“Remember to Forget”
– Friedrich Nietzsche
Eleven men died during its construction, a small sacrifice for a vision of a luminous gate that would span its grasp across an intangible border. It was a landmark of greatness, and to this day it performed its duty well, forming a passageway between opposite territories, allowing commuters and tourists to relish in their forefather’s construct. In daytime, the bridge was coated with a regulated commotion where a coordinated hum of engines overrun the rowdiest of seagulls, but as darkness descends and the city spreads out like a forest of stars and shatters the surface of the strait, the bridge renovates itself for a new purpose, and in silence it entices another kind of visitor, allured by the lightning scheme along the railing and the bright red-orange towers that majestically rise from the murky abyss now glowing in radiance. Little did they know, that as they would linger to behold the black horizon with their feet on artificial ground preparing for a final leap into the unknown, a man named Frank Ratchet would be there waiting for them, observing from a distance, ready to imprint their existence with a flash.
Frank was a slender man with no patience for tedious inconvenient decisions, as the creation of a variation of daily meals or closet outfits. “An object should perform a duty,” he told his old coworkers as they remarked on his customary Monday black leather shoes and their round shoelaces tied in a double knot. He did not see them anymore, and assignments became scarcer for every visit to the bridge. Capturing a fox’s leap and the rabbit’s sprint had not seemed as appealing to Frank for a long time; as one witnesses a moment never to repeat itself, everything else becomes redundant, and a past purpose develops into a shadow of the time when he was blind.
No different from previous mornings, Frank parked his rusty Volkswagen at the end of the bridge by the San Francisco Peninsula, strapped on his backpack and grabbed his tripod with one hand and a folding chair with the other. Except for a red ford at the end of the square with patches of condensation on the inside of the windshields, the parking lot was empty. He did not pay it any attention. Instead, Frank continued alongside a metal fence until he reached one of the corners at the far end that was pulled up from the ground and folded up against the other side to create an opening. Frank pushed his gear through the hole, and as always, once on the other side, he would take a moment and stretch out his back in awe of the surrounding landscape. No matter how many mornings he came, the view would never disappoint him. On the slope, pearls of dew were clinging to the tall grass, making it risky for anyone to slide down to the secluded platform at the foothold of the bridge. The first time Frank had come, and even with the lack of a chair and other commodities due to a prior spontaneous youth, he took a nasty fall, and a spiteful tear in his left cheek from the thorn of a wild rose, marked his inexperience to this day. An error not to be made twice, and hence a few more visits created a tidy pathway of trampled grass and stomped gravel, making each visit less treacherous than the one before.
Systematically Frank placed the folding chair on the ground next to the backpack while making sure the footing was secure, matching previous marks still visible in the gravel by its pointy metal legs. He sat down and began to unpack. With one of the supports of the tripod locked between his knees, the others stretched out to maximum length down the slope, allowing the camera, pinned to its base on the top, to get a clear view of the bridge. The routine of adjusting his Nikon lens was particularly exciting this morning as the anticipation for his newest possession had come to an end with yesterday’s shipment; finally allowing him to capture the tiniest of details in the far distance.
Now all that was left to do was wait.
The empty lanes of the pathway reached out in both directions towards the two towers, connected by its suspension cables. Before long, along the sidewalk a young woman, riding a bike painted in a thick pink primer with a black basket in the front, came to a halt and leaned the bike towards the inner rail. She did not take notice of the view; instead with her back against the horizon she adjusted her ragged shirt and reached for a knitted sweater stuffed in the basket, giving weight to a folded note underneath. She pinned the note in a narrow crack in-between the plastic handle and the metal bar. Then took her time putting on the sweater and with steady feet she moved over to the rail, and without looking down, she reached for the top bar of the outer barrier and climbed over it one foot at a time. It was higher than she expected. The strong wind took hold of her long dark hair that twirled around her head, as she leaned back against the railing. Her legs stood firm; her eyes fixated on the obscure horizon. A black Mercedes approached from the far end of the bridge and as it passed behind her in a steady pace she pressed her stiff fingers tighter around the bar.
“Not yet,” she whispered.
On the platform, Frank reached for his thermos, almost empty by now and the last drops gave more bitterness to his stomach than warmth to his skin. The moon, his bait to a desired catch, was slipping away. Then he noticed a set of head beams cutting through the darkness on the other side, and as a remote growl echoed between the towers, he placed the mug on the ground and leaned forward, pressing his eye against the camera viewfinder and yanked the film lever once. With steady fingers he adjusted the ragged focus ring and with modest movements he searched the object with his fingertips: a car, an 89 Mercedes with black exterior. Carefully he tailed its path along the bridge until it passed the bike leaning against the rail.
Quickly Frank adjusted the objective to get a fix on the bike and saw the slim body of the woman as she held on to the rail behind her, hair caught in the wind covering her face. Slightly he moved the focusing ring on the camera, further and further clockwise till he was able to see how the reflection of the streetlights made her features distinguish themselves behind the waving hair, allowing her eyes to seem as deep as the water under her. He couldn’t believe it. “Sarah?” He whispered as if every letter was a hymn.
She looked up and met his stare through the viewing glass.
Earlier that night, Sarah’s face was buried deep into her sheets, and once again she stretched out her hand to find the empty footprint in the mattress beside her. The city lights made darkness an unreachable luxury, so she pressed her pillow against the back of her head, burrowing herself even deeper into the mattress while repeatedly mumbling, “go back to sleep, go back to sleep…” without luck. The narrow crack under the bedroom door still teased her swollen eyelids as a light pressed itself through the opening. The hallway lamp was left on.
She rolled over to her back, stretched out her legs while pressing her hands against her sides, stroking her waist and stomach under her shirt in a circling motion; lingering, for any reason, to remain exactly where she was. No use, the reminder of last night’s tea forced her to slide off the bed and into her suede slippers, white fur on the inside all flat and creamy by now, and entered the well-lit hallway. As she shielded her eyes from the fluorescent ceiling light she moved into the small bathroom to her left and closed the door behind her. Steam was still clinging to the walls, and a lathery soap rested on the corner of the washbasin next to an old fashioned razor with pieces of think hair stuck between the blades. Sarah pulled down the toilet ring and sat down on the cold porcelain, glancing down on their pale blue rug under her feet now marked with a large, uneven, wet spot in the middle. Her dad used to have one of those, slightly darker in color and with another kind of spot that dried a long time ago but never truly faded.
There were always rumors within her family. Some true, some not, some merely exaggerated, but that day when Sarah, only a kid at the time, saw that bathroom rug dangling all dusty over a horizontal rod in the garage ceiling, she knew that the story about her granddad was true. The garage was used for storage of boxes more than cars, and old tools and different lead paint cans filled the bookshelves and next to the rug, a pair of old and worn skis rested on panels in the ceiling.
“I want to show you something,” Sarah’s older sister had said, grabbed her arm and did not let go of it until they stepped inside. At first Sarah could not understand why that place was something worth whispering about, but as she saw the black stain engraved into each and every one of the threads of that rug, she knew why. Her father had never spoken about it. He was never the kind of father who told bedtime or campfire stories, and certainly not memories about live or dead relatives. He did other things. The story was that one late afternoon in their granddad’s bathroom, he had shot himself in the head and shortly their dad had found him, merely thirteen years old at the time.
She never did ask him why he kept it.
In the kitchen, Frank folded plastic wrapper around his ham and cheese sandwich, and placed the package next to the thermos in his backpack that was resting on the counter in front of him. The hallway light lit up the otherwise dimmed room as he sipped on the last remains of coffee in his red plastic mug, spared from his time in the field. He was running late again after being caught up in the dark room for too long. He dropped his backpack on the hall room floor, its straps curled around the tripod and chair, pulled out a small bronze key from his front pocket and unlocked the dark room as he had almost forgotten the most important thing on this special day. Once inside, Frank closed the door behind him, locked it, and entered through a wall of black drapery reaching the red enclosed inner room, secured from any outside light and prying eyes. “Some things are meant to be locked away,” he always said, and anyone who knew him needed to respect that. Unconditionally.
Sized like a larger closet, the two opposite walls had long shelves near the roof, overstuffed with slim grey cardboard boxes all labeled with dates, categorized by month and year. Underneath them, strings of thread ran from one side to the other in parallel lines, where black and white photos were pinned to the strings with paperclips. Frank reached for one of the smaller ones and held it gently in the palm of his hand. It was a rainy day, making the visibility of the object in the distance unclear but if one focused really hard, one could see a dark silhouette amongst the streaks of rain, midway down; his first observation. Back then he always remained on his two feet to honor his portraits, but as days evolved into weeks, months and eventually years, a folding chair was brought to the location. There he would sit, pressing the camera against his face, waiting. Rain tapping on the stretched material of the umbrella above him, handle strapped to the camera tripod by his feet, nothing would keep him away. Along the opposite wall a long table stretched from one side to the other where plastic bins, tweezers and blank sheets of thick and glossy paper filled up the otherwise empty surface. Underneath, drawers were cramped into the limited space, Frank reached into one by his knees and grabbed a clean black camera objective, resting heavy within his hand as he shut the door behind him. Locking it from the outside.
There were times when people could see his photos in magazines, on post cards, museums and advertisements. But not anymore, not these; they remained innocence, untouched by prying eyes or moist fingertips violating the moment in search for amusement. These were not to be used as pornography for the mind, a tool to gain a rush of delight covered in disgust. When the liquid embraced the shiny white paper, making its bare surface transform and copy a brief moment in someone’s life, the last one, he found his purpose and no one could take that away.
The front door slammed shut.
Sarah dried off the vapor from the mirror and observed the thin lines around her eyes, one digging deep between her eyebrows with the tip of her pinky. She smeared off the leftover mascara under her eyes, still swollen from yesterday’s conversations, and flattened out her messy hair, the dark color making her tired face look even paler as it ran close along the sides.
Sarah went back into the hallway where the light remained on, she felt the handle of the dark room next to the kitchen finding no surprise in the fact that it was locked. Her hand with a slight dampness between her fingers, rested on the handle as she stared over at the front door, as if taunted by its very presence. She jerked the handle a second time, still locked, and so she disappeared into the bedroom, shortly returning with a hammer, and with a violent strike she hit the handle one time, two-, three-, four times, and it broke loose. With the hammer still in her hand, she gave the door a shove, ripped down the drape and stepped inside.
A slight thud broke the silence as the hammer hit the laminated floor.
Many times she had imagined what he held so dear that not even she was allowed to see it, but not this, she was not ready for this. It was happening all over again. Timidly Sarah allowed her hand to follow the lines of the plastic bin’s outer edge while examining the numerous exposed photos of the bridge dangling from the strings, some portraying shadows in mid air, close-ups of a leap, mist, sunshine, darkness, an ambulance, a scarf caught in the wind. In awe she observed them all and unclipped one of them gripping it tight with both hands. There was something peaceful about it. An older woman standing vertical with her feet on the handrail, gripping the wire with her hand while staring at the ocean in front of her. Lit up by the electric light, the pathway casted a linear shadow of the smooth surface underneath, a perfect line disrupted by her figure; a moment perfected by the crown of the glowing tower rising up behind her. The woman was too far away for Sarah to see her face but she could swear it held an expression of clarity.
Sarah heaved down the boxes from the shelves, sat down on the floor and spread out the photographs all around her. One by one she picked them up, observing them; a life verified through the perception of another. A panoramic view of the bridge reaching out from the base into the picture under a cloudless night sky, the golden lights made the dark ripples underneath glimmer, the silhouette leaping from the ledge was almost not noticeable. They were all casualties of the Golden Gate Bridge, and he was their witness. He saw them, immortalized them, he gave them a purpose. “Only the dead are remembered,” she said to herself and placed the photo among the rest.
At times there would be as many as three observations in one day. Memories created to last for the few seconds they were formed, forgotten but not lost. Each of them imprinted on his negatives, transformed into proof of a life that once existed. Frank had promised himself he would never forget them, but this moment was different. This one had a name.
Sarah’s gaze held firm as Frank observed from the distance.
None of them had ever taken notice of his presence but she knew he was there. Never had she seemed so strong, so vibrant, so perfect, the missing centerfold of his collection. The day their eyes first met, not far from where she was standing now, the bike pulled next to her hip, his tripod waving on his shoulder as he was moving in the same direction on the opposite side of the bridge.
“You going camping?” She had asked him. That morning he had smiled.
“I’m a nature photographer,” he had said, still did, and showed her his camera. She was impressed, and asked if he wanted to take a photo of her with the bridge in the background. He still had it somewhere. Tucked away in one of the boxes in the closet among other cherished moments. He had forgotten about that photo, about that day.
Frank increased the depth of his lens.
Sarah kept her eyes towards the platform, on Frank. The sun was about to rise, a hint of its golden shape was eagerly caressing the skyline, making it hard to see clearly but she knew he was there, she could feel him, watching. A flash goes off in the distance, obscuring the bridge and everything around her for a moment too short to notice. “Remember me,” she whispered, and let the cold steel rail slip away from her grip.