It was a normal Friday afternoon, about 3:45.
I was just finishing up my work for the day and had headed off to the restroom for a pitstop before facing the stop-and-go traffic 0n the 101 for my drive home. As I walked back into the office, one of my coworkers ran up to me and told me that a man had fallen or had jumped from the roof of our building. I noticed that her eyes were red.
I looked over and noticed that our 14th floor office windows were lined with my coworkers, all looking down. There was a tense stillness in the office. I went to an open spot and looked down – in spite of knowing what I would see, I went to look. And as I knew he must be, there he was: a young man lay on his back in the corner of the roof of the adjoining building. He was wearing dark olive green pants and sneakers with a slash of white sole, and a dark colored shirt. I couldn’t see his face, but from the way he was dressed and his head of longish wavy black hair, I think he was in his mid-20’s.
As we looked down from our 14th floor windows, he lay there, alone, inside the enormity of what he had done and the now-vacuum where he had existed a mere 2 minutes before. He lay on his back. There was no blood. His legs were straight. His head was slightly turned to the left. He looked as if he had simply lain down to take a nap, with one arm down by his side and the other arm, his right, forming an open “V” with his palm and slightly curled fingers open to the sky. We continued to watch, and one of my coworkers told me that she had seen him fly by her window on his way down.
She kept saying, “I thought it was a bird… I thought it was a bird. Oh my god, I thought it was a bird.”
After about 10 minutes, the commotion began. Firetrucks arrived. The ambulance, the paramedics. Police. Building security. Gawkers from the hotel and restaurant next door. Two paramedics were the first to reach the young man who was lying so still in the corner of the rust-colored roof. Both of them pulled on white latex gloves. One of them reached down to touch the left side of the young man’s neck. The other tore his dark shirt open and began chest compressions.
These weren’t the fake compressions you see on all the doctor shows on TV. These were real. Deep and hard compressions to this young man’s chest that made his stomach ripple. I remember thinking that if he lived, he’d be looking at multiple broken ribs, but that was only a fleeting thought. I was pretty sure he was already dead. Seventeen stories is a very long way to fall.
I watched in a kind of clinical detachment for about 10 minutes. We talked to each other, all very calmly. I don’t remember anything that I said.
And then, the enormity of what I was looking at – the reality of what I was looking at – finally sank in. I was looking at a vacuum where this young man’s life used to be. This was a young man whose life was just… over. It wasn’t even 4:00pm, how could he be dead? I was standing at the window, looking down, and this young man was dead. He was dead. Time had stopped. His eyes would never open again. He would never feel the sunlight on his face or smell brewing coffee. He was dead. He had, I thought, deliberately ended his own life by jumping off the roof of our building on a sunny Friday afternoon in October.
A hard lump began to form in my chest as I continued to think about this young man. Who had he been? Why had he done it? How lonely and angry and desperate and afraid he must have been to have chosen the nuclear option of jumping off a tall building on a sunny fall afternoon over all other options. The lump in my chest grew a little bigger. Who was he? Where was his family? Oh my god, his poor, poor family – his mother didn’t know her son was dead. His father didn’t know. His friends didn’t know. I knew. I knew he was dead, along with all the rest of the people lining the windows of our building, people who had been strangers to this young man, this young man who was now dead. We knew; we all knew that he was dead.
At this point, I had to turn away. I couldn’t be a spectator at this man’s death any more than I already had. I went back to my desk.
And the lump in my chest continued to grow, even as I turned away. Did I know him? Had I perhaps seen him in the building elevator, on his way to work, wrapped in his misery? Had I perhaps noticed him and thought to myself that he was rude and standoffish? I tend to be chatty and gregarious around strangers; I say hello to people in elevators, in stores, in grocery lines, at the gas station, in the hallways…had I tried to say hello to him? Had he answered me back, or just looked away?
The lump grew again, and I could feel the pressure of the tears and the sobs threatening to escape my control. At that point, one of our supervisors came through the office and told us all to clock out and go home. I remember saying to her, “It’s horrible, it’s just horrible!” I could feel the hysteria rising in my throat as she answered me by saying, “Yes, life can be very cruel and unfair.”
She said something like that anyway; I didn’t hear the rest of it. I was too engaged in my struggle to push down and strangle the sobs that were rising in my throat like magma in a volcano, sobs and wails that were trying to escape my mouth; I knew that if I let them go, I would have a complete breakdown there in the office in front of everyone.
I couldn’t let that happen. You don’t cry at the office. That’s the rule. You see, I learned that the hard way: I got fired for crying at the office. That could not happen again. So I forced the sobs back down where they came from, and clamped a psychic hand around my throat. I told myself over and over again, “You can cry when you get home. You can’t cry now. Hold on. Hold it in. You can’t cry now. Wait. Hang on.” I mechanically clocked out. I logged off my computer. I pulled my purse out of my drawer and fumbled for my keys. I walked to the elevator with several of my coworkers. We stared at each other in silence on the ride down. The doors opened and we walked across the lobby to the doors and out into the last Friday afternoon of that young man’s life.
There were people in the restaurant next door, still sitting at their tables with their bread baskets and their drinks. I wondered how they could still sit there so calmly, buttering hot bread and sipping iced tea, with a dead man lying on the roof over their heads. I had to push that thought away too, because the sobs once again threatened to break free of my control.
After what seemed like a long walk, I made it to my car. I exited the parking structure and calmly waited for the light to turn right into the far left lane to go around the fire truck that was parked diagonally across two lanes of the street with lights flashing. Cars behind me honked at each other, and I thought, “How can they do that? A man is dead and they’re honking at each other.”
The next thing I remember happened on the freeway. A woman in a big silver Lexus got on the freeway at Reseda Boulevard. She pulled even with me, and kept going faster and faster instead of falling back and merging into traffic. Finally, she forced me to jam on my brakes or I would have been run into the next lane of traffic. She hit the gas and cut me off just as the merging lane ended.
Suddenly, I was enraged. This stupid bloody selfish moron of a woman had just risked my life so she could get in front of me on a freeway full of traffic. What if I had been distracted or inattentive? I drive a very small car – this woman’s stupidity could have made this sunny Friday afternoon my last. It wasn’t enough that a young man was already dead – this foolish moron of a woman wanted me dead too. As she pulled ahead of me on the freeway, I lost it. I pulled out into the next lane over, caught up to her, tapped the horn, and when she looked at me, I flipped her off and screamed something profane that I don’t remember. Then I sped up and passed her. In my rearview mirror, I saw her take the very next exit.
Maybe I had frightened her. I hope I had. This woman didn’t know just how fleeting and quickly over a life can be on a sunny Friday afternoon in October.
I knew. I knew.
Whoever that young man was, I hope he’s at peace now. Whoever his family is, I wish them strength to get through the sad days to come. And to you, reader, I wish you understanding of just how quickly your life can end, and with that understanding, the hope that you’ll cherish every moment you have left.