Literary Orphans

Bridges by Tabitha Wood

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I live on the island and work on the mainland. It’s a single city, its parts divided by a sliver of Pacific Ocean and bridged in two places: to the north and to the south. The South Bridge was along my usual route home. Now it’s gone. There was no earthquake, no terrorist attack. Instead there were seven rusted beams and a crack—eight meters wide, five meters deep. Perhaps that’s more of a gash, but it must have seemed inconsequential, running through the concrete on the underside of this towering monument to human ingenuity—all steel beams and hooks, pavement and stone, arches rising into the clouds. Now much of the South Bridge has been swallowed into the current. At least eighty people are dead.

The bridge came down early this afternoon. Now it’s rush hour. Traffic on the North Bridge is at a complete standstill. My car idles just a few feet from where earth becomes steel-over-sea. This alternate route home would normally cost me an extra forty-five minutes. Today it has so far taken over three hours. My movement towards the bridge is so slow it’s almost imperceptible, but it’s happening, and with it a lump of anxiety forms in my throat. I’m not sure if it’s from thinking about how long it will take to cross, or if it’s all the images from news footage of the other bridge: a strip of partially submerged pavement, a child’s plush dinosaur bobbing in the waves, a white car floating precariously before diving out of sight.

I imagine staying on the mainland tonight; checking into the Sheraton near my office. I fantasize about dinner in the hotel steakhouse; about running a bubble bath and screwing the cap off a bottle of red wine from the mini-bar. Maybe I wouldn’t go home until next Monday, by which time the city would surely have sorted all this out. But I have responsibilities at home. And I am not my mother. I turn on the radio.

A woman’s voice: “…the bridge, collapsing into the water. It looks like there may have been some longstanding maintenance issues on the South Bridge. We have infrastructure experts saying it was only a matter of time. Charlie can you tell us about the traffic out there?”

“Yes, Ashley,” says Charlie-the-traffic-guy. “The North Bridge is fully congested. This is in both directions, though it looks like it’s going to take a little longer to get off the mainland than onto it. And if you’re thinking of taking a ferry, don’t bother. We’re seeing a line stretching from the marina into downtown, and they’ve jacked the price up to $80 dollars a trip! This is looking like a good day to stay put, folks.”

“Eighty dollars?” says the host. “They should feel ashamed profiting off a tragedy like this.”

I start to tune them out. I shift the car into park and stare down at my cell phone. I need to reach Marissa, my brother Evan’s caretaker. The last time I tried the lines were all tied up. Now I seem to be faring no better. I press send again and again. Each time the call fails. I need to ask Marissa to stay late. I know what she charges for overtime. I don’t care. I press send again. Nothing. She probably wouldn’t be able to stay anyway. She’d sympathize with the urgency of course, but she has her own obligations—her own emergencies to attend to. My heart beats faster at the thought of Evan left alone in the house for four, five, even six hours. Who knows how long it will take me to get home at this rate?

This morning Evan wrapped his arms around my shoulders and would not let go. He begged me not to leave him. It was not a premonition about the bridge. This is what he does every morning—at least for the last year. And yet ironically, despite being more attached to me now than he was before, his mind has become increasingly impenetrable. His language skills have taken a sharp dive. He’s lost most eye contact. At one time he expressed himself through painting. Now his closet is full of blank canvases, his drawers crowded with plump tubes of acrylic, virtually unused in the last twelve months. When our mother left, a year ago next week, it felt like all the progress Evan had made just evaporated. I’m not sure if Evan has a sense of these sorts of anniversaries, but if he does, what a trauma it will be to have me home so late tonight.

“Originally built in 1952, this bridge was never meant to last so long without the proper maintenance,” says the radio talk-show host. “What we’re seeing today was an entirely foreseeable tragedy.”

A good many tragedies are foreseeable, I think. I always saw the cracks in my mother. I was eight when Evan was born; almost ten when we realized he wasn’t typically developing. From the beginning my mother struggled to grasp the enormity of the task before her, less defined than raising a child through high school and sending him into the world. She sank into depression and my dad would coax her out again, just long enough for parent-teacher conferences, doctor appointments, therapy sessions. My dad was the one who described Evan’s special needs as blessings in disguise and meant it. He was the one who spent hours each night helping Evan with his homework. The only way my mother knew how to bond with Evan was through art. And while painting was important to him, Evan needed a good deal more than that.

After our dad died, our mom was even more lost. She loved Evan and me, but she was never equipped for the challenges she was dealt. I remember as a teenager, coming home from my second year of community college to find her in the living room, attempting to move through speech therapy exercises with Evan. He was thirteen then—already six feet tall and built like a linebacker, but as sensitive as he’s ever been. Evan would not speak. No one knows what’s happening in his head at moments like that—whether he’s actually unable to speak, or just in a bad mood. I was unpacking my books on the kitchen table when I heard a loud clap in the next room. I hurried in to find a red imprint of my mother’s palm across Evan’s cheek. Evan sat there, stone-faced, his mouth slightly agape with what might have been anger, fear, or confusion. My mother’s hands were cupped over her mouth like she couldn’t believe what she’d just done. In the next moment she burst into tears. I stood silently in the doorway while she cradled Evan and whispered how much she loved him.

My mother had the temper of a rhino. It should not have been a surprise when she disappeared—maybe to the other side of the island, maybe to the other side of the world. It was six months after Evan’s eighteenth birthday. She left nothing behind but $100 and the words, “I’m sorry,” scrawled out on a napkin. But then, of course it was a surprise. Some things only feel inevitable once they’ve already happened. I bring my mind back to the present. Out the window I see a red car door, drifting toward the shore. Though I hadn’t noticed at first, I’m crying.

A couple of hours later I’m sitting about a quarter of the way across the bridge. The sun is setting. I watch the sky bleed red and orange. I try very hard to appreciate it instead of worrying about things I can’t control. I notice the car in front of me has been abandoned. I roll down the windows and breathe deeply. The air is tainted with the heavy smell car fumes. I try to massage the headache out of my temples.

Four hours later I’m across the North Bridge. The roads on the island are also congested, so I park my car and start to walk. I’m not alone. The sidewalks bustle like we’re still downtown. Each brush of a stranger’s shoulder feels like solidarity. The crowd disperses as I get closer to home, turning through a maze of little suburban lanes. Streetlights cast the long, heavy shadows of nearly naked trees across brick ramblers and their grassy front yards. As I walk up to our house, I hope I’ll find Marissa’s car. I do not. In its place, a small silver sedan I’ve never seen before. The light is on in the kitchen. I make my way to the door and open it slowly. The first thing I see when I walk in: Evan at the breakfast table, guiding a paintbrush across a colorful canvas. I drop my purse and rush to where he’s sitting. That’s when I see what my city’s catastrophe has brought me. “Hello, Mother,” I say. She purses her lips and her eyes swim with tears. Now, I suppose, we try to rebuild.

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Tabitha Wood is an American journalist and fiction writer, based in Berlin, Germany. She authored and illustrated the children’s book, That’s What Makes Me Special. Her fiction has appeared in the bee-themed anthology, Safe to Chew, on Mash Stories, and in Issue 22 of Literary Orphans. Her journalism has appeared in The Washington Post, PolicyMic, and elsewhere. Learn more at tabithapeyton.com.

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–Art by Kaia Pieters