Fiction: Beyond Saving

By Julian Donn

Saturday May 20th 2023
What a horrifying experience. I was so busy with it all last night that I couldn’t write an entry, but I’ve finally found some time to sit down.
I spent the latter half of the workday yesterday at the Eastside location, reviewing some finances and ensuring the manager wasn’t avoiding his duties. I’ve had a few complaints about him already. The paperwork took me much longer than expected. It was already dark when I left, and I was due to meet the old hometown gang at McNeely’s on the West End for our weekly trivia. I hadn’t had a chance to exercise that day, and it was a warm spring evening, the kind that heralds summer, so I figured I’d walk the thirty or forty minutes to McNeely’s. I’d just enough time.
I grabbed a jacket and set out, enjoying the evening stillness and listening to the crickets and peepers as I walked along the riverside footpath. How beautiful and calming the city can be on a spring night! I couldn’t immerse myself in tranquility forever, though, as my mind drifted to work: finishing the acquisition of the Preston Valley property for our new store location, hiring enough staff for the opening, etc. Then there was the church food drive on Monday. Marie and I made sure to volunteer this time, regretting that we’d missed the last one, but I simply hadn’t the time that week. I was thinking that I needed plane tickets for Joanna’s wedding when, before I knew it, I’d reached the bridge to the West End. The water gurgled louder than usual as it rushed under me. The river was probably engorged by runoff from all the recent showers.
I glanced at my watch and hurried along. Regular lampposts had illuminated the footpath, but the bridge was almost entierly dark. A light or two must have been out, but I don’t remember exactly. As I approached the bridge’s apex, I distinguished someone’s shadow by the railing. At least, I thought it was. I couldn’t be sure. By now it was past eight, so traffic had disappeared. I didn’t see any cars. Only the stars, a half-moon, and a dim lamp lighted my way. I brought out my phone and was about to switch on its flashlight when I heard a ding ahead of me, as though something had hit the railing, the metallic clang reverberating in the night air. A splash followed which was immediately absorbed by the sound of the rushing water.
I stood momentarily clueless before flying to the place where I’d seen the silhouette. “Oh my God,” I said without meaning to, peering into the water. Fortunately, the base of the bridge’s pylons had lights to help boats steer clear of them, and I could see the water through their blueish glow. Still, as I stared and held my breath, I saw nothing but rolling waves. I wondered if I’d imagined everything when suddenly a hand shot up from the water. I nearly screamed. “Dear God!” I yelled in a panic. “Someone’s fallen in!” My mind raced as I glanced left and right, looking for someone to help. But I was alone, unable to see even the headlights of an approaching car.
I’m ashamed to admit it, but I considered calling the police and waiting patiently to give my account. I dreaded the idea of leaping into the water; I don’t know precisely why. I suppose the discomfort of it all: jumping from a high place only to become drenched, the fear of hurting myself, the shock of frigid water. As a kid, I used to stand beneath a freezing showerhead to build mental fortitude, but the habit has long since disappeared. Now the idea of walking contentedly one moment and hurling myself heedlessly over the rail the next seems impossible. If I’d had a few minutes to think about it, I’d doubtless have jumped, but having the decision suddenly forced on you is too much.
However, after a second or two, my grandfather the war hero flashed through my mind. He’d died saving his fellow marines, jumping on a grenade so his brothers could live. I realized instantaneously that I’d never forgive myself if I did nothing, so before I knew it, I’d kicked off my shoes, torn off my jacket, and jumped.
The water was just as cold as I’d feared, and I’d sunk so far down that I’d lost all sense of direction. I didn’t struggle but allowed myself to float to the surface over what felt like an eternity. After surfacing, I inhaled deeply, bewildered but grateful. Several moments passed before I recalled my purpose. I whirled around, scanning the water before finally glimpsing two flailing arms and a head bobbing up and down. They’d drifted perhaps twenty feet, now beneath the bridge, so I dashed after them.
Upon reaching them, I wrapped an arm around them from behind, intending to pull them toward shore, but they suddenly jerked a hand and smacked me on the chin, making me lose my grasp. I’d assumed that they were panicking and hadn’t meant to hit me. They probably hadn’t realized I was there. I grabbed their shoulder just as they spun around to face me, and I realized it was a man. I met his terrified gaze, but he recoiled as soon as he saw me, appearing even more frightened. “Calm down!” I shouted. “I’ll help you.”
The moment I spoke, he lunged toward me, placing both hands on my shoulders and forcing me below the surface. Again, I assumed that the terrified man must have been too eager to save himself and, in his attempt to cling to me, pushed me below. But the force of his push didn’t make sense because we kept sinking. He must have been actively propelling us down. I tried to stay calm and kick us back toward the surface when I suddenly felt his hands on my throat!
His grip felt weak, yet still we sank. I yearned to breathe, and my mind whirled, thinking this might be the end. I calmed myself by the grace of God Almighty and grabbed the man’s wrists as he gripped my neck. I reared my feet up and kicked him as forcefully as I could. He let go. I raced upward and inhaled more deeply than ever before when my head burst above the surface. I treaded water and panted for a few seconds, feeling the weight of exhaustion from the short but intense scuffle. I looked around but saw no one. Guilt flooded my soul. He must be terrified out of his mind, I thought. I couldn’t help myself; I went back under.
The dim glow of the pylon lights gradually faded a few feet beneath the surface, but I managed to see a shadow at the edge of the light’s perimeter. I dove and grabbed hold of the man. He didn’t struggle, so I was able to bring him to the surface. He seemed dazed and began violently coughing. I wrapped an arm around his chest as before and made for the riverbank, though I swear I heard him mutter “stop” two or three times. He even weakly gripped my hand as though wishing to free himself of it. I can only imagine that the fall and panic of nearly drowning had rendered him senseless.
I’d left my phone up on the bridge but managed to flag a passing car and call an ambulance. They carted him off fifteen minutes later. It was a surreal night, and even now, I wonder whether it really happened, for it felt dreamlike. Somehow a reporter learned everything and tracked me down today at work. I refused to let her publish my name in the interview. I’m no hero. I know others would do the same for me. I just happened to be the one called upon to jump that night. I couldn’t help but tell Maria, though. It took two hours to convince her that I wasn’t joking.
Anyway, this is all I have time for tonight. I must get to bed. The 5k is in the morning, and I’ll be walking it with the Jacksons and some of their acquaintances. We’re all getting brunch after. It’s been far too long since I’ve seen them.
I awoke in a hospital, realizing anew that I was a failure. It wasn’t surprising. I shouldn’t have expected anything different. Accomplishment, failure, victory, defeat—these are ultimately hollow, meaningless notions. Only full-blooded human beings and the fictive deities of old think or speak in such categories. Even so, a human observer can’t deny that, ever since childhood, failure has been my byword.
For starters, I’ve always been a poor student. Even some rudimentary concepts are beyond the ken of my primitive little mind. In those few subjects in which I possessed natural aptitude, my incorrigible disinclination for work precluded my success. This caused frequent tension with my parents.
Then there’s my weak, maladroit body which rendered me hopeless at every sport. My father insisted I participate in track since there were no cuts, so I consequently endured the humiliation of defeat so frequently at track meets that it inured me to the sting of athletic failure.
I gradually became averse to competition of every kind, and this lack of ambition persisted into college. It took me ages even to identify a major. Nothing appealed to me. Eventually, I settled on psychology since it alone sparked interest. For some reason, my mind has always been drawn to the perimeters in life—of perception, knowledge, morality, deviance, etc. My father objected but eventually relented, and after four years I’d blundered my way into a diploma. My father was right, of course, and I never made a cent off the degree but only fed my meager earnings to it each month. Even now the debt looms over me. Death would only yield partial reprieve.
It was only a year after graduation when I fought so bitterly with my parents that I moved away. They’ve always favored tough love but insisted I was no less their son. They still expected me home for holidays, etc. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen them, but losing touch has been more of a relief than a regret.
Throughout this time, I’d failed to meet anyone I’d call a friend. Some foisted the word upon me, of course, but the mass of humanity surrounding me regularly abuses the term, rendering it meaningless. I’m prone to drunken mawkishness, but my sober mind has never once felt akin to any of them, and sometimes liquor strips away illusions, making me feel more alienated than ever. I’ve never discerned “friendship” within this mass, only complex manipulations: for money, enjoyment, allegiance, sex, or whatever other utilities you can imagine. One human only “befriends” another for an opportunity. The moment the friendship becomes sufficiently burdensome for one party, it likewise becomes doomed. It’s the same with the other creatures of this world. When reciprocity, convenience, and utility are denied, cooperation terminates.
After a series of short-lived, menial jobs, struggling to pay rent in my bare, suffocating attic apartment, I found my present employment in a restaurant. By some malicious humor of our dead God, the restaurant paid better than any job I’d had. I was initially elated but soon recognized the chains of financial dependence constricting me. I can’t quit, I thought. I can’t afford a pay cut, no matter how much I hate it, no matter how I resent dashing from table to table, molding myself to fit the desire of every displeased customer, enduring their haughty abuse with a smile.
It’s the dissimulation I can’t endure, for it exhausts me daily. I must affect the guise of happiness regardless of circumstances, and I’ve always made a poor actor.
My sole connection to the world outside that theater was a coworker, the bartender Jorge. I’d linger at the bar after my shift (if the manager was away), and Jorge would pour us each the occasional shot of Don Julio. We’d wander the downtown, floating from one graffiti-effaced dive bar with doors falling off the hinges to the next, wasting what little savings we had. Once every month or two we’d scrounge enough to haunt the dilapidated strip club, which served as a thinly disguised front for prostitution. Jorge was chronically short on funds, however, obliging me to pay beyond the dictates of fairness. I therefore only sensed in our association a modest convenience for us both, devoid of genuine understanding.
I’ve felt the social impulse for as long as I can recall, but my childhood attempts to ingratiate myself with others were at most only partially availing and always left lingering dissatisfaction. Over the years, I’ve increasingly regarded these bonds as empty and arbitrary. Not only am I naturally inept at obtaining the goal, but I now can only view it with reductive cynicism. I am alone amidst infinite cohesion. I feel like an unmoored vessel cast adrift among an armada.
I’ve never failed intellectually to grasp the utility of these connections. Human beings crave social interaction as a condition of happiness; it’s the cement undergirding civil society, as the likes of Oakshot, Lasche, Sandel, and McIntyre never tire of reminding us. I thought that by immersing myself in life I could escape these reductive analyses—rats gnawing at all social tethers—for some hours at a time and thereby obtain instances of happiness. These brief moments would be islands of stability amidst the dark ocean of anxiety, isolation, and doubt. I’ve therefore tried (believe me, I’ve tried) to forge social bonds through every method save violence, but the effort no longer comes naturally. Excessive thought and calculation have spoiled that human facility. I must now make these sallies with more consideration, effort, and awkward deliberateness than others.
I joined a book club some time ago, for example. Reading works off bestseller lists was a chore, and the resultant conversation was reliably trite. I had to stifle every genuine thought and proffer only anodyne comments to avoid standing out.
I attended church, too, selecting a denomination at random. The sermons never failed to seduce me with their grandeur—the attire, incense, words echoing in profundity off high ceilings—but I could only entertain their “truth” with a smirk.
I read an old article that prompted me to join a bowling league. This satisfied my social yearnings for a time, but I found something lacking even in such a casual context. I was forced to wear a mask again, to hide myself in exchange for acceptance. Still, this activity persisted the longest, and I even found a girlfriend there. We sat at the bar after a few rounds of bowling where (my intoxication having loosened my inhibitions and conferred flippant confidence) I managed a few witty remarks. She mysteriously attached herself to me after that.
I ensconced myself in natural human feelings for the initial months, indulging in the pleasures of “loving” and being loved. I felt a levity I’d never experienced, but it regrettably didn’t last. The lethargy of indifference oppressed me again before long. My eyes grew glazed and impassive. The narrative of romantic love I’d enjoyed faded away, and I could only see in our interactions two ignorant primates desperately joining for the shared goal of rearing offspring and thereby preserving copies of their genes.
Camus says that absurdity can strike a man in the face at any street corner, and I saw this not only on the street corner but in the coffee shop, restaurant, and bedroom most saliently of all. The narrative often shifted or else fell away entirely. Rather than making love, I often saw only two sweating, panting masses of tissue copulating in the frantic effort to win pleasure—amalgams of atoms, molecules, proteins, and cells manipulated by the invisible hand of evolution. I can enjoy its baseness but can no longer fall for the chimera.
Naturally, this reductive gaze enervated our relationship. Months passed, and she started vaguely hinting at the future: I always equivocated. She asked about my goals: I was nonplussed. I’d known for many years that the conventional bourgeois family life was forever beyond my capabilities. I didn’t mind her company, but the thought of siring a screaming, red bundle of flesh and sacrificing myself to it, affording the aimless cycle of allele preservation yet another rotation, revolted me.
We increasingly fought. She identified that I cared nothing for her interests, that I lacked goals and drive. I lied, denying these assertions, but the artifice exhausted me as it always does. I left the restaurant early one day and figured I’d surprise her but only found her in bed with someone else. I left without saying a word. That was some five months ago.
I retreated into myself even further. My acting at the restaurant became intolerable. I was less and less able to affect charm, so my tips dwindled to nothing. I increasingly feigned sickness only to lay in bed for the entire day like a sick man. They eventually fired me.
I still observed a vague restlessness for communal ties, the last thread pulling me toward society. Yet every attempt to connect with another had proved abortive. It’s a curious torment to crave human connection in the abstract yet reject every individual human. My desire to preserve the transitory assemblage of molecules I call an identity withered away. I’d long since regarded humanity as an arbitrary, worthless collection of organisms, and, being something like one myself, couldn’t avoid the logical conclusion of my own worthlessness.
That’s how I ended up on that desolate bridge, strung between the city’s two ends. I stared out over the water for an hour or more, mustering enough courage for the fatal plunge. I figured that, since my fragile body must decompose someday anyway, what difference would a few years make? This little rock can keep spinning for a while yet. The struggle for existence will continue. Humanity will keep racking its brains over how to unify the fundamental forces, the correct interpretation of quantum mechanics, the mind-body problem, dark energy, nuclear proliferation—I’m happy to let it continue without me for a while longer until the odd collection of undignified, selfish, cruel primates known as Homo sapiens eradicates itself.
This thought comforted me, and I finally entered the water. My attempt was more Cato or Seneca than Socrates, though I lacked their resoluteness. (How can a pathetic creature like me have anything approaching resolve?) The apatheiaconferred by my meditation abandoned me the moment I sank below the waves. The shock of the submersion enlivened me. I felt an overwhelming, primal urge to survive at any cost and soon desperately thrashed, struggling for air, frantic to find the riverbank.
The shock wore off, however, and I calmed myself. I felt the strength of intransigence for the first time in my life and thought I could brave diving below, swallowing a few mouthfuls of water, and suffering for a few minutes. Just as I was about to dive, something wrapped around me—an arm. I realized that I wasn’t alone, that humanity had come for me to coerce me back to life. I became enraged and wrenched my hand, catching my savior in the face.
I wondered whether I should dive and thereby flee when I felt the creature’s grip on my shoulder. It became clear that I’d never escape: they’d never allow it. This hero—a representative of the superorganism—wouldn’t permit my suicide. If I fled, he’d only follow and drag me back to society. Bringing him with me was my only chance. In fact, by committing myself to the struggle, a blind, reckless assault, the odds of my death would only increase. The expiry of another valueless cluster of cells wouldn’t make any difference, and so he became my instrument.
I forced him below the water and propelled us both down. Wrapping my hands around his neck, I sought to squeeze the life from him and thereby forget my own evanescence until le nĂ©ant arrived for us both. It wasn’t meant to be, however. Humanity is too resilient, too powerful. The impotent struggle of a lone dissenter is far too easily brushed aside. He kicked me off right around the time my consciousness dimmed. Exhaustion overtook me, and I recall nothing else.
I woke up a failure, confined to a hospital bed. They didn’t believe me when I claimed to have fallen accidentally and consulted a psychiatrist. She wasn’t difficult to deceive. I spoke of my passion for political activism and my deep and abiding friendship with Jorge, a brother whom I could never leave behind. I mentioned my graduate school aspirations, church group, bowling league, and reading circle. I said I’d never known depression and only ever cried when reading Euripides.
They released me a few weeks ago. Now jobless and alone, I’ve no idea what to do. I could play this game for a while longer, attempting again to find one encompassing life story or another, but even writing these words tires me. No. It’s too late. I’m too far gone now. I’m beyond saving. The alternating pendulum of anxiety and monotony already oppresses me anew. I don’t know when or how, but it’s clear that I must try again.

Julian Donn lives on the road, dividing his spare time between his two passions: studying philosophy and writing fiction. Whether in a coffee shop, bar, or park, he always keeps a book within reach. His work can be read in Abergavenny Small Press and A Thin Slice of Anxiety. Connect on Twitter @JulianDonn7 or Facebook.