San Luis Rey by the Hudson

On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travellers into the gulf below.

I don’t do good with unexpected freedom. It was a Thursday. I should have been working but a bottleneck ruined my plans. I couldn’t stay idle in my house because my mind would wander to someone else and then thoughts of what never could be would loop in my head, so I roamed the city with a book and my earbuds and headed toward the waterfront—blue sky over the river, the Manhattan skyline, ferries streaming across the Hudson—and I sat and read and listened and watched people go from work toward the train station and vice versa.

The book was The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, which I bought for two bucks from a street vendor. It was five by the time I got my coffee and sat on the rocking chair underneath the granite portico with a view of the river and listened to a shuffle of songs (starting with Manchester Orchestra’s I Know How to Speak) and cracked open the book and started to read it only to discover it was not about a WW2 battle but instead a bridge collapse. In the book Wilder kills the five travelers from the get-go. Then he explores those five in detail and what led them to that bridge at that moment. The first of those characters is Doña Maria, described as unattractive and unloved, who was finally married off at 26.

Still, she lived alone and thought alone, and when an exquisite daughter was born to her she fastened upon her an idolatrous love.

Unfortunately Maria’s daughter, Clara, took after her father, cold and intellectual. Still, Maria persisted, persecuting Clara with nervous attention and a fatiguing love. A grown-up Clara moved to Spain, but Maria’s desire for her daughter only grew more intense. Maria knew she would never be loved in return, but she couldn’t quit her desire.

I thought of that someone else. Desire, someone said, is not love but the awareness of distance. That’s true. For me and for Maria, too. She was obsessed with that distance between her and her daughter. And me, no matter how close I could possibly get, that someone else would always be separate from me. I see it and I feel it and I know it but it doesn’t matter much. It doesn’t kill the desire. That’s the essence of desire, I guess.

While I read I watched men walk by wearing loafers with no socks. A woman held her mask loose in her hand as if she was about to let it go. A man passed in the sunlight and I judged him adequate according to that inventory list in my mind and I ached (Dumb word, ache. Romance ruined it.) and told myself that he doesn’t feel shame, not like I do, that no one could feel it like I do. Something rumbled in my gut, some undigested thing from some long-gone yesterday, and I wondered if it would ever be digested, or if I would I carry it around with me forever. When that adequate man left my line of sight I felt relieved and read some more.

She wanted her daughter for herself; she wanted to hear her say: “You are the best of all possible mothers”; she longed to hear her whisper: “Forgive me.”

I looked out at the pier and at the men and women who crossed its planks. What was here a hundred years ago? A thousand years ago? What would be on this spot a thousand years from now? Wilder wrote The Bridge of San Luis Rey a century ago. He’s gone. The people he wrote about—people who lived three hundred years ago and who seem as real as any of the men and women on the pier before me—would be long gone, if they ever really existed. But I still felt them resonate.

She lived alone and she thought alone.

I read that line again and again. Like her, I am separate. Separated. I don’t know if this feeling is a Covid hangover or an ancient psychic wound or some personal flaw or just a hallmark of what it means to be human. I wanted to bring that feeling, that eternal separation, out into the sunlight, dry it out it and shrink it until it was small enough to fit in my hand and tuck into my pocket instead of having to wear it like a giant dripping shroud hanging over my shoulders and head and blocking out the rest of the world. But I don’t know how.

Maria could never figure out how to let go of her desire. News of her daughter’s pregnancy led her to cross that fateful bridge to a certain shrine where she would pray for the health and safety of her daughter and grandchild. She was convinced this devotion would finally win her daughter’s love. Her desire was her undoing.

My coffee was getting cold. A woman took a chair across from me and she rocked in her summer dress staring at her phone, legs extended, smiling, and I felt so far from her I could barely even find myself. Then she was gone. A man in a suit and sunglasses walked past me with a hands-in-pocket swagger that told me he was trying too hard, that he, too, carries a dripping shroud heavy on his shoulders. I’d never want to slip into his skin; I have enough shame for one man as it is, so why take on his as well? But I did, and then I was stuck with sadness for two. Someone once told me I lacked empathy. I wish I could lack some more.

By 6:30 pm my coffee was empty. I’d watched so many people pass by on to some other life, and me, always apart. All I wanted was to escape whatever inside me makes me stay so apart. I wanted to feel what they feel, like one of them, like they do, but I never do and it leaves me like an alien on this planet. I could’ve sat and watched the people all night until the morning and then all day again but that longing, that desire, would grow so unbearable that I’d want to rip my chest open and pull out every last poisonous fiber. If that someone else were beside me and if I could be totally honest, I would say this: Come sit beside me and take my pain from me. To me it’s poison but to you it’s dust.

And if I did and if it happened, then what? Would I still be alone, even with that someone else beside me? I think I would. Does this go back to my father, who taught me how to live in distance and separation? I don’t know. And while I’m being totally honest, do I truly, really, care about that someone else? Who they are? What they feel? Their own poisonous pain? Did Maria care about her daughter, or was Clara just a receptacle for her mother’s needy desire?

I finished the section about Maria. Two days before that bridge fell out from under her she realized that her desire was her undoing, that she need to surrender it to ever feel peace in the world, that she needed to live her life with courage and not fear.

Let me live now,” she whispered. “Let me begin again.”

I left my chair and the view of the skyline and the commuters with my own desire still by my side.

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