Rocks In Her Pockets
Going up the path was harder than I remembered. My breath came more ragged these days, and the bushes had grown over the pathway. It had rained the night before, and by the time I reached the top there was mud smeared on my jeans and my hands. I straightened up, taking great gulps of the cool night air.
It didn’t take long for my breathing to settle, but I still hesitated before turning to the bridge. She would be there–she was always there–but still there was the sick fear. It took me longer than I’d care to admit before I lifted my eyes and finally turned.
Lisa was there, of course. She was sitting on the edge of the bridge, looking just like she did every year before. Her bare feet hung over the void, glowing gently in the moonlight. They were waving slightly as if dancing to some invisible music, carefree despite the immense drop just below. One hand rested on the old wood of the bridge, while the other threw rocks from the pile on her side. Her tongue was poking out slightly in concentration, and she threw each rock with a careful flick of the wrist, as if expecting it to skip across the dark instead of falling to the water far below.
She hadn’t seemed to notice me, her attention taken up by the falling rocks and whatever thoughts they inspired. I thought briefly about making some wisecrack about the mud or the climb. I’d missed her smile. But I walked to her in silence. I was still the shy one, even after all these years. The old wood of the bridge creaked as I sat, and she looked up to me at last.
She was gorgeous, at least to me. It wasn’t the kind of beauty that gets you on a magazine or that turns heads, although I suppose she was pretty enough. It was more the mystery of her. It’s not that she was a private girl; certainly not to me. But she had a freedom that I could never understand. I hated that freedom, at first. I thought she was irresponsible or even reckless.
But when I started to love her despite myself, I learned the beauty in her abandon. It was like she wasn’t content to experience beauty with restraint, or to drink of life in carefully measured doses, or to love someone with her arms behind her back. She threw herself into life like she was swimming up a waterfall with their mouth open; restless to feel the beauty of it crashing over her and swirling around her and filling her and sweeping her away.
My favorite memory of her, the thing I remember when I tell someone about her, is our senior prom, where she ran out of the gym and I followed her into the rain. It had been such a stiff night. I was awkward in my dad’s old suit and her beauty, even muddled by clumsily applied makeup, was making me trip over my tongue as much as I tripped over my feet.
But then, the words almost lost under a swell in the music, she leaned close to me and whispered, “Come on!” She turned and ran, and I followed, the decision to follow her as natural as the decision to take my next breath. We kicked off our shoes and danced on the wet grass, and she cried, “Twirl me, Jack, twirl me” and I spun her until she collapsed into me, wet and laughing and happy like I’d never seen her before.
I wanted to hear that laugh again, but she seemed sad tonight. The smile that had lit up her face when she saw me was genuine, but there was something somber in her green eyes. It worried me, to be honest, but I didn’t ask her about it. She saw the concern on my face and bit her lip, but didn’t say anything. It was for the best, anyhow. Dawn was coming far too soon, and I didn’t want anything to spoil the time I had with her.
She threw the last of the rocks over the edge, then scooted over to me. Taking my hand in hers, she put her palm against mine. She looked at me through our fingers, and then closed her eyes. ”I love the feel of you, Jack. There’s something about you that calms me, brings me back to earth. I was so…frantic before I met you.” She paused to squeeze my hand, and a smile began at the corner of her lips. ”It’s like…When I’m just by myself, there’s so much that I want to do. I want to dance forever and run till my feet bleed and experience everything I can and get in a fight and risk my life and scream till I’m breathless. It’s like I can’t slow down because if I do, I might miss it, whatever it is supposed to be.”
She let out a sigh, deep as though she’d been holding her breath for a long time, and leaned into me. With her head on my shoulder, she said, “But when I’m with you, I’m just with you, and it’s enough. There’s nowhere else I need to be. I can rest.”
Lisa let out another of those deep sighs, and I could feel her body relaxing as she leaned into me. I let go of her hand so I could tuck a stray strand of chocolate brown hair back behind her ear, but didn’t move otherwise. If she never moved, neither would I. I searched for the words that would convince her to stay, the words that would ward away the dawn, but I found none. So I kissed her on the top of her head, trying somehow to tell her a hundred million times how much I loved and missed her through that dry touch of chapped lips.
It felt so helplessly inadequate, but I think Lisa understood. She looked up at me and smiled. ”I am grateful to you, you know. You were the best friend I ever had, and I did love you.” She must have seen the pain in my face, because she sat up and turned towards me. I started to speak, but she cut me off. ”Jack,” she said, putting force behind each word, “it was not your fault. There was nothing you could have done.”
I didn’t know if I wanted to cry or punch something. I took a shaky breath, and said, “Then at least tell me it wasn’t your fault. Promise me you tripped, or slid off, or something. Because if it was your decision, then..”
“You couldn’t have stopped me.” I couldn’t bear to look at her—couldn’t have seen her anyway, through the tears– but I could hear the pity in her voice. ”Jack, you are a sweetheart and I love you. But there’s nothing you could have done, and I tell you that every year. Stop blaming yourself, ok?”
“No.” I needed an answer. ”Tell me that it was an accident. I need to know that it was an accident!” I was yelling without realizing it, and noticed too late the fear in her eyes. Icy guilt shot through my gut, and with an effort I calmed myself. ”Please. I just need to hear you say it was an accident.”
“Jack, you knew the answer as soon as they found me. Please, let it go.” Her tone was calm but forceful.
“Drop it, Jack.” I dropped it. Her voice had taken on a tone–half pitying, half angry, completely dangerous–that I’d only ever heard once before. It had happened before I really knew her; she’d only moved into town a month before it happened, just in time to start junior year with us. She kept to herself, and I don’t think we’d ever talked. I knew her only as the strange girl who wore her hair in a French braid every day and who spent lunch either in the library or up the tree near the school gate.
Even though I didn’t know her, I still felt sorry for her when I saw her face off against Charlie Hansen (though, to my shame, not sorry enough to back her up). It’s not that Charlie was a big guy, or a bully; he was just short-tempered, and bigger than me. Bigger than her, too, by a lot, which is why it was so surprising to see her staring him down. Her hands were balled at her sides, and she was standing on tiptoes to look him in the eyes. I didn’t catch what he’d said to piss her off, but I heard her response clear enough.
“Charles Hansen, my brother might not be as smart as you but that does not give you the right to use that word. Take it back, now.” She was trembling, but she maintained enough control to add a “please.” Charlie laughed—he must have thought she was joking–and turned to go. ”Charles. Take. It. Back.”
He turned back to her and crossed his arms, sizing her up. There was a long pause, during which I don’t remember breathing, then a sneer twitched at the corner of his mouth He glanced over his shoulder to be sure of an audience, then said, ”Does retard run in your family, Lisa, or do–”
That was as far as he got before she punched him in the nose. Charlie looked surprised more than hurt at first, dabbing with a meaty fist at the blood trickling from his nose, his expression that of a diner unsure of how to identify an unexpected and unpleasant taste. But when he looked at the blood on his fingers, his face twisted from surprise to anger and he socked her in the stomach. He looked at her carefully, fist ready, but one punch was all she could take. She doubled up, then fell to her knees and started to throw up.
I don’t know why–to this day I don’t know why–but I ran to her. It wasn’t really a feeling of pity, or altruism. It was just that I couldn’t forget the way she stood there, bloody-knuckled and trembling but looking Charlie right in the eye as he socked her in the gut. So it wasn’t that I ran to help her, though it probably looked that way. It was just that I needed to know what sort of person could do that. I wanted to understand her, even then.
She had enough presence of mind to hold her braid out of the way of the vomit, so there wasn’t very much that I could do aside from stand around awkwardly until she finished. She wiped her mouth, and I offered her a hand up. She studied the hand as if unsure of its meaning, then took it. ”I’m Lisa.” she said, by way of thanks.
She took me to her tree that lunch, and every lunch thereafter until it became simply our tree. I would sit on the ground, leaning against the trunk. She would sit in the middle of the highest branch she could reach, too far away from the trunk to hold on. I chided her about it the first time, telling her that it was needlessly dangerous. But she closed her eyes and shook her head dreamily, and said, “You don’t get it, Jack. Ten toes over space, with nothing to hold on to; it’s like flying.” She spread her arms and smiled down at me. ”See?”
I didn’t see, and never really would. The next lunch I climbed up to sit on the branch beneath her. The branch felt uncomfortably narrow without the support of the trunk, but I managed an uneasy balance. It didn’t feel like flying, and I said as much to her.
“The problem is that you’re too afraid of falling. You can never really fly if you’re not willing to risk falling.” Coming from anyone else, I would have thought the words trite, something for a Hallmark card or a quasi-inspirational poster on the wall of our classroom. But she said them with a sort of quiet conviction, as if she’d made her peace with the words. I never asked her to explain the words then; later, when I wished I had, it was too late.
I think for a long time I thought of her just as a friend. Even back then she felt too mysterious to be a flesh-and-blood girl that you could kiss. It wasn’t that she was ethereal or angelic or anything like that. It was just that she seemed both immersed in life in a way that I’d never seen in anyone else, and detached from it in a way that I never understood.
It was as if life were a movie that she’d seen before. The main plot, the things that concerned everyone else (classes, who was dating who, life after graduation) just drifted by her as if she didn’t even realize them as significant. But the smaller details, the cameo by the director’s niece, the first appearance by an actor that would later make it big; these entranced her. She would spend an hour crumbling potato chips and watching ants carry them back to the nest, ignoring the fact that class had started. Or she would throw rocks at my window in the middle of the night so I could go push her on the swingset behind the school because “It’s a full moon and the sky is so deep and oh, Jack, I want to fly!”
I grumbled, but I went. The grumbling was purely for show, of course. I loved that she invited me, loved that she felt she needed me. She sang as I pushed her, a nonsense song that she made up on the spot, and although I was cold and exhausted I was happy. I still can’t explain what it was about her that made me so willing to stand there in the cold, shivering because I’d lent her my coat, and push her again and again and again. It’s not like she was taking advantage of me, or that I was some lovestruck puppy. I just wanted to be with her.
I guess Lisa just had this way of making me at peace with myself. It’s like when I was with her, she didn’t need anything else and she never asked me to be anything more. I’d never found that with anyone else.
So standing there, pushing her swing, I was content. I would have kept pushing her forever, if she’d asked, but eventually I noticed that she had stopped singing. I reached to push her again, but she shook her head and skidded to a slow stop. She didn’t get off the swing, just hung there, twisting around in a slow circle, looking down at her toe running through the wood chippings.
“Lisa–” I began, and then she was running to me. There was something glistening in her eyes and she hugged me so tight I could hardly breathe. I put my arms around her awkwardly, searching for something to say. The only sound was her hiccuping sobbing, eventually stilling.
Then she sighed like she’d just remembered how to breathe and she broke away from me. She wiped at her eyes, smiled at me, and took my hand. I started to ask her what had happened, but Lisa just shook her head. We walked up a hill to watch the sunrise together and didn’t speak again until the last of the night had passed.
She slept at my house that night, on a couch downstairs, and if my parents thought it was unusual they didn’t complain. She cooked breakfast for all of us, which probably helped, and gave me a kiss on the cheek when she served me my pancakes. We weren’t dating or anything, so it surprised me. It was only later in our relationship that she grew comfortable enough with me to show affection physically. Even after most of the other barriers had come down, we were still working on that one brick by brick. I’d only ever kissed her once; for some reason it never seemed right after that.
Knowing what I do now, I’m humbled that she was willing to return that kiss. I did love her, of course, but I wanted the kiss for myself. I wanted to satisfy my hormones, find out what a kiss was like, see if she would melt into me like the movies said. But for her… it was love, pure love, to close her eyes and calm her heart and trust me.
She was raped, is what I’m saying, and I didn’t realize it. I didn’t realize until years later, after all this had happened and I’d moved away. I saw her last name in the paper and read that her uncle had been convicted of molesting her sister. I’d never been as close to Lisa’s sister as I had been to Lisa, but after the funeral we had found a kindred spirit in each other.
Even so, when I called her she initially refused to tell me her story. It took some begging and two phone calls before she agreed to meet and tell me her story. We shared memories of Lisa and chatted about our families and then fell silent. I was searching for a way to ask my questions but was too ashamed for her and for Lisa. She was the one who brought it up. Bravery must run in that family.
She told me that it had happened twice. The first time, it was when Lisa was fifteen and her sister was ten and the uncle was babysitting while the parents were gone for the weekend. He’d held Lisa down and although she’d clawed his face bloody with her nails, he was stronger than her. She spent the rest of that weekend in a tree outside the house, sneaking into the house late at night to eat but refusing to come down until her parents arrived. They didn’t believe her, or didn’t want to believe her, and grounded her for telling lies.
The second time was the night of the swing, when she was seventeen. The uncle had come to visit and was spending the night because he’d drunk too much to drive home. He’d come to her room and Lisa had suffered quietly, hoping he’d wear himself out with her instead of moving down the hall to her sister’s room. When he fell asleep next to her, she ran to me.
I don’t count myself as a violent man, but if I’d known about it then I would have killed him. Maybe Lisa never told me because she guessed my violent reaction. At least, I hope that’s it. Because I can’t stand to think that she kept silent because she was afraid I would reject her, can’t stand thinking that she died with fear of me in her heart.
“Jack.” Lisa was calling to me. I looked over at her, frantic with the million questions in my head, but she put a finger to my lips. ”It’s getting closer to dawn, Jack. Let’s just enjoy the time that we have.” I nodded, and pulled her close again. ”Do you remember,” I began, “the day we discovered this bridge? When Mr. Feeny put on The Miracle of Chemistry and as soon as the lights dimmed you said you had been struck blind and you needed to go to the nurse, and needed me to lead you there?”
I could feel her laughter as she leaned closer to me. She nuzzled my neck and said, “I didn’t even wait for an answer; I just grabbed you and we went. It was a good day for picking raspberries, and these hills were alive with flowers. I figured Mr. Feeney would understand.”
“Right, he would have wanted us to be working on our chemistry” I responded, earning a playful slap from her.
She kissed me on the nose, impulsively, then sombered. ”When we found that old path and followed it to this bridge, it felt like destiny. Like I could stand on this bridge and see forever, or jump and I’d grow wings before I hit the ground.”
She caught the look in my eyes and dropped her gaze, biting her lip. ”Sorry.”
I took her chin in my hand and tipped her face up so our eyes could meet. ”Lisa, it’s almost dawn. Can we please talk about it?”
She batted my hand away. ”Jack. Look at yourself.” She grabbed my hand and held it up. My hand showed the forty-odd years I’d lived; it was worn, calloused. Her hand, trembling as it held mine, was still that of a teenager. ”You have a family, a life, and a wife who loves you. Yet every year for twenty years, you’ve driven back here and climbed the hill so you can sit with me on this damn bridge. I love you, Jack, but I’m dead.” Her voice was shaking, but there was force behind her words. ”It’s time for you to move on.”
“The one time I needed to be with you on this bridge, I wasn’t.” I was crying now, wiping at my eyes with my muddy hands. ”If it was your decision, I could have talked you out of it, if it was an accident–”
“It wasn’t an accident, Jack. I filled my pockets with rocks before I jumped, so I’d sink faster. The rocks were still there when the police found my body, so I know you know that.”
“Then fuck it all, why did you jump?” I had stood without noticing it, and I was yelling. ”Did you have any idea…did you have any idea…” I couldn’t finish for the tears. The rage drained out of me as quickly as it had come, and I collapsed on my knees, sobbing.
She came closer to hold me, and I buried my head in her chest until the tears subsided. I took a ragged breath, then met her eyes. ”Lisa, can you just help me understand? You lived deeper than anyone I knew. Why did you kill yourself?”
Lisa shook her head. ”Beloved, you need to accept, not understand. I’m gone, and you’re here. It’s ok that you’re here. Be here. Live deeply, and love deeper. And every once in awhile” she smiled, “Fly with ten toes over space and nothing to hold onto, in memory of me.”
I started to protest, but she silenced me with a kiss. Time stopped, then she said, ”It’s dawn, Jack. I need to go, and so do you. I love you.”
The first rays of dawn had started to stream over her. There was time for no more words, only her beauty and my fear and the memory of her lips against mine.
Then she was gone. I touched my lips and sat on the edge of the bridge to watch the sunrise, with ten toes over space.