It was ironic that the river that gleamed to me was polluted and desolate, being cleaned out slowly and hopefully. That happened anytime any water sat under the cliffs of skyscraper roofs, gilded in the reflection of overshined windows. It wasn’t even like its little islands were more than stops for overwater power lines and bunches of monotonous trees clustering like huddled players as not to be consumed by the stream around them. The bridges that stretched over the waterway were like old cats with creaking spines when they arched to say hello, worn at the merciless fury of the cool wind.
Occasionally, the tar-paved roads were sewn with the new bronze of railroads, but it had been years. To me, however, it was like the cracked concrete and murky liquid looming beneath our car had dulled like an old ruby in comparison to the gold of the blue skies and sunlight. Often, we’d have to drive under the main Fremont bridge, shadowed in the dismal lanes where one could really see just how aged and unclean the paths we rode were. I counted the moments when we rode on the top, the way that one numbers the seconds in the instant before a plane lifts into the troposphere.
It was nice in the sunny daytimes, but often, we rode the top when the moon had momentarily stolen the sky, enjoying the company of the stars. The sun was often lonely, crowded by the clouds and obscuring the city’s electric blaze with its own dazzle. But when the modest moon rose behind us over our dirty excuse for a landmark, the meandering flow of the river twinkled with the embezzled glow of the horizon.
Outside of the Portland cold, when we’d jaunt across the city to the bridge, it was as if the structure was a sort of protector, encircling us in the distraction of luminosity and calm before the road would remind us of our predicaments. The dreariness of rain and predictability would notify us that bags weighed down our eyes and that tiredness had already flooded and filled us.
And yet it was not the fatigue that came from yawns and the blinking, olive analog numbers on our dashboard. Going into the city far from the uniform grey of the suburbs and maroon of the unnaturally arranged plum trees was almost common, but I didn’t like leaving. There was too much to see and smell and explore. No person that passed me by was the same.
Home was boxes and mattresses laid on the floor, skipping the tiles with the ant and mouse traps. It was looking in the cupboard to find not much besides peanut butter, cereal, and dry beans, and pretending that the world was the brilliant sloping cities. I’d spend my time in a room with boxes of antiques stacked as if they were a Mayan pyramid, singing songs that wouldn’t be heard again, lost to my ears and memory. Only heard by the ancient stuffed animals from when my mother was my age.
Time and time again, I’d reread an old book, reminding myself again about the atomic structure of table salt and why hot air balloons fly like birds. But unlike a balloon, I was confined to the ceiling above me, to a room of boxes of memories and not something new. Nothing but a distant promise to someday go to Seattle and make a home far from the reality of air mattresses and food stamps. Seattle couldn’t solve a broken parental romance or illness.
That’s what’s odd about bridges; they take you across the divide you never thought you’d pass only to see that there are the same crosswalks and people and that the traffic lights still turn red. They are distant promises and they fill you with climactic hope only to underwhelm what you thought you’d find. They give you the feeling that there might be gold where the rainbow ends, and for some, it’s true. For others, the coins are painted plastic.
I don’t even recall that night very well, but I have remembered pieces of how the bridge looked and what I felt. The rods that held up the cream-painted curve of the Fremont bridge ran past my car window, and the river’s stolen reflections committed thievery against the horizon, too. The entire world was a work of Monet, flowing like the waters beneath me. For the time that our Oldsmobile rolled down the near-flat parabola of a street, I was not me. I was just an observer to every small second passing, each moment special and relative to me. Then, I felt like the universe was seeping into me, not that I was seeping into the universe.
But it wasn’t that I forgot. Forgetting my life, my truth, my unfortunate reality was not what occurred. It ran through me, the sadness of going to the hospital in the early hours for my mom’s false-alarm appointments, the way that our father was a hard worker but wasn’t paid enough to even order normal things off the Taco Bell menu.
I can’t say I didn’t care about those things, that they weren’t pertinent when I was faced with the awe of where I was. They did, and they mattered now. But so did hope. So did my knowledge that the world could still be beautiful and ugly, a tangle of grey. A river that was mucky and filled with loess could still sheen on cloudless evenings, and for a time the sounds of the metropolis could hush so that the glow of the world could sing solo.
After all, a planet where the moon rose to shine for those who would glance at the sky had to have something good going. I’d just need to remember that the curling, brittle bones of the Fremont bridge would be waiting for the next shy little girl. For the next one who saw the sky and found chance in despair.