Slow Fall

by Mark Brazaitis

He thought the end would come fast. Within seconds of leaping off the bridge, he would hit the dark water twelve stories below. But time was betraying him. He had leapt, but his descent had slowed to the pace of his depression, which had been gnawing at him for months. He was, it seemed, being granted a reprieve of sorts.

But he would not live. He was sure of this. He could not claw his way back to the bridge. He would, inevitably, hit the water and die.

Or might his landing be soft, no more traumatic than jumping off the diving board at the community pool?

He didn’t know whether to hope for such an outcome. He’d jumped from the bridge because his life was torturous, terrible, weighted down by unendurable sadness. Now, as he fell through the cool air, it seemed less painful. The breeze touched his hair like a gentle hand.

In the distance, he heard the hum of automobiles on a highway. He’d driven with the same speed and sense of purpose several years ago whenever he’d gone to see his lover. His first marriage was ending, although he was still living with his wife as he looked for an apartment, and he would race to wherever his lover invited him. She was lightning, illuminating what he’d permitted to settle into shadows, shocking him back to life. After he stepped across the threshold of whatever place she’d arranged for them to meet, she would embrace him as if he’d been missing and she never wanted to lose him again.

On one occasion, he brought flowers and champagne. Only later did he understand that they were acknowledgements of the serious turn he hoped their relationship would take. The hotel room she’d booked was rent-by-the-hour seedy. Their room was painted a fiery red, and his roses were swallowed up by the more garish color. They drank the champagne out of plastic cups. She smoked in their room because, as she said, “it smells like cigarettes already.”

She broke off their affair because she thought her husband was becoming suspicious. Although he’d anticipated its end, he was crushed when it came. He and his ex-lover agreed they would be friends, but when he annoyed her with too many post-breakup texts, she stopped contacting him. Months after their breakup, he saw her and her husband one Sunday morning in the supermarket. They were arguing lightly over what kind of sandwich bread to buy. He could have shaken the serenity from their marriage. But he slumped off to the fruit aisle like a defeated athlete.

He married his second wife because he hoped she would help him untangle the mess his brain had become. She called herself a “first-rate problem-solver” and recommended cures: a warm bath, three visits a week to the local gym, a walk in the woods. She suggested vitamins and a dairy-free diet. She found him a psychologist and a psychiatrist. He followed up on all of her suggestions, but nothing brought him closer to health. In the end, she stopped asking him how he was doing and treated him as if he were a pitiable older relative with a terminal illness. Less than two years after they were married, she filed for divorce and moved across the country to a sunnier state and a happier man. His depression deepened.

He was sixty-six years old. He’d made enough money as a lawyer to retire, so he had. Retired, he felt purposeless, his days filled with miniscule tasks and crushing loneliness. Only bedtime brought relief. Every night at nine o’clock, he fell into a profound eleven-and-a-half-hour sleep. In the morning, his depression waited for him at the edge of his bed like a faithful, hideous dog.

He’d fallen farther. Perhaps he was halfway to the water now. Having all but ended his life, he viewed it dispassionately. While it didn’t seem worth celebrating, it didn’t seem worth forfeiting. He wondered if he should ask for it back. But who would he petition? God? He didn’t believe in God. He didn’t believe in an afterlife. He believed that once he hit the water he would be gone for eternity.

He hadn’t left a note. What he might have written would have been either too lengthy, rambling, and morose or too blunt. Besides, whom could he have trusted to read it without judging him a coward, a failure, an impulsive madman?

He thought of his first wife. He’d loved her—he might still love her—and she’d loved him. She’d loved him, that is, until his neglect, his taking her for granted, became too much for her. He’d promised to change, but he hadn’t. When he wasn’t working, he was having drinks with colleagues or friends. Eventually she became as distant as he had. In the end, she asked for a divorce, “to recognize,” she said, “the obvious.”

“What’s obvious?” he said.

“That you and I no longer know each other.”

He didn’t argue. What she said was true. He’d created the same distance between himself and his son. Fatherhood hadn’t come naturally to him, and he’d been quick to punish the boy—sometimes physically—for even minor misbehavior. As an adult, his son was polite to him, nothing more, and his politeness had come to feel like a rejection, a condemnation.

He could hear the water beneath him. It made a sound like laughter. He was being mocked. No, the water would be making this sound whether he was plunging toward it or not. It was narcissistic to think the water was speaking to him.

How much of his life had he spent believing that the world had been made for him? When he became depressed, he thought the world had turned against him. This was, of course, equally egotistical. What had turned against him was his brain.

His father and his father’s father had lived into their nineties. Even in good times, he had never imagined living to such an advanced age. He had a happy fantasy of dying on his eightieth birthday, his brain and his body—and even his libido—still functioning at optimal levels. In the weeks before his jump from the bridge, he wished intensely for a fatal heart attack, a fatal aneurism, a fatal stroke. He wished for a meteor to crush his skull. Every night he plunged into sleep hoping it would last forever.

He’d tried antidepressants. He’d even considered electroshock therapy but had been too proud and, secretly, too scared to submit to what he thought of as a barbaric treatment. His talk therapy had devolved into him repeating, in every session, some variation of “I’m old and I feel like hell.” There was, he’d concluded, no cure for his depression.

He thought about who would miss him. No one, he had assured himself before his jump. But this, he understood now, wasn’t true. His son would miss him. Or, rather, his son would rue what his death would render impossible: a chance for reconciliation. His son would feel cheated of the opportunity to heal their relationship.

His thoughts turned from his son to Steve, a cashier at the grocery store he frequented. He saw Steve every week because, inevitably, he chose Steve’s checkout lane. Steve had three children, one of whom had a severe learning disability. He collected baseball cards. He liked beach vacations. Steve had told him about his father’s death, his mother’s move into a nursing home. Their interactions were never long, but they were frequent enough so there was continuity to their conversations. Once upon a time, he’d pitied Steve his unlucky life. Now he would trade places with him in a heartbeat.

He wondered when Steve would notice his absence. He wondered if Steve might think, He didn’t tell me he was moving. Or would Steve guess his fate? Perhaps it would be reported somewhere and Steve would read about it. If so, how would he feel? Stunned? Sad? Indifferent?

He was nearing the water. He could see the crests of tiny waves. Was it possible he would enter the river with no more force than a child stepping into a puddle? No, he knew he was heading toward it faster than he seemed to be. This was fate’s cruel trick: to slow down time, or to speed up his thoughts, so he could reflect on his life and thereby, perhaps, regret sacrificing it.

Do I regret what I’ve done?

He didn’t want to say yes. To admit to regret would be the final torture in the months of torture he’d endured. I chose my fate, he thought. I am satisfied. At the same time, he thought, Please, I want another chance.

He was so close to the water now he could smell it. He expected to smell dead fish, oil, garbage—all the ravages humans had brought to it. But the smell was fresh, pure. He might be smelling the first water that had ever flowed on earth.


Mark Brazaitis is the author of eight books, including winners of the Iowa Short Fiction Award and the Richard Sullivan Prize. His stories, poems, and essays have appeared in The Sun, Michigan Quarterly Review, Witness, Ploughshares, Poetry East, Poetry International, Under the Sun, USA Today, and elsewhere.

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