I was 6 when I found this place. I always liked to go on walks and my parents were almost never home. My dad was an investor so he was always somewhere “closing the deal” or looking for a new one. My mom was a realtor so business didn’t stop on the weekends. Even when they were home they were preparing for their next trip, their next sale, or whatever, so I was always left to my own devices as my grandma “watched” me with her eyes closed in front of the TV.
It took me about 2 hours. The walk wasn’t super interesting, the humidity of an Iowa summer stuck to me and made me stink long before I arrived. I wasn’t exactly looking for anything, but as I walked along the two lane road right on the forest’s edge I noticed a break in the trees and well, any 6 year old is curious enough to get lost in a new place. So I hooked a right into the forest and followed the sound of the water with cautious steps until I found the bridge. There were no birds singing or wild animals prancing about like they did in Disney films. The sun beamed onto the lake and the grey blue lightened a bit, the white foam sparkled, the water rushed and there was an odd sort of quiet that nature sounds create. I stayed for an hour, just sitting on the bridge playing with sticks and rocks, before I made a two hour trek home.
I don’t think of home now. Not as a destination anyway. An obligation maybe, to have a place that you go to sleep and eat and spend idle time on that line between living and operating. But what happens when all of those things start to happen elsewhere. You sleep at a friends house, or in your car, and eat out with the little money you have, and spend your whole life idle. Then what do you do? Well, I find myself on a bridge waiting for the pain of living to outweigh my fear of death.
I used to come here every weekend just about until I was 10. I got into the wrong kind of plants and came home with a mean poison oak rash. Of course I lied and said that I got it from wandering too far into the heavily wooded backyard, but parents are like bloodhounds. Once they get a sense that something is off, you have their attention. If I was gone for more than 30 minutes I would get a call on my little flip phone telling me to make my way home.
I’m 20 now. I can admit life wasn’t all bad. I was a quiet teen, stuck to my books, stayed clear of boys, and graduated with a GPA my parents could brag about during their couple’s brunches. Got a scholarship to Drake University. “The Ivy League of the midwest” my parents happily claimed. Do you know that college is high school with bigger rooms? My parents called me at first to check in, but they got busy, always closing some deal, and so I left them to it. One thing I did noticed at Drake was that people spent time doing things they liked, and things they liked didn’t include staring morbidly at water. I had one friend in high school who also happened to be my one friend at Drake. She was a psychology major. We made it through our first year without any kinks but sophomore year right before Thanksgiving she came into our room with this matter of fact look and told me, “Onija you’re depressed.” Her brown eyes were tinged with worry as she set down a book, Note to Self by Connor Franta.
“I know you like your space so I’ll leave, but I’m here if you ever need to talk.” She floated out of my room as quickly as she came. It’s so easy to hurt the people that love you. Especially when you’re an expert at hurting yourself. I stopped talking to her, no more texts, no calls, no speaking. One day she’d finally had it and found me in the courtyard outside Goodwin Kirk. “I can only take so much Oni. I love you. But I can only take so much.” I wanted to tell her that she was right, that I was depressed, that words didn’t feel big enough to capture this feeling that had held me since I was little, that black girls didn’t get depressed, that I was sorry, that I loved her too.
I just stared, mouth wired shut, fists in a little ball. She walked away crying. After that she stopped reaching for me, and I had never reached for her so for me it was only a matter of sticking to habit.
The Soro River is 1.5 miles deep and 50 feet wide. It cuts through the middle of Iowa and runs into the Des Moines river somewhere down the line before dumping into Saylorville Lake. As it runs it collects muck from the banks, plastic from people along with cans, condoms, and other human debris, tears from heartbroken lovers, sweat and pee from swimmers, and it’s own traumas I’m sure from holding everything left behind by people who couldn’t care to remember it. This is where I belong.
This place, of sweet, sad waters and low hanging trees. Tomorrow is Christmas. And a warm one at that, 50 degrees outside today. Dad called it a miracle. My parents have done up the house just like all the neighbors. Christmas tunes are playing along with the bad Hallmark movies about family. There’s an air of excitement from looming unexpected surprises, food, merriment and the like, kids have too big grins and parents harbor smirks hinting at hidden gifts soon to be revealed. The whole world feels happy and I just feel wrong. How can that be? How can I be?
My tears drop into angry waters, an icy wind has picked up making the cables wobble and my knuckles burn. I watch as the river churns, turning over on itself until it is chaos. I want to let go. But I just can’t. It isn’t about the wind, or the water, or the looming sky. It isn’t even about death. It’s about me, and the lack thereof. I don’t want to be Onija Walker. I don’t want to keep this skin and these thoughts that want to kill me and keep me at the same time. I just want silence.
I stay on the bridge for 30 minutes before I step down and walk home. I cry the entire time. I didn’t want my parents to notice the car home, so I take the 2 hours to rip myself apart. I didn’t have the guts to do it. And that meant I was going to have to face myself when I got home, look in the mirror and see that I’m still here and know that whether I like it or not I don’t have it in me to leave.
When I get home my parents are in their respective studies. The house is warm and smells like vanilla, the fireplace was on.
In my room my suitcase lays on the bed unpacked, my bed a mess and my bookshelf healthy. Tucked away behind volumes of Bleach manga is a mangled copy of an unread book. Note to Self by Connor Franta. I throw the book on my bed and strip my clothes, my dark skin shining in the low light. Snuggling into bed I kick the suitcase onto the floor and stare at the book. My chest gets tight and I feel like rolling over and pretending to sleep so I can just let my thoughts turn over on themselves while I sink. I close my eyes and breathe. I need a new brain, a new me, and since I can’t kill myself I’m going to have to kill my mindset, because I just can’t do this anymore Onija. I keep them closed until the tears threatening to emerge settle and flip back to the first page. The thoughts are still there, churning. I count to ten and they’re slower. I breathe. Then let the tears come this time. I’m not sure if this will work, if I’ll end up on that bridge again in a month or in the ground. But despite all the grime the grey waters of the river pick up, it always moves forward. And if I belong with the river, then I’ll have to move forward too. I flip to page one and holding my breath, I begin.