I first died as a teenager. I was all screwed up: drinking, no real friends, no girlfriend, no father (left when I was four), and an issue with acne. I had only a car my mother bought me out of guilt or maybe to get out of the funk she knew I was in.
Driving fast, drunk, late one night along the winding Arroyo road in West Pasadena, I spun out the car on a curve and nearly overturned. Shaken, I parked, got out of the car and walked. I came to the La Loma Bridge over the Arroyo, the concrete river in Pasadena. I looked down a hundred feet or so and thought of the horror that was my life, a nightmare in the middle of what were supposed to be the carefree years. What would those ahead be like? I saw nothing good, just more midnights like this.
I climbed over the parapet, hesitated, and released. My body broke on the concrete below.
In agony, in the penumbra between life and death, I lay on my side and saw a large house high on the opposite bank. Attractive people gathered. I saw them through windows, the night scene lit in a brownish-gold palette. There was an iron gate in front. I heard laughter from an upstairs’ window.
I must have landed in just the right way. Somehow, I got to my feet. Why I wasn’t dead I didn’t know. I stood next to a small trickling stream of polluted water and looking up, seeing the bridge, I waited for pain and felt only a general soreness. The shock that went through my body was one of absence; I didn’t feel what I should have felt, either extreme agony or nothing: death.
More puzzled than anything else, I dragged myself up the embankment, crawled up to the road. It hurt where I’d hit my head and hip. There would be bruises. Turning, looking across the Arroyo, I didn’t see the house I thought I’d seen. Maybe it was just the shock, a resultant hallucination.
Driving back that night, I felt that maybe I had died, because I felt reborn. There was no other way to describe it. I felt young and strong and in the rear-view mirror I saw my acne had cleared up. Death, near death, had done wonders. I sang along with the radio.
I had gotten away not only with death but with the breaking of some moral law. It was something I would never try again. I vowed I would tough things out, no matter how bad they got. That was my vow going into adulthood.
When I was thirty, I met what I thought was the right woman. I was ready to settle down. She had accepted my ring and we were even planning a date when she said she ran into an old boyfriend. She gave me back the ring. I took her disclosure hard. I didn’t want to live without her. I didn’t want to live. I didn’t want her to live without the pain and guilt.
Most of all, I wanted to feel like I had after my first suicide, which years later I didn’t see as an attempt but as a border crossing, a going beyond and back, a peek into the forbidden.
That midnight, I took my agony (and a sense of recklessness) to the La Loma bridge, same place as before. I thought of the guilt and pain she would feel, how she’d cry over my suicide note.
I climbed on the parapet. I jumped, but I still don’t know if it was a genuine desire to die, or because a car was rounding the bend and I didn’t want to get caught in the classic posture of someone saying, I really don’t want to jump, I just need attention.
I felt the wallop, my body turned inside-out, and then I was looking up. I got to my feet, wincing with the motion, I might have cracked an elbow and had moved directly under the bridge when I heard voices.
“I saw him jump!” I heard a woman say. “I saw it!”
“Now,” the man said, “you remember what the doctor said about your medication.”
Lying on my back below the bridge, I almost laughed despite the cracked rib. They left, and I lay on the sloping embankment and looking across the wash. My gaze rose to the opposite hill.
Someone was looking back, a man standing on a high balcony with a light shining behind as if a party had been going on. It was the same house I had seen years ago, the same house I could never identify though I had driven the narrow, curving, and verdant road where it had to have been, and now was. He was laughing the way they laughed up there, an almost wolfish sound.
Several people now waved, as if they had seen the leap and impact and found it interesting. I waved back with the arm that didn’t hurt. I stood with difficulty. One ankle had begun to swell. This time, as I stood on one leg like a shod horse, the house had a third dimension it had lacked before, as if it were becoming increasingly real, but when I reached, with difficulty, the top of the embankment, the house had again vanished.
When I drove my car to the emergency room—after taking the suicide note off the dash—I said I had fallen. “You must have had quite a tumble,” the female doctor in the ER said. She was blonde and slim and I realized I hadn’t thought about my ex-fiancé for what amounted to several hours. Indeed, I thought with an inner smirk, I seemed to have “fallen” out of love for her.
I still couldn’t find the house with its two levels and an iron gate across its entrance. It existed in some penumbra between life and death, I concluded: a region of consciousness I had entered only by violence to my body.
My third suicide, years later, marked my maturity. Money was the issue. I was past forty and getting into gambling and criminal activity, accounts I faked on a spreadsheet and of which my employers were beginning to be suspicious. Alcohol was a problem after years on the wagon. I was asked questions.
Sometimes, I wondered if I had engineered my reckless behavior only to get in trouble and so “motivate” myself to want and take my own life, in the same way, of course, as before.
Death as a reset. The idea had taken hold as I parked at midnight in the same place. The suicide note reflected my middle years, a weariness with life that wasn’t a completely fake feeling. Something held me back, the sense that I was engaging in a fate, a force, a feeling that knew more than I did about what I was so willfully contemplating.
Still, I couldn’t resist a walk on the bridge, the La Loma bridge where I’d jumped twice. The drop below me deepened with each step I took, and I might have turned around and walked back except for hearing the howling laughter I had heard before. Looking up, I saw on the bridge’s other side, up the hill, the same party I wanted to join for years. I saw the silhouettes of slender women and men in suits. The laughter stopped and they turned. People watched me. I had become an attraction of sorts, and it occurred to me that while my time had passed between suicide attempts, maybe in that house time didn’t pass. The party was forever. They were waiting for me to entertain and join them.
I leaned closer to the edge. I climbed on the parapet. I inched forward and stopped. Did I lose my balance or did someone push me? All I knew is that I was falling.
The impact knocked me out. When I “came to” I felt no pain and I was climbing out of the culvert and looking back at my broken body, one eye detached by the impact.
I reached the bridge’s other side and turned down a dark, narrow path to an iron gate, one I had never seen before, driving or walking by. As I touched the latch that would allow me inside the house and the grounds, I heard a voice.
“Sir?” it said. The accent was male, British, and I saw a pair of white gloves. He was a large man, a small scar near his chin. “This party is by invitation only. I request you in the strongest possible way to leave.” He flexed his fists inside the gloves he wore, giving a hint of possible violence. From inside the house, beyond the lighted windows with their silhouettes, I heard the familiar howls of laughter. Everyone was having a good time. I wanted a good time too.
“James,” said a voice behind the guard, “let the man enter. He has proven himself worthy to join us.”
I turned back. The man came from inside the crowded house. He was dressed in white flannel like some character out of Gatsby. “We’ve been wanting to meet him for some time,” he said.
“As you wish, sir,” the guard said. He opened the gate and bowed. “So sorry, sir, but we only take a select few.” He winked. “You know how it is.”
The man in white flannel was joined by a beautiful woman in an evening dress. She took my elbow and I winced. “That’s where I must have landed,” I said.
“Sorry,” she said, running her hand across my shoulders. She guided me up the brick path to the front door. The man in white flannel helped, for my fall-damaged legs were beginning to weaken. The shock must have worn off and I felt pain.
I noticed the guard walking behind me, and I had the sensation that I was being herded into the house.
“What kind of party is this?” I asked. Before he could answer, I pointed at a blond woman in an evening dress, smiling as she lifted her cocktail. “Is that Marilyn Monroe?”
“Yep,” he said. “She’s a three-time loser, just like the rest of us here. People who died after repeated suicide attempts. Three is the minimum to join. In Marilyn’s case, the first two weren’t publicized.”
“We’re so glad to have company,” the woman beside me said. “You know what they say about misery.”
“It loves company,” I said.
The pain intensified. I felt my legs weaken as I cried out.
“You,” the man said, “at least had a chance to walk away. We weren’t so lucky.”
And now I saw and heard that the howling laughter was simply howling. Around the room, people were baying like wolves, only the feral sound had a note of human pain. I felt it too, as the three falls I’d taken settled in my bones with a ferocity that made me cry out. It wasn’t laughter I had heard from the house; it was pain. Across the room, Marilyn was no longer the bombshell from her earlier movies, but the ravaged soul from her autopsy photos. Others bled or moaned.
“I need to leave,” I wailed. The guard with the British accent punched me with his gloved fist, and the shock went up into my brain.
“Sorry sir,” he said. “This party is forever. So very sorry.”
And he must have been, for tears rolled down his cheeks.
Garrett Rowlan is a retired LA teacher with two novels and seventy or so short stories to his credit. His website is garrettrowlan.com.