The Swing of Bridges

Grasshoppers hop over more than grass. Last week, one hopped into the cuff of my pant leg then hopped out just as quickly. I keep telling people this—strangers on elevators, anyone trapped with nothing to say as interesting as this—about the grasshoppers hopping on me and ignoring the vegetation, but no one seems to think it significant. I hardly know what it means myself, except that I am looking down as I walk rather than ahead into the distance.

Aesop thought grasshoppers lazier than ants, who work the summer’s duration, building their homes and storing food to survive the winter. At first snowfall, the grasshopper knocks on the ant’s door, wanting to get warm and seeking succor, when the ant refuses to unlatch it and the grasshopper starves and hops no more. Chekhov, though, understood the species better. In The Grasshopper, Olga Iranovna cheats on her dull doctor husband with an artist with a full palette of paint of every color. Bed hopping is not her sin, however. It is the vanity that prompted her to allow another man to undress her, and even that unserious, we see if we are paying any attention. Grasshoppers, after all, must hop somewhere. Only they can choose where, Chekhov implies, if they spring just so. They can choose to ignore my boots, for instance, though they seem to like them. The story is not a dramatic one.

In Central America, grasshoppers are eaten raw or boiled, seasoned with chilies and dropped into a soup that suffices for supper. Aside from humans, most of their predators are other insects. Large ants top the list, those with ample homes they’ve built through laborious warm hours. Which makes me think Aesop unfair to those that hop by way of traveling from place to place rather than march directly forward. To those who have no choice to bounce up then down while ants work their life away in drudgery, never bothering to leap over a blade of grass even, instead carrying it on their thoraxes to build another godforsaken castle.

Three years ago, our guide in Costa Rica warned us we would grow dizzy before we crossed a swinging bridge if we walked too fast across it and did not pause to catch our breath. I saw no reason to listen or care or what to do about it should the landscape start to spin, which would only add interest to the vista. So I ran back and forth then back and forth again across each swinging bridge, faster than anyone else, I noticed, and was proud of it. Faster than, the guide advised, I might wish in a few more hours, puncturing the clouds with my fingernails amid this cloud forest that made trees look as if they were exhaling smoke like dragons. I ran twice the distance in less than half the time as anyone else, just to swing a mile or more above our cabana while wearing my straw hat, bought especially for the trip so no insects would make of my scalp a residence.

Only once I fell asleep did the swinging begin again, if only inside my head I couldn’t escape from, each bridge swinging twice as far from side to side while stretching twice as long as it had done before. I awoke dizzy to howler monkeys’ mating calls deep within the night. The same howler monkeys here as in my same Chicago zoo, only these wilder and louder too. The very same species with the same fur color, though those in Chicago hardly needed to howl to woo—the only sex partners available were swinging on the selfsame rope, the next room over separated by a low gate they could easily hop over. Males and females shared the same acrylic-painted habitat, the one I fled to once the sound of my neighbors’ sex on either side of my bed awoke me past all falling back asleep again. To take a walk and get some breakfast and let the luckier ones lie later beneath the covers.

Their howls can travel up to three miles of dense, dark forests, while their short snouts and nostrils round as pennies can smell odors up to two miles in the distance. This while I lived for three consecutive years no more than half a mile away from their room painted to resemble the Costa Rican jungle they would never see in person, when I rented an apartment that overlooked the reptile house aside the carousel. The single male lion often woke me at 5 am, but at 4, when the howler monkeys started howling for the sex my neighbors had just finished, I lay still unconscious, as yet unwakened to the desire that started the swinging bridges swinging. The zoo had only two monkeys then, and I had to leave my apartment to hear them.

I was 27 and my parents both just eight months dead when I traveled to the jungle. I would put any amount of money on my credit card needed, I told myself, to get as dizzy as I could without falling from canopy into forest’s middens dense with insects busy beyond reckoning. Only I didn’t know that the dizziness wouldn’t set in until 24 hours after I ran across one swinging bridge after another one. I knew even less that it would never leave entirely afterward.

Dizziness itself, however, is not a medical condition and divides into lightheadedness and vertigo. The former often results, at worst, in fainting and is caused by a momentary loss in blood pressure or flow of blood to your cranium. Its causes—allergies, anxiety, illness, or drug abuse—sound serious, though in truth they are minor. There are ample ways to address them all. It is only with vertigo that you’re in trouble. Vertigo is in essence delusion, and there is never any cure for that I know of. By definition, you feel as if the world is in motion, that you are whirling, falling, or tilting when there is no actual movement.

Only this is not strictly accurate, is it? The morning after I ran back and forth across the swinging bridges they were no longer swinging beneath me, I knew with perfect clarity. If they were swinging at all, it was for some other tourists. I was not delusional yet stuck within a dream I could not burst from. Still I was whirling. I was falling. I was tilting, as close to the sun as the earth itself in summer, trying to break from its orbit, I couldn’t help but feeling it was that serious as I lay there reeling. There is no escaping this when you live on a planet that not only whirls about a star too bright to stare at directly but tilts toward and away from it willfully, as with sexual attraction and rebuff, undecided whether it will have sex with someone or not.

We cannot escape this ball of rock we call our planet that is in truth falling into the sun’s centrifugal fire regardless. The orbit is only a result of two conflicting forces, that of the earth’s gravity and the inertia driving earth to flee its orbit. The sun’s greater gravity, I’m told, acts as a mediator, keeping us from traveling any farther. Ultimately, though, planets either want to spiral entirely in on themselves, collapsing into a harder contraction of their own matter, or escape their orbit altogether. Because they can do neither, they do both. And some of us experience vertigo as a consequence once we realize we are ourselves similarly conflicted. Once we realize there is no such thing as sitting still in a universe as restless as this is.

Ever since I visited Costa Rica, all bridges are swinging bridges to some degree. It is only a matter of the bridge’s flexibility. My vertigo has since abated, though my awareness of living on a planet torn between falling farther into itself and exploding into space has hardly subsided. I also sleep less well, so that I can hear the howler monkeys before the lions now, awaking me. I live in a different apartment though still only a mile away or so from the same caged animals.

Today I walked home today from the dentist through the monkey house, though I didn’t bother looking at any of them swinging on plastic limbs of trees, because I have a cold and am already well aware of what they do, calling across the jungle for a mate lodged safely in the other room. I coughed three times during my dental cleaning and asked the technician for some water, which she gave to me in a plastic cup the same size as a thimble. And leaving the monkeys and reaching a grassy area across from the camels, I lay down on a bench and covered my eyes with the arms of my jacket, listening to the grasshoppers’ mating song, which like other species only males bother to vocalize with any vigor, leaving the females largely silent, teasing the jingle into a symphony with multiple movements. Male grasshoppers scrape a row of pegs along the inside of a hind leg against a forewing all afternoon. Crickets merely rub one wing against another, after the sun has set, so as not to compete, I’m guessing.

I spread my legs wide as a wishbone and almost fell asleep with the sun pressing into my stomach, a weight of warmth I could not lift if I’d wanted. And when I walked inside my apartment complex and stood waiting for the elevator beside a man with eyes the color of corn syrup, I started to speak of grasshoppers then stopped myself in time. I looked up into his face rather than down at my feet for once, where no insects were left singing for any love.

I told him instead about a movie I had just seen the day previous, a very old one by chance, I warned him. Marlene Dietrich played a vaudeville singer deep within Morocco’s sands, where Gary Cooper was in the foreign legion. Of course they fell in love, I told him, not wanting to state the obvious yet felt compelled for the sake of adherence to the story. Both strung other lovers along and had their fun while feeling fairly cheated. Because Gary Cooper would keep tramping through the Sahara with his unit, until she finally joined the gypsy women leading donkeys following in the soldiers’ footsteps, taking off her heels and walking barefoot through the desert, spurred on by only lust, I felt sure of it, though I couldn’t think of a better reason. At this, the man in the elevator laughed, though I didn’t see what was so funny. A bell then rang, the doors slid open, and I stepped onto my floor. He waved goodbye and said her feet must have gotten burnt, when I nodded and looked down at my boots by force of habit. I had avoided talking about grasshoppers landing on my toes, yet feet were still my focus, though neither of us had looked down once during our brief conversation.

Butterflies die always with their wings folded down, anyone who has ever tried to mount one on a needle knows from experience. To display them, even if only for your own collection, you must apply chemicals to relax their muscles post rigor mortis. To make them look lifelike again without shattering them into a second death gorier than the first one. I only know this from hearsay, though. To butterflies I have always preferred grasshoppers and locusts.

When any organism dies, however, the muscles at first relax, becoming more flaccid than they were in life when the blood swam warm if not hot to boiling. They only begin to stiffen after a number of hours, in humans starting with the eyelids, jaw, and neck. A cadaveric spasm, an intensive muscle contraction at the exact moment of death, occurs rarely yet is more common in violent deaths. Drowning victims usually display evidence of their end by the fact that their bodies are often still seen to clutch weeds or grasses, revealing that the person remained alive while entering the water, negating the need for a post-mortem. Cadaveric spasms crystalize the last moment of life in kinetic action. They occur quite often among victims of erotic asphyxiation, those who believe too much oxygen interferes with sexual stimulation.

Is all of life a stiffening then? A journey to and away from suppleness and nothing beyond this? Whose muscles are softer than those of babies and the elderly, however? Those closest to the unrelenting stiffness on life’s other side. So while we’re as supple as we can hope to be—while we’re stiffening en route—let’s walk back and forth, from one end of the bridge to the other, swinging as we go. Looking for the grasshoppers hopping on our toes.

Ever since traveling to Costa Rica, I have observed something else aside from my growing delusions of vertigo. I can feel the vibration of the train approaching the platform from several miles away, as if I am a howler monkey’s opposite, one who keeps quiet and only listens for desire alone. I can hear my husband’s footsteps on the sidewalk here inside my apartment while he is yet blocks away, coming home from work. I can hear the approach of people and trains by feel alone, as the deaf know music, with their hands pressed to the walls and floorboards, nodding to the rhythm as waves of sound shake the room.

I hear no more than anyone else, I’m sure, only at a farther distance. It lends me no advantage.

Because I have never crossed a bridge that I didn’t want to recross as soon as I got to the end, have you? Just for the fun of trying to make it swing on its truss and become a pendulum. Some people, I know, have other places to go—life must continue from one point to the next if you’re making progress—but I have never crossed a bridge for anything other than the pure pleasure of it.

In my mother’s last month of life, I drove her to a covered bridge festival, a festival only because there were so many bridges over so many small rivers to wait in line to cross and hope you made it over without drowning, because they were wobbly, let me tell you. Only as soon as we drove over the first, we were sure it wobbled too much to broach any more. And my mother had always had a fear of bridges, so what the hell were we doing here? I may have suggested it because I wanted to die with her.

Any bridge, by definition, raises this one question: Is passing over a body of water better than diving inside it? Meaning, might we not be missing something by not swimming across instead?

I think so. I think so. No, I am certain.

Because not all bridges are swinging ones, making us feel the movement of the planet beneath the feet which grasshoppers find so buoyant. Which is not to say I still don’t make use of bridges when I need them, to get someplace faster than I would otherwise. Though whenever I do hurry, speeding so I lose my breath, I find myself growing firmer, less supple than I was before I crossed it.

A week before I went to the dentist, I had my annual pap smear with my gynecologist, when she also felt my breasts for lumps of cancer. She said my breast tissue felt remarkably soft and spongy, so that if I ever had a tumor I would be sure to know it. Which was another way of saying, I thought, they were bridges just on the point of collapse, swinging bridges that never did stay still to begin with. That until I died of cancer the grasshoppers might hop onto my breasts as well to have someplace soft to rest.

How can any doctor—dentist or gynecologist or any other—examine me, though, without seeing the primary disease at hand? That of crossing from one side of a bridge to another without moving forward. Why does she do this, you ask? Weakening a bridge saggy and swinging as it is? Looking for love, I suppose, in a world without her mother. Because no one will ever replace her.

She died from breast cancer metastasized to the bone, to the point that she couldn’t move her neck to look down or side to side or even sit comfortably without more morphine injections, to the point she became addicted. And so as we drove across the one covered bridge at the festival feeling ready to give into the river running beneath our tires, she stared straight ahead, into the landscape eclipsed by the bridge. When I wished to God we could have gone swimming instead.

Because the ports in her arm for the chemo kept her from even taking a bath. She had to wash herself with only a cloth. And since that time I have admittedly tried to drown myself in the tub, when my lungs still keep inflating themselves. There is nothing to do except breathe here, I tell them, so let’s shut things down. Only they are like grasshoppers caught within my ribs, unable to sit still however much I might want to arrest them.

A cement bridge straddled an arroyo that would flood regularly in the home in which I came of age in southern Indiana. There was no way to move it, to make the cement swing, yet for a while I often did jump off of it, only five feet into the watery grasses thronged with snakes, frogs, and what I knew even then to be grasshoppers as industrious as they need be below it. I leapt far enough to bruise and scrape my needs if do little more damage. The jump felt just high enough to feel I was flying for a moment. And then in summertime, the water felt so cool, though it was never deep enough to swim in, even if I had cared far more frogs than I happened to do then. More mud and silt than river at most times of year, it turned my skin a different color, so that I looked camouflaged to raid the jungle. Before entering the house, however, I sprayed myself off with a hose as best I could manage, when my mother would spot some patches of mud left over and rub them with a washcloth she would later use to bathe.

Though most grasshoppers spend the majority of their time jumping as high and far as they please when they’re not singing, they can fly when they want to, let’s not keep forgetting. Higher and faster than you might think with wings strong as those of birds. So it only makes sense for me to look for them in the horizon rather than down at my boots, where they keep gathering. And I can hear a train yet miles away without hearing anything except feeling the rumble beneath my feet. I can feel this world is swinging sitting in this chair of mine and feel dizzy still when I close my eyes. I can let the ants build the houses and shut me out of them forever.

About the Author: Melissa Wiley is a freelance writer living in Chicago. Her narrative nonfiction has appeared in literary magazines including [PANK], Prick of the Spindle, Gravel, Eclectica Magazine, Gone Lawn, Tin House Open Bar, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Split Lip Magazine, Menacing Hedge, Beetroot Journal, Specter, Lowestoft Chronicle, Midway Journal, Pithead Chapel, Great Lakes Review, and pioneertown. She also serves as assistant editor for Sundog Lit.