The Man Who Couldn’t Fly

by Annie Johnson

I saw a man jump off a bridge today. I was just walking home from the office, and there he was, arms spread wide as if he would sprout wings. And when he fell, for a moment, I really thought he would. Holding my breath, I waited for his body to stop its rapid descent and propel up, far, far away.

But he didn’t, and soon enough, I could hear the splash, a boulder in a lake. I waited until the sirens came to leave. I didn’t want to see his bloated, purple body when they pulled him out of the water.

I’ve seen dead bodies before. They made us cut open fetuses in Anatomy lab once, taking out the tiny pink heart with our tweezers. There was a pregnant girl in the class who cried the whole time as her little scalpel broke through the wrinkled skin, clutching her own belly with her other hand.

But this was different. I never saw the fetuses die, never saw their little hearts slow down or lungs freeze mid-pump. I didn’t watch them plummet off a granite bridge.

My husband, Nick, and I eat microwave burritos for dinner. We make small talk about the consistency of the beef and our downstairs neighbors who won’t stop fighting and definitely not about the man I watched die today.

I’ll save that conversation for the bedroom when he lies panting and blissed out next to me, or for never.

Maybe I’ll tell my sister when I see her over Thanksgiving. We’ll stand in the kitchen, washing dishes while our husbands watch football, and I’ll say, “I saw a man kill himself.” She’ll want details. It’s the true crime fanatic in her, the part that craves other people’s tragedies to make her feel better about her own.

“I thought he was going to fly, Lisa. I really did,” is what I say in my imagination, and she stares at me with wide eyes and a kind of sadistic enjoyment.

Later that night, I scour the local news for headlines. Man Jumps from Bridge. Tragic Suicide of Community College Professor. There’s nothing of the sort. Instead, I spend the next hour reading about the elementary school having a gas leak and a gang leader dying of cancer. It’s riveting and momentarily makes me forget about the man who never sprouted wings.

Nick comes up behind me and kisses my neck.

“Come to bed, Joanna,” he says. “You’re tired.”

But when he’s on top of me, his face flushed, I can’t stop seeing the man. I bury my fingernails into Nick’s back, the place where his wings should be, and I tell him to stop.

“I have a headache.”

I watched a man die today.

“Oh, okay.”

His rhythmic snoring keeps me awake. I breathe in time with it, like it’s a metronome because I fear that if I don’t, my heart will stop.

Just like his.

The next day, I end up on the bridge. I don’t know why or even how I get there. But suddenly, there I am, looking down at the water. It’s more green than blue, polluted with smoke from the General Motors down the street. It makes me wonder if it stung his eyes when he fell. What it tasted like.

I wonder if it tasted like regret, a mistake. Maybe it tasted like freedom.

My feet dangle off the edge. It really is so easy to fall, I realize. It could happen in an instant, in the blink of an eye.


I whirl so quickly that I nearly lose my balance, my fingernails scrambling for purchase in the granite. A girl, her hair in two blonde braids, stares at me, wide-eyed.

“Are you okay?”

She’s little. Too young to watch someone jump.

I slide off the bridge.

“Yeah. I’m okay.”

She doesn’t need to learn that people can’t fly today.

That’s a lesson for another life.