way the dark clawed its way up the inside of your spine, of the way your heart tried to escape as if your ribs really were a cage, and the ways your lungs felt like deflated balloons unable to draw air.
No one had told me that some people were just trying to get out of their own life, their own skin, their own head.
There was no river in this town. Only the asphalt variety. There was a bridge, though. An overpass. My feet, running of their own accord, took me to the edge, over the concrete barrier. I thought they might carry me right off the edge. The gray concrete was slick and muddy with rain. Beneath me, a lone car, rushed away into the clouded dark. I didn’t want to follow.
But the sound of the night insects had grown into a cacophony in my ears. And the hot, humid air pressed against my face like a damp cloth. I couldn’t breathe. My heart beat against my ribs. Was the overpass quaking beneath me? Or just my body trembling...all my skin and bones shuddering?
A thunderstorm raged inside me, and I was just made of fragile skin. I leaned forward, ready to plunge into the asphalt river, just to be free of the tornado of my thoughts, the rabbit of my heart.
And then a hand caught me, right around my upper arm. It was a firm grip, one not easily pulled out of. The grip of someone determined to not let go.
“No,” he said. Just one word. And I turned my eyes from the dark below to the only light in the gloom--two bluish-grey eyes.
“Let me go,” I said, tone flat.
“I will. Once you are on the other side of this barrier.”
I obeyed, silently.
“Want to talk about it?” he said.
“I don’t really want to die,” I said. “But I just...I can’t breathe.”
He peered at me a bit, as if unsure whether I meant that literally or not.
“Hospital?” he asked.
I shook my head violently, trying to pull away again.
“Ok, ok! No hospital.” He pressed his lips together and looked around. A car idled on the side of the road, pulled close to the barrier, hazard lights flashing and the driver door open.
“I wanted the rain, but the rain didn’t help,” I said. I knew I sounded crazy, but how could I make it make sense? I found that I was close to tears. “I just want out of my own head!”
He bit his lip and glanced at the car. “I might...I might know something that might help? But it requires riding in my car...just five minutes.”
I glanced back at the edge of the overpass, but he caught my look. “We’ll keep the windows rolled down,” he said, insistent this time.
It seemed safe to have the windows rolled down. So I nodded.
Soft jazz was playing on the radio in his car. He rolled the windows down, and I closed my eyes and let the wind play over my face. That helped. The wind reminded me of open air, open spaces.
Tires crunched on gravel. I opened my eyes to see fireflies blinking among a cluster of trees. The thunderstorm increased inside me, the dark clawed its way up towards my throat.
“Just there,” he said.
“There” was a little stream just beyond the trees, burbling happily to itself. He opened the car door. The gravel crunched pleasantly under my feet.
“If the rain didn’t help...maybe a river will?”
We walked to the bank and I stared into the water. Thoughts still tumbled around in my head like pebbles caught in a current.
I looked up to see him standing in the middle of the stream, pant legs rolled up to his calves. Maybe he was actually the crazy one. But I followed anyway, ripping off my shoes and tossing them on the bank. The water swirled around my ankles and then my calves, cold and sharp as diamonds.
There was a little area where the stream formed a miniature waterfall. He picked his way down the stream and then sat right down on a rock in the middle of it all. The water soaked the bottoms of his pantlegs, but he didn’t seem to care.
Smiling a little now, I followed, but I went all in. I lay down in the water, head cradled by a rock smoothed by the flowing water, the miniature waterfall cascading over my shoulders and down the length of my body.
It was like stepping out on a crisp winter’s morning, breathing in the frosty air and feeling awake. The sound of the water was a soothing murmur in my ears. And the weight of the night lifted from my chest. I could breathe again. I was anchored in myself again. The dark and the storm carried off by the current.
I cried. And he sat on the rock, like a guard on the nightwatch. Occasionally he hummed a tune. It could have been anything. A lullaby, a Beatles’ song, a bit of jazz.
When the rainstorm of my tears had dried up and moved on, he pulled me out of the water and we sat on the banks in the grass.
I told him everything. All the words bottled up inside me, like the bubbles of a shaken, capped soda. I told him about the city, and the move, and the loneliness. I told him about the sleepless nights, and the crack in the ceiling that I stared at in the middle of the night when the fear and the doubt sucked away all the light like a black hole. I told him of the friends that had abandoned me, of the ones I could count on but didn’t want to burden. Of all the pressure and the weight that built up and up and up and never being enough. I was supposed to be strong, but I was buckling under it all.
He mostly listened, until the night began to gray into dawn. We had long since dried off. He drove me home. In the end, he said what mattered most.
“Tell your friends,” he said. “And your family. The ones you love and the ones who love you. Even if it’s hard and you don’t want to. Just talk to them like you did with me.”
And then he walked me to my apartment door, watched me dial my mom’s number, and I walked inside. I hadn’t seen him since.
“I’m Meredith,” I said. “Hello.”
He smiled and shook my hand. “Nice to meet you...Meredith.”