The trip from Edison back to Monmouth County was all ugly highway, Route 287 east into the maze of on- and off-ramps around the Raritan River toll-road exchanges, then south on the Garden State Parkway. The traffic was typically bumper-to-bumper for miles during the afternoon rush, the roadside a war zone of cast-off vehicular junk and a winter’s worth of crusty white snowmelt dust. The back-up at the foot of the Driscoll Bridge, in which all of the southbound 287 traffic flow was forced to merge into a single access lane, was always particularly hellish.
And so this might have been a Wednesday or a Thursday in March, long into the week but not at the finish line, long into the winter but not yet at the end. The five o’clock sun lingering pale and dingy on the horizon, begrudging its warmth. I was working in the advertising department at an electronics retailer called The Wiz that winter, a low-paying job I’d taken the previous March when I was at a loose end. It was a terrible job, but I wouldn’t be suffering in it much longer. The Wiz had declared bankruptcy in December and would be laying me off on March 31st. I was looking forward to taking my scant four weeks severance and leaving. I was in a something of a career funk, you might say.
There were two ways to approach the Driscoll Bridge. You could zoom up the fast lane of 287, then divebomb across three lanes of traffic and try to cut into the bridge queue, triggering a cacophony of outraged horn blaring. Or you could get at the back of the snail’s-pace queue and endure the long wait. Both methods were infuriating and futile. On this day, I was one of the sheep, and it took me half an hour to get from Exit One on 287 to the top of the bridge. That’s where the car in front of me stopped and its hazard lights started winking.
There was no breakdown lane on the bridge, in those days before the most-recent expansion. To partially alleviate the nightmarish daily back-ups, the Parkway Authority had converted the road shoulder to an extra travel lane. So I was stopped dead in that lane, stupidly jammed up on the bumper of the car in front of me, with another car on my rear bumper. Jesus fuck, I thought, what now? I snapped on my left blinker and sized up the traffic in the next lane, looking for an unlikely gap that I wouldn’t be able to utilize anyway until I could reverse several feet.
When I faced forward again, I saw that a middle-aged woman had gotten out of the car. She was wearing a camouflage vest, a shabby, well-worn thing with a polyester outer shell, like a hunter would wear, and a knit cap pulled down tight over her forehead and ears. I say she was middle-aged, but really she could have been any age between thirty-five and fifty-five, it seems to me now. Her hair was short and she walked stooped over, looking down at her scurrying feet, her shoulders up around her ears, so I couldn’t see much of her face.
She walked quickly around the front of her car, some kind of economy sedan, a Dodge maybe or a Saturn in some indistinguishable color, and I thought, She’s going to wait on the little raised margin by the railing. For a cop to come along. The woman stepped up onto the margin and grasped the iron railing in both hands. Then she hopped up so her midsection lay across the top of the rail and swung one leg up and over. She shifted her weight and pulled her other leg over, then turned and stepped off into space. She was gone.
She didn’t cling to the railing and look down. She didn’t pause to take one last look at the sky, the distant horizon, the shitty six lanes of southbound traffic, the world she was leaving. She just turned, released the rail, and took that one step.
I put my own flashers on and got out of my car. I went to the railing and looked down. I know now, from Googling it, that it’s about 135 feet down to the water. It seemed like a long way. The bridge was vibrating under the accumulated weight of a thousand or so idling vehicles; the frigid, dry wind was pressing at my back. The woman was floating, motionless, face down, on the surface of the Raritan River.
This juncture of the Raritan, at the mouth of Raritan Bay, is a desolate place. On the Middlesex County side, there’s a large Hess Oil storage facility, massive round tanks squatting in rows along the shore, and hundreds of shipping containers stacked up on acres of asphalt. On the Monmouth County side, there’s a couple of big abandoned brick factories and a vast expanse of poisonous-looking marshland. The water is a brown fetid soup, with no detectable current.
A guy in a Jeep had pulled out of the adjoining lane and into the now empty space in front of the woman’s car. He got out and joined me at the rail. “She just jumped over the side,” he said.
A woman in a business suit came up to us from the car behind mine. “Oh my God,” she said. “Where did he go? He didn’t just …” She peered over the side, careful to keep her coat off the filthy rail. “Is he moving?”
“She,” I said. “I don’t think so.”
She wasn’t moving. She was just floating, face down.
This was ten years ago this March, long enough ago that none of us, clustered there at the rail, had a cellphone. The traffic was crawling past us, some people leaning on their horns, others looking us over curiously, no one aware, it seemed, that someone had just jumped off the bridge.
So there was nothing to do but hang onto the cold iron rail and look down and wait for a police car or someone with a phone to show up. All that distance below us, the woman bobbed on the water, her arms and legs outstretched as if she were still flying, and I remember thinking at the time that she looked oddly exultant.
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