She stands on a steel girder, her feet hooked around its ice edge, her hand wrapped tight around a cabled wire, her body, pulsing in the wind.
She leans into the side of the bridge, her nightgown snaps, like lightening, in hard cracks behind her. She places her hands flat along the wall, then looks down.
Nights before Christmas, surrounded by bolts of calico and yards of crimped ribbon, my mother, running flannel and pins under a needle and following chalked lines into small wrists and necklines, made nightgowns for my sister and I. After church on Christmas Eve, we’d come home, brush our teeth, shimmy into our pajamas and sit under the blink, blinking lights of our tree. Then we’d open one gift. It was always a flannel nightgown. Donna got dark blues and yellows. I got pinks and lazy greens. I envied her dark colors, the chance to be wrapped in bold dyes. Sometimes Donna liked my dewy pastels. Sometimes we traded. Our new nightgowns brushed the tops of our feet, the middle of our hands. We smoothed ourselves down, ran our hands along arms, stomachs, our legs. Then we sprinted along our stretch of hallway to feel the gown snap at our feet, to feel it stop us. It was fur against skin. Safe.
It is a charcoal night. Donna walks along a bridge. Barefoot, her nightgown wraps itself around her legs, snaps like lightening behind her. At the arc, the heave in its middle, Donna stops, then turns to its side. She leans in, places her hands flat on its cement wall, spreads her feet and looks down. Her gown snaps, snaps, cracks, unsafe in the wind.
In the dream, I stand on the place where bridge meets beam, where the force of tension is accepted and absorbed. If not absorbed by a beam or truss, the weight of those forces—compression and tension—will cause the bridge to buckle, then snap. I stand on the place most safe and watch my sister balance between a past that pushes her in and a future stretched taut, worn out, worn thin. I wait for her to snap clean, plunge, buckle, break. Or turn and head home. In this dream that swims before me, I don’t know what she will do. So I keep her there, standing.
When we were in our twenties, I moved from Amherst to Boston. She came with me. We were crammed into her dusty old car, a relic from a sporty past life, now a beaten piece of metal. A futon flopped and banged on its top, while we bounced and banged to Talking Heads and Abba inside. It was a blueblind day. White with possibility. We hit the middle of an overpass and careened to one side, pushed by high winds. I rolled my window down.
As far back as I can remember, whenever it stormed, I opened my windows, put on my sneakers, then lay in my bed and prayed. I loved watching a storm tear through the night, the trees, loved watching them bend low, hearing their soft creak. But I didn’t want to die. So I wore rubber-soled shoes to absorb the lightening, just in case. That day, as we careened and braked, careened again, Donna had sandals on her feet. I’d worn sneakers, just in case.
She was skittish and lowered the radio. Not thinking, and loving the unpredictable whips in weather, I turned it up. She yelled at me to close my window. “Close your fucking window.” I told her “No.” I said, “Don’t you know if you open the windows the wind will whip through and the car won’t get battered?” She stopped smiling, pumped the gas, made sure her window was closed tight. “Close the fucking window,” she yelled. I wouldn’t. Instead, I turned the radio up, to drown out her voice in the music, in the wind.
We were coming up on the Longfellow Bridge, an arched stone structure, punctuated by salt and pepper towers. Beginning in Boston’s Backbay or Beacon Hill—a cobbled, Dickens-like area—it reaches in one long heave over the Charles River, dumping drivers onto Memorial Drive then into Cambridge. The Drive swishes along the Charles. MIT and Harvard stand firm on one side, while sailboats, kayaks and long shells, manned with young muscled crews, slice water clean though on the other side. We were just about over its middle, “Dancing Queen” shifting our moods, when the wind came up again.
I threw my hands up, looked out across the diamond water and thought, what a way to blast into this new day. This gesture startled Donna. She swerved, told me to put my fucking window up or she was going to stop the fucking car. Right there. Stop it in the midst of oncoming traffic and high winds, at 60 miles and hour. Dead on. I believed her. Even as a kid, she couldn’t control her rages. They surged up inside her and she either punched her way out of it, or yelled her head off. That day, she yelled her head off.
“I told you to fucking shut the goddamn window. I’m going to pull over. I’m going to stop this fucking car and pull over and get out and walk home. I’ll jump. I’m going to fucking stop and pull over and fucking jump.” Bring me home right now, she screamed. Now. But she was driving.
And startled that she was driving over a bridge in Boston, heading into a life so far away from her own, she panicked. She panicked and forgot she was the one who could take us home. She swerved, edging up against the side of the bridge, scraping a layer of rust off the car, leaving a scratchy record of that day in its side.
I grabbed the wheel, shoved her foot off the gas with my own, and drove us across the Charles to the other side. It was a tunnel inside the car. No sound. A pinhole of light. We churned out onto Memorial Drive with the rest of the pack. Her window rattled, buffeted by hard gusts of wind. I heaved the wheel to the right, pulled over and parked. Slowly, we began to breathe. She jumped out, slammed her door, ripped open my own and pulled me out. I knew then, she’d never move away from the life she was in.
That year, the year Donna was 19, she lived with Alan, a man nearly 20 years older, a bartender who liked fast, sleek cars and young, tomboy women. He liked booze and he liked compliance. If he didn’t like what he got, who ever he didn’t get it from, got beaten. Donna got hers. This last time, she’d turned up at my parents with a thin purple gash across her throat. He’d tried to strangle her with the necklace he’d bought her at Christmas. She was at my parents only two days before she called him, told him where she was. Told him she was coming home. This trip to Boston intercepted that.
And there she was, a raging maniac on Memorial Drive, screaming about jumping or going home. I was five minutes from my new place. Five minutes away from this craziness and the closed-up space my sister had become. Five minutes from calming her, letting her roam around my new home, get a feel for what it would be like, could be like, living on her own, in her own way, for herself. Five minutes and she couldn’t wait.
Maybe she knew. Maybe she knew if she opened those windows to herself, to this possibility, she wouldn’t be able to shut them. And everything would change and she wouldn’t be able to stop it, to predict it, to feel comfortable and safe and sound in her own knowing, flannel skin. And that was just too much.
I stood on the sidewalk, looking out over the Charles. The sun was low; the water shivered its diamonds up in snaps and whistles. White capped. Cool with promise, with possibility. I looked at my sister. She was turned down low. No volume. I watched her pace and rant, her hands clenched in fists against her sides, her sandals slamming the pavement with jerky strides toward the bridge and back again. A threat, one gone undone. I got back in the car, on the driver’s side, turned it around and drove her home.
As kids, whenever we traveled over Cape Cod’s Sagamore Bridge, Donna and I rolled down our windows, stuck our heads out like a couple of dogs, and howled at passersby, at the boats below, at the mere fact we were going “off-Cape.” It was usually a trip to the Museum of Science or Fanueil Hall, or to visit friends or relatives in other New England parts. But one time it was a trip to the airport, a trip to Disney World, which would later become the place Donna returned to in sober, hopeful moments.
There is a picture, one sent by her last boyfriend, in it she stands in front of gaping arcs, an entranceway to never-never land. She leans on a granite stone, much like those middle-century pieces of castle that litter fields, lost to their kingdom. She covers her right hand with her left. Growing up, she used that right hand to pitch baseballs home, basketballs through hoops, to tend goals, children, sooth back hair or tears. In the picture, her hand is deformed, turned in too many ways against walls, doors and men, pushing them out and away, as everything pushed in.
In this picture, taken in the sharp shafts of Florida’s winter sun, she smiles. She is in Disney World, the place she makes-believe she is a normal person, living a normal life, taking borrowed children to a place they’ve begged to go. On Tuesdays, when she takes these children from their cramped trailer to the park or their school or the library, she pretends these children are her own—that at five they will have dinner, and at eight go to bed. And in this place, that is not at some dead-end road, in some beat up trailer, she can believe this. Here, life’s trash is not pressed into the landscape, beer cans do not roll or tumble across worn carpets or out camper doors; powdered plastic bags don’t lay on countertops or tables. Here, there are no seedy exchanges, favors for cash or beer, or crashing voices demanding compromise, compliance, a part of herself.
The picture was taken days before her death. Days before she died, face down, in her own crumpled mess. She was 34. “She was never any happier than that week,” her boyfriend told me after she died—after he called to tell my mother, and my mother called me. A few days later, I called him. I wanted to know what her life had been like those last few weeks. “She was so happy she was taking those kids to Disney World,” he said. “They were her life here.”
Her life. A life between drinks and jobs, different men and sober moments. And in the midst of it all, she took a pair of kids to see a place they’d never been before, to talk with Mickey and Goofy, to take pictures with Spider Man and wizards, dwarfs and goonies. In this last picture, sent in the mail by her last boyfriend, Donna leans over a granite slab, smiling, a message from Willie Nelson is scribbled in black marker below.
To celebrate their engagement and a few months of being sober, Donna’s boyfriend bought tickets to Nelson’s show in Gainesville. But Donna had been dead three days by the time Nelson stood on stage in the rage of a rainy Florida night, under a tender-lighted awning, to sing her favorite song. Jeff had told friends about Donna’s death, the friends told Nelson, who, after the song, told Jeff to come backstage. Across the bottom of her picture, Willie Nelson wrote: To Donna, An Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.
From Cape Cod to Gainesville, Florida, where she last lived, there are five major bridges to cross. But not one of them took her home'”home to herself, home to stay. Instead, they took her into New Jersey or Delaware, North Carolina or Tallahassee, to places south, blindwhite with sun and anonymity. Once, on my way down to the outer banks off North Carolina’s coast, to a place friends had rented for the week, I crossed Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay Bridge. And in the crossing, I thought about Donna. The car shuddered in high winds off the bay for nearly seventeen miles. She would have had her windows up. Tight.
Her body quivered beneath the flannel in the wet bay winds. In the dream, I tried to figure out what bridge we were on. In it, I rode in high sweeps over the scene, identifying only that it was a grey thing, arced in the middle, laid out on a cement deck, crisscrossed by steel girders and grids. I knew also, the railing she placed her hands on was cold.
When we turned the car around and headed back over the Longfellow Bridge, toward the Cape and into her life, she turned soft, slumped some and let out a sigh. She was going back to something she
knew—an addiction and a man. And even in the chaos it sometimes became, she was comforted by this. After crossing the Sagamore Bridge, I unloaded myself and my things into a friend’s car, and returned to Boston. I could not drive her home. Could not knowingly place her in the hands of a person who so easily turned them into fists, or cannons. But I did this. I drove her away from Boston, towards the Cape, towards Alan. When we crossed the Sagamore Bridge, it was night. We did not roll our windows down or howl at the boats below. We rode across in black silence, the kind of silence that comes from knowing all the knowns, and feeling useless speaking them.
Donna’s southern bridges took her to the backside of Florida’s streets, into places like Starke or Jacksonville, Palatka or Lake City, and finally, to Gainesville where she died. But before all this, she crossed bridges to the north, in sober moments, trying to bring herself home, trying to stay sober. One night in the cool mist of early summer, she stepped over the threshold of one life, and tried, in a hard crossing, windows shuddering and shut tight against wind, to begin another.
The Piscataqua Bridge in Augusta, Maine, is the last bridge before turning onto Route 3, meandering along a ragged shot of tar through small towns named China and Palermo or Freedom, then cutting up the side of a mountain to the gravel drive where my parent’s live. The Piscataqua is solid and staid like the people who populate the grizzled hills to its north and east. In great iron green arcs, it looms high above the churn and gurgle of the Kennebec River. A dark river that begins some sixty miles south in Casco Bay, a choppy inlet of the Atlantic Ocean, that moves north to feed Moosehead Lake in Piscataquis County, an area that quietly turns from Maine townships into territories.
The bridge hangs from cables strung through towers and anchored in steel appendages dug deep into the earth. The anchorages are under great tension, but they are held firmly to the earth. That tension they experience dissipates and is absorbed into the ground. Enough compression from anything, however, can bring a bridge, a life, buckling to its knees.
My parent’s place is an hour north of the steely Piscataqua Bridge. It is a place on a mountain bought when they wanted change. Raw and fashioned with logs not precut or special ordered, my parents spent their first year in Maine in a camper, on top of the wind whipped mountain, stuffing the cabin with insulation, securing it against Northeasters and gusty rages. Rages they assumed would come from the outside, not within.
That first year, my father renovated its interior, following its original lines and creating some of his own. He kept its cathedral ceiling, and lined it with floorboards studded with hand-tooled wooden nails that met at peaks and angles. He worked around its original trusses and beams, its skeletal remains, keeping true to its nature. Allowing it to be.
Donna was 31 the summer she came home to dry out. My father was excited. He’d just begun painting, taking pictures of old tractors and barns, stone fences and fields, then reinventing them on canvas. He’d take my sister out; let her take the pictures. She always liked photography, didn’t she? Then he’d paint the landscape. Good at it, wasn’t she? If nothing else, he wanted time. Time to see who this child was, know who she’d become, then begin the work of discovering who she could be.
For my mother, it was a chance to watch over her daughter, right the wrongs that had taken her so far away. It was measured time, to get at the source of Donna’s drinking then strike it down dead. Once a reason was identified and obliterated, my mother believed she could help reconstruct Donna’s life and give to her all she thought she hadn’t. It was the first time my parents were invited to help Donna. For them, it was a chance to shake off the dead weight of all they should have done, could have done. All those times, blindly groping for answers, they believed they had hurt, or failed her, Done her wrong.
But what they never counted on was an invitation rescinded, called back, taken away. And that they’d be left hanging, ghosts of hopeful images: Donna tearing around a corner, a baseball mitt on one hand. Donna shirtless, all scraped knees and elbows, a fishing rod on one shoulder, a bucket of frogs in her arms. Donna awkward in white, her dress pooling around her, a corsage inexpertly pinned. These memories punching them in the gut, the chest, at dinner, while they gardened, painted, or lay sleepless in the night.
A red shack, broken down and half buried, leans into the ground, the grass around it is not yet green; blanched saffron strokes live here, then there. A dirt road ends mid-center. There is no sky beyond a wash of silvery blue, no fill of deeper shades. It is the last picture my sister took. The first painting my father left unfinished.
She left suddenly. After her bottles of vodka and gin had been discovered in the yard, dug up and reburied. After a twisted seizure at my father’s feet, another in my mother’s car, and after a late-day meeting in a long ago hospital with her therapist, her doctor, my parents and their lawyer. The lawyer was retained as council, and to ensure when the time came, Donna would be legally admitted, or committed, to a rehab center for a stay of no less than six months. The doctor kept watch over her seizures, her kidneys, and urine samples, while the therapist worked on the root cause for her drinking.
But placing Donna in rehab never got that far. The best centers, those that keep people longer than the two weeks it takes to dry out, were full. And Donna didn’t want to wait the time it took for the month, or one person, to make it empty for her. In the midst of a meeting, held in a hospital room adjoining Donna’s own, my parents, their lawyer, Donna’s doctor and her therapist, tried to come up with ways to get Donna into treatment, or keep her safe while waiting. Donna sat in the meeting, shook her head, and like Dean Moriarty, Kerouac’s aimless, broken down character in On the Road, she said yass, yass, to everything. Then she excused herself and went to drink.
At the meeting in the hospital, my mother noticed Donna’s frequent trips to the bathroom. During one, my mother quietly followed her. Standing on the other side of the bathroom door, my mother listened to the muffled turn of metal against glass, to the quick shuffle of feet and to a toilet flush, flushing. To the quiet creak of a cabinet opening, then shut, barely shut, left a sliver ajar.
Bent at the waist, Donna looked up at my mother as she worked the cabinet door. After six months of hospitals and seizures and threats and promises made, then broken, and remade, my mother pulled open the door that revealed the drink that ended the illusion Donna would ever come home. The next day Donna called Alan. She went back to the Cape, then a month later traveled to Florida, where, for weeks, she lived on the streets, shoeless and without money, under a blindwhite sun. Then she found another man and stayed.
The charcoal night has turned light grey, a wash of mist and silver. Cool ghosts brush, in waves, against her. She shivers. The wind is soft, heavy silk against skin. The nightgown is quiet. I realize now the bridge is no place I know, no place I’ve been. It is just a bridge, hovering over any river, anywhere. And I realize then, it doesn’t matter. I move along the slow curve of its arc, nearer to her, then nearer still. She doesn’t see me. Doesn’t feel anything beyond the ghosts and the old and the cool. I stop.
She folds her head to her chest. Breathes herself in. Then, in a long sigh, heaves it back, like a hard weight. She runs her hands along her sleeves, down her chest, her sides, smoothing herself down. I take a step, then two. I am within reach. But I do not touch her. I do not break the spell. Instead, I whisper into the velvet wind that will reach her ear. I lean my head back, and in one slow, breath, I whisper, wait. Wait.