Not Telling My Parents I’m in Therapy While Driving Over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, Which Collapsed 31 Years Ago

Not Telling My Parents I’m in Therapy While Driving Over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, Which Collapsed 31 Years Ago

by Stephen S. Mills

My mother reads the history of the bridge to us
on her new smart phone: it’s popular with jumpers,
and a common place to shoot car commercials.
An estimated 130 people have jumped off the bridge.
My father isn’t listening very closely
and the car is drifting toward the center line
as he peers out across the bay. The water
is sparkling glass. His driving gets worse
each time I see him. My mother continues:
In response to so many suicides, the state of Florida
installed six crisis telephones along the bridge.
I guess this means we’re responsible for getting
help, if a suspected jumper is spotted. But what
does one look like? My boyfriend, sitting next
to me, wonders aloud, what height does water
become like concrete? He’s read it somewhere,
but none of us know. It’s strange to think
of water as hard and imposing as concrete.
This bridge is a piece of my childhood,
which my mother won’t find written in her
Wikipedia entry. My parents drove us over
this bridge each summer while on vacation
in St. Pete Beach. For a family born and raised
in landlocked Indiana, the sight of water
and the need for such a bridge amazed
and astonished us all. But today, even as
my mother reads that The Travel Channel
named this bridge number three in the world,
it doesn’t seem nearly as impressive as it once did.
What does? I’m nearing the end of my 20s
and now live just an hour and a half
from this bridge, which collapsed, killing 40
people, in 1980. Two years before I was born.
My parents argue in the front seat if that date
is correct: I didn’t think it was that long ago.
But time passes quickly. My mother is now
reading about the Summit Venture disaster.
It’s named after the ship that hit the bridge
support causing ten cars and a Greyhound bus
to plummet into the Tampa Bay. It was May.
7:30 AM. Storming. It was an accident.
No drunk captain. No pirates. No terrorists.
Just life and death at its most random.
The cars and bus fell 150 feet. Only one man
survived. His car fell onto the deck of the ship.
This random act of chance saved his life.
But old Wesley couldn’t get over the fact
that he was the only survivor. See, even random
miracles aren’t enough to save us from our own
insanity. Neither is money. The ship company
awarded him a $175,000 settlement, but he spent
the last nine years of his life haunted by falling
cars, collapsing concrete, the smell of saltwater.
My father and boyfriend are laughing as we near
the end of the bridge. My mother has moved on
to reading about some daredevils who tried
to bungee jump off the bridge in ‘97, but instead
plunged 60 feet into the water. It was all caught
on tape and aired on the TV show Destroyed in Seconds.
Now we are back on solid ground. My boyfriend
has reached over and grabbed my hand. My father
is searching for a place to make a U-turn,
so we can go back across the bridge. The trip over
is all we came for. The satisfaction of reliving
my childhood. That’s when a bird comes out
of nowhere and by chance death is sliding down
the windshield in the form of limp wings, feathers,
and beak. Startled, we catch our breaths and talk
at once. No one saw it coming, but we all heard
the thud and then the silence. The bird gone.
Our windshield not even cracked. We make
our U-turn, head back toward the bright yellow
cables of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. My mother
has put away her phone and is trying to change
the subject. But my mind returns to Wesley
and the nightmare he must have had each night
of those nine years. The one of him just missing
the ship deck and plunging into the water.
His car slowly sinking. His hands frantic
on the door handle, the window crank, the back
glass. Unable to do anything. His eyes glued
to the sinking cars all around him and to the bus
coming faster and faster toward the ocean floor.
The passengers’ eyes dulling, but never closing.
Wesley beginning to fade himself and then suddenly
waking in a cold sweat. Alive. A wife beside him.
A bird chirping at his open window.

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