The dream opens and I am flying– hovering, really. I cannot see the land and there is nothing above me, I am floating somewhere in the atmosphere. Suddenly an updraft comes out of nowhere and I am swept away, but instead of whirling about, tornado-like, I begin to fall straight down, as if gravity has abruptly kicked in. I flail and kick, and occasionally I am swept up again to hover briefly like a plastic grocery bag in the wind, but always the momentum is downward. I become aware in the dream that my fear is not one of falling, but is of the uncontrollable nature of the roller coaster-like swoops and dives.
There was a defunct train bridge on the edge of town that stood high over a river, reconnecting the tracks with land on the other side, allowing them to continue on into the next town. It was a place many had forgotten about as it was no longer used for its original purpose of commerce and transportation, but it was the place to visit if you were a cool kid and part of the rebel crowd. I loved the idea of the bridge and I romanticized it in the way that movies from the 1960s romanticized smoking. It was a place for naughty kids who drank and painted graffiti and didn’t care. It was for fearless people. It was not for me.
But somehow, through a combination of being the new kid in town and a good actress, I had become part of the rebel crowd and though I tried to avoid it, one day we ended up at the bridge. Everyone else rode double on bikes, one person on the handlebars and the other pedaling, while I rode alone. Though I wanted desperately to fit in and played the part with well-thought-out precision, I was a con-man playing a role. Where other teenagers throw caution to the wind, I saw consequence and pain. I understood our parents’ perspectives when they told us not to do something. I was a diplomat painfully trying to be free.
We arrived and the bridge was higher than I expected. The others rode up to the edge and hopped off their bikes before they even came to a stop, ditching them and running onto the bridge. The first fifteen feet or so was anchored into the land so walking on the ties was like walking on planks laying on the ground, but then suddenly the earth dropped away and between the gaps of the railroad ties only the dirty water could be seen rushing far below.
I slowly walked out onto the first section of bridge, anxiously anticipating the open stretch ahead. I carefully and meticulously stepped from each railroad tie to the next, nervously flinching each time someone ran past screaming- at first, encouragingly. I reached the portion that stood over open water and my heart pounded. I kept trying to move, but felt absolute fear. There was nothing to hold onto and seemingly nothing beneath me. I became overwhelmed with all the things that could go wrong. The other kids pushed and cajoled me and I kept trying to move ahead to save face. The boy I was quasi-dating took my hand and acted as though this was a romantic stroll. I tried looking around, attempting to find the horizon but ended up concentrating on my feet and the black creosote of the treated, sweating railroad tie. We had used railroad ties quite often in fence-building when I lived in Texas and strangely, they had a comforting quality.
The boy led me about a fourth of the way over the bridge at which point my desire to remain cool was overcome with panic. I felt paralyzed and no amount of his pulling or yelling from the others could get me to move. Like a tightrope walker who is severely faltering, I slowly brought myself down to crouch in a vertical fetal position and then fell into child’s pose with my forehead solidly on the railroad tie, eyes tightly closed. In this position I could imagine I was firmly on the ground and was going to be okay. I couldn’t see the angry open water below me or the uncertainty of only sky around me.
I could hear the others around me though – yelling and running. I could feel the shake of the bridge as they jumped over ties, tempting fate. My terror was their fuel; they were the gleeful car rockers on the ferris wheel while I was the one clinging desperately to the pathetic safety bar in my lap, willing the ride to be over. I stayed in that position, playing dead, for a long time and finally the fun of teasing me ran out and they grew bored. Several people left on their bikes – it was dusk, the sky was cloudy and it was time for parents to arrive home from work. I shifted to an undignified all-fours position, no longer caring to save face. It was clear that I was a fraud. I just wanted to be back on earth.
I don’t even remember getting off the bridge. I must have crawled and this must have been embarrassing but all I can think of now is reaching solid ground and raindrops coming seemingly out of nowhere, the smell of moisture meeting dry dirt, a shift in the air. I felt cold and vulnerable. I was now alone and had a growing feeling that I was being petty and melodramatic. I stood up and walked my bike home.