Narrated from the limited-omniscient perspective of an unnamed third-person narrator, “On the Bridge” opens with Seth Dawson, the story’s adolescent protagonist, standing on a stone bridge. Seth is smoking a cigarette with his friend, Adam Lockwood. The boys look over traffic passing beneath the bridge.
Adam tells Seth he “beat the crap” out of a guy at the mall the day before. When Seth asks why, Adam shrugs and says the guy was a high-school senior who was bigger and thought he could take Adam, but Adam doesn’t let anyone push him around. Adam says he probably broke the guy’s nose but couldn’t hang around because the pizza place owner called the cops, and Adam is already in trouble with the police. Seth asks what for, and Adam says the police just don’t like him, adding, “You know how it is.”
Seth nods, unable to admit that he does not know how it is. Seth reflects that it is pretty cool to have the cops not like you, while Seth is sure the cops don’t even know who he is. During their conversation, Seth smokes the cigarette—his first ever—in a way where he holds the smoke in his mouth but doesn’t inhale. Seth observes Adam blowing smoke out his nose as he leans against the stone wall of the bridge in his leather jacket.
The boys look at the highway below them. The narrator comments that it is a warm spring afternoon. Instead of taking the bus after school, Seth and Adam walked to the diner, where Adam showed Seth how to feed quarters into the cigarette machine for a pack of Marlboros. Seth was nervous but Adam assured him they could say they were picking the cigarettes up for one of their mothers if the diner owner caught them.
The pack of Marlboros sticks out of Seth’s new denim jacket. The narrator explains that Seth tried to make the jacket look old and worn by ripping off the sleeves and running it through the washing machine “a hundred times.”
Now the jacket looks new and worn, but Seth wears it anyway, feeling like a fraud; like a kid trying to imitate a truly cool person. By comparison, Adam’s leather jacket is authentically worn out, ripped and creased and pliant—a jacket that looks like it has been through a hundred fights. Seth has never been in a serious fight.
Another thing about Adam is that he wears the leather jacket to school every day, unlike the kids who keep their cool clothes in their lockers and only wear them at school because their parents won’t let them wear the clothes at home—parents like Seth’s. Seth knows his mother would have a fit if she saw him wearing a sleeveless denim jacket. To hide it, he keeps it in the garage and picks it up on his way out of the house in the morning.
Seth leans forward and feels the cold and smooth granite of the bridge on his fingers. The old bridge is made of granite blocks and stands on heavy stone abutments that cars speed past on the highway below. The narrator comments that newer bridges, made of steel, span larger distances and so their abutments are farther from the road.
A red convertible with two girls in the front seat passes. Adam waves and one of them waves back before the car disappears beneath the bridge. Adam grins at Seth and says maybe the girls will take the exit ramp and come back. The thought of it make Seth nervous. He mentions that the girls are old enough to drive.
Adam acts nonchalant and says he goes out with older girls all the time. He blows smoke out his nose again and Seth thinks he would like to try doing the same, although he is afraid he might cough or do something equally uncool.
By opening “On the Bridge” with a line of dialogue from Adam—“I beat the crap out of this guy at the mall yesterday”—Strasser immediately introduces the reader to Adam’s boastfulness and casual relationship to violence. However, once it becomes clear that Adam is a compulsive liar, the reader understands that the opening line actually establishes the story’s thematic preoccupation with dishonesty and masculine insecurity.
Seth, having yet to realize Adam lies out of habit, takes Adam at his word, listening in amazement as Adam embellishes his story further by implying that he is known to the police. Seth naively assumes Adam must be telling the truth, and reflects on how “cool” it is to be in trouble with the police, as Seth himself has never broken the law. Despite his ability to trick Seth, Adam’s pathological lying is on full display as he embellishes the story with extraneous detail while simultaneously cutting off Seth’s questioning by suggesting Seth knows “how it is.” With this addition, Adam effectively pressures Seth to lie himself because he knows Seth will want to save face.
The opening paragraphs of the story also see Strasser introducing the major themes of social belonging and authenticity. Because Seth sees it as a privilege to hang around a guy as cool as Adam, Adam is able to exploit Seth’s need for social belonging by encouraging Seth to buy cigarettes from the vending machine at the diner despite the boys being underaged. Adam’s dishonesty is also on display in this moment: while Adam acts as though he is teaching Seth how to buy cigarettes, readers who have picked up on Adam’s propensity for lying and his insecurity are aware that Adam is making Seth buy the cigarettes because Adam is too afraid to buy them himself.
Pursuing the themes of social belonging and authenticity, Strasser details how Seth tries to emulate Adam’s casual attitude toward smoking despite Seth’s inexperience. Too afraid to inhale for fear of revealing his novice lungs, Seth holds the smoke in his mouth before blowing it out; meanwhile, Seth envies Adam’s ability to appear authentic as he smokes, blowing the smoke out through his nostrils.
Strasser also explores the themes of dishonesty, authenticity, and social belonging through his comparison of the boys’ jackets. While Adam’s leather jacket looks authentically worn-in, the once-rigid material full of creases, Seth’s denim jacket appears new even after Seth tries to distress it. Ironically, Seth privately reprimands himself for being fraudulent in his attempts to look as authentically cool as Adam. Seth’s desire for social belonging and preoccupation with his own fraudulence blind him to all the ways in which Adam is dishonest.