After work. A sudden, hard storm. Tourists and commuters, running for shelter under the stone arches as the bridge begins to sway. They greet each other with mock-fearful faces, scoot closer to squeeze in one more, together watch the umbrella man hustle to join them. He’s pulling his cart of five-dollar umbrellas and holding a five-dollar umbrella over his head, but the wind whips his umbrella apart. What flies away, over the rails, is not only the fabric part of the umbrella, but the entire top half, the whole umbrella part of the umbrella, so that the umbrella man is left to run through pounding rain while he holds up by its handle a headless metal stick.
Behind him, the ice-cold-water-one-dollar man, one hand clutching the hood of his poncho, the other dragging his big cooler-on-wheels. The wind blows the cooler on its side, the top slaps open, and the bottles of water go cascading away: off the pedestrian part of the bridge, onto the highway below, into the river. A few righteous types chase after strays, but the man waves for them not to bother, abandons his cooler, and squeezes in with the others.
The bridge’s rocking is momentous; there is lightning and raucous thunder; the strangers blurt Oh my god and clutch purses and backpacks to racing hearts. It’s only because there was nothing else to fill the evening that any of the commuters walked home today, and the storm makes stark their desperation. The tourists, for their part, regret having come to walk here at all: the view is not so different from a view they’ve already seen, and the bridge itself is outclassed by at least one other bridge they can think of, a bridge in another country, a bridge in their hometown. Soon, the rain calms to a thin drizzle. A few soaked foreigners buy five-dollar umbrellas. The ice-cold-water man retrieves his cooler, open-jawed at the railing but not blown away, and rolls it resoundingly toward Manhattan.
After work. The first day of summer at the farmer’s market: tied to the handlebars in a black plastic bag is a box of strawberries, a yellow zucchini, two Kirby cukes, a handful of those purple wax beans that turn green when they’re cooked, and an onion. The zucchini goes first, slipping unnoticed through the film of plastic, which, because of the bumpiness of the bridge and the bag’s pendulous load, has stretched to its gray limit. The green beans are next, lightweight and unbundled, small enough to disappear through the bridge’s wooden slats. But it’s not until the box of strawberries buckles in on itself to thunk onto the bridge that the cyclist squeezes her brakes, dismounts, and turns around. The berries that haven’t been smashed are small and misshapen and red through to their centers. They’re the first berries of the year, but with the bag broken, there is nowhere to put them. She eats a few and wheels the bike uphill to look for the rest of her groceries, but all she finds is a cucumber roughly halved at its waist, and she pretends it isn’t hers.
She’ll walk nearly the whole length of the bridge before she turns back toward Brooklyn, and then, just as she is pumping uphill, a man will yell, Hey! Is this yours? When she stops to see who he’s talking to he’s holding out a perfect golden onion, its skin crisp and unblemished. She tucks it into her shirt and bikes it home.
Very late at night, 2 a.m. or 3:00. This is the Manhattan Bridge, because by now it’s clear that everyone is right, there are fewer pedestrians on this bridge and it’s less steep in both directions; and also because the friend you are biking home with, the friend who put his hand on the bare skin of your back as you walked from the bar to your bikes, lives right at its base. Tomorrow you will find out he doesn’t remember this ride at all; in a year he will get a girlfriend and stop returning your calls; after the two of you wave goodnight (heading in opposite directions, not even slowing down) you will get stopped for biking through Prospect Park after 1 a.m. You’re wearing a dress that’s actually a nightgown and on the way to Manhattan it billowed indecently as you stood to pedal uphill; you’re sure your friend saw the splotchy backs of your thighs, your half-covered ass, so now you stay behind as he goes ahead, and when he screeches to a near-stop on the downhill, it’s not until you’re practically on top of her that you see the woman lying face up on the concrete, a man shining a heavy flashlight into her face and yelling CAN YOU COUNT TO TEN? COUNT TO TEN FOR ME, BABE. Y’all need anything? asks your friend. She’s fine, says the man. Just dizzy. But as the two of you let the incline pull you faster, around the steep curve toward the street, you can’t stop seeing the sheen of her face under his flashlight (why was he carrying it? how did he know to tell her to count to ten?) and you wish you had taken the Brooklyn Bridge, where you’ve never come across a woman lying mute on her back in the middle of the night.
A January afternoon, rainy and cold. We’d wanted to walk the bridge, but we took the subway instead: from the Strand at the tip of Manhattan to the big Barnes and Noble at its middle and then, when we didn’t feel like sitting in the store’s café, all the way to Brooklyn, where we drank tea in a better café (he described one of its armchairs as geriatric) and where finally, because we were both hungry anyway, we decided to have dinner together. Maybe it was too much, too many hours for a first date that was not a lot more than a companionate silence; but it was the beginning of a decent, even good, couple of years.
And if we had walked the bridge? He would not have been relaxed enough to say, about Napoleon Dynamite, that the last thing he needed was more awkwardness in his life; the subway’s groan would not have been there to bolster his observation about the lack of women’s bodies in the Bodies exhibit and his question about what sort of person chose to spend an afterlife on display, which made me turn to look at him more closely, the deep-set eyes, the up-tilt of his head against a plastic-covered ad: at the bottom of the bridge we would’ve hurried to find our respective exits, our two trapdoors to underground; we’d have said goodbye in the coldest, most permanent way.
Instead I watched him eat a wasabi wrap that made him cry. He asked if I was political and I said no; he said his whole family was pretty political, except he was sort of apathetic; I wondered if that’s what I was. Then he said, about himself, Not really apathetic—
I was too stupid to know not to commit these details to memory.
We never did walk the bridge together, though several times I suggested it, and later, when strangers would propose walking the Brooklyn Bridge for first or second dates, the idea would seem amateurish to me, and boring: it took so long, especially if you were used to biking it near-daily; the view was too romantic to share with someone I didn’t yet know; there were all those idiots taking photos, and inevitably the path would be blocked by a Russian or Chinese wedding party whose boisterous cheer and fake-shiny dresses had to be sidestepped and ignored.
But maybe my resistance was because in June of that same year I did walk the bridge: with a friend visiting from out of town, a friend who called his bike his horse the same way he called walking around New York City urban hiking. He took such loping strides I could practically see the boulders and streams that the high curbs and empty water bottles had become under his feet. On the bridge we talked about God, the only satisfying God-talk either of us had had in years, and he said he liked New York, he got it, why I was happy there; back in Brooklyn he made soup from soft parsnips rescued from a dumpster and asked only that I keep him company. Afterward we lazed in the grass on the outskirts of a concert, sharing the meat of a coconut and swigging from a bottle of bright pink wine. He took pictures of me on my cell phone’s camera, which was still a new thing. This is your good side, he said, meaning the eye that didn’t tilt up, the brow that was less skeptical and unruly. No one else had ever said anything about my face’s asymmetry.