Per Second Per Second – Saramanda Swigart


One day there was a girl who climbed an overpass and looked down on the interstate. She stood at the edge, holding the railing. A squadron of police cars gathered below her, and a man called up to her with a megaphone, remarking that she ought to think about those who love her, and offering her various quid pro quos—don’t jump and we’ll. His name, he told her, was Lieutenant Candy. Candy? Kandi? Khandee? No first name. She squinted. He was of ambiguous ethnicity. He had thick grey hair and black eyebrows and a mustache. Why do they all have mustaches? “I want a cigarette!” she called down. An officer of the law shimmied out to where she stood and gave her one. He was sweating as he lit it. She held herself by her fingertips, suspended over the interstate, and because of that he held his hand up as though to say whoa, whoa, and backed away. She laughed. She didn’t even smoke. The negotiator, Lieutenant Candy, said: Life is one tragedy after another—everybody knows it—everybody’s felt it, in a resigned voice, as though he himself had been up here above the interstate, contemplating a handful of pills, behind the business end of a gun, and had made the life choice. It was hackneyed, but she almost came down because of it. You are not alone, on the other hand, and she almost jumped from the sheer bullshit. How do you know? The traffic was backed up as far as the eye could see. Do it already! shouted a frustrated motorist, and a plainclothesman pointed at him sternly through the car window with his cop sunglasses. The sun was high in the sky. It could have been worse, traffic-wise: they were still a few hours from rush hour. She would be cleaned up by then, probably, but then again, what did she know? Maybe there was a chalk outline had to be made and then photos and whatnot, a whole beaurocracy. She wasn’t up on her police procedurals. It struck her with what little knowledge she had gone into this enterprise. Mr. Candy shielded his eyes with his free hand. He was the only one not wearing sunglasses, and the girl assumed this was because he wanted her to be able to see his eyes. He did have kind eyes, as far as she could tell from up here, the sort of eyes you want in a negotiator. All at once the woman wasn’t sure. Her resolve, so strong moments before—and hours and days and years—wavered, and she felt tears come hot and humongous and rolling, and she felt fright at her predicament.

But everything’s attracted by its own end. The girl let go. She experienced a thrilling, frightening moment of weightlessness. Then she accelerated. She remembered, ridiculously, from a physics class she’d almost failed, that she was accelerating at 9.8 meters per second per second. Meaning, she thought, that each second she was going 9.8 meters a second faster than the previous second (right?). She was surprised by how nice acceleration felt, and regretted all at once that she didn’t have longer, farther, to fall. It was a nice day she’d chosen. Sky bejeweled with plump little clouds. On the way down, she thought she heard the man who’d jilted her call out, Watch out for that…! But his voice failed to move her. He was, she realized with regret, not worth this gesture, this falling off the overpass gesture. Then she thought about her parents, who’d been helpless in the face of her mountainous sadness, and she felt sad all over again, a sharp pointed little anguish like acupuncture needles in her spleen. They wanted to have been good parents, Maud and Dick. They’d been less interested in becoming good parents. They didn’t love the future tense. Remorse, they’d wallowed in it. It was more fascinating to them than she was. So stately, their self-mortification. Nevertheless, I love you, parents, she thought, as though giving a speech from a balcony, gesturing benedictions over the whole crowd, the freeway, the patrol cars with their spinning lights, her whole audience: I love you all!

Falling, and the sped-up air excited. Her shirt flapped. Her own heartbeat was in her cheeks, a heartbeat, she knew, that had a finite number of beats left. Sam used to take her pulse. He’d turn her toward him, catch her wrist, and lay two fingers against the blue veins there. She said, “What are you doing?” and he answered, “Shhh.” That was during his residency, when he came home forgetting that he still had a stethoscope around his neck. She’d put her fingers against her neck, and they stood still, listening to her heart. “What’s it telling you?” she asked. He said, “Nothing unusual.” That was the problem.

The girl thought suddenly, with a twinge of anger, about getting kicked out of her ritzy high school because of the boy she’d been caught with up against a column at a school dance, her dress pulled up to her waist. (What was his name? Something biblical: Aaron or Ezekiel). She didn’t notice the assistant principal coming up to them, because her eyes were closed in strain or rapture (she didn’t remember which: everything in high school was somewhere on that continuum). Double standard! Nothing happened to the boy, but it was Catholic school for her, where she didn’t get in trouble again because a wooly sadness had started to envelop her like a wet winter coat, and rebellion just didn’t seem worth the effort. At Catholic school she had a classmate, Margaret, who played the harp. She was some kind of a prodigy or some such, went on National tours, and the girl thought of Margaret’s face when she was playing the harp. It was almost goofy in its concentration, but hard to laugh at because it was obvious what Margaret was doing was deadly serious to her. Some boys laughed anyway, and the falling girl remembered feeling a deep despair in her soul that people could laugh at a serious thing and if they could what was the point of doing serious things, or indeed any things? She’d envied Margaret the harp and all its attendant meanings. She didn’t have the sense of a future that was worth working toward. And then at a party Margaret got her fingers caught in the garage door—going up, it lifted her clean off the ground—and after that her hands were too broken to play. They canceled her performance at the commencement ceremony. Margaret went to the same college as the falling woman. They didn’t speak once aside from a hello here and there in the hall. The girl heard later that Margaret died of an overdose. It had been her first introduction to death and decay, and to be honest she’d been a little romanced by it. “I knew her,” she’d said. “That girl and I used to be good friends,” she’d said, which hadn’t been strictly (or remotely) true. She didn’t remember being sad at the time of Margaret’s death, but now when she thought about Margaret and the one-by-one snuffing out of dreams and plans made her feel, well… it was self-evident, the falling girl thought, how she felt. The falling made it so.

Sam was the first man she made love to whom she loved. Confident, he was her first great lover. Good rhythm, that’s what he had, maybe because he was a medical student and well-acquainted with the tempos of bodies, and well acquainted with her entirely average heart. But Sam, Sam was so long ago… the one who jilted her was fresher in her mind. A last straw is what she had told herself. He didn’t deserve this gesture.

(Here’s the ground, OOP. Not a pain exactly, but a not-rightness on the left side of her body. The arm, the leg, maybe she’d…)

No longer the falling girl. Now the fallen. All the thoughts in her head fell, too, like type in a drawer that’s fallen, that the girl remembered was… “pied”? Pied was the chaos of lead letters that have fallen out of the typesetter’s case. At the ritzy school she’d taken an elective in which she learned to use a letterpress. Memories bled out of her and as she struggled to gather them, to order them, she had a sudden thought: semaphore? Something she’d used to do? Flags and… legs and arms and a red-and-white outfit. A telegraphy system to convey information at a distance using…

(Could she really have already hit the ground? She wasn’t done falling! Words… come. Not easy).

…Visual signals with hand-held flags which… Yes, she’d done a summer of semaphore. There had been a patchy field, and mosquito bites on her ankles like Morse cold. Not cold. Morse code. Transmission of messages around the field and why on earth did her parents have her do semaphore? What makes people think of what they think of. Rhetorical. Question. Her right arm with the flag had gotten more tired than the left.

(She could only move her right arm. Her left was heavy as the deep).

Sometimes she still thought words out in semaphore when she was especially bored, like in group therapy at the hospital. During every moment of her six hospitalizations, when the clock crept slow and the minutes mocked, she’d subtly lifted her arms, lowered them, as though they had flags in them. The hospital seemed to have a philosophy about extending life by slowing it. The hospital made life into an asymptote: it bisected the minutes into infinity. Y equals one half X, where every second stretched out longer and flatter along the axis, but never met zero. She thought about the one who’d jilted her—his smell like hay in the sun, the smile that burst all over his whole face, his whole body, like a sun, warm, a life-giving force. In group she moved her arms in arcs: right arm straight, left arm left, angled down; right arm straight, left arm right angled up; right arm straight, left arm left, angled down. S.O.S.

She’d written a note this morning and posted it to her parents with a Save the Rainforest stamp. “I’m a waste of space and money,” she’d said. (Ugh: maudlin). And, “There’s something wrong with my brain. It’s broken. I’d like to donate my brain to science.” She wished she’d written another fig. Another thing.

I love you parents, it’s not your fault.

Language leaked out and pooled around her head. Shapes—blurry. Motes floated. So this is the end. Dust spread from a focus in her visual field and wiggled out of sight. (Focus, Foci. Lat, N., masc. A hearth, a fireplace, an altar. Latin at the Catholic school. Catholic at the Latin school). A sudden deep and dreadful sense of meaning flooded her, more lovely than any harp, and her heart lit up like a fireplace, like an altar. Bitterer because it might be her last. And in a sense her first. A fatal fall finally makes life feel falluable. Valuable. And it is, isn’t it? Valuable? Precious, even? See it drain—try holding it in cupped hands—but hands won’t cup.

Mother, father, peace and blessings upon you. I forgive you. Do you forgive? Sam, are you there? Come and take my purse.

Pulse.

And you, boy who jilted, with the sun-warm smell, with the fingertip you kissed and pressed against my lips like my body was an altar, in whose pale arms I nestled, a child again. I loved. But this is hate. I’m sorry for this entirely wrong gesture.

There’s blood still surging around in here. In the donate-to-science brain. In the entirely average heart. Lay your stethoscope against my breast. Be gentle. And Margaret. Play your… harp. And you, scorner, do I hear your voice? Why did it take death to give life, finally, this gravitas? Life—stop unspooling. Come back. I order you.

And just like that Lieutenant Candy was above the fallen girl. She stared in wonder. She’d never seen someone so beautiful and terrible. An angel made of pure light. A mustachioed angel. Death gives you this. It takes away semaphore and letterpress and Latin, lovers and doctors, sense and trajectory and words, but it gives you this: a huge rough-hewn angel of your very own, offering something. A choice. Lieutenant Candy had big pores on his nose. His lip was a little twisted, like perhaps a bar fight had gone away. Gone awry. His eyes, flashing with blind kindness, took her into a fierce embrace and squeezed like a boa constrictor.

He leaned in, squatting, supporting himself with his hands to get close enough to her face.

“That was a magnificent jump,” he said quietly. It was exactly what she’d been thinking, longing to be back in the jump.

“Lieutenant!” an officer behind him admonished.

“Step back,” said Lieutenant Candy over his shoulder. He came in close again. “I’ve never seen a jump so beautiful. You should go to the Olympics.”

If only I could do it again—different outcome. The life choice—she made it now. Too late for that but there’s also this other. Something was pooling beneath her. Deliver me. From. She lifted her right hand part way and pointed at her lip.

“The mustache?” he said. Of course angels read minds. “People always ask. We wear them so we can rub menthol into them. Sometimes things don’t smell so good. Not now.” he shrugged. “But sometimes.”

Gratitude flooded the whole right side of her body. She tried to nod.

“The ambulance is almost here,” said the angel. He pushed her bangs from her forehead and took her right hand. “The doctors are waiting. I’ve seen it all so I know what will happen. They can put you back together.”

His hand was hot and hard and full of purpose, and he laced his fingers in hers.

“You have to want to live,” he said. “Do you? Don’t nod.”

With her remaining strength, she squeezed the angel’s hand.

THE END

Saramanda Swigart
Saramanda Swigart has an MFA from Columbia University, with a supplementary degree in literary translation. Her work has appeared in Oxford Magazine, Superstition Review, The Alembic, Border Crossing, Expanded Field, Hypertrophic Press, Saranac Review, and Euphony. Her first novel, Meaning Machine, is currently out for consideration. She teaches at CCSF.

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Relief Print
PABS

PABS
As a Philippine-born visual artist, I continue to explore concepts of identity and of home through the lens of the Filipino diaspora. My work draws from Western art history, Filipino and American cultures, post-colonial life, and pop culture.

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