No one else was in sight at 2 a.m. No cars, not even the moon hidden by clouds. A shadowy figure in drab-gray sweats, I trudged uphill and north on College Ave, past the liquor store where Jack the creep worked—always leering at under-age sorority girls with his hungry beetle eyes—past the corner bagel shop where I once chickened out of meeting a blind date, past the crowded bars where drunk students spilled out like lichens onto the sidewalk after last call reeking of piss beer and vomit. At a steady, determined pace, I stepped with a black garbage bag swinging in rhythm with the cadence of my dark combat boots and slowed as I neared my destination: the bridge.
The sound of thundering rapids below my feet filled the darkness, an uncanny lullaby.
The world, still asleep.
Dizzy with adrenaline, I staggered toward the barrier and peered down over the railing of the Thurston Avenue bridge. During daylight hours before my senior year at Cornell, I had made this crossing many times with other students, jostling our backpacks and marching like bullet ants from an elm-lined arts quad to north campus in the allotted break time—without giving any thought to what was below. Oblivious to blinding rays and the bridge’s humming vibrations, I might have traded high fives with a friend wearing a shamrock green “Ithaca is gorges” t-shirt, the sound of laughter trailing us. If only I could trade places with that buoyant self. If only I could remember how to clasp her hand.
The summer before seventh grade, Winnie and I went to sleepaway camp in SoCal, where sunshine and fountain root beer flowed with equal abandon.
Entering my dorm room, I first noticed Winnie, her bare feet propped on my desk, chestnut freckles sprinkled across her nose, and candied strawberry lip gloss glistening. Dazzling, as usual. Two girls sporting identical blonde ponytails and striped-pink polos, sat cross-legged on a ratty, chocolate brown carpet, gazing up at Winnie in worship. They giggled hysterically when they saw me, blue eyes beaming pity. My stomach somersaulted when I saw a familiar red cover, dotted with teeny white hearts, in Winnie’s hands.
“Stop!” I ran towards her to snatch it away; she must have stolen it from the top bunk.
“Oh, you want this?” She waved my diary over her head, teasing me with a wide, toothy grin. I skittered away from her like a kitty pricked by nettle.
“So, who is A?”
Heat swelled in my chest, bile rising. How much had she read?
“Is he really the first Asian guy you found cute?”
The three cackled like hyenas in heat. My cheeks ablaze.
“Is it Adam… or Alex?”
Winnie puckered her lips, filling the air with kissy noises.
They laughed, and I laughed too. I knew it was better to play along. Laughter hid my tears.
Betrayal smelled like candied strawberries.
At the bridge, flickering streetlamps pinned my lone shadow to the sidewalk. My index finger traced a metal rail, caked-on rust threatening to slice my delicate skin. A wind gust whistled and tangled my hair, faint goosebumps tickled my arms, and a shiver danced staccato down my spine. My legs teetered, signaling collapse.
Surveying waffling shadows below, I made odd calculations and swallowed. Fear tasted like ammonia, rancid as decomposing trout. Roughly four stories down before smashing against jagged rocks and rushing water. Four is the homonym for death in Mandarin. Probably less than ten seconds. Gone in an instant, a blink.
Out of habit, I reached up and tucked a stray wisp of hair behind my ears, my hands jittered as if preparing for a final exam. Adrenaline and fear barreled down my legs, sending tremors through my core. Distant clouds morphed, then a strange calm descended.
Nighttime was the hardest. It had been twenty-one days since I slept through an entire night. Desperate for peace, I turned over, again and again, in my double bed without a headboard, tugging at a disobedient, pine green comforter. I stared at the glowing red numbers of the alarm clock, warning of passing minutes. Blink. Blink. Time’s captive, trapped in bed, an army of pins and needles stabbing my legs. In a fit of restlessness, I yanked out the last of my remaining eyelashes. My tear ducts, empty.
Possessed by a new thought, I bolted up and flicked on the lights. Slowly, I creaked open the top dresser drawer and parted layers of pastel cotton panties and knee socks to reveal a stash hidden in the back: seven journals. Unmatching in size and color, they had been faithful companions from sleepaway camp to boarding school, dorm rooms to finally, a dingy yellow house on College Ave.
“Do it,” I instructed my hands. In one motion, I swept the journals out of the drawer and shoved them into a black trash bag, then twisted the top into a lonely knot. They landed with a dampened thud on a tattered, oatmeal-colored carpet.
Shivering, I pulled on a dusty rose fleece and laced up my trusted black Doc Marten boots, snug like I was taught as a child. Scouting mission, I told myself. If one of my housemates asked where I slipped away to, I could say I went walking to clear my head. More lies.
My boots toed an imaginary line near the bridge’s edge. Shadows pecked at my outline. Taking shallow breaths with arms crossed in front, I clutched the journals still wrapped in the garbage bag and hugged them tight toward my chest. In the dark, I couldn’t make out the tiny white hearts on the cover or the names of crushes but remembered penciling pages with tortured confessions, lost friendships I had mourned and crescendoing fights with my mother. I remembered the children’s cruel laughter tattooed on flaking skin. I remembered jotting down every worry, microscopic and monumental. In those fading, lined pages, I had spilled my innards.
None of that mattered to me anymore.
The bridge quivered. Breathing slowed. Closing my eyes, I imagined myself resting my palms on a rusted bar, then using my legs to scissor-kick up and over the barrier. Picturing myself as an Olympian hurdler, I would fling myself—and my journals—over the edge. Perhaps I’d feel like I was flying.
Earlier that week, I had called my mom back after ignoring a dozen blinking red lights on the answering machine. Holding the yellow earpiece between my head and shoulder, I mindlessly twisted the cord, sitting at the edge of my bed.
“I’m still having trouble sleeping,” I said. “I’m falling behind in classes.”
There was a pause.
“I can help you,” she said. “I will fax Mr. Tsai in Taipei.”
“I don’t see how he can help me,” I said.
“First, take down that photo. They’re stealing your chi.”
I glanced at the cream wall, where I had taped a black-and-white photo of a dance troupe, snipped from a magazine. Their five bodies were tucked in a curl, balanced on each other to form a gravity-defying circle.
“You’re not listening to me, Mom,” I said. “It’s not chi. I can’t sleep.”
“I’ll order you a new bed.”
“That’s not the problem,” I said. “It’s me. I want to leave school.”
“You can change,” she said. “You used to be selfish. You can be a different person.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
A bitter taste, like briny olives, needled my tongue. I hung up and stared at the yellow phone in its cradle, remembering my high school years when I spent hours lying in my bedroom, chatting with my friends. “Selfish for yapping on the phone,” she yelled. Selfish for wanting to hang out with my friends. Selfish for not helping her with the groceries. Selfish for not making my dad love her. Selfish, selfish.
Now I knew. All those hours she spent at the altar, she prayed for me to be a different person. She believed she could destroy the old, spoiled version and mold me into a new person. Step one, erase a photo. Step two, install a new bed. Step three, order a new daughter from a catalog. How efficient. She was always good at placing orders.
Back at the bridge, the wind howled, and the waterfall’s unfailing rhythm pounded the rocks below. My heart barreled like a galloping stallion at the starter pistol, only my combat boots anchored in place. My head spun in vertiginous loops, the weight of throngs squashing my shoulders. I couldn’t muster any courage to lift my arms to scale the rusted railing.
Every line I had written in my journals—every stupid, silly, infantile word in the yellowing pages—rang like an indictment in my ears. Coward.
Even the act—ending everything—required action, decisive force, clarity I couldn’t summon in the blackness. I tipped my head toward the sky and begged someone to make the choice. Cloud clusters were indecipherable, not even a whisper of a sign. Should I kneel in prayer? Was there a god who could hear me?
Clouds shapeshifted; the moon still vanished. Tired of waiting, I turned and started walking away from the bridge, my short legs scissored the sidewalk, gaining momentum downhill. Swaying elms stood guard on the arts quad, bleary as a dream. I didn’t stop commanding my boots forward until I saw the familiar outline of the grimy yellow house with brown shutters, finally gasping in relief.
At the curb, a line of black trash bags had tipped sideways like fallen domino soldiers. They beckoned to me, like bedtime incantations. Gently, I carried my sack of memories and knelt, as if in front of an altar, and deposited them with the rest of the garbage. They weighed less than I imagined, a swaddled bundle, no heavier than a newborn.
By the morning, they would be gone.
Cover art: “Childhood Memories” by Delta N.A.