The Ever. The After.

Fiction by Alexa Mergen

As the middle child of five, Jesse Sanchez learned early that if freedom was all you wanted, if you didn’t care about proving a point, then cooperation took you further than rebellion did. He covered for his older brothers when they came home late or skipped their chores, and he watched his younger sisters willingly. He went to the store for his mom, not caring if he ran into other kids from school when his arms were laden with bags of groceries and his littlest sister tugged at the edge of his T-shirt. “Hey,” he’d say, and comment on the high school basketball team. Or he might say, “Nice day, huh?” in a way that sounded like he’d just noticed the sun when he saw you.

Teachers at Manzanita Middle School were grateful for Jesse because he did what you asked and made no demands. He never lingered by the door after the bell rang or asked to eat lunch in your room. He could be counted on to lead a group project or to collect homework. Peers liked him because he was calm, often saying, “Ya’ll, let the teacher talk,” when the class got rowdy. Even though he didn’t smoke pot with them, grungers respected him at the skate park where he’d show up late in the afternoon, sometimes with his little sister. He’d set her on the bench with his jacket to hold, and he’d get on the ramps.

So, after Jesse jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge on a Thursday in February, no one could begin to guess why. He was a nice kid. One who might’ve been successful. Athletic, sharp-looking. He helped his mom, respected his dad.

His mother bore up at the funeral, held up by family, but she broke into crying at home in the kitchen while her sisters washed dishes at the sink and her husband’s brothers played with the girls. When she saw Jesse’s skateboard propped by the door, she started a sobbing jag that lasted four days straight, through meals and sleepless nights, until she was emptied. So used to the sobbing, the subsequent quiet made the dog whine.

After a week of holding his breath, of watching his children and wife drain themselves of memories of what had been and imaginings of what would never be, Jesse’s father insisted the boys return to school, their jobs, and chores. Mr. Sanchez’s buddies covered for him on the landscaping crew, so he stayed home with the girls one more week, all perched along the edge of the couch where their mother lay among them like a broken chair hurled onto the highway that had caused a hazard too perilous for anyone to retrieve. The father and the girls played board games no one cared to win. When Jesse’s mother got up one afternoon and started brushing and braiding her daughters’ hair, Jesse’s dad knew she would be okay. He grabbed his hat from the hook by the door and returned gratefully to the machines of his trade.

In the staff lounge at Manzanita, teachers shook their heads as they reheated leftovers in the microwave and filled coffee cups and water bottles. Even teachers who usually worked at their desks through lunch came in to puzzle over this one. They agreed that they weren’t just teachers anymore but parents and counselors. It was too much. Driving home, stopped at a red light, or standing in line waiting to swipe a debit card to pay for groceries, Jesse’s former teachers would recall an exceptional paper he wrote or a quiz he aced. They remembered times class ran smoothly, everyone on task, and they’d been able to catch up on entering grades or searching for images for a PowerPoint lecture. Good days with Jesse in class. He had presence. Then, the stoplight changed to green or the cashier stated the total bill, and Jesse’s teachers reminded themselves they couldn’t be everything to everyone. There were so many kids, at least 35 in five different classes swarming in like commuters catching a train every 48 minutes. You do the best you can.

The school counselors announced over the PA that any student feeling sad or lonely should ask his or her teacher for a pass. Stacey Pinner started crying during social studies two days after Jesse’s death, unsettling Mr. Kilfner who did not recall such scenes when he began teaching 20 years ago. Stacey and Jesse had gone out in fifth grade. He was, she insisted, the nicest boyfriend she ever had. Mr. Kilfner sent Stacey to the office where the counselor bought her a soda and let her cry. For a week, Stacey’s friends surrounded her at lunch, held her hand, listened to her stories. They believed they would never have a boy as great as Jesse to love them. The girls borrowed markers and construction paper from Miss Tilly and made a card for Jesse’s mother.

Ambrose Collins wouldn’t go to the counselor even after his tears scared him by spilling from his eyes when he went to the restroom. He did not know he was crying until he caught sight of himself in the strip of stainless steel that served as an unbreakable mirror in the lavatory. Mr. Collins had gone to a counselor once with Mrs. Collins so she wouldn’t keep after him about it. When they came home, Ambrose’s dad entered the door first, taking off his nice jacket as he passed through the living room, saying, “Stupid waste of time and money.” Ambrose’s mother followed, closing the door with extra care, already treating the house as if she didn’t live there. Counselors did not help. And, besides, there was no reason for Ambrose to be upset about Jesse. They hadn’t been best friends. They had spent one day together at the marina last summer when they both found themselves there with nothing to do. They’d rolled up their pants legs and waded into the mud at low tide, scooping up mussels, looking for bits of metal and coins. Ambrose was sorry Jesse and he never rode bikes together in the hills or played catch in the parking lot.

The night before he ended up taking his life, Jesse had lain on his stomach in bed listening to foghorns. Bars of light filtered through the blinds, striping the blanket on his bed. He wasn’t unhappy, but he wasn’t happy, either. He felt odd. Like a lone shoe on the shoulder of the road. Or a building abandoned after a house fire.

Getting to the bridge was easy. Three years earlier, Jesse had taken BART with his fifth grade class for a field trip to Fisherman’s Wharf. What intrigued him about the city were reflections of passersby in storefronts. Reflections in windows seemed to reveal the truth about a subject. In a mirror, the eyes went to certain familiar spots. A plate-glass reflection provided a glimpse into a moment. You could lay yourself bare without invasion if you looked obliquely. That day, the day of the best field trip ever, Jesse’s mother had taken off from work to chaperone. He noticed he was getting as tall as she was. She stroked her son’s hair as the two of them peered through a store window at maps and globes arranged inside. She knew how to look at things, too, so she let him linger until the rest of the class was a half block away. Then, they turned and continued without hurrying, not worrying about catching up. For that half block, Jesse pretended it was his mother and he, away for the day.

Now, he was alone. After exiting at the Embarcadero, Jesse asked a woman in a suit like a man’s which way to the Golden Gate Bridge.

“Shouldn’t you be in school?” she asked, after giving him directions.

Jesse didn’t have the urge to lie. “It’s a school day,” he said, and smiled.

The woman laughed, looked at the sky, then back at the kid in khaki pants and layers of T-shirts. “Well, you picked a beautiful day to play hooky.”

Jesse shrugged, thanked her, and walked with a light step toward the water.

The woman called after him, the lapels of her jacket rising around her like wings in the wind. “Hey, kid! What’re you going to the bridge for, anyway?”

Jesse called back, his voice clear above the traffic noise, “Curious to see it again.”

The woman looked at him. “Watch yourself.”

Jesse raised his arm in acknowledgment and started walking again. He was truthful. He’d seen the bridge four years ago with his grandparents when they visited for Thanksgiving. He wanted to see it now under the winter sunshine. He wanted to walk across it, at least, since he couldn’t skate the parabola of cables as he did in his dreams.

Beyond the clutter of chowder stands and taffy shops of Fisherman’s Wharf, sailboats lined up neatly in their berths, and lawns hosted bicyclists resting in the grass. Windows of the bright houses across the streets cast back the scene. A vocabulary word popped into Jesse’s head: “suffused.” The whole place was suffused with happiness. For an instant, Jesse regretted not bringing his littlest sister, Marisa, to play leapfrog and tag in the grass. But being alone was good.

The Legion of Honor looked like Ancient Greece would. Columns and pagodas peeked from trees. Swans swam in a pond. Jesse felt alert and relaxed, a groove he found in his best moments on his skateboard. He’d also felt it the day Ambrose Collins and he fished in the mud last summer. Jesse knew how to hold that feeling and make it last. Today, everything fueled it. The five pelicans flying overhead, low enough to see their feet tucked in their feathers. The dark water. The presence of home on the distant shore. Joggers pounding by with clean determination. A green car passed with a little girl holding a ribbon out the rear window, watching it flutter in the wind.

Jesse arrived at the red-orange bridge. He found the narrow pedestrian path. A low wall separated the path from cars on Highway 1. Skating this bridge, Jesse thought, would be like fucking flying. Jesse took in the blue sweaters and black pants, white sneakers and jeans of the other sightseers. His enthusiasm was contagious. Those who saw him couldn’t help smiling.

After crossing to Marin, Jesse turned back, walking along the bay side of the bridge. He stopped and looked across the lanes of moving cars to the entrance to the Pacific. Manzanita was somewhere over that way. General science class might be starting. They had homework due. Mr. Perkins always had the class stand and salute him saying, “Reporting for General Science.” Jesse laughed.

He was free, standing above the water in the wind on a sunny day. Except for the safety rail. Jesse found himself climbing up, higher. He was a lookout on a battleship. He was a pirate. He was an astronaut speeding into outer space. He was Jesse — alive in his body, sure as Spiderman on the metal rails. And then, it occurred to him to let go. To try it. The free feeling, make it last. Just before he did so, Jesse saw a heavyset man running toward the spot where he had started, arms waving. But Jesse was lost. He wanted to say, “Don’t worry,” but words belonged to another time. This was letting go with no way back. Action; moment; fear; falling; this; now; the losses above; the next below; the ever; the after.

ALEXA MERGEN worked for years as an English teacher, which was a great excuse to read a lot with smart people and to talk about writing. She leads writing workshops and edits the Yoga Stanza blog. This piece was previously published on Go Read Your Lunch on 3/17/14.