It was cold; but not too cold to wear my uniform those days: plaid skirt, fishnets, and Doc Marten boots. Tracy and I hopped into my baby blue Ford Mercury Topaz, lovingly tagged the Skankmobile – not so named after the slang term for sexually promiscuous girls but for the jumpy, walking-in-place dance that we employed to our favorite types of music, ska and punk. With fresh packs of smokes, we started the night exuberant – embarking on an hour-long trip to Washington, D.C. for a club show, intending on meeting up with friends once we arrived. My parents took pictures of Tracy and me close to each other in my living room, our bodies smiley and giddy, hugging each other.
Chain smoking and listening to CDs on a plug-in Walkman, some kind of ska or punk band most likely framed by brass horns and saxophones and grumbly vocals, I drove while Tracy read the directions printed from Mapquest, navigating our path up I295 and then I495 through the night, rambling on in spaces about how excited we were about meeting boys, about the late-night, dark-street glory and mystery of the nation’s capital, of possibly having a drink or two passed to us in secrecy.
And then Tracy yelled loudly that we were about to miss our exit. I swerved into the right lane, not sure that I had already missed it. A screech. Numbness while watching the world from my window. An unconscious body tuck, like I was on fire. A pop.
Our detour, hidden from view on those directions we checked and double checked, and not meant to get us any closer to our destination or around some unwieldy obstacle like traffic or bad weather, was skidding across four lanes of traffic, hitting a roadside guardrail, and flipping back onto the wheels, doing a few twirls and ending up in the median. Memories of which are like amusement park rides that swing you out and then back into center. But I didn’t find center. Air and then the brackish pound of the hood hitting ground. Circling a full 360, then another, like the rock and roller at the town fair of which I was always so fearful. I never liked being fully out of control, off the ground, being thrashed around.
Back across the same four lanes of traffic to the left. Landing in the thin grass median, partly yellowed by drought, between the North and Southbound lanes, windows busted out, the cd Walkman still playing the same old song as if it were on repeat. Or as if nothing had happened.
I wish I could remember that song.
I couldn’t hear anything completely, see anything completely; I could have been in a circus of lights and blurs, animals and people for all I knew.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes, I just need to call my parents.”
Calmly collected, I turned off the engine of the car, released the key from the starter, and reached for my purse and my cellphone in the backseat. Noticed a clump of someone’s hair on the light gray fabric, hardly registering it as my own. I remember panicking, the only thought pursuing my consciousness that we needed to get out of the car before it blew up, like we had just survived a high-speed chase and crash in some as-yet-unnamed action movie. The things your brain registers when trauma surrounds you – I noted in my brain that you’re supposed to run in a zigzag pattern if you’re getting shot at too.
Some man helped us get out of Tracy’s side of the car, since mine was sealed shut, indented, pushed out of its natural space, as if by a giant’s large hands. A strongman.
I remember the night. The cool night. Sitting on grass, fumbling for some understanding of what it meant not to be in the car, singing to songs, moving to our destination. An amorphous ghost form of hip and leg with a hand coming from nowhere, offering me towels to press on my head and knee. Someone said the police are coming, the ambulance. I felt dizzy and a phone was held to my ear, but it felt gooey and wet and something tasted metallic. My phone.
“We’re coming to get you honey.”
The paramedics, all blue coverall and flashlight, strapped me on a board with a neck brace and I heard Tracy saying that everything would be okay. “I’d rather be in an accident with you than anyone else.” I kept apologizing to her; my brain couldn’t move from the immediate. She kept saying, “Honey, it’s going to be okay.”
Finally able to assess myself in the short trip to the hospital, covered in blood in the ambulance, asking about Tracy and where she would be going, I caught a comment that, as the medic put it, “luckily” no other cars were hit and no one else was hurt, which in my state I hadn’t quite considered a possibility separate from myself.
So much movement, lights, screeches, and halts in the emergency room. The cops kept asking if I was drinking, what happened, questions about seatbelts. Was I the driver? They started asking me questions I didn’t know the answer to: What was my address? What was my last name? What time did I think it was?
Throwing up the meatloaf my mother fed us before we left, and apologizing for it nonstop, my body sat concussive and shivering while I endured stitches pinning and pinning and pinning me back together. Voodoo girl getting stitched up. I felt pulling on my scalp, like a tight mask was being peeled over my head from my face. I asked for more blankets even though I had a pile the size of a small mattress heaped upon me. The lights of the ceiling my only skyline, I was pushed into Cat Scans and sat dizzy, being yelled at to stay awake. The doctors were happy to report that I didn’t have a skull fracture or any brain damage. My head swelled. I woke up unable to hear out of my right ear at all, my hair still caked in blood, a hard time hearing.
I changed rooms. I remember having a young boy as a roommate who was moaning all night because he hadn’t had a bowel movement in weeks. That was the proper upgrade from my emergency room cot. My friends flitted in and out of my vision like specters. And my parents. Brian, Tracy, my brother. My mom went on and on about not worrying, about how everything would be okay. About calling the school regarding my scholarship. I might not be able to go back for the semester due to my injuries. About how I was very much lucky to be alive.
I am the only one in my family to walk away from a car accident. The only one to have anything other than a fender bender. It’s not anything anyone has had to deal with – so it wasn’t dealt with. No therapy, no talking about it, just doctor’s visits and medicines and salves for the stitching up of what people are able to deal with realistically, what they are able to see.
Instead, my friends dealt with it with humor. Tracy wrote me cards and letters every day. My new nickname was Ann “Danger is my middle name” Sosnowski. She sent me letters with quotes like, “Hope life is soon ducky, ‘cause right now it’s sucky” with a rubber ducky on the front; or “Heard you’re laid up. I wasn’t listening very well, though, so at first I was really happy for you…” with a picture of a truck on a bed of grass. Everyone commented about how I could have a career as a stunt car driver.
I still keep the key from the car in a box with other memories. Sometimes I see it and I don’t recognize it. I don’t know where it came from, where it should go. But I can’t get rid of it. It represents emotional degradation, it represents a life gap, it’s a doorway to a moment I’ve lost forever.
I earned my driver’s license after only attending classroom lecture for 30 hours and watching videos and taking multiple choice tests: A B B A C. The highlight of the classes was our half-hour break at night, when were more concerned with getting food from Burger King than understanding the proper etiquette of the road. At that time, soon-to-be young drivers were required to only have three driving lessons with a certified driving instructor. On the third, I went straight to the DMV to take my driver’s test with the four-door sedan I had only driven for a few hours. I passed. The next day, my dad bought me the used Ford Mercury Topaz for a little more than $3,000 and I agreed to pay him back in weekly installments from the measly money I was making during the summer working at the craft store. We started a ledger.
In one of the 30 hours of classroom instruction from Nice and Easy Driving School, the instructor stated two facts simultaneously – one of you will have a near fatal car accident in the next year; one of you will have a fatal one. I often wonder who the unlucky one was.
I found this as I’ve been working on my essay about my car accident in 2000. This was written while I was living at Hampden house in the late 2000s. It’s unedited here in this form, but will be pulled into what I’m currently writing. But I wanted to pay homage to it in this early form and introduce it to the world before it goes through a metamorphosis. It’s a snapshot of back then – like a photograph of words. Enjoy.
I am a speed bump in the road. The road holds me. It hugs me. It gives me placement, a base. Once in a while, headlights reflect off of me and into the distance and for a fleeting moment I have a shudder of hope that runs down my spine, makes my gut tingle.
It’s much like I feel when I start writing in my head, staring out at TV hill from the back porch smoking a cigarette or sitting under the front porch watching cars rushing down too fast on the hill that looks more like it belongs in San Francisco than Baltimore.
I’m not impervious. I don’t hurt the cars the ride over me half as much as they injure me and leave their mark. There are tire squeals and drip-dried tar, there’s a few chips in my yellow caution paint from people coming and going too soon. I drop off on the sides like I can’t fill my own space, and it’s a bit notchy. I’m annoying to myself and others.
I stand in my own way and can go nowhere. And once I become too much of an intrusion in everyone’s lives, I’m scraped and replaced… sometimes by a new pseudo-modern stretched speed hump that’s more courteous… sometimes by slow-down strips that are less of an eye sore.
It’s not the life I wanted to live. But I only last for a while. I’m not permanent. But sometimes speed bumps wish to be something more, to grow. Sometimes they do get up and walk away.
Sometimes they find a place that’s more forgiving, a place that lets any good speed bump carry their burden in peace.
And sometimes it rains all night and washes away those marks, like the oceans lap the shore on a beach and I wake up renewed and ready for another round of pummeling.
My father didn’t let me see the pictures, at least not at first. I never knew to ask to see them because I didn’t know they existed. And I don’t remember if I asked for them, or if my father finally decided it was time to show me them. In my memory, the whole exchange was nonchalant – he pulled a photography packet, a familiar envelope from Costco, from the jewelry box slot from his dresser. He walked them into the living room, and handed me the photos. It wasn’t déjà vu, but this exchange was all too familiar – my father and I were amateur photographers, and would often share our newly developed photos with each other in the same way.
But these weren’t just any pictures. They were pictures that would tell me who I was now, what I had become. They were pictures that would tell me some of what happened, would let in the knowing, enough to fit a piece back in, tuck it into my brain in a spot that had lay fallow.
What I didn’t know was easy: I didn’t know what the car looked like or how bad the damage to it. I didn’t know what exactly made my ear drum bust. I didn’t know how many lanes I skidded across before hitting the guard rail. I didn’t know how deep into the median of 495 the car landed. I didn’t know how many times we flipped. I didn’t know who the name of the driver was who came to help Tracy and I before the ambulance came.
I didn’t know how all that action couldn’t have killed someone else.
I remember swirling lights. I remember clawing and crawling myself out of the window of the car as my CD discman still played some punk song like nothing happened. I remember thinking we had to run because the car was going to blow up, like we were in some action movie. I remember shaking.
I asked Tracy to call my parents. There was blood everywhere, according to Tracy and the gentleman who stopped. I remember throwing up meatloaf my mother had made and apologizing for it. I remember being so cold, but covered in a pile of blankets the size of a small mattress. I remember feeling a tug on my head, and a tight pull, and waking up in a hospital bed, with my head wrapped and an ear muff on my right ear. I remember having a hard time hearing.
I remember clarity without remembering.
Perhaps my father saw in my face peace, more than a year later after that January 8, 2000 car accident; he saw that I had moved on, that I seemed mentally and physically ready to remember the way they remembered. What they knew about that night, without being there, from artifacts.
In most of the pictures in the packet, taken at the impound lot for insurance purposes, my brother’s red Suzuki Samurai is parked behind a bumpercar version of my Ford Mercury Topaz, a casualty of a one contestant demolition derby. The baby blue paint is scratched all over, the headlights are angled and falling off, the tires crooked and sideways. The driver’s side roof is indented in to below where my head would have been, to a malicious angle, the second impact point as the car flipped, after it ricocheted off the guardrail after sliding across four lanes. If I had seen it and not known, I wouldn’t have believed someone had survived.
Most of the pictures were body damage photos. If you put them together, you could make a 3D, 360 picture of the wrecked vehicle. It wasn’t as hard as I thought looking at them. While I hadn’t expected the exact outcome of the car’s damage, it didn’t set me off. I didn’t fear their effect on me.
Until, stacked in the back, I turned to the only picture to give me pause, even to this day – a dry bunch of black hair, splayed out like a decorative fan, surrounded by miniscule grains of glass, on the dirty grey-blue of the soft backseats. The track of hair looks alive but lost. Its tendrils reach out to all sides of the car, like it’s trying to get somewhere, but doesn’t know which direction to go.
Each thick strand tells me a story in bunches: a story of a girl whose only survival response after feeling a flipping motion, feeling weightlessness, was to tuck in tight and lower my head as much as possible to the steering wheel. It tells the story of windows that popped and cackled as the pressure imploded in the cabin. It tells the story of an emancipated windshield, flying glass, and the unknown going over my head. It tells the story of the future – that lost life.
I wonder – if hair still grows on the dead, snug in their coffins, does hair still grow if it takes its scalp with it? Is life in those tentacles, a human vine, that grew and grew to find air, to grow up the door, out the windows, to the roof, to show that life still lives there? Is it a totem?
I wonder too – why that picture? Was it taken for me, or did the insurance company receive it? Was this what I was to be told to remember, to grieve for, to understand? Was I manipulated by my hair, screaming at me among the collateral: A floor mat against the back seat, a cassette tape, a bright red plastic sheet, a cigarette, a pack of Dentyne Ice gum.
The lumpy scar I still feel under regrowth on the right side of my head yearns to receive the feather of hair. In small lightning strikes, it
shifts and burns. It too is lost and reaching out for its partner. But it cannot go home – it has made its way back to the earth.
A sacrificial scalping to my Native American ancestors, the ones my aunt saw in her dreams that night, calling my mother, already knowing from Florida, that something had happened.
I see black feathers all the time now, remembering they came from my people, the ones with the headdresses, the man I have dreams of but never see, the one I know who told me to duck.
L walked by my cubicle and over to A’s.
“What are you doing with that big ‘ole water bottle? Shakin’ it up?”
“What are you talking about L? I’m working…”
I continued to ignore this exchange, just like I normally do. This kind of bickering, between a young naïve female coworker and my old man-about-town cubicle neighbor happened multiple times a day. This was business as usual.
“No, A. The water in your bottle is shaking.” That’s when I started to feel it. A bit of swaying, and then a pause.
A and I looked at each other from across the aisle. One of us said, “Oh they must still be working on the building.”
It could have been true. For the past few days, organizational structure changes at my employer has materialized into building and seating structure changes. Electricians have been installing new wiring, new cubicle towns have been erected, new offices have been built along the walls. Early this morning, some men were walking on our cubicles, installing new outlet cords through the shock protectors.
After a split second, the shaking accelerated. It felt a bit like I imagined the Gravitron feels at the carnival, even though I haven’t been on that since I was a child. One thing I do remember: I didn’t like it.
“Is this an earthquake!?” A still looked at me with loud eyes. I saw a few employese already gathering outside, heard footsteps which were quickly muffled by more shaking and what sounded like the tractor trailer trucks that would rumble down my old hilly street in Hampden, and then let their air brakes go.
But there were no air brakes. And I found myself halfway under my desk.
The shaking and the rumbling stopped as abruptly as it started. Conversations started sprouting up all over the place. People milled back in from the sidewalks. L stopped by my cube later today and mentioned he thought he peed a little, and all he thought to do was to go outside. Which is interesting: I felt like all I knew to do was to get under my desk, remembering those School Scare films I watched on Something Weird channel on Comcast from the 50s. I saw the shapes boys with books on their heads, adults under school desks, images of bomb shelter logos.
After a half an hour, when the anxious jitters in my hands were nothing but a memory, I started reflecting on the Fight or Flight reflex we have within all of us. I kind of felt proud of myself; getting under something was the right thing to do. The truth is, I was ready to fight. I was willing to stay under my desk, to show whatever this was whose boss. If the one-story building came crashing down, I would have yelled the names of my coworkers, I would have dragged them out of the rubble.
People like L? Trying to save themselves. Which isn’t wrong in the least. Every man for themselves. But the flight reflex may have been extremely dangerous, if our building did sway and the roof flew off.
The only person I didn’t get to speak about the earthquake with today was my coworker J, who sits diagonally across the aisle from me. In true professional fashion, he stayed on his conference call through all of the shaking, and even through the aftermath of rehashing the event by most of our coworkers. He even motioned for us to be quiet when we were making fun of each other’s reaction.
He is, after all, from California. Old hat, I guess.
“Any floating object displaces its own weight of fluid.” – Archimedes
The Harbor tunnel enclosed me, stuffy and thick, viscous with the warming of the waking sun that slowly grazed its feelers over the mouth of the morning commute. Twenty minutes sauntered by, condensed in less consciousness than tasks, as I finally found myself maniacally turning on and off the air conditioner, checking my gas gauge, fiddling with my iPhone by checking my email, logging into my Facebook, and emailing my boss that Yes, I was going to be late. Again.
We were going nowhere.
On a morning of nothing-out-of-the-ordinary, the pattern of morning coffee; showering and drying off; ironing and packing my lunch; taking the dog out - it all felt as snuggly as an expectation. I was still who I was the night before: a young almost-thirty something compelled to do great things, but still feeling like I hadn’t moved the length of a city block in years.
But sedentary in a tunnel, with cars turning off around me, while I put my own in park, just in eyesight of the visible light of a new day, my panic turned into agitation, turned into uncomfortable shifting. I never knew what to do with myself in tight spaces. If I was this walled in, I’d rather ball up.
This had been my greatest fear in relation to my newest commute: Becoming immobilized in a glorified tube in a vat of harbor water, surrounded by other ton-heavy vehicles that no doubt blocked my path to freedom.
I remembered back to my trip through the Alps in a Kia Sidekick, visiting a friends’ grandparents in the country, outside of Zurich. If the twists and turns of the mountainous roads, illustrative of the monumental and dizzying circles I imagine skateboards speeding down in skate videos, hadn’t scared the shit out of me, it was the 20 mile tunnels through the cavernous rock. Half an hour stuck in a car with no air conditioning, stale
air and sweat surrounding my skin, eventually the story came from our host that months before a tractor trailer had exploded “in a tunnel like this” and killed and hurt a lot of people because they were trapped.
I am trapped and there’s nowhere to go.
When I’m stuck in my head, I can’t seem to find a way out. I come up with great ideas, and I think about execution, but this escape was right in front of me. And I couldn’t reach it. It was like a dream where you know what to do, but you can’t move.
After 45 minutes, we started rolling forward. Slowly to the left. Slowly forward. Slowly together. A symphony of people continuing their day, more concerned with getting out than what made them stay put.
Crunching my Toyota Corolla’s gears forward, I suddenly hear disembodied yelling. Not sure where it is coming from, I think, but I hope it’s not someone who’s hurt. I hear, “Come on!” and I see a cop in the middle of the two-lane highway, standing under the awning of the tunnel, waving
violently to all of us to, “Keep moving… keep moving!”
Keep swimming, keep swimming.
Suddenly, I find myself going 70 past a cop, and even faster, even faster still, hit by heat, hit by hot, and then cool again, and stunned.
This was the second day in weeks I had driven past a car fire. The first was on a quick interstate change, where the secondary tunnel road races past I95, and loops back around to it. At the juncture of both roads, at about the same time in the morning, the front of a work van was painted metallic orange and smoky gray in fire, the entire hood and front seat enthralled by the life given to it, waking up and reaching to the sky.
I hurried past that day, my heart booming in my heart, whispering erratically to myself until I was clear of it, “Please don’t blow up… please
don’t blow up.”
These are the freak accidents people die from, plastered over the Baltimore Sun breaking news section, followed by interviews with persons who knew the innocent driver, of people claiming that it was a really big shame, she sure had a bright future ahead of her.
Young Woman Fatally Injured, Struck Guardrail After Vehicle Impaired by Flaming Work Truck.
This second truck fire was violent. The heat caught my body, bounced in my veins. Black radiation, the story of gods, danced on my skin like lightning, penetrating my car window, jump starting my day. It was a better high than coffee.
This excess energy caught me in my thin zone. Having survived for months on been-there done-that, on same-old same-old, I found oxygen, I
found visibility, I found excess energy.
I fed off of the energy of the cars behind me, the tar of the road, the lines leading me to fire, alive.
I remembered the argument and the stillness that it brought upon us. On the silence that settled on our heads and tired us to sleep. On the
constant repetition of themes like attention and depression and reliability. I hungered and angered on toward work. I sipped my now-cold coffee, holding it under my tongue, warming it with my nothing-new mentality and making it float to the top of my lip. And I sipped. And I sipped.
Pushing through my skin, the cold shook and settled again. I felt the word independence slip from my tongue to my windshield, but I held on to it, and recovered, opposing its weight. Struggling with it above the waves.
I hold it in the smoke, not deep enough to catch fire, but enough to see its face. To identify its worth. To float with it in silence, until life springs before me, until I notice it for its worth.