Peter stood on the cement edge of the bridge, staring at the river swiftly flowing towards him. There wasn’t anyone in sight and the only sound he could hear was the rippling of the water. He couldn’t believe his life had come to this—six months ago, his grandfather, who had raised him since his parents died when he was two years old, had passed away himself. Peter had fallen into a deep depression, and to make matters worse, his girlfriend had left him for a man of a better social standing (well, according to most people in his city, who valued money over all else, anyhow). Peter was an artist who painted by day, and waited tables at a café by night. His ex-girlfriend waited tables as well, but the guy she ran off with managed one of the many banks downtown. Peter doubted that the new couple would be sleeping together in a tiny apartment, as he and she had.
Peter took a few deep breaths, shifting one foot slightly, and then the other. He couldn’t quite believe what he was going to do, but why continue on when the only family member who ever understood you was six feet under? Peter had delayed this inevitable moment he was now experiencing for as many weeks as he could, but after having a particularly difficult evening serving irate customers, and then seeing Elisabeth and the other man kissing on a street corner, he knew it was time. He made sure to choose this isolated bridge as the place where he would finally complete the act, so no one would spot him and try to save him. He knew there was nothing left for him to do besides take a trip to heaven or hell, wherever God chose to put him—he’d given all the money in his wallet to a homeless man after coming out of the café, to try to improve his chances of going to the “better place”—after all, he wouldn’t need money in either locale, anyways.
Taking one last, quick glance at the path he’d arrived on (he couldn’t turn around too far, or he’d fall, and the artist within him was insisting on a graceful dismount), he closed his eyes and jumped straight into the river’s current.
The moment he hit the water and began to be carried along by its ripples, he regretted what he’d done. It was one thing to stand on a bridge and fantasize about death, but it was another to actually be submerged in a river which was capable of killing you, faced with the possibility of drowning at any moment.
“My grandfather will be so disappointed in me,” he thought, as his head started to bob up and down in the water and he started to swallow mouthfuls of the cold liquid. “I just gave up, didn’t I?” All of a sudden, every painting he made over the last 10 years floated through his mind in rapid succession. He felt despair at the realization that he may not get the chance to make any more, at least not in their current form. What if there wasn’t a heaven, or even a hell, after all? What if he simply just disappeared? The thought of that was practically unfathomable—he could easily imagine himself without a body, but he had great difficulty imagining what it would be like to completely stop thinking.
Peter realized he did not want to stop thinking yet, and knew he had made a big mistake. He tried to fight against the current and swim back towards the bridge, which was becoming a smaller and smaller object in the distance, but this attempt to save himself was to no avail. He then tried to swim towards the left side of the river, and then the right, but neither of these strategies brought any positive results so he helplessly continued to float down the river, swallowing more water every second and knowing that there were rapids a kilometre away.
He began to sink. He desperately clawed at the water with his hands, trying to bring his head back to the surface. Suddenly, his body was pushed up against a large rock. A bit spire-like, the rock stuck about three feet out of the water and was the only one of its kind to be found in its part of the river.
Clinging ferociously to the big rock so he wouldn’t be swept any further downriver, Peter somehow managed to use his arms to bring up his head, so he could breathe in air. “Sweet relief,” he thought to himself. “As long as I’m still breathing, I’m still alive.”
Peter clung to that rock for who knows how long—the length of time was probably close to two hours, but felt like at least twelve to Peter. He’d never in his life appreciated breathing so much; in fact, he had never even given much thought to the fact that he could breathe, except during the time he was creating an abstract painting that represented breath. He was determined to keep breathing as long as possible, since he knew he truly didn’t want to pass away before his time. As he hung onto the rock, his feet grew as cold as blocks of ice and his arms became sore and tingly, but he never let go. He couldn’t let go. Once, he dredged up a bit of energy that allowed him to glance around, and to his chagrin, he still didn’t see a soul. It was ironic that he’d chosen a place where he had thought no one would be able to save him, but now he would have given anything for a random runner, cyclist, or dog walker, making their way along the wooded trails on each side of the river, to see him and get help.
Peter was utterly exhausted from hanging on, but he was still, for a while, able to reflect on how stupid he had been. If he was for some reason, miraculously, given another chance at life, he promised himself that he wouldn’t take a single moment for granted. Every day would count. Instead of just having his paintings displayed in other people’s galleries, he would open a gallery of his own, as he had told his grandfather he would do someday when he was ten years old. He’d find the funds somehow.
Eventually, Peter was too tired to continue his musing. He became dizzy due to a lack of food and could feel a churning in the pit of his stomach. The last thing he remembered about being in the river was laying his right cheek against the cool rock, resigning himself to whatever would become of him.
Several hours later, Peter opened his eyes, and found himself lying not against a rock in a swiftly-flowing river, but in a hospital bed. Elisabeth was sitting in a chair beside the bed, looking at him with concern. “How did I get here?” Peter wondered in confusion. “The last thing I remember, I was hanging onto a rock in the river, trying not to die!”
“You were,” Elisabeth replied. “A nighttime jogger spotted you hanging onto that rock, and the fire department came out in a boat to rescue you. Someone here recognized you from the café, and one of the other waiters called me. Everyone’s been wondering how you ended up in that lonely river, anyhow.”
“I don’t remember,” Peter lied. “I was drunk and taking a walk, and I think I fell on the bank and ended up rolling in.” That was another lie, since he hadn’t a drop of alcohol in his blood when he jumped.
“Well, thank God you didn’t die!” Elisabeth said. “Being hit with the idea that you might die made me realize how much I love you. I never should have left you.”
Peter was rendered speechless, as he hadn’t expected her to say that, least of all at that moment. They hadn’t spoken in several weeks, and their last exchange had been quite frosty.
“Peter, let’s get back together,” Elisabeth continued, passionately. “Maybe you could take out a loan to go to law school or something, or maybe do an MBA… you do have your bachelor’s, right? Then we wouldn’t have to live in that cramped place forever…” she trailed off.
“I will be taking out a loan,” Peter said. Elisabeth’s face lit up, but quickly fell after Peter added, “To open my own art gallery. It’s been my dream since I was young and I’m going to follow it, finally. I know my grandfather’s in heaven and I want him to look down on me and be proud. I’m not the kind of person who can join the corporate world, and I never will be. Being faced with my death has made me come to a realization about us, too.”
“What’s that?” Elisabeth asked, starting to look a little concerned. She had thought that Peter would take her back in an instant! What other options did he really have? He hated to be alone.
“Life is short, and can be taken away at any instant,” Peter replied, gravely. “I’ve found the strength I need to stand on my own two feet. If I can come as close to death as I did in the river and survive, I know I can withstand anything life throws at me. I can no longer be with someone who does not understand who I am, someone who certainly does not love me, because without understanding, there’s no love.” With that, he closed his eyes and lay his head back down on his pillow.
Now, Elisabeth was the one who was speechless. With her lips slightly parted in a round “o,” she got up and left the hospital room wordlessly. However, before heading home, she stopped by Peter’s apartment, which she still had a key to. She had meant to gather the remainder of her clothes that she’d left there, but never actually made it to the closet. It was in the kitchen, on the little secondhand table, that she spotted Peter’s suicide note. With a heavy heart, she read it and was chilled to the bone. She sat on the apartment floor, crying and crying until she had no more tears to cry out and then finally placed the note back on the table before making her exit.
A few days later, Elisabeth moved to another city and was rarely seen by her friends and acquaintances, including the once-beloved banker, after that. However, every year on Peter’s birthday, she came back for a few hours and sat by the river. There, she thanked every god that fate had intervened, and she hadn’t ended up playing a part in a young artist’s self-destruction. She never actually spoke to her former artist-lover again, as she felt that this would bring them both unneeded pain. As for Peter, his first painting in his gallery, which he bought and opened within a year of the day he was given a “second chance,” was a gorgeous acrylic featuring a rock pointing out of a river like a spire. He’d never been a particularly religious man (except when he tried to score brownie points with God on the eve of his bridge jump!), but he called it, simply, Saved.