The Golden Gate Bridge
Freedom meant many things to different people. For Tremondre, freedom meant being free from every restricting emotion that bound him to the pain he wished to escape from.
Tremondre wished to escape the fear that made him jolt every time someone raised their voice. It was that fear that tensed his muscles whenever someone raised their hand too high or the triggering sound of a smack that made him queasy. Fear always resided in between the recesses of his mind when he became trapped in the cacophony of clashing voices and arguments that seemed to lead nowhere. It was fear that made him avoid political battlegrounds whenever he could.
For a long time, Tremondre had always associated fear with hints of upcoming danger or violence. He never thought he would learn to fear the one thing almost everyone sought after.
It was the very villainy of his heart that betrayed his desires and his free will. It had crept up and ambushed him when he had least suspected it. And it was killing him slowly and painfully while ignoring his pleas for mercy.
Oh, how he wished the torture would stop. He was convinced that what he felt was truly sick. Fatima Syed had condemned him, herself. Who was he to crave the affections of best friend’s mother? He was either a pervert at most or fool at least.
Tremondre ran his hands over his face and felt heat scorching his skin. He wanted to blame it on the afternoon sun but the breeze blowing through his shirt reminded him of his empty excuse. He turned his body to the water and watched the waves sweep across the surface. Every wave would rise and collapse, leaving nothing but bubbling white froth to mark its existence. Tremondre counted at least seven boats before he turned his back against it all. He planned to hop back in his truck and drive some more, but an elusive voice held him in place.
“It’s not nearly as pretty as they make it on Google images, right?”
Tremondre turned to the direction of the voice and saw Mrs. Mustafic learning against the railing. A car behind the railing dividing the pedestrian lane zoomed past her, blowing a hefty gust that rustled her loose-fitting pant leg. Although most people would be annoyed or disturbed by the close proximity of traffic, Mrs. Mustafic seemed to dismiss it as if it didn’t exist. She continued to lean on the railing, pressing her back far enough which made Tremondre concerned that she might actually fall. He stumbled forwards towards her but stopped himself when he realized it meant that he had to touch her.
To his relief, Ms. Mustafic did not fall. Instead, she tilted her head back to look up at the sky, squinting at the harsh rays peeking through the wispy white clouds. She seemed like an angel bathed in golden light.
“Have you ever wondered why it’s called the Golden Gate Bridge?”
“No…” Tremondre said half-heartedly. He was still surprised to even see her here.
“I think it has something to do with the water.”
Ms. Mustafic traced the direction of the water with her finger until it seemed to merge in the far horizon.
“The water beneath this bridge is called the Golden Strait, so I guess it would make sense that they called it the Golden Gate Bridge.”
Tremondre stared at Mrs. Mustafic with a blank look in his eyes. In complete contrast, Mrs. Mustafic blushed despite herself, embarrassed at her display of disorganized thoughts. She babbled on in the hopes of covering up her mistake.
“S-Sorry. I was never good with history or anything academic of the sort. That was always Samir’s thing. He seems to excel in everything I couldn’t.”
Tremondre’s lips cracked to reveal a smile. “Well that’s not true. For one, you’re a much better nurse than he is. Samir was kinda rough when he was scrubbing me. You have a very gentle touch.”
In the corner of his eyes, Tremondre watched to see Ms. Mustafic’s reaction and saw her face light up with innocent pleasure, the kind that always came from an unexpected compliment.
“Oh. Thank you.”
They paused to watch a family of tourists pass around their phones to take selfies on the bridge. A bald man, which Tremondre assumed was the father of the family, stretched his arms to encompass all his children while the mother was experimenting with different angles. There was much whining from the younger children and the older children constantly huffed and grumbled under their breath at their mother’s ineptitude for taking pictures. It was a hilarious sight but an endearing one nonetheless.
“God,” Tremondre snickered. “I think his head is getting sunburned.”
Ms. Mustafic watched intently and jabbed Tremondre with her elbow. “Now they’re fighting because all the photos had the mom’s thumb in it.”
“Amateur selfie mishap. At this rate, they’ll all get tanning lines from their flip flops.”
Ms. Mustafic watched the family for another minute before offering to take the picture herself. As expected, the family was overjoyed and graciously accepted the offer. The photo was taken, many thanks were given, and the family left to complete their tourist agenda.
Ms. Mustafic returned to Tremondre whose gaze was still following the family until they disappeared into their parked car.
“So, are you finally going to ask the big question? Or did it never occur to you how I knew to find you here?”
“How?” Tremondre asked quietly.
“The Golden Gate Bridge is considered to be one of the most top suicide sites in the world.”
Ms. Mustafic paused to let it sink in. Tremondre began to feel his eyes well up with tears but he furiously blinked them away. He suddenly became overwhelmed with the sudden urge to deny the subtle accusation.
“It’s not true. I wasn’t––”
“I’m worried about you.”
Tremondre couldn’t help but get lost in Ms. Mustafic’s stormy gray eyes. They resembled Samir’s with their almond shape and color but there was a wisdom and warmth in them that Samir lacked. The look written in her expression was one of genuine love, the kind that invited people in with open arms and didn’t judge. Tremondre felt himself becoming undone.
“I came here myself when I found out I was pregnant with Samir. I came here again when his father left me. It’s a very sad place...this bridge. I can’t imagine just how many people have come here and jumped…”
Tremondre needed something to look at, something that didn’t possess a pair of eyes. He turned back to the water and looked down to see the waves lapping at the stilts below. He felt a slight falling sensation and immediately grabbed the railing to support himself.
“Why...why didn’t you jump?”
“Because there was a little voice inside my head that told me that things were going to get better. And I trusted it.”
“You trusted it...just like that?”
Tremondre breathed an incredulous scoff.
“Let me guess. It was God.”
This time, it was Ms. Mustafic’s turn to scoff. “Maybe. But I’d like to believe that it was myself. It makes me feel better thinking that it was my own inner strength that told me I could do the impossible.”
Tremondre turned to look at Ms. Mustafic who was content at facing the clouds. The roaring traffic running parallel to their lane was a constant reminder of imminent doom, but she seemed free from all of it.
“People always get mad when I tell them that. They want to believe that there was some stronger other-worldly being that saved me. Don’t get me wrong. I believe in God and Heaven and all that lovely shit, but at the end of the day, I think he only gave me enough strength so that I saved myself. Tre…”
Tremondre felt a tear slide down his cheek. It clung onto his jaw for dear life, hanging in between skin and oblivion.
“...I don’t know what you’re going through. Samir only told me enough to know that you were born into a very hard life. I can’t imagine the things you had to see...the ugliness you had to hear...And so, I can’t pretend to understand that I know you because I don’t. I can only tell you what I know. And what I know is this: you have to stop blaming yourself for things beyond your control.”
“Yes you can!” Ms. Mustafic’s voice heightened into an exhilarating whisper. “Whatever happened to you wasn’t your fault. You can work past this. You have people who love you, Tre. You have Samir and you have me.” She was oblivious to Tremondre’s wince. “You’re always going to have us. We’re your family.”
Tremondre’s heart split in half. He shook his head in anguish. It was always more painful denying what the heart truly desired.
“You don’t understand!”
“Then make me understand!” Ms. Mustafic’s cheeks turned red from frustration. Her heart was swollen with the desire to help him. She, herself, was not aware of the kindness that occupied her soul. And despite being exposed to judgement and temptation in the past, she could not bring it upon herself to do the same. “I know I’m not your mother but––”
“No! No! No!”
Tremondre began walking towards the end of the bridge. His fear of Ms. Mustafic discovering his ugliest secret grew. It taunted him severely, urging him to remove himself from her presence.
But Ms. Mustafic wasn’t ready to give up. In her heart, she had already loved Tremondre too much. She remembered the day she met him, the day the paramedics had brought him into the hospital. Tremondre had collapsed at the warehouse from pure exhaustion after working a double shift with nothing to eat. She had taken him in on a whim after Samir recognized him, a former classmate from high school. She had taken him in when she discovered that he had nobody.
What a great decision that was! She had learned how to love him like another son. Samir learned how to love him like a brother. They became a family, a different family, but a beautiful family. They were happy. And they could be happy still…
“Tre! Please don’t leave!” Ms. Mustafic had to run to keep up with him. “I know what it’s like to be alone. No one wants to be alone. Let me help you!”
Tremondre kept his gaze at the end of the bridge. “You can’t help me! Trust me. If you knew what you were truly dealing with, you would leave.”
It took all the grace in Ms. Mustafic’s heart not to be offended. “Do you know me so little to think I’d be so easily scared? I’m a nurse, Tre. I’ve dealt with dying patients, bleeding wounds, and traumatized victims. If you think that some sad sob story can––”
Tremondre furiously turned around to face her. The demon in his heart had made itself known, shrouding his entire body in an ominous gloom. Ms. Mustafic felt herself shrink and the sun disappear in his presence.
“Is that what you wanted to hear? A sad sob story? Did you want to hear how my mom and dad used to beat each other until blood sprayed the room? Or the fact that I had to take it upon myself to hide my six siblings in a tiny closet and sing songs to drown out the screams? Or maybe you wanted to hear how I haven’t seen any of them since CPS swept us away into separate cars? Is that what you wanted to hear? Because I can assure you, the very thing I’ve tried to hide is much worse than that.”
Ms. Mustafic was stunned into silence. Her cheeks had completely drained of color, turning cold and pale as if she had stood too long in the peak of winter. The expression that took her visage was not one of fear but rather shame. She was ashamed of her own ignorance and her rash manner of approaching him. She was ashamed of being stunned as though expecting so little of someone’s pain became an insult in itself.
Tremondre exhaled a long sigh that sagged his shoulders, deflating his stance until he was no longer threatening. What remained was an empty shell: a tired young man who was lost in the world. That’s all Tremondre ever was. A wanderer. A survivor. People like him didn’t have romantic love stories or glorious legacies. His fate was to do just enough to make it day by day. Nothing less and nothing more.
It was a miserable fate indeed. And when he realized just how miserable it was, he realized that all his efforts to hide his pain were in vain. He truly had nothing else to lose.
“I love you. I’m in love with you. That’s the fucked up secret you were dying to know. And I know that it’s wrong. You’re Samir’s mom and he means the world to me. But you...you are so incredibly kind. And you’re beautiful and...I want you so badly. It hurts.”
Tremondre had to force himself to look down at his feet for the fear of seeing the look on Ms. Mustafic’s face. Hearing his secret aloud caused a mix of overwhelming emotions. He felt high on excitement and light from relief. The secret was finally out. He was finally free.
“So that’s why I have to leave. If I stay, I’ll do something I’ll regret. I’m so sorry. If I could change the way I feel, I’d change it in a heartbeat. But I can’t. I tried. I really did. And it sucks because you’ve been so good to me and I had to––”
The delicate sound of weeping put a dent in his thoughts. Tremondre looked up to see Ms. Mustafic crying into her hands. A hot stab pierced his chest when he realized that he was the source of her pain and he staggered backward.
“I’m...I’m so sorry…it had to be...this way.” Ms. Mustafic said in between sobs. “I–I really love you. It’s just...not in the way...you wanted. Please don’t go. You...you don’t have to go...”
“I can’t stay. You know I would if I could.” Tremondre’s breaths rocked in his chest. Pain shot inside his chest, twisted his insides, and made him nauseous. He felt pain physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Pain had become agony.
“Then...where will you go?”
Tremondre did his best to force a smile. He spotted a tear streaking Ms. Mustafic’s cheek and swept it away with a large thumb. His touch caused her lips to part just slightly and it stirred a primal desire inside him that he wished he could shut off.
“I don’t know. Isn’t that exciting?”
Ms. Mustafic nearly burst into tears again but Tremondre pulled her in for a first and final hug. She wrapped her arms around him tightly, soaking his shirt with her tears.
“I’ll be okay. I’ll always remember your kindness and your spaghetti with meatballs. They’re the bomb.”
Ms. Mustafic laughed. “Shut up! My cooking sucks!”
Tremondre only needed to hear her laugh once to be content with leaving.
“It’s better than eating Samir’s polenta for three days.”
Ms. Mustafic smiled.
“Please don’t cry anymore. I’ll be okay. I still have Samir’s number and yours. I’ll call you every now and then to let you know how I’m doing.”
“Fuck.” Ms. Mustafic pulled out of Tremondre’s embrace and stared over the railing, watching the waves. “If saying goodbye to you is this painful, I can’t imagine how I’ll react when Samir gets married.”
Tremondre chuckled. “Remember to invite me to the wedding.”
Tremondre and Ms. Mustafic continued to converse for some time, but their conversation slowly faded into shorter phrases and small talk. Eventually, all conversation died. They would continue to enjoy being in each other’s presence until it was time to part ways. Tremondre would return to his car and Ms. Mustafic to hers. They would not see each other for some time, but that was how life was.
We are all just strangers at crossroads. We all pass by, sometimes treading the same path until it is time to venture on our own destinies. And although people don’t stay in our lives forever, good friendships last over lifetimes.
Ms. Mustafic’s and Tremondre’s friendship was no exception.