I saw a pink leaf today. It was floating on the river, solitary, brilliant, fuchsia. I was on my way to the pharmacy after physical therapy, when I suddenly turned my handlebars to the left and rode through the cold morning air toward the park, telling myself I could try to survive without one more pill. I rode past people who looked at me funny, either because I had shorts on or because the light on my bike was still on. I nudged it off with one foot and continued on ‘til I reached the river—the White Elster, which in reality is not white at all, but brown. Having long forgotten the ugliness of the graffiti-covered metal, I leant my bike and myself against the side of the dew-covered bridge. The rail was the perfect height for me to lean my elbows against and take some pressure off my back.
I thought about the people who were strolling in the park and crossing this bridge with strollers and sitting on benches alongside the river. Are they healthy? Happy? They probably know how to relax their minds and muscles. People take the time to walk in the park to clear their minds, but all I could do was ask myself unanswerable questions that I usually don’t have time to even think about. And yet, when I’m in one of these moods, that’s all there is—time. It is the only thing I can feel. I am numb and dull and emotionless, but time, thick as fog, slides by my consciousness and I do nothing to stop it. Indeed, I could do nothing if I wanted to.
But then there were other people on bikes, obviously riding to work or school or dentist offices or governmental offices. And joggers. These people had a purpose and probably weren’t out there just to clear their minds. They had an end goal, whether money from a job, education from schooling, or health from exercise. They were using time to accomplish things. Are they happy? Do they sometimes feel overwhelmed by to-do lists chock-full of meaningless items or pain? Do they have days where they wake up with good intentions and end up doing nothing? Do they wish they didn't have roommates or jobs so they wouldn't have to get dressed now and then? If so, what does that mean for me? One can either try to use time and never have enough of it, or give up and feel it painfully slide by.
I needed to go to the bathroom. I checked my cell phone, which has become an indicator of the time and nothing more. Not enough time had yet passed for me to be able to go back and be alone. If I didn’t need to go to the bathroom, I might never go back. Physical needs and expectations of others may be the only reasons we ever do anything at all, I thought.
Though the view of the river and the surroundings woods was beautiful, I found myself looking straight down into the water. There I noticed nothing at all at first. I stared simply to stare, seeing how glassy the water was. My sister would look at this water for its water skiing potential, I thought, and wondered if it was even moving. Eventually I took note of the leaves floating on the surface.
One patch of leaves that floated together caught my eye. It had every color I could think of for a leaf, with its greens and browns and purplish browns and reds and yellows and oranges. Atop a brown leaf were spots of silver that made the bunch sparkle. Watching the leaves, I thought about how they didn’t do anything. They floated along, thinking they were getting somewhere and gathering in bunches. I, in the position of a god, could see the bigger picture. I knew what was ahead and which direction they were going. I knew what other leaves were nearby. If they had asked me, I could have told them what to watch out for. But my perspective shifted, and I saw that actually, I had no god-like role whatsoever. Rather, I was an observer and couldn’t control anything of what I saw. The current was in charge. Though the leaves could think they were headed for a certain accomplishment, without the cooperation of the current, they could do nothing of the sort. Like me, they are drifters in the current of time.
Then my perspective shifted again. I saw how small my reflection in the water was. There was sky and the long line of the bridge, and a small head, peering down into the water. What the water could see of me was my brown hair and the red collar of my jacket. It could see that the handle and the brake of my bike also hung out over the water. From those things, what could the water tell about me? I saw that the water was moving more than I thought, for my reflection in it bobbed jerkily up and down and morphed with the small wells that moved along it.
Slowly I came to realize that the trees lining the water still had green foliage. I couldn’t even see patches of yellow or brown or red, and yet, here was the river full of fallen leaves of all colors. I wasn’t sure if the bunch I was watching was going anywhere with the soft current and thought I could come back in a few hours and take a picture of the patch and the impressionist way the water reflected the trees on the shore. Then I realized I’d had to adjust my head to continue looking at it and it was about to go under the bridge beneath my feet.
Interestingly, the bunch of leaves was moving the opposite direction of what I’d always thought to be the Elster’s current direction. As the bunch disappeared, I looked away before the last leaf was out of sight and thought of my fickleness. A moment later, I realized the bridge had slats and I could probably get another view of the bunch, which I did. Briefly, I looked out over the other side of the bridge, but came back to rest my elbows against the side near my bike. Is it possible to write this nothingness, this passage of time, these drifting thoughts?
Every now and then, a solitary person would stand on the bridge like I was doing, and look out over the water, though none of them really leaned over the side like me. One by one, they continued on their way as I stood there. One woman stood before the bridge, and as I watched, she blew her nose. I wondered if she was crying, or if she had a cold or allergies, or if her nose was just runny because it was cold outside. The thought floated by that I myself should have a runny nose in this cold, as I was wearing running shorts and I was leaning against a wet bridge, but I was unaffected by the cold. Soon, a friend met her and they walked back into the forest without her ever having stepped onto the bridge.
Old people walked together in groups, the tap, tap, tap of their walking poles following them. Are they happy? They seem happy, but when I see these same people on the street, no one smiles anymore. Is a smile a true indicator of happiness?
I first noticed the clouds as I watched the movement of the sky in the water. Something lit up by a promising peep of sun and so marvelously puffy floating in the air, and it took its reflection bobbing below me for me to notice it. I wanted to want to cry. Suddenly, the clouds reminded me of a photograph, a photograph of a boy in a park who had easily won my heart in a few evenings under the stars. In the picture, he was off-center and backlit by a bluish-grayish sky filled with spreading clouds. His hand supported his tilted head, and the question, “You silly, what are you taking a picture of me for?” appeared on his face.
I’d also stood on this bridge with that boy. It had taken a painful walk to get me halfway there and a pause full of discouragement about my health and a jolting piggyback ride to get me the rest of the way, but I’d made it because of his presence and patience. But we never crossed the bridge, instead going back the shortest way possible.
Like then, I wasn’t going to cross the bridge. But there were plenty of dogs and their owners walking by who were doing so. The dogs, big and small, but all well-behaved, trotted and wagged and panted and smiled and I knew that all I ever needed was a dog that would need me and love me and be there for me and be an excuse for me to take a daily walk even when it was cold. But even then there would be moments when that dog wouldn’t want to be with me, when it would explore the trail ahead without me and be more excited about food than it was about me. My favorite dog breed walked by behind me, its bushy tail curled in the air and wiggling in time to its behind. The owner saw the look on my face and seemed pleased. I considered asking him what kind of dog it was (though I already knew) and if they lived nearby (most likely) and if I could sometimes take the dog for a walk (imagine him backing away slowly).
I continued my water-watching and empathized with all the tragic characters I’d ever encountered—tragic because they thought deeply about life and felt time passing. I thought of the water that meanly laughed at Esther in The Bell Jar and how I had wanted her to succeed. I thought of yellow wallpaper. I thought of The Hours and Virginia Woolf and the girl who couldn’t leave her room because she’d been playing a trick on her brother as he had died outside in the backyard. Then I in all seriousness thought of the boy who wanted to jump off a bridge and when he lost his balance, he landed in a dump truck, and when the garbage man saw him, he said, “That’s a real shame when folks be throwin’ ‘way a perfectly good white boy like that.” These characters were alone. Not that they never saw anyone or had no friends or family, but they were alone among people. Ironically, I’ve learned, when one feels lonely, one wants to be alone, as in, not with other people—at least not with acquaintances, or people who expect answers and smiles. No, it is better to be a silent cipher—a stranger among strangers who stay that way.
But even among non-strangers, there are unforgettable, real moments. In a moment of complete lightness, something completely serious and thought-provoking can be said. Yesterday, when the question “Besides having children, why do people marry?” was posed, I sneered and said, “Good question.” The whole class simultaneously burst into conversations as the teacher tried to find a serious answer that could be heard above the din. Then, in my sarcastic pride, I added, “Ask Petula. Petula, why are you getting married in a few weeks?” Eventually the teacher nodded to Petula, who said she didn’t really have anything to say. “Seriously,” he said, “why?” It seemed that three people were paying attention in that moment—the teacher, Petula, and I—a triangle in the moment of truth. “Naja, damit man nicht allein ist.” Time quickly sped up and the moment went unnoted by anyone but me. When she was surrounded by light-heartedness and my criticism, Petula had spoken out words that rang true.
It’s no wonder women turn bitter who ignore something deep inside that says they need a male companion. But bitterness can also come from recognizing that thing deep inside and having it be constantly battered in its lack of success.
A noise increased in volume behind me, but until I saw the front of a barge emerge from under the bridge, I had thought it was coming from a truck on the other side of the river. The barge had an ugliness that sliced into the river. Its side walls were made of what looked like broken-off cement that had been blackened by years of being submerged in oil. On the middle of the barge was a pile of something also black and oily and shiny that looked small in comparison to the large squareness of the barge. A man drove a small boat that pushed the barge along. The whole sight seemed completely out of place in this relatively quiet, natural setting.
As soon as the wake caught up to the leaves below my section of the bridge, they whirled and bunched up and I thought about how they had had no idea what was coming to them and I could have warned them. But I also knew that before long, they would be placidly floating along again.
In the distance, a bird flew in and landed on the grassy shore. It was a large bird, and when it flew even closer I could see it wasn’t a goose, like I had thought. Its neck and legs were too long and its body too small. It must be some kind of heron, I thought, though I’d always thought they were bigger. The book Dicey’s Song came to mind because its author had also written The Blue Heron, and I thought of how Dicey’s brother and grandma came home to find her without a shirt on and told her that she shouldn’t do that anymore. That was a turning point in her life and I thought of how that awkward point in my life was a difficult one to get through—so difficult that I ignored it until years later when I realized that I had gotten through it, though not unscarred. It shouldn’t have been awkward because it was a normalcy, and it had become my normalcy.
Staring again at the water, I saw movement underneath the surface and was surprised to see some kind of fish, or maybe a tadpole. In such murky water, I’d never seen a fish and would have been surprised if I could have felt any kind of emotion. I watched it flit its tail and now and then cause a circle to spread out on the face of the water.
Then I found the heron again. It walked primly up the hill as if it didn’t want to get its feet dirty, then turned and looked out over the water. No physical need or social expectation is making it look out over the water. Can it see beauty? Or is it waiting for time to pass?
Another glance at the water revealed many tadpoles. Had they been there before, but I’d been too caught up in other things to see them? The sun flashed out from behind the clouds and I had to close my eyes or be blinded, either from the sun itself, or by its reflection coming off the water. I felt my face getting warm. When I could finally look up again, I couldn’t find the heron anywhere. I had even outlasted the heron.
That’s when I spotted the pink leaf. It was a perfect eye-shaped leaf that kept itself parallel to the surface of the water. It didn’t seem to be drifting or bobbing, but floating along, by itself. I immediately noticed how none of the other leaves I could see had such a color. I wished I could pick it out from the water and take it home to see if it really was pink.
Another barge pushed its way through, and glancing between the slats of the bridge, I lost the pink leaf as it got tumbled about in the furious water and pushed together with others. It seemed like the ugly, loud barge took forever to be out of sight.
The time on my cell phone said that most likely enough time had passed. I secured my helmet on my head, turned my bike to face back the way I came, hopped onto the bike while it was standing using my brake (something I never realized was possible until the last six months of bike-based transportation), and rode back through the park.