Not long ago, late on a Monday afternoon, a man with a camera clambered onto the railing of Lions Gate Bridge in Vancouver in order to get a clear view of the sunset he wanted to take a picture of, and, on stretching his upper body toward the scene that attracted him so powerfully, pitched over the side of the bridge and plummeted sixty metres into the ocean below. What happened to the camera has not been recorded, but the falling man, during the few moments of his descent (which he would later calculate to have been about 2.5 seconds), was spotted by two lifeguards in an inflatable dinghy who were patrolling Third Beach, a swimming area about a mile along the shore from Lions Gate Bridge. The lifeguards had to have been ignoring the sunset, in fact they must have been looking precisely in the opposite direction, in order to have seen the falling man, whom they presumed to be a suicide, at the instant of his fall, and then the insignificant splash as he slipped beneath the sea. When they got up to the spot (at full throttle), the man (the “jumper” as the lifeguards were already referring to him) had come to the surface and was thrashing around trying to keep his head above water. The lifeguards hauled him into the dinghy and, according to the news report, asked him “if he knew what his name was,” a question designed in lifeguard class to steady a disordered mind, and which the nearly drowned man, whose name was withheld from news reports, apparently answered to their satisfaction.
The nearly drowned man felt later that his life had changed in the moment of his fall from Lions Gate Bridge, although he could never express the nature of the change “in words,” as he put it; instead he traded in his SUV for a nondescript but reliable two-door sedan and began taking long drives into the Interior on his weekends off from employment in an activity that he once had considered to be a vocation, but knew now to be merely a job; in this way he became familiar with the Pemberton Valley and the Duffy Lake road, home of a canyon-dwelling people who had been wholly outside of his consciousness until now. (He found it obscurely satisfying to drive to Lillooet and into the Interior without having to cross Boundary Road.) He put off getting married, and wondered if he might remain single for the rest of his life. He relives the fall from the bridge frequently; indeed, that moment continues in him in all subsequent moments, and whenever he hears the phrase “Lions Gate,” he feels again the sudden lurch in his belly, the flutter that told him he was going over, and then he begins “floating rapidly downward,” as he often thinks of it. On a Saturday in Penticton, a city in the Interior, in a second-hand store, he found an old book entitled Lions Gate, containing verses by Lily Alice LeFevre (née Cooke), “poet, hostess, philanthropist,” published in 1895 , about fifty years before the building of Lions Gate Bridge, and republished, as the dust jacket (slightly chipped, but intact) told him, in the year of the Vancouver Jubilee, an event commemorated (he later learned) by the purchase of Jubilee Fountain in Lost Lagoon, a grand structure capable of displaying an “infinite array of electric light,” left over from the Chicago World’s Fair and acquired by the city for $25,000 plus freight. Ms. LeFevre, whose “loveliest verses” were said at the time to have been “about Vancouver,” organized the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire for the coronation of Edward VII, and is remembered as a founder of the Canadian Authors’ Association, by now a venerable if not august body whose headquarters are in Campbellford, Ontario, and whose honorary president is a commander. These were some of the facts that the nearly drowned man, who was never named in accounts of his miraculous survival, picked up as he looked in a desultory way into books of local history, a habit he acquired only after coming across the volume by Ms. LeFevre in the second-hand store in Penticton, and which he had failed to purchase, a decision he would question without regret in subsequent years.
He became a man aware of the danger of sunsets. Early one evening (on a Monday, he seems to remember, although he attaches no significance to it) he went to Prospect Point to observe from a distance the spot on the walkway of Lions Gate Bridge from which he had fallen, and when he had stared long enough through the pay-for-view telescope for the shutter to eclipse fully a scene that only he knew how to read, he noticed that the sun was setting in its usual fiery manner (it being summer) in the west, and as he stepped back a rush of people in light cotton clothing and sunglasses pressed around him and up against the barrier. They pointed their cameras directly into the sun. He turned away in revulsion as a child, crushed against the barrier by the weight of the crowd, began to scream, and he read the slogan engraved on a low plastic board: “Use a regular to wide angle lens and make sure subject is in focus.” Much later in life, while browsing through a navigational handbook in an antiquarian bookstore on Kingsway, he found a formula for calculating the distance to the horizon from a height above the sea, and from what he knew of the height of the pedestrian walkway on Lions Gate Bridge, determined that the horizon toward which he had extended his camera, and behind which the ruddy disk of the sun had appeared to be sinking as if into a sea of blood, had been 4.6 leagues away, the equivalent of twelve nautical miles, and that the advantage to be gained by leaning out to get a better picture would be infinitesimal, “to say the least,” as he put it to himself, and furthermore, sunsets without foregrounds (as he would come to understand over the years) make the most trivial of photographs.
Little more is known of the nearly drowned man whose life had changed in an instant; although he gave up the practice of photography, he developed an interest in photographs taken by other people. One day in a book called Reading Photography, which he found in MacLeod’s Books on Pender Street, he came across a photograph of a woman caught in the act of suicide. She has been frozen in mid-air; her legs are scissored apart and her skirt has furled up around her waist. One arm extends past her head, as if in repose, and the other reaches palm outward toward the camera, as if to guard her privacy. She appears to be motionless, almost in repose, and the glimpse of her last moment seems to the undrowned man to be a violation of a rule defining that which should always remain hidden. A mere twenty feet or so separates her from the pavement below, in front of the hotel from one of the windows of which (out of frame) she must have leapt. In the doorway of the hotel a policeman has turned around to prevent someone from coming through the door; through the café window next to the door of the hotel two men look out past the neon sign (“sandwiches 10 cents”); in an instant they will see her float past them and disappear: now for the first time the undrowned man wonders what the lifeguards must have seen when they saw him descend from the sky. Was his mouth open or closed, he wants to ask, but there is no one to answer him.