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Heartbeat



The newlyweds drove around the neighborhood for ten minutes before they found an empty parking space. She assured him that the rental car could squeeze into the spot, and he was pleased with himself as the wheels eased into place. The two lovers walked down a narrow side street and made their way to the beach. As they turned a corner and met the cityscape, she stopped containing her glee. "There's the bridge!" she said to her new husband. The famous Golden Gate Bridge sprawled across the sky like some sort of abstract sunrise, and the newlyweds beheld the sight together.

"Where's the top? The fog is so thick that I can't see the top." He took careful steps on the rocky beach.

"Those are clouds, silly. Fog is on the ground."

"Looks like fog to me."

"Clouds float through the air, up above our heads. Those are clouds. Trust me."

The newlyweds had arrived in San Francisco two days earlier, and they had not yet seen the sun. What was the time of day -- morning? late afternoon? The sun could have been anywhere in the sky, so the natural world could not offer a clue. She didn't care. This city had been her dream for so many years, and now she could always remember it as the site of her honeymoon. She looked at her husband, a slim fellow shivering along the water's edge, and instinctively smiled.

"So much for sunny California," he said, and kicked a rock.

"The sun is up there. I promise you that." She extended her slender arms and twirled like a top under the flat grey sky. After three revolutions, she stopped and found him staring at her. "What's wrong?" she asked.

"This is going to be a major hike," he said. "We should go back to the car and try to get closer. I'm guessing that the bridge is three miles away. Maybe four."

"Back to the car? You're talking crazy, sweetheart. We could both use a little exercise, and the weather is pleasant. Okay?" She moved closer to him.

"It's cold," he said. "I like warm weather."

"I know that," she said, putting her arm around his waist, "but if it were hot every day, you would be bored with the warm weather. Summers are more precious because of winters." They walked in the direction of the bridge, and he did not resist. She wondered if she had just won an argument, or if there had been an argument to begin with. The outline of the bridge loomed on the horizon. Her gears turned: "Why do they call it the Golden Gate Bridge? It's not made of gold, obviously enough."

His kept his eyes on the waves in the bay. He began to speak, as if he were apart from his young wife:

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Her eyes grew wide. "Say it again," she said.

"What?" He laughed out loud.

"Is that Robert Frost? Say it again for me."

He shook his head. "Honey, that poem is depressing. I don't want to say it again."

"Then why -- "

"Gold is the color of beauty, you see, and it fades away. How depressing."

"Nothing is forever," she said, stepping over a rock.

"Except you and me," he said, reaching down to take her hand.

They walked silently now, listening to the soft swirls of the wind and the light shuffles of their footsteps on the shore. Water swept onto the beach and back again, making bubbling sounds. In the distance, barges sleepwalked across the bay to destinations she could not guess. She heard a thumping sound, like a heartbeat. Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Rubber tires rolling across concrete seams, she determined, could produce such a sound. Thump-thump. Would he notice?

They reached the bridge in just under an hour. Orange-red girders clogged the sky, stretching to heaven and elegantly fading into a low bank of clouds. The sight filled her with awe and wonder, but he remained silent.

"What are you thinking about?" she asked.

His answer did not come quickly. "Life," he finally said.

She threw him an innocent glare. "Can you be less specific?"

"Nothing, really. All kinds of scattered thoughts."

"Describe one of them," she pressed.

He thought for a second, and then spoke with ominous weight: "Where should we place our priorities?"

"You and me?" she asked.

"Everybody," he said. "People in general. What do you think?"

Her answer was more honest than immediate. "That's a big question. I think it might be too big to answer right now."

He let out a breath just then, and she worried that he had been disappointed by her hesitance. She let her eyes trail along the lone blood vessel on his temple, then squeezed his hand with hopes that she would communicate her unspoken feelings. He squeezed back.

The newlyweds reached the stairs at the foot of the bridge. Hand in hand, they strolled up the cold hard stairs and looked to the pedestrian walkway that loomed above. From time to time they stepped aside for other tourists: an endearing Japanese couple who snapped photos at a breakneck pace, an elderly gentleman accompanied by two youngsters who had to be his grandchildren, many others. She took careful notice of the stories behind the eyes of these strangers. Were they happy? Where did they come from, and where would they be tomorrow?

They reached street level. He looked at his watch and nodded. The perpetual streams of traffic rushed past them, adjacent rivers flowing in conflicted directions. The heartbeat had increased its volume and was now accompanied by unnatural wind, cold and dirty. She wondered if he could hear the sound yet. Thump-thump. Thump-thump. It could not be more obvious.

"The noise up here...!" he shouted, and left the thought unfinished. They strolled across the bridge. His hands were now in his pockets.

The bridge did not impress her in these close quarters. She grew tired of the monotony and started to crawl into her imagination. These cables, a yard thick and impossibly powerful, would be more pleasing to the eye if they had been gilded or plated with silver. She fantasized about a bridge spun from spiderwebs. Millions -- no, billions! trillions! -- of silvery strands that sparkled in the sunlight and glowed eerily under a full moon. Such a bridge would boast great strength while remaining soft to the touch. When she finished the thought, he had disappeared from her side. She found him moments later, a few steps behind her, chatting with workers in hardhats who held steaming cups of coffee.

"And here's my wife," he said to the hardhats as she approached. "San Francisco has always been her dream. We flew out for her honeymoon."

"Our honeymoon," she gently nudged, sliding up beside him. The hardhats snickered at his mistake.

"What did I say?"

"You said her honeymoon. We both got married, remember?"

"Yes, yes, of course." He rubbed his ear and shrugged. The newlyweds entered an uneasy dialogue with the hardhats, describing their hometown and the wedding ceremony. The discussion became more active after she claimed the Golden Gate Bridge had been given the wrong name.

"There's not a fleck of gold in sight," she said, and the workers laughed. The foreman of the crew indicated the relative positions of San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean, and then explained that a body of water called the Golden Gate lay between them. The bridge spans the Golden Gate, he said, hence the name. The hardhats joked about the implication that passage into the bay could be compared with the gates of heaven, peppering their comments with a few obscenities.

"Is that a paint sprayer?" she asked.

The foreman nodded. "Yes, ma'am. My crew paints the bridge."

"How long does it take?" she asked. Her new husband studied the height of the girders.

"Four years," the foreman said. "We can't work when the temperature drops too low, but apart from that we're always painting."

"How often is it painted?" the husband asked.

"Every four years. When we finish the job, it's already time to start over."

His eyes widened. "You're never finished painting?"

"No, sir. The rain and wind won't allow that!" The foreman asked his crew how many of them had been around for two or more passes at the bridge. Half of them raised their hands, and the other half barely looked old enough to have a construction job. The husband nodded blankly and took his wife's hand. They said their goodbyes and continued down the sidewalk.

She spoke when they had traveled out of earshot: "Salt of the earth."

He shook his head drowsily. "Can you imagine that?" he asked, strong enough to be heard over the traffic. "What kind of person wants to do the same little thing over and over again?

"You're not being fair," she said. "The Golden Gate Bridge is anything but a little thing. Those men have an important job."

He laughed a little too loudly. "How do you figure that?" he belted.

"How many people can go to the movies and see their handiwork on the big screen? Those men can look at postcards of San Francisco and know they were a part of it."

"Don't give them so much credit, honey. Those guys use paint sprayers. They're not architects."

"You miss the point -- "

"I know what you're saying, but I still don't get it. Those men are wasting sweat on this vast undertaking with the knowledge that it's doomed to fade with the rain."

A horn blared just then, and the pulsing sounds of traffic swelled into the space between the two newlyweds. The young wife took her eyes off the pavement to examine a massive steel girder. She scrutinized the zig-zag graffiti at eye level and continued up to the unreachable heights, hidden in the clouds. The soggy haze breezed along. She tried to find the top of the bridge in the clouds, but the image never made itself clear.

"Everything fades away," she said.

"Come again?" Her words took him by surprise.

"Without a little maintenance, everything fades away. If you look around -- "

"Why are you making a big deal about this?"

"How can you stand there and act like -- "

"What's going on?"

Her eyes started to burn. "What's so scary about that? The future holds no promises, you know. We both need to be -- " Before she could finish this thought, he moved to her side and held her in a strong embrace. She rested her temple on his shoulder and trembled.

A heartbeat entered her consciousness. It might have been the bridge effect, or the sound of his heart, or maybe her own. The pulsing rhythm came from everywhere at once, and she lost the ability to separate one moment from the next. She believed that he would soon whisper the right words into her ear, but what could those words possibly be?

* * *




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