The EMT jogged into the remainder of his drunk and onto the Golden Gate. He had fallen asleep just after one in the morning, after drinking since three that afternoon, and when he woke up a couple hours later, he possessed the miraculous and false impression that he had escaped a hangover, when in fact he was still drunk. He pulled a pinched bag of saline from the glassy pyramid of the pile in his empty fridge and tapped himself with an IV.
A run into dawn was what he needed. It had all the necessary romance of asceticism required to balance the Friday feeling which had possessed him at the end of his shift and sent him around the usual circuit of bars. The complete absence of remorse was the main sign he missed. It was conspicuously absent. It usually arrived prior to the resolve to atone, to burn the body for needing what it seemed to need every hour off the job.
May’s early summer put him out on the pre-dawn street shirtless, San Francisco’s air not a degree below sixty-five. His route was erratic, his pace fast. The eucalyptus in the Presidio clicked, its coyotes only rumors. Some distraction brushed him and he nearly rolled his ankle on the ragged edge of the road, but caught himself and felt no injury. By 4:15AM he powered up the footpath to the bridge’s fortress of persimmon bones, the clarity all the way to Berkeley a gift of the emptiness. An incurious fog held at the Farallons. Who could say if it faced the city or faced away?
The fact of the distant fog would later undermine his memory of the moment the girl emerged on the wrong side of the railing. Because in his memory, it was a moment of materialization, her face cascading out of nothing, coalesced from fog, her presence defying gravity. She was not hovering, though. That was one more ignored failure of perception undermining his myth of sobriety. She stood on the narrow platform on the unprotected side of the rail, the cellar of the Bay a four second free fall roaming blackly beneath her.
He stopped running. When he did, he could see the suspension cables again, incarcerating the city. His breath was loud, his head swaying. The sporadic cars clapping the joints transferred their arrhythmia to his chest. The dawn was not nearly as close as he’d hoped. The expanse of night deformed itself around his vision. He felt it was possible he would pass out. He should have seen her from a distance, but he didn’t. And of course without any fog she would have seen him running towards her from far away. Her line of sight would have been clear, and in the silences between the white rips of traffic she might have heard him running towards her, caught glimpse of him each time he moved in and out of the halogenic amber. Frozen there, watching him, she might have thought someone had come running to make sure she didn’t discard herself. And wasn’t he a regular saver of lives?
The EMT imagined himself this way before he blacked out.
The surveillance cameras did not black out.
Stitched together, from the dashcam on the 43 MUNI bus which swerved to miss the EMT running in the middle of the lane in the Presidio, to the traffic camera tracking his pale torso weaving and shadow boxing onto the bridge’s pedestrian pathway, surveillance cameras relayed a different testimony.
Later, he saw all of this footage, including his time with the girl his memory left on the wrong side of the rail. Especially this footage. On the job, he was most reliable at the moments of greatest need. But the opposite was true outside of the job. When he wasn’t pumping narcan into a junkie laid out in a public toilet, not staunching an artery in some Tenderloin SRO, not dancing the howling SFFD bus through the city’s hilly intersections, his partner reanimating a blue-faced baby expiring in the back, he was utterly fallible. In the peacetime of life he was the greatest risk, though in the past he had been a risk only to himself.
According to the footage of this moment on the bridge, he did not pass out. Standing there, weaving, he faced down the girl standing on the edge. He appeared to be talking to her, her talking to him in return. What he says goes unheard, what she says in return unheard as well. In the near monochromatic light, her hair gives off a glare, rising in an updraft. Her exact expression is muted by the camera’s resolution. There is only body language, and to his mind, his is not the body language appropriate to the scene. Not open, not gentle. Not delicately balanced, standing like a man on one side of a scale suspending a teenage girl above an asphalt black abyss.
No. What it looks like is security footage of a drunk at a bar, bothering a woman half his age. There is even a point where he leans at first an unsteady hand and then slides his whole upper body against the four-foot high guard rail, filing an appeal not for life itself, but against the half-life of his own night, a desperate, closing-time posture pitched against the prospect of going home alone.
Expert lip readers worked the frames one at a time, but the girl’s words, if they were ever divined, weren’t shared with the EMT. There is only the vacancy in his head, one more of the many defects in his brain’s lattice-work. Her last words weren’t the smeared cursive loops left under the windshield-wiper of her Volvo, abandoned on the Marin side of the bridge. They were spoken to him. Whether they were blessings or curses, the record remained incomplete. The look on his face as he received them is obscured by the angle, but imagines her watching them die against his face like birds against a tower’s glass facade. What a cosmic joke to have your guardian angel show up drunk. What a final affront and bitter confirmation.
He heard the fluorescent lights before he opened his eyes to receive them. He waited behind reddening lids, waited for the billowing of shame sure to follow the uncountable hours. He had and had never been here before, waking in a strange place. If he’d been picked up somewhere, he always prayed it had been by someone on the job who knew him, someone who had seen him at his best and so understood the possible causes behind finding him at his worst. Stillness was essential. If he disturbed one particle, the terrible chain reaction of bodily awareness would begin. Let it be the last time. It will be my last time. Please, before I open my eyes, let the universe bend around the softness of my bargaining.
The men who found him were chafing to open his eyes. No one he knew rousted him from the administrative holding cell. They brought in a laptop. A bead of sweat slipped from his scalp at the first viewing, bolting from his brain into a plume of cold intuition at what was to come, the weightless acceleration of why he was in the room with the bridge cops and coast guard guys. He braced for the warping recollection of lost time.
The girl looked away from him, slouched in his obliterated perception, leveled her gaze at the jeweled city, and stepped off the bridge. The way she disappeared, it looked like a glitch in the display. With the authorities gargoyling, he watched himself watching the space where she had been so radiant just a second before. His past ghost didn’t flinch or follow her down, just turned around and ambled out of the frame with shithoused arrogance, as if rejection was mutual, part of the game. Yeah, fine, don’t worry about me babe, there are other fish in the sea.
Pressure was brought to bear on his life, more than might have otherwise been expected. The girl’s father was a powerfully connected principle in a venture capital firm. He leaned on the EMT’s life in all the visible and invisible ways until the EMT was no longer an EMT. He wasn’t quite subject to the punitive legal definitions of indifference and recklessness.
The father had wanted to know what his daughter said and what the EMT had said in return. All he had to do to keep his job was tell the story his union rep provided him. He had tried to sweat out a bender, and when he came across the girl on the bridge he had tried to talk her into changing her mind. No one could contradict anything the EMT said. Anyone who saw the surveillance footage might doubt him, but in the end, not that many people would see it. Besides, the union rep said, you don’t know you didn’t try and talk her out of it. When the stakes are high, the rep said, even a coyote doesn’t mind the taste of his own leg.
He could see the rep was right. He didn’t know what he had said, but he knew what he didn’t say. Now it was time to stick to the policy of omission, even if the fabrication of honorable intent would give him a pass. But the girl had taken some part of him over the rail. He couldn’t explain how if he escaped this time he would only hobble into all of the traps waiting for him. So with his silence as the excuse, they took the motor out of his life, shut the doors on the back of the bus and drove away without lights or sirens. To thank him for what good he had managed on the job, they cut him loose with a shade tree’s worth of severance a strong recommendation he take them up on the counseling referral at the city’s expense.
With the father’s civil suit pending, he felt like a fugitive. When the presiding judge dismissed the suit, declining to award ruinous damages in light of the fact the ex-EMT had not brought the girl to the bridge, not put her over the rail, not pushed her, and though he could not remember what he said to her before she jumped, there was no evidence he had encouraged her, and no reasonable expectation he could have done anything to prevent the tragedy, he did so reluctantly and with an air of full sympathy for the father’s fury. Declining to award the damages was not absolution.