“I’m standing about a hundred and fifty yards from the scene. The emergency workers on scene aren’t allowing us to get any closer, for fear of more structure collapse. But Todd, even from here… even from here, I can hear the people trapped below, and they’re screaming for help.”
I woke to the news reporter saying this through the television. We had fallen asleep with the TV on, bodies spent after what was our first night of lovemaking. My eyes were tired, and I was still mostly drunk. I opened my right eyelid, trying to make out the shapes on the screen. There were the red, blue and white of emergency lights. I could make out fires burning behind the reporter. As my vision cleared, I saw that the reporter’s face was smeared with black dirt, or soot. There were tears sliding down her face, and her lips couldn’t form any more words from their trembling. The camera’s view moved over her shoulder, and started focusing on the scene behind her. It looked like a building or bridge had collapsed. There were chucks of rubble and iron bars sticking up from the fires that spotted the site. I could make out the yellow and orange suited figures of firefighters and emergency workers running around the perimeter of the collapse. There were hoses spraying water to the fires, and a chopper was landing on the other side of the river bank.
River bank. It was a bridge. Not just a bridge; the bridge that connected to the water treatment plant, whose building was also home to an aluminum refinery. I remembered when I was a kid, and that bridge was being built, touted as one of the biggest civic projects our city had ever undertaken. It took three years to build. Thousands of people drove their cars over it, everyday, going from one end of the city to the other. It held six lanes, and four exits that connected the road to two other major throughways that went east and west.
I listened, past the reporter trying to choke the details of the scene from her emotional throat. Past the sirens, the sound of helicopter blades, and the workers yelling at each other. She was right. There were people buried under all of that. They were screaming. Crying, pleading for rescue. From as far away as that camera was, the reporter’s microphone was picking it up. That’s the odd thing about sound; how it permeates, everywhere, and if you can get past everything else that surrounds the smallest parts of it, one can hear things that wouldn’t normally get past the louder cacophony that I was witnessing through the camera.
Lelia was sitting up in bed, arms around her sheet draped knees, her left hand holding the cigarette she was smoking. I had never seen her smoke before. Never even noticed the hint of it from her. I wondered how I had missed that. At the time, I looked past it, or ignored it, if some part of me had noticed. I was too enamored with her to even care that she had one or two bad habits. I looked back at the TV, now unable to hear anything coming from it at all, besides the pleading of the trapped people. She was staring at the TV, her short, spiky blonde hair haloing her head in crazy, bleached blonde, abstract angles.
We had just spent the night out, on our sixth “date”. Our dates were the culmination of weeks of emailing, talking over the phone, and mid afternoon coffees from a little corner shop that occupied a storefront between both of our office buildings. Our date this night had ended in a session of lovemaking that I had been dreaming about for the 6 years that I had known her, since meeting her my freshman year of college, in the middle of a cafeteria, when I was eighteen. It was beyond any sort of expectation I’d ever had. The hotel room we were in was nothing fancy, an idea we jumped on while at our third bar, making out in a corner, away from the loud noise and dance music of the crowded place. It was just a king sized bed, a bathroom with rolls of clean, white towels, a coffee maker, a desk, a short dresser, and a TV that was now delivering screams into my head. It was the cries for help that drowned out what she was saying to me, as she was staring at the disaster scene unfolding itself on the early morning special report.
It took a few seconds for my mind to establish what she was trying to tell me. My eyes were taking in her lithe, smooth body. She was naked from the waist up, the bottom half of her clothed only in my sky blue boxer shorts. There were times, when I would look at her, that I would lose all sense of what day it was, where I was at, or what I was doing, complete in my fascination. When I finally got the courage to call her again, years after we had finished school, I was never sure if I was setting myself up for failure, or if it was the best decision I had ever made. It would turn out to be a bit of both.
“I love you.” It came out as one sound, the words all strung together. Saying it, I already knew that I had to leave. I wanted to put the words out there, manifested just in case I wasn’t going to ever be able to say it again. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen to me, once I left the room.
She turned, and looked down at me, her lips forming a straight, pink line. They parted, and she blew a thin line of smoke out of the right side of them. Her round, blue eyes stared at me and, as always, I couldn’t read them to find out what she was thinking. I saw the shadows playing deep curves below her neck, making the triangle with her collar bone stand out. Her thin, pixie nose wrinkled a bit as a curl of smoke wisped into it, and she sighed. She turned away from me, poking the butt of the cigarette into an empty Corona bottle on the table beside the bed, smothering with a sharp hiss as it hit the last swallow of beer at the bottom of it. I watched her lay down on her side to face me, her bare breasts making a crevice as she folded her hands beneath her chin.
“I’ve been sleeping with someone else.”
Five or six minutes passed before I rose from bed, the entire time laying there, memorizing as much as my mind could swallow. I gazed at her, going up and down her body, ending every time to search her eyes, looking for the messages inside. The clock on the bedside table said 4:46 AM. I stood there, naked, looking at her for another handful of seconds. I couldn’t see any tears in her eyes, or any emotion in her face. As beautiful as she was, I always said that she could have been the world’s greatest poker player, the way she shielded her emotions. The times we had walked through shops, or through downtown, my offhand comments releasing her laugh; were some of the brightest spots in my otherwise gray life. It was like I had reached the summit of what I was looking for, within her presence, something that I always knew was there, calling to me to find it.
I found my jeans in a compact pile on the floor, and pulled them on. My tee shirt was draped over the wooden backed desk chair, which held my blinking mobile phone in the seat. Pulling the shirt over my head, I reached down to grab my phone, which advised I had two missed calls, and a new voicemail. I knew who had called. He always called when something like what I was seeing going on at the bridge happened.
Lelia was sitting up on her knees now, legs folded under. Turning to look at her, she froze me again with how much I was in love with her.
“Where… where are you going?” She looked behind me, trying to see through the drawn curtains. “It’s not even light out. Wait… who are you calling?”
I was staring at her as I held the phone to my ear, listening to the message. He was in the middle of it. I heard the looping sirens behind his voice, the people calling out. Someone yelling that they would be fine, that George was still under it all. He told me what was happening. A bridge collapse; an explosion, people trapped inside. I heard the phone drop from his hands, hitting the ground. Static, yelling at someone to get behind him, then he was yelling my name, in the direction of the receiver. Beyond that, I made out words: Fire. Gas. Fire. Elizabeth.
I couldn’t find my shoes. What had I done with my shoes? I couldn’t keep looking at her, because if I did, then I would never leave. I would just want to stay, wrapped up in her arms, to let her try and explain to me what she had just said, and why she had said it.
“No, wait. Wait.” She was moving off the bed now, with that simple grace that her years of ballet had taught her. I know she was going to try and stop me. I dug into my pocket, pulling out my car keys. “No, no, you’re drunk. You can’t drive. Someone will get hurt. You’ll get hurt. Where do you have to go now? Who was on the phone? Please… please, wait, I want to explain.”
I faced her one last time, my right hand gripping the back of the chair. Forever and a day, I will never be able to get over how wonderful she looked in that light and shadow, the lines and curves forming their symmetry that culminated in her petite form. My grip was so hard on the chair that I broke the back of it off, and it fell to the floor. She glanced at the piece of now broken furniture, her eyes widening slightly, the first time I ever saw her look fearful.
“Please. Please stop.” She wasn’t even looking at me now. Her eyes fixed down at a spot in the tan carpet. “I’ve never seen you like this. You’re scaring me. Please. Say something. Please.”
I shoved my phone into my back pocket, and tossing the car keys to the floor. She was right, I shouldn’t be driving anywhere. I went to the door, and undid the two latches, gripping the doorframe, knowing that if I looked back at her one more time, I would stay. I closed my eyes tight, squeezing out every bit of fear, anger, sadness and frustration that I could, and then let it all out with a final breath.
“I love you”. This time, when I said it, it was direct and absolute. Not some half thought from a drunken mind, but a resolute knowledge in what I was saying was true. I slipped my body between the crack of the door and frame, letting it softly shut behind me. It would be the last thing I would say to her for an eternity.
I looked down the hall, at the window that looked over the city. We were eleven stories up, the hotel itself two miles south of the bridge. Through the morning air, I could see the fires and the blinking circles of the emergency lights. If I traveled at what I believed was my top speed, I could be at the bridge in less than three minutes.
I began running toward the window, my bare feet pounding the hotel carpet in quick succession. Two strides before reaching the window, I crossed my arms in front of my face, summoning every bit of strength and energy that I could find within my body, and smashed through it.