Nonfiction by Sarah Eisner: Sighting the Bridge

The Bay stirs beneath the Golden Gate Bridge and I survey the tide, eager and waiting to leap. My twelve-year-old son, Wilson, watches me through his camera a few feet away on the bow of Chucky’s Pride. Don’t worry about the sharks, I remind myself. I choose to believe there aren’t any. Instead, I’ll swim toward barges unable to change course as they move into port, against the potential panic of isolation and cold, and despite the salty aftertaste of so many suicides-past. For the rest of the day, the left-behind water will leak from my nose. I won’t resist taking it in.

When it’s sunny, and the flood tide skims toward the city, the bridge is extravagantly beautiful: a solid span of lively rust orange irons that balance over a surface of calm. The San Francisco Bay is a formidable pool of four hundred square miles of water that surges in and out beneath the Golden Gate twice a day. In the pitch black of 5:00 AM when I left my house in Menlo Park, I’d hoped for sun and a flood tide. The sun is up now, but I can’t see it, or even where it might hide. The fog is thick like gauze and makes everything dim. Only the underbelly of the bridge is visible above the dreadnaughts and chop. And—oops, the race crew just told us, sorry, bad timing—there’s a 2-knot ebb tide to battle. Good, I reconsider. The harder the challenge, the more accomplished I’ll feel.

I’m about to go up against forty people in a race that’s billed as “one of the most thrilling open water competitions ever.” I assume this means everyone will try to swim fast, but there’s no cash prize or gold medal for winning the Water World Bridge Swim, and I will cross the 1.85 miles from the south end of the bridge to the north end twice as slow, and half as sure, as I’d swim the same miles in a pool. Swimming in the Bay means I’ll fight against the current at least as much as I stroke across it.

I wear a neon green swim cap, pink goggles, and a half-length, sleeveless wetsuit I will pee in as soon as I hit the water to keep warm. I smile hopefully back at Wilson in his sweatpants, wool socks, black down jacket and skullcap. I know that despite the cover he’s cold, and the last thing I want this to be for him is a chore. I convinced him to come and take photos of me doing this for his photography class. Despite the pre-dawn departure time, he consented that no one else would likely turn in images of their mom swimming through the most famous suicide landing spot in the world. The shots, I told him, will be refreshing, real and gritty, not veneers of success like the photos of Teslas and Porches some of his classmates might hand in. But I get the sense he’s here predominantly in exchange for the hot chocolate and donuts he got at Starbucks before we shoved off, and maybe to witness a win.

After Starbucks we were herded onto the crab-smelling boat to huddle around a space heater on the ride from Fisherman’s Wharf to Fort Point while I sprayed Pam cooking spray on my flesh to prevent chafing from saltwater and rubber. My lanky, no-nonsense masters teammate, Laura (whom is faster than me and I hadn’t known would be here) fidgeted with her suit and some Body Glide next to Wilson.

“If you’re doing this just for fun,” the race director announced through his bullhorn to us on the ride, “please start at the back.” As with a foot race, in a swim race competitors like me who perceived themselves candidates for the first round of finishers lined up toward the front accordingly.

“You’ll go in the front, right Mom?” Wilson asked, inadvertently making it clear he hoped he hadn’t gotten out of bed to witness a half-assed attempt. I didn’t blame him: so did I. Anything less than resolute effort would feel superficial—insulting—to both of us. I told myself winning wasn’t important, and it’s true it wasn’t the most important, but it’s also true that I hoped to place in the top three women and make it onto the podium, even though it would only be a dilapidated ramp up from the bow of Chucky’s Pride. I imagined the prize would be the joy of achievement, a good photo op of my success, and the recognition in Wilson’s eyes.

“Heck yeah,” I said. Laura laughed, and I laughed too. Neither of us swim “just for fun”.

*

Four or five times a week, I swim in a pool for an hour before dawn. I wake between 4 and 5, sit on the heating vent in our wood floor, drink hot water, and stretch my limbs. At 5:30 I drive across town wrapped in a blue parka patched with ragged orange duct tape, and then I shed it and put on my suit—skin tight for optimal streamlining—and sprint out to the pool deck to await instruction. Soggy leaves are scattered across the tarp in clumps when we arrive, when we lie down on the wet concrete in our suits to cajole the pieces of cover out of the gutter. We straighten the one-dimensional surface of the opaque blue vinyl for removal. Some of the night’s natural shrapnel—smaller twigs, leaves, and an occasional bee—slips off the cover as we pull it up and around the big metal reels, to reveal the pool’s lovely aquamarine depth and beckoning steam. The water is strewn with limp debris. I jump in and dredge my forehead through it.

Because I am a swimmer, I swim. I swim through the promise, joy, and crushing blows of having a wedding, giving birth twice, withstanding colic and depression, losing best friends and gaining new ones, traveling the world, founding startups, and sitting by as they shut down. I swim through hangovers and pregnancy nausea and migraine headaches—sometimes in auras that leave me barely able to see the feet I follow or the walls I approach—through chest colds, and sleepless mornings after the boys take turns vomiting from their beds and into my lap. Once or twice (or more), I swim still drunk from the night before. I swim when I travel, can find pools with masters programs nearly everywhere I go—Beijing, Buenos Aires, New Jersey, Utah—just as addicts find the ubiquitous church basements with meetings and coffee urns. I swim shivering across Lake Tahoe and through a sluice of shark fins in Stinson, through warm tides in Hawaii and salty seas in Israel, around Treasure Island and against the currents from Alcatraz to Aquatic Park. The swimming sustains me.

“Oh my god,” nearly every friend asks me, “why?”

Most of the time, I train for nothing. I simply swim. I show up at the pool, and then I show up again. Swimming stimulates the pituitary gland to produce endorphins—endogenous opioid peptides—the same endorphins that pain, consumption of spicy food, falling in love, and orgasm produce. Ocean swimming is raw and heady, like sex in the first days of an illicit, perhaps unwise affair. Pool swimming is particularly safe (no sharks, no undertow), and also pleasantly sensual, like sex with a longtime lover. The steamy, early morning water, my teammates—many of them tech execs and venture capitalists with endearingly middle-aged but well muscled torsos—and I have a consensual, open relationship. We undulate past one another, up and down, scantily clad.

If you aren’t a swimmer, it’s hard to understand, and sometimes even causes problems. My first company was nearly funded by my teammate James, a venture capitalist who looks like JFK Jr., until my business partner accused me of being in cahoots with him, against her, and turned down the money at the final hour. She accused me of sleeping with him. I only swam with him. The company went under.

There is pain in the pool swimming of course: that suffocating struggle on descending sets and hypoxic work that itches the inner linings of our lungs like a chest centered brain freeze, then rushes up the windpipe like confidence or gin. We sip in air, breathing urgent and heavy at the wall, and it tickles our throats with the warm pleasure of exertion and heed. During long pulling sets we brush against each other and accidentally collide with knuckles and digits. (Once, Deanna even broke her wrist against John’s forearm during a lap of butterfly.) Daily, I have raised purple spots like skinned slices of plum that form on the topside of my dominant right hand. I wear them like badges, paint my fingernails to highlight the discrepancy between pleasure and pain, in the same way I not so modestly display my toned arms in tank tops, as if they are trophies given as a result of my effort and pluck.

Before the swim there is, and has always been, the familiar reassurance of the locker room. There are the women I know by their habits—which likes to arrive early, on time, or late, and which smiles or grumbles in the unguarded first hour of consciousness. I know their general level of competitiveness, and how vain they are. I know which women had cesarean births and which of them had mastectomies; the scars white and thin across the place where the nipple should be. I know who likes to shave their pubic hair. Does her husband like that? I always wonder about one woman. Would mine? I know which brands of lotion, shampoo and conditioner they choose at CVS or Whole Foods and where they buy their swimsuits and the clothes they change into: their shirt tags flipped around for display by the cheap metal wall hooks. I know where their children go to school and what jobs they hold. About some I know more than I want to. I hear the words divorce and death and sense the stench of simple stagnation. I believe I can tell which of them are lonely, and it saddens me to watch them struggle their suits on over aging hips and head out into the cold.

When we see fellow swimmers away from the pool, grabbing coffee or visiting the post office, it is disorienting. We are put together and fully clad, but it feels as if we are somehow pretending, purposefully camouflaging ourselves of all vulnerability. I have asked others if this is how it makes them feel too, and to a swimmer it is. I have asked myself why this is. Part of why we swim is the pursuit of success, and maybe beauty. But I think swimming is also our breathless attempt to strip everything else away and dive down toward what’s true.

*

Laura has already jumped, and is treading water down below.

An eleven-year-old girl, already the youngest ever to have done the race, and her nine-year-old sister are in the water too. Debbie, a collegiate swimmer I met on the boat minutes ago, who, like me, has done the Escape from Alcatraz swim multiple times and now wants to “check out the bridge thing,” is stretching on the starboard side of the deck. She looks strong also. I tell myself it’s not cool to hope all of them get caught in the tide so they can’t beat me.

“Now!” an official next to me barks, and it’s my turn to jump. The race will not start until everyone is in. I spin around and perform a vigorous splayed leg herkie, grinning like a cheerleader encouraging the crowd. Wilson is shooting photos from the deck, and my arms fling up in a flying V, energized and ready to twitch deep and fast. This is my signature “I’m doing something awesome!” pose, and just as I have photos of myself doing it while jumping off rocks into swimming holes, completing triathlons, and vacationing on tropical beaches, I want one of myself leaping into the cold, dark bay. On the heat-blasting drive to the city, and on the sourdough scented boat ride from Fisherman’s Wharf, I reminded Wilson that this is the photo I want badly. As I clown for the camera I tell myself maybe it’ll be a good one for him to hand in to his photography teacher, but the truth is I’m thinking of my Facebook Profile. Secondarily, I consider that the race staff might like it for their website, especially if I do something mildly improbable, but possible, like win.

I hit the surface and dunk under it, then bob up and yelp into the crowded abyss. The shock of the cold steals my breath, and I take quick sips of air and silently chant suck it up because I know the swim isn’t long or even comparatively hard. Stronger women than me have swum 29 miles further than I will, from the shark breeding grounds of the Farallon Islands to this bridge. All I’ll be doing is crossing their finish line. I tread water for a few seconds and plan my route to the front of the pack while the urine leaks out near my knees.

I’d meant to draft behind Laura. But while I egg-beat my legs to keep myself lifted so I can spit into my goggles, flush them out, and press them tight, I lose her in the high waves of the chop. I try saying her name once, but it’s so loud out here I can’t hear any voices. A band of gulls call to each other and the large boat motor growls.

With my eyes up, I paddle alone to the head of the amorphous group of green numbered caps. I am armed with a race strategy and anxious to use it. I know that first I should aim diagonally right, for the center of the bridge, where the 80,000 miles of cable that hang the roadway from two opposite towers dips down and makes a smile, like an old orange pool noodle buoying a child. I know to aim for it, even though I won’t pass under it. Swimming in the bay means aiming for one thing in order to end up at another. I hadn’t realized that from here the bridge seems to slash through the sky, red-violent and warning, not hang like the golden ornament of grace I’ve always lived by. I swivel my head around and make sure to sight Wilson again.

The countdown begins over the bullhorn: “5-4-3-2-1,” the horn blows, and the race is on.

A mass water start is more like a rugby scrum than swimming. I know because I used to play rugby. In the first ten seconds, a large elbow flails against my right shoulder blade and I have to skip breathing to duck dive until I can pass by. For ten yards further, I dig my fingers long and deep, and keep my face tentatively down, so no one will accidentally kick my goggles into my eye sockets or break my nose.

One hundred yards in, I open up and whack into the waves. The rocky swell forces water into my mouth and my heart rate goes from moderate to threshold. I try to get into the ungraceful rhythm I will have to sustain: stroke, sight, breathe, repeat. Between taking a single right stroke with my head down, then a left one with my head to the side to breathe, I lift my head up and look for the bottom of that noodle—the only part of the smile currently showing through the fog—and then plunge my face back in the water. This is called sighting. I can’t sight and breathe simultaneously, because if I breathe when I sight, I can’t keep stroking, and have to slow down. I can’t go more than two strokes without sighting, because with my face in the water I am blind, and with my face to the left, I swim left. I need to go right. When I lift my eyes I can find the bridge above and ahead of me, but the only faces I see are those of the waves. Walls of murky fluid stare me down, deadpan. It is as if I am alone, swimming in an individual hammock of a dull grey egg carton. Where are the others? I think. There is no one in sight. This fish-tasting, lonely wet thrashing is what makes people panic. I’m able to keep the panic at bay because I’m expecting it.

It takes me twenty minutes—twice as long as it would with a flood tide—of feeling like I’m swimming in a hamster wheel and making no progress, to reach somewhere wildly past the middle of the bridge. I finally see the tendon-like innards above me when I twist my neck around to breathe. They are frightening and stark, like prison bars.

It takes me an additional few minutes to swim across the dark shadow of six lanes of traffic. When I see fog above me again, I know I am in the spot where most jumpers land. They leap toward the city as if offering themselves up to it, pennies tossed into the Bay without wishes.

A stroke later, while my head is down and I’m swimming blind, I knock into something solid, and it flinches. The arrival is so instant it feels dropped from the sky, and when my wrist knocks into flesh a sharp crack of adrenaline shoots from my forearm to my chest. Unexpectedly running into any large object in open water is eerie, and it takes a few seconds for my brain to make the correct identification: another swimmer. Not a shark or seal, not a boat, and not a jumper falling to crush me from above.

I catch my breath and move apart from the other swimmer. And then I have a thought that makes me twitch, look up, and stop dead for five seconds: If you jumped now, I would catch you.

*

After today, the youngest swimmer to make this crossing will be nine-year-old Anaya Baker. I have read that the youngest jumper from the Golden Gate Bridge was five-year-old Marilyn DeMont, who was told to leap and then followed by her father, in 1945. Since then hundreds of others, each a child of someone, have joined them. We know the names of 997, and then the county stopped the official suicide record in 1995, after a local shock jock offered a case of Snapple to the family of the 1,000th jumper. But according to the Bridge Rail Foundation, a group organized to prevent suicides on the bridge, by 2012 the tally rose to more than 1,600. This is 2014. Unofficially, we’re up to one jump attempt every other day. Some of them are talked down.

Six months earlier, at his twelfth birthday party, Wilson jumped from a tree during a game of hide and seek, caught his feet on a branch, and broke both of his arms. I’ve broken plenty of bones, but I had never seen an arm shaped like the ripples of a wave before. I’d never seen anyone so pale they turned green in glassy-eyed shock.

Five hours later we were still in a makeshift room in the ER, waiting for Wilson’s bones to be set. His procedure was delayed when technicians rushed in a fourteen-year-old who had jumped from his bed into a noose made of a belt. They put the boy on the other side of our flimsy curtain.

“He tried to kill himself. Right?” Wilson whispered from beneath the white gown of morphine. He knew about suicide. We talked about it, about depression and stress and mental health, quite a lot. We had to.

“Yes,” I said. Eight hours later we left with Wilson in solid casts and intricate slings, and with instructions for pain medications, rest, and follow up orthopedic appointments that promised to make his limbs solid. The curtain had been part way drawn. The fourteen-year-old lay in a neck brace between his parents. A nervous social worker was trying to talk to them. The father looked ashamed and angry.

Today is Saturday. Last Wednesday, four blocks from our house, a seventeen-year-old girl jumped off the Sand Hill Road highway overpass and into oncoming traffic. On the same date one year earlier, a sixteen-year-old boy jumped onto the Caltrain tracks at our station.

Suicides, especially teen, always shock me, though more teenagers die from suicide than from birth defects, cancer, heart disease, the flu, pneumonia, AIDS, and lung disease combined. Suicide is the second leading cause of death between the ages of 10 and 24, and one out of six students nationwide in grades 9-12 has seriously considered suicide. Suicide attempts are nearly two times higher among Black and Hispanic youth than white youth, and lesbian, gay and bisexual, and even questioning youth are three to four times more likely to attempt suicide as their straight peers. My son is white. I don’t know whom he will choose to have sex with and I don’t care. I will make sure he knows that. Has any youth not questioned their sexuality? How many of our youth question their worth daily? How many of them know their parents would do anything, anything to save them? How many parents do not talk about it with their kids because they are afraid?

Silicon Valley is not the only place people try to die, and neither are the pressures to win the race toward more privilege and achievement, nor mental illness, the only reasons. But extreme stress and mental illness are bedfellows in Hell. The suicide rate at two of our high schools in Palo Alto has been four times the national average for the past 10 years, and it has occurred to me that perhaps we are especially vulnerable here, in the area that surrounds the Bay, this area of ambition and drive that spins silicon into gold; where we ask ourselves and our children to live lives as brilliant and strong as the color of the bridge we drive over, swim under, and jump off. We are smart, rich, athletic and healthy. Is there no room for despair, for scars, for aging, for misery?

I must expect their arrival. How else to keep panic at bay?

*

I put my face in the water, howl down at whatever and whomever is buried below, and swim like hell again.

Once on the other side of the bridge, I know to swim parallel to it for a quarter mile. In this case, parallel occurs in a zigzag pattern. I get the job done but I’m tiring, and have to sight more often, and after a time I even pause for one stroke on my back to ease the muscle in my neck that’s been valiant in yanking my head up and down. I catch a glimpse of what I think is a miniature Wilson in the distance and remind myself to dig harder.

After a few more strokes I break through and move easily into the protection of Sausalito’s Horseshoe Cove. As the water calms I look around. The boat, with Wilson on it, is clearly ahead of me and sighted to my right. Directly in front of me is a bister rock called Finger Point that pokes fifty feet out of the water. It’s covered in seagull shit. When my palm hits the base of it, my race will be over, and the high will begin. There are two swimmers touching it in tandem right now. I hope they are men.

Only in the last one hundred yards am I able to swim as if I am comfortable. I can stretch my arms out ahead of me, tuck my chin and ease my core, and keep my head down for three or four strokes at a time without being shoved wildly off course. I can fly. As the rock gets closer, I come in fast but keep my head up. I want to see myself finish.

*

As a child, I disliked swim practice—the solitary lapping was boring, and a natural invitation for the repetitive torpor of adolescent self-testing I was engaged in nearly constantly.

Am I bad?

What if I don’t love my mother?

What if I start a fire?

What if I tell a lie or love a girl?

But over time, the laps smoothed (dulled?) my psyche and I realized I could excel in the water, prove my worth purely as a swimmer who scored points in meets and generated attention from crush-worthy coaches and boys in small Speedos, and I saw that I could push myself to the point of physical discomfort that became a distraction. I didn’t suffer in the pool. I drowned the pain. At least I have this, I used to think as I flipped and pulled and looked straight down at the consistency of the cubed bottom tiles. Outside the pool, I suffered. But inside the pool:

If I have nothing else, at least I have this.

I grew to love swimming, could not get enough of the sequestered back and forth, the early morning chill that never left my bones in winter and the smell of chlorine that warmed with my blood like sewage in the summer, made eddies within the epidermis layer of my skin.

I became more intimate than I meant to with the black line at the bottom of the pool. It lay down the middle of the lane as it always had, a dark painted guide that kept me straight and pointed in the right direction. Without it beneath me, sometimes I floundered.

But here is something I know. I know that with swimming, the pain is inevitable but the suffering is optional. It’s simple: you just refuse to suffer. You keep fighting through the pain until you show up at the finish line or the wall. I don’t know what it feels like to grow up in Silicon Valley, in a place where everyone seems successful and exceptional and everyone is expected to shine bright and rise up exponentially. But I do know how it feels to be an adult here, and to raise children while terrified.

I know, from suffering from it myself, that with mental illness, the pain is inevitable and so is the suffering. I know that fighting through currents in the water is much easier than fighting the belief that you aren’t worthwhile. Although I was never suicidal myself, it is not hard for me to imagine the ways in which depression could make life unlivable, and make suicide a real option. But I also know sometimes if you’re lucky, you can outplay self-doubt, swim through the shadow of mental illness, and relearn how to thrive.

*

I swim to the boat, anxious to hear my time and see Wilson’s impression.

He’s there on the bow. When I reach the ladder I am helped up by two race monitors and a participation medal is hung around my neck. I am shivering. Wilson pats my shoulder and says, “Hi.”

“Hey buddy,” I say.

“Good job,” he says. “Um, Mom? The camera was off.”

“What?”

“When you jumped. The battery was dead. I didn’t get it.”

“I heard you.” I’d been convinced he was joking the first time. Sometimes he does that. But this time, I don’t realize I’m too hypoxic to read his facial cues, or parse the thing out. I have already envisioned that shot as my horizontal Cover Photo. The small Profile Picture space would not be grand enough to capture the impressive scale of where I was and what I was doing. I forget that he, too, has lost the opportunity to take photos for class.

I shake my head as if to jolt my memory: come on now, none of that matters. I’m out of the water early and thawing, feeling good that my workout was solid and no longer bordering on fear. I lean toward Laura, who came in way ahead of me and is already dry, and give her a thumbs up. She gives me one back, aware that I envy her speed.

Just then the race timer walks by, slaps me on the back, and says: “Great swim, fourth woman!” I scrunch up my nose at Wilson and he says nothing, but shrugs. I see the opposite of disappointment in his eyes and remind myself that I didn’t swim for the win any more than for fun. I take quick stock of my effort, of the deep, calm pain that pervades my muscles, the dark depths I have swum through, and the joy I feel at rocking on a boat in the middle of the Bay with my healthy, happy son.

I soften and squeeze Wilson tight, shivering violently. “No big whoop on the photos,” I tell him. “Sorry you didn’t get any for class.”

“It’s fine,” he says. Wilson and I move up against the edge of the rail on “Chucky’s Pride.” The fog has evaporated, and the burnt orange bridge rises up two hundred yards behind my right shoulder. I hunch behind Wilson, my hair salted and twisted into a bun on my neck like a pretzel, my blue parka-clad arms wrapped around his chest as he leans into my protective embrace.

Sarah Eisner has published essays in The Rumpus, Salon, The Toast, and Fast Company. A Bay Area native, mother of two, and recovering engineer and entrepreneur who co-founded multiple tech startups, Eisner is currently at work on a memoir in the form of linked essays about identity, ambition, and motherhood. She studies creative nonfiction in the MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University, most recently under the mentorship of Leslie Jamison. She has a master’s degree in engineering from Stanford University and lives in Silicon Valley.

3 thoughts on “Nonfiction by Sarah Eisner: Sighting the Bridge”

  1. Patricia Granata says:

    This is absolutely magnificent. What a beautifully written piece about such a painful topic . Brava!!

  2. Mariane Brems says:

    It isn’t often that you read a piece about open water swimming which touches on such an amazing number of aspects of life. This essay is a rich and satisfying work that I’m sure I will think about as I swim across various bodies of open water.

  3. Donia Bijan says:

    Sarah, if not for all the rich tidbits we learn in the locker room, I would not have known about your beautiful essay. I held my breath from the moment you hit the water. In the hour before dawn, one line will haunt and buoy me: “At least I have this.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *