Estevão makes the steep climb to the third level of the high platform, a place I never dreamed of visiting. His swimmer body stands tall at the top and he spreads his arms like Christ the Redeemer looking out on Rio. He calls out through cupped hands: Francesca! You can see all the way to Manhattan. I should nod my acknowledgement, but the chlorine smell from the pool reaches me and it’s all I can think of. That, and the large white lettering under my feet, which says Brooklyn Aquatics.
My knees go jello, something we’d anticipated during our talk-throughs. Estevão said deep breaths, shoulders back, one knee lift from each leg. I’m too tense for that. I mount the steps to the first level, brush my fingertips on the handrail. I grip the railings more firmly as I step to the second level. The final ladder stands ten feet away, across an open space. Mio dio, save me.
I reach it on wobbly knees and lean into the cool steel. The ladder is my sole companion, as it was for Vincenzo, my hawk-faced, raven-haired brother, who spent long afternoons climbing the high platform in his high school days. He floated up, grinning and shouting jokes and challenges to friends. Pure Sicilian, always. He called me bambino when I refused to go up there. That annoyed me. But at my wedding he surprised me, tapped Estevão on the shoulder after our waltz, and we slow danced together. When the song ended, he gazed at me with wine-misted eyes, whispered in my ear, “I danced at your wedding, bambino. Now you go off the platform when I get married.” I laughed.
I focus on one rung at a time, with a plan in mind to never look down. That’s obvious, no? When Estevão calls out two more! my head betrays me and I steal a glance. A man and woman, both in red bathing suits, smile up, hands shading their eyes. The wobble in my knees rises to a flutter in my chest, and I tighten my grip, lean closer to the ladder. How would they react if I came hurtling down on them?
Estevão grasps my hand and I clear the top, kneel on all fours, grateful for the wide platform, flatten my hands on it. It’s gritty, like rough pavement. First part over, he says. Inhale slow. I do that and breathing comes more regular. I think of what this day means, look into Estevão’s eyes as he kneels to me. He takes my hand, lifts me slowly, wraps his arm over my shoulder. In baby steps, we rotate to face the water.
Estevão says keep breathing and the time comes. No sense waiting when I’ve committed everything to this. I will count to five, he says.
We begin to move and the call from Vincenzo plays back like it happened two minutes ago. From the one hundred and sixth floor. Holding hands with his office manager, Gracie, he said. He couldn’t stand her. It did not sound like my brother and I heard only a few more words, but I knew it was him. And from the businesslike tone, I knew what was coming. Blistering . . . Can’t breathe . . . Going over. With that, the line went silent.
Goosebumps cover me, a blanket of electricity. My eyes fix only on Estevão, and just before my toes push off from the platform, I am dead certain of two things: The same electricity covered Vincenzo’s peeling skin, a small mercy, no? And he turned precisely this way toward Gracie in their last flash of connection.
As we leap out and I lose contact with Estevão, I register the empty space where two towers used to stand in the Lower Manhattan sky. I feel, more than see, two bodies tumbling into wide air, arms and knees bent at screwball angles, writhing as they turn, bride and groom dancing drunk at their own wedding.
Ronald Jackson writes stories, poems, reviews, and essays from his home in Durham, NC. His work has appeared in the North Carolina Literary Review, Iodine, and other venues. An epistolary memoir, “Letter to a Drowning Sailor,” was included in the University of Nebraska anthology Red, White, and True this past summer.