Thirty-some years ago, in the upscale Madrid neighborhood of Mirasierra, where I went five afternoons a week to tutor three Japanese kids, a man jumped from an overpass in front of a commuter train. My pupils didn’t see it happen, but the 12-year-old, the oldest of the three, told me about it, after first greeting me, asking how I was, and leading the way to the living room sofa where we held class. She sounded as shocked as if she had witnessed it. Strangely, her eyes glowed, and thinking about it later, I realized that she was more excited than horrified, despite the expression of disbelief on her face and her voice brimming with regret when she gave me the news. “How terrible,” she said. She shook her head and so did I. “Can you believe it?” she asked, turning toward me where we sat side by side on the flowered sofa.
“No,” I said. Again we shook our heads. Then I said, “Why would anyone do that?”
Lots of reasons, as even she at her age knew, but what she had alluded to and I responded to was the mystery of why something else, something less desperate, wouldn’t keep at bay that irreversible solution. The sofa faced the balcony doors, and from where we sat we could see the track through the window, and we could see toy-sized trains a half mile off, gliding through the dry, sparse land. She was both breathless and politely reserved, and because the news was shocking, she was shocked. But because before you turn to events, you welcome your guest, she had done that first.
We sat there, side-by-side, she at 12 and I at 26, contemplating the wandering line of the tracks through the dry, weedy tract of wasteland to the northwest. Under and behind us was the same land, but being transformed by roads, gardens, and apartment buildings that had gone up and were continuing to go up so fast you could almost see urban development rolling onward over the land, toward the mountains, the Sierras, off in the distance, the way in time lapse imagery a day breaks over a dark land and envelops it, bringing it to life with tongues of light.
I have since wondered about the young man who jumped. Why didn’t he jump onto the roof of the train instead of in front of it? The day would have been a muddle, but not as messy. It could have been straightened up. And from a distant future, it might have seemed to him a lark: I boarded the train in Mirasierra before they even had a station, and didn’t get off until helped by the security guards three towns farther!
I have wondered about my student, too, now older than I was then, older even than her mother was then. The mother was wearing shorts and slippers on that summer afternoon and brought me a cup of tea and a sweet at the same time that she did every day. Is my student slim like her mother? Does she have children? Is her English now smooth, like a dense carpet of wildflowers where she can romp? Or is it a manicured lawn perfect for impressing passersby? Or a scraggly junkyard, rusty from disuse?
Their apartment building, brand new and on the very edge then, will now seem like a weed in a thicket. The day dawned, the sun passed overhead, recent growth withered, new growth flamed on. That day was the edge of her life then, the edge of mine, the edge of the city. But for the young man who jumped, it was the brink.
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