“It’s just a new Olympic event they created,” her mother had told her.
The cold coats Jun’s skin, sinking in under the layers of fleece and nylon she’s wearing–so much colder than when she left after-school. The halogen lights form a nimbus around her mother, who swerves around on her bike, then rights herself. The bridge’s arch opens up before Jun, so monstrous that it dizzies her to look up at it. Cars come at semi-regular intervals, their headlights comforting her, reminding her they aren’t alone.
Kim watches the tiny clouds of her breath before they dissipate into nothing. Have I drunk enough? she wonders. She shouldn’t feel the cold, but she can’t stop shaking. When she walked across the bridge for the first time, two months earlier, on the kind of February day where the clouds selfishly hold in the sunlight, the kind of day where you feel like you could always use another cup of coffee or tea, she knew she’d have to be drunk. Looking down into the Hudson, she’d decided on whiskey, which was what her husband, 6,000 miles away in Daegu, preferred when he drank. She’d thought of Jun, whom she had to pick up from after-school at 5:30pm. So strange to have a day with only one obligation, Kim had thought. The gray water was so flat and mirror-like that she imagined it would shatter if she jumped in. If she stared at it long enough, she could see it swirl in lazy eddies. As the sun began to set, the river had reflected the sky’s deep indigo and cloaked everything in blue: blue skyscrapers, blue cliffs, blue bridge. Kim took pictures of the view, her fingers turning numb outside her gloves. She planned to show them to Jun, but when she looked at them later, they were blurry. Disappointed, she erased them instead.
Tonight, Jun’s mother roused her after she’d fallen asleep, telling her it was finally time to practice Long Bridge Jumping. Jun hadn’t wanted to get up at first, but her mother was smiling in a lazy way that Jun had rarely seen before, and smelled of liquor. The only times Jun had seen her mother drink were at family gatherings once or twice a year, but she never smelled like this, the alcohol as strong as perfume. Jun felt excited—they never did fun things like this. Her mother was always so serious nowadays, sitting like a lump in front of the computer, the laptop screen illuminating her unsmiling face when Jun would get up at night to use the bathroom. She used to spend hours online talking to Jun’s father, and make Jun sit down in front of the video camera with her, but Jun can’t remember the last time they’d spoken. Now Jun pedals behind her mother across the bridge, on auto-pilot, like a duckling marching behind a mother duck. She likes the alien sounds the vehicles make and the fierce shaking of the bridge as they come towards her, the trucks causing mini-earthquakes. Tonight her mother said she didn’t have to wear a helmet, and the little of Jun’s black hair that isn’t secured under her winter cap, flows out behind her.
That February day, Kim had figured out two things: she’d have to be drunk and she’d have to bring Jun. Where would Jun stay? At her sister’s? Her sister had enough worries, and two daughters of her own; being thrust into their lives like that would make Jun feel barely human, like some stray animal. With her husband back in Korea? How awkward that would be for Jun—they hadn’t seen one another since Jun was four. Kim understood, all too well, the festering ache Jun would always feel, and just knew—to bring her, to keep her with her—was right. She knew how the newspapers would describe it, but they would never understand how deep her responsibility to her daughter runs.
Jun’s mother stops in front of her, so Jun stops too. The wind is blowing steadily across the bridge, and she tries to zip up her coat further, to tighten it around her throat, but it’s already all the way up. An old man on a bicycle passes them, and Jun doesn’t like the way he eyes them so closely—his thinness and tattered clothing make her suspicious. She wishes he would continue on and leave them alone. Her mother is leaning against the bridge’s railing, looking down into the water. Jun’s too short to see over, so she crouches down and puts her head against the lower bars, feeling their vibration. It’s hard to make things out in the dark, but there’s the suggestion of something large an uncertain distance below, its slow, blurred movement mesmerizing. Jun doesn’t know how long she’s been looking at the river when she hears a clink above her, and looks up to see her mother tilting a small bottle to her lips.
“Here.” Her mother hands Jun a package: chocolate-covered Oreos, Jun’s favorite. Jun feels more cold than hungry, but shoves two in her mouth before wrapping the open end of the package tightly and putting it into her pocket for later.
“Let’s go,” her mother says. “Be brave. You’ll be all right. You’re a good jumper, I remember.”
“You’re sure it won’t be cold?”
“No, I told you, the water’s always warmer than the air.”
Kim’s stomach twists and she wonders, Can I, really? But of course she can, because slow suffocation is worse. She looks at her daughter, who’s hopping from foot to foot and staring out at the million dots of light that make up Manhattan.
She’ll never have to feel this, Kim thinks.
She’ll never have to wake at 6am every morning except Sunday, the alarm screaming that it’s time to go stand at the cafe counter. She’ll never have to force herself out of bed, feeling like a taut skeleton of rusty nerves with a thin layer of skin pulled over it. She’ll never have to notice those well-to-do women on the subway giving her pitying glances, mesmerized by the weariness written on her face. Kim had waited for months for the feeling to lift, but then she realized it had always been there, lingering around the edges of her life. Something—her parents’ authoritarian attitude, college classes, her marriage, and then Jun—had kept it from descending. When she realized she didn’t have to keep plodding through, the curtain had lifted. Not completely though—just become translucent for a few moments so Kim could see that all the struggling she did, and that Jun would do, wasn’t worth it.
Jun’s mother hugs her, too tight, and Jun’s face is smothered against her solid stomach, which smells of cooking oil and laundry detergent.
“You can do as many flips as you want on the Long Bridge Jump,” says her mother. “Like the time we visited the Huang’s and went to their pool with that tall diving board, remember? And you wanted to flip the way Jenny did, but you didn’t know how? Now you can try. You can do it.”
Jun presses her hands on the tips of her ears to warm them. Then she pulls herself up onto the top railing, and balances her abdomen on it, pressing her feet against one of the lower bars for safety.
“I’ll help you stand,” says her mother. “We’ll do it together, but we have to do it fast.”
What will it feel like? Kim wonders, for what seems like the thousandth time. Like tumbling up and down and sideways at the same time? Like the air? Or like a solid piece of matter passing through it? And will it hurt for Jun? And, most importantly, will there be time to regret?
Before Jun has time to think, her mother is balancing on her stomach, then pulling them both up to their feet on the railing, but it’s so narrow and difficult to balance, and the river looks huge and hungry, and then Jun is falling. She lands on her butt on the concrete walkway and rolls back hard, hitting her head. The pain is sharp and her eyes well up. Her mother is crying too, but in a different way. Jun looks over through the aching in her head and sees her mother curled up like a baby, her body convulsing with dry sobs, her face distorted. Jun crawls over to her. She strokes her mother’s forehead, noticing how warm it feels in spite of the cold, and after a while her mother’s sobs quiet and then she just lies there, staring at something on the concrete or in the air that Jun can’t see.
The same old man makes his way back across the bridge, weaving in small figure eights. Jun doesn’t feel scared of him now, and stares back until he looks away. Her mother is still curled up, and Jun thinks that maybe, if she can show her she’s brave enough to try the Long Bridge Jump by herself, she’ll cheer up. She remembers the Oreos in her pocket and stuffs one more in her mouth for courage, then walks toward the flickering, far-away dots of light, the vibrating railing, the blackness.