On the American Side | Dana Jerman

In mid-fall of the year 2003, my then-boyfriend, Kent, and I go to Niagara Falls to try, for closure’s sake, to pinpoint the place where his father jumped in.

September of the year before, his dad got into the family mini-van, starting it with a key attached to a “Jesus Loves Me” keychain, and drove away from his home in Buffalo, New York. Putting down the garage door so his wife wouldn’t know right away that he had left, and pulling through some mid-day traffic to this pre-meditated site.

Yes, unfortunately, he had attempted this very thing a month or so prior. But he  couldn’t bring himself to get out of the car.

Therapy afterward unsuccessful. His hyper-allergic germophobe, obsessive-compulsive wife unhelpful at best.

But it wasn’t her fault.

A smart man comes to this all on his own. It’s hard to dissect the nature of self-destruction or depression, and you might disagree with me here, but perhaps suicide is something some people just have to do.

Success this time meant leaving his family without benefits from a life insurance policy–taken out just under two years prior. There was a clause. If the family did try to fight, it was easily contested by lawyers.

This is the first time Kent has been to the Falls since. The sheer speculation behind his eyes makes them grow darker than they already are. Hot chocolate- brown spiraling into an abysmal jet black.

Kent is a man as complex as the Falls. He is a teacher, like his father. With expertise extending across several scientific disciplines. Physics, most specifically.

He has much faith however, and seeks sympathy, but not pity. Compact and strong, he is a Yosemite-caliber rock climber, and I’ve learned much about not only the sport but about trust and communication from him in the short months we have been together. Soon, we will go on a cross-country climbing trip, and the edges of his particular depressions will become more clear.

The Falls hold a special set of memories for me. I have been Canadian side, several times before on the way to Stoney Lake, Ontario, for week-long family trips every summer from the time I was nine until about my twenty-first year. They were classic cabin-residence getaways featuring cliff diving, lake swimming, fishing, more fishing, fish frys, mosquito bites, Labatt Blue, and everything in between.

But that’s another tale; for at this moment, I am twenty-three. This is my first visit to the American side of the Falls–and it is beautiful. Despite the ache I can feel radiating from Kent, the air is crisp, steamy, wet and sparkling. A foggy champagne-grey in the late afternoon.

The common areas around which railings are put are not built with death wishes in mind. Easily mounted, they are placed what seems to be very close to the Falls, as compared to the Canadian side. After all, the Falls are, for a little over twenty victims each year, a final destination.

Kent’s father didn’t die from the leap. Instead, under the constant churning of the torrential current, he drowned. Discovered approximately one week later on the Canadian side.

A friend of the family identified the body, which was then cremated and passed from the hand of one undertaker to another across the Peace Bridge, a 5,800 foot-long structure which spans the U.S.-Canada border, along which the Falls directly lay.

That two people came together to exchange the remains of another is something truly heartbreaking. I have no real facts of this other than it happened, so I play with the scene in my mind: two men dressed in grey suits go out to meet the equally grey day. Remains in a gold urn are passed. Cars zoom by, the flags of two countries wave mid-span, gulls swoop overhead. A day like today.

Maybe these men lived in Buffalo, in Ontario, respectively, all their lives. Maybe they had been here, or had taken their families, and maybe, more than once, out onto the Maid of the Mist legendary boat tour of the Falls, wherein everyone’s idea of fun includes wearing big, gaudy yellow rain slickers and hats and still getting soaked through to their skin.

Maybe, since days like this are all part of the job, they never gave it a second thought. This duty they had most likely done many times before.

Near the memorial of Nicola Tesla–our father of modern electricity, here depicted as a large figure, seated, studiously examining papers open in his bronzed lap–maple and oak leaves, orange and red from trees close and barren, litter our every path, and rot exquisitely. The cool musk seasons and completes this very real tableau of sadness.

We walk over to a lookout area. A few sets of coin-operated stationary binoculars stand, looking as expectant as bionic parking meters. It is off to the left side of these that we spot a break in the flimsy railing, where you can practically touch the curved careen of water before it disintegrates against nothingness. The gush pulverized into a puffy cloud.

My boyfriend stands and looks for a long time at this space, and I look at him.

We do not break an engulfing silence that says: Here. Right here.

We turn away. It is drizzling now. Small groups mill about in dark raincoats. Kent and I contrast brightly from the folk around us. His jacket a cardinal red, mine blue jay-blue. A couple speaks French to one another and I imagine my oh-so-unsophisticated self in a scene in a foreign movie.

A couple approaches and asks me to take a photo of them. They see that I have a camera too, and they offer, so we pose with the loud and persistent Falls rush in the background.

When the picture comes out after the roll is developed, our hands are in our pockets. We are not touching or even really turned toward each other.

I see myself–smiling stupidly with my hood back. His hood is up. His smile…? Fazed lips not sure even of their grimace. Eyes lurking steadily from their perch in his head like two dark birds searching for the right place to fly! To strike! To demolish! Any and all destructive waves of emotion. Emotions whose complexities include: Seeing so much, too much sometimes, of his father in himself. Confronting strange guilt compounded from a strict Catholic upbringing.

The conflicts of desire too. He is twenty-eight, I am his first steady girlfriend, and he has given his virginity to me. This solidifies in his mind, not yet to my knowledge, the notion that I will agree to be his wife.

The realization that he is no longer the certain kind of stronghold for purity and beacon for truth he thought himself to be is at once articulated into my camera. Captured then on the visual object of a 35-millimeter film still, we are poor young flesh beside the glint of a constant vapor-rainbow, the riot of the damp autumn leaves, and the translucent edge of the now-silent waters behind us, and below.


Born in the dawn of a western Pennsylvania spring to a secretary and a salesman, Dana Jerman has been published also this year in thePoiesis Review and Eclectica Magazine.

She considers herself to be a strictly short form writer, who has self-published the chapbook Briefly, The Heart, and A Sequel To Your Diary- a ‘zine.

Visit her blog, updated once a month, for more writing and photography/collage: Blastfortune.blogspot.com.

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