“On the Bridge” begins with a bang, with Adam bragging about a fight with an older boy without explicit provocation. In his tale of his own strength, rebellion, and outsider status, Adam asserts a shallow understanding of masculinity. It is a teenager’s superficial vision of male adulthood, and Adam maintains that vision throughout the story, without question. By contrast, his sidekick, the story’s protagonist Seth, wrestles with that vision. He is tempted by it, yet he finally determines that Adam’s view is false and toxic. It is not the path to adulthood.

The story’s lengthy exposition provides a view of the two characters and the conflict Seth faces. The boys are close in age, but they have an unequal friendship. Seth admires Adam for his cool and masculine image. Meanwhile, Adam enjoys Seth’s sycophantic attention and behaves as his mentor. But everything in their relationship is about Adam. Seth mimics Adam, trying cigarettes and copying his style. He probes Adam for details about his exploits, as if they might offer guidelines for his own behavior. Adam, in turn, maintains dominance by providing vague answers and suggesting that the traits Seth seeks may be innate, qualities that cannot be learned or taught.

Adam’s toxic ideas—shallow, grounded in appearances, and predicated on risk—surface in his behavior. His claim to have beaten up a bigger, older boy shows that he associates strength and violence with manhood. He acts “cool” by adopting an emotionless and callous posture that places him above others. He wears a leather jacket and smokes cigarettes, symbolic stereotypes popularized in characterizations by such actors as James Dean and Marlon Brando. He demeans women, claiming them as sexual conquests after he gets a girl to wave at him. And he seeks bonds with manly men, as revealed when he gets a truck driver to blare his horn. His masculine self-image surfaces in risky and dangerous behaviors. He says he causes trouble for the police, feigns throwing a stone at a car, and flicks his cigarette butt at cars below.

Seth is drawn to Adam, but the narrator hints at truths that will undermine that impulse. Adam is vague about the details of his fight at the mall. He doesn’t say why he is in trouble with the police, only that “they just don’t like [him].” When smoking cigarettes, he appears to hold the smoke in his mouth, but he blows it out his nose without inhaling it. Instead of buying his own cigarettes, he tells Seth how to get them from a machine, putting all the risk on Seth. His leather jacket looks old and worn, but appearances can be deceiving.

Seth dismisses any suspicions and is only concerned with whether Adam will detect the truth about him. He feels inferior since he doesn’t smoke, is not in trouble with the police, and has never been in a fight. He wears a new denim jacket but feels “like a fraud” for tearing off its sleeves and washing it repeatedly to give it a worn appearance. He’s ashamed to have little experience with girls and to lack “the touch that made truckers blow their horns.”

In the story’s inciting incident, Seth feels shocked when Adam scares the woman in the blue sedan. His recklessness could have caused an accident, and Seth becomes nervous that the woman or police might catch them. Adam, on the other hand, belittles Seth’s concerns. Seth, once fearing that Adam might detect the truth about him, begins to question the value of Adam’s perspective. As the rising action unfolds, Seth’s internal struggle works toward its resolution. He feels relief when he has finished his cigarette, noting its awful taste. But as Adam flicks his cigarette butt off the bridge, Seth “begin[s] to wonder just how far Adam would go.”

Seth’s concerns are realized at the story’s climax when he rejects both Adam’s ideas and his own efforts to become something he is not. The consequences of Adam’s recklessness take the form of three bigger, older, angry “guys” from the car hit by the cigarette butt Adam had thrown. The bullies represent the toxic masculinity that Adam has been claiming to possess, and which Seth seeks.

Facing a superior force, Adam cowers. Yet Seth displays remarkable fortitude. He loyally refuses to blame Adam, while Adam has no qualms about betraying Seth. While the bullies may seem to be the story’s antagonists, they are merely a consequence of the behavior of the real antagonist: Adam. As the wrath of the driver comes down fully on Seth, Seth remains silent about Adam’s culpability. When the assailant demands that Seth lick the ash from the windshield, Seth retains his dignity and refuses. Meanwhile, Adam shows his weakness by failing to act.

In the story’s falling action and resolution, the bullies leave Seth bloodied but unbowed. He has witnessed Adam’s disloyalty and cowardice. He has seen through Adam’s lies. And most importantly, he has awakened to the dangers of toxic masculinity. When he tosses away his bloodied jacket, Seth rejects false symbols of manhood. He smiles to himself, despite events, showing newfound self-confidence. Seth, as the story concludes, rejects the tough-guy image, superficial and false, making him stronger and more authentic than Adam could ever be.