It was just a few minutes past 10:00 PM on Tuesday, March 2, 2010. I was driving down the 91 west, back from a boring day at work. I was listening to the radio show, "This American Life," episode #81 entitled, "Guns." In it, a man was describing his near-death experience of being shot, several times, at point-blank range.
An ambient music interlude had just taken over the vocals and then, out of the darkness, a red car appeared, completely still and unmoving. I brake hard, but not hard enough, not fast enough, and I crush its trunk with a terrible clang of metal and glass. The glove compartment explodes outward at me as the airbag seems to form from nothing.
Thought: God damn it, no.
In the very next moment, my car is a terrible, monstrous wreck and there is smoke everywhere. I hit my warning lights and turn off the engine. I can almost taste the fumes. I can certainly feel them burn. The airbag is now deflated over my steering wheel. I curse, I panic, and I look out my mirrors to make sure no cars are coming. I shamble out of the car in my shattered state.
The driver I hit seems to be okay. He's outside of his car, too, and I just see the glitter of scattered glass across lane 1 of the freeway. I know my next move. I am an adult. I call the police, get a police report, we exchange info, I call home, this is how it works. I pat down my pockets and find that I don't have my phone.
I remember: It's in the glove compartment. I don't bring it with me into the store anymore, to resist the temptation of answering it on the job. I open my door, lean inside, post my knee on the driver seat and reach for the glove compartment.
The car is hit again, and I feel a thunder pass through me.
Thought: This is death.
My body bounces around in the vehicle, like the tiny pea inside of spray paint cans. There is always a second hit when it comes to freeway accidents, and I forgot this. My car enclosure spins, there is noise and cacophony, there is exploding glass and a blurry world. I am now facing the center divider of the busy freeway, taking up the carpool lane, and there is still more smoke. Tiny stars of glass cover the inside, and my interior is no longer recognizable.
I curse, feel my torso to make sure I have not been impaled or worse. I find pain, burning stinging pain, all over. But overall, I am whole and mobile and feeling. It is a wonder that the second hit didn't do worse. I am crouched on my driver's seat, trying to find a way out. I try the door: it doesn't open. The passenger door is twisted, indented metal and I don't bother. I consider the window, which has been busted open, but my driver side door works with a little more force. I crawl out, checking my torso again.
We are an unhappy three-car accident, now. The third car, the unknowing perpetrator of the second hit, he gets out of his car and stands next to me. We look at each other in our breathless stupefaction. We try to explain to each other, not in defense, but because we just needed to hear our voices, to have a witness to our miracle. We don't really listen to each other, just telling each other what happened, at each other.
I find the first driver.
"What happened?" I ask, with an exasperated breath.
"My car just died on me."
"Right in the middle of the freeway."
I peer into the wreck that was my car, my transportation, a staple of my life. I reach in through the glass-less window, into the wreck where my glove compartment was. I save my insurance card, my iPod, my manual. The rest I toss onto the floor; a set of playing cards, an old mini trophy, unreadable papers. I need my phone; I need contact with familiar people, some direction. I don't find it.
A man in a neon vest is here. I realize he's not part of the accident, just a bystander that stopped to help. He takes a video of the damage, and asks if I wanted a copy for insurance purposes. I give him my e-mail, and I borrow his phone and call home. No one picks up. I leave an urgent message.
It is not long before a fire truck has come, and a firewoman is here to ask if anyone's hurt.
"I'm fine, I just feel cuts everywhere."
"Does anything hurt?" she asks.
I take a step out of my body and evaluate myself. My back is sore. But then again, there was a lot of lifting at work. My left leg, in particular, hurts. Unsurprising. But enough to warrant a trip to the hospital?
"Can I wait for my family to get here?"
"By then we'll be gone, but they can take you to the emergency room if you decide to by then. The ambulance is almost here. I'll give you a minute to think about it."
A fireman approaches me minutes later, asking the same questions. I think of freak accidents I've heard of, of people seemingly okay only to drop dead moments later. I didn't want to be a cautionary tale. I think about being a ghost story told to scare children.
Thought: Fuck it. I have health insurance for this reason.
"Yeah, I think ... I think I'll go."
"Where does it hurt?"
I tell him my back is sore. Somehow that translates to neck and back, and they put me in a neck brace, onto a hard board and load me onto a stretcher. I see the sky: Black, pristine, enormous. The driver of the 3rd car, the one who rocked me with the second hit, decides to go to the hospital too. He gets to sit in the ambulance, though. I overhear from the police report that he's 58. I tell them I'm 22. They ask me my age, my birthdate several times to see if I have all my bearings.
I answer them. Something in my throat makes my voice shake. The epinephrine rushing my veins makes my fingers tremble. They ask for my ID, I pull out my wallet and give it to them. They give both back and leave it on my belly. I clutch it as they strap me down and stare at the sky. I can't see anyone's face. They begin to wheel me smoothly to the ambulance, and it is like lying in a gently rowing boat.
Thought: I have to remember this. I have to know this for writing.
When I am inside the ambulance, I stare at a little box in the ceiling that reads, "OXYGEN." There is a little hole where, I presume, you attach a tube to get said oxygen. I stare at it, because I don't want to close my eyes.
The third driver sits on the bench, at my feet. His accent is thick, Latin. He is concerned about his chest pain from the pull of the seatbelt. I know what he means.
The last significant car collision I experienced was as a passenger in a 9-seater van. In the swerve and smoke, I felt nothing, no fear, no adrenaline, just confidence in my survival, or, at least, satisfaction with my existence thus far. This was the complete opposite. I was awake, in the world, aware not only of my fragile hell, but also of my incredible fortune. It's the second hit that blew my mind, the one that, by all logic, should have left me in pieces. A side impact, improperly seated, partially outside of an open door - it was madness.
The drive seems short, but I would later find out that my perception of time has been accelerated. The whole ordeal, I would have estimated, was an hour at most. It turns out I had been alone in that hospital for two hours.
They wheeled me in through some small door and placed me underneath a flat screen TV. I listen to the nurses around me, partaking in their conversation. A far cry from ER, or even Scrubs. I mostly remember it for being small and an aged yellow.
"What do you have here?" asks a hospital staffer to the EMT wheeling me in.
"Car accident," he says.
"Are they together?" she asks, gesturing to the other driver.
"Yeah. Same accident, different vehicles."
I am wheeled into the very next door and placed against the wall. I feel utterly still in my straps and examine where the pain is coming from. A nurse comes; she has black, curly hair and a naturally upbeat attitude. She reminds me of a character from Grey's Anatomy, even though I have never watched an episode of that show. She checks my blood pressure, my mental abilities, my information.
Thought: Don't close your eyes, not even for a minute.
I describe my pain, where the soreness is coming from. When I say my leg, particularly my shin, hurts, she pulls up a pant leg and tells me there's an abrasion, whatever that is. They don't say cuts or scrapes in hospitals. A girl my age in a black hoodie takes notes on a paper pad as the nurse describes my injury. It is then that I learn there are cuts on my face, too.
The nurse leaves after deciding it is safe enough to remove my neck brace and get me off the hard board. She leaves to attend to some thing or another. I am clutching my wallet, a card for the police report, my library card that had fallen out, and my ID. The EMT hands me a piece of paper for the nurse. I feel like the little plastic desk organizers that we sell at my work.
I get a hospital bracelet. It is white, glossy, plain Arial font and bar-coded. It also reminds me of work, this time the price tags I stare at all day. I realize work is a dumb thing to think about, but maybe it's for the distraction. I lift my heavy head, which sloshes around in daze, and I examine my shin cut. I see only blood, but cannot move much more due to the muscle pain.
It feels like the morning after a hard work out. It feels like losing a fight.
I notice they wrote on the paper bed sheet notes about my pain in dark lead. For the most part, they are indecipherable doctor-scribbles. I make out the word, "Pain" and an arrow pointing to my lower back. Something incomprehensible is written by my leg.
My fingers are still trembling, still clasping, and I am still living in the ceiling world. At least I have this softer bed. I can't help but think about that second, treacherous hit. I think about my family, I think about friends. Moisture swells in my eyes, but not only for me, but for the very fact that this happens every day and many are not as lucky as I. Not everyone gets to limp away from that, and for some reason picturing this happening but with far worse results tore me up.
This was just A Crash, and thinking of this, this game changing event of my life thus far, as just anything was horrifying. It was existential dread, empathy for others, and awareness of mortality all wrapped into one.
I think about trying to accommodate for my post-crash future. I would have to call-in tomorrow and explain. Those are unpaid days. I would have to get a new car, and that's money down the drain. I worry about how I'm going to see my friends this weekend without a car.
I wonder if this might just be another bad dream. I had similar life experiences in my sleep, and the moment I start to consider the possibility that this is all a dream, I usually wake up. Nothing happens. I don't start to feel my body in my bed, my mind doesn't open up. I am still on this stretcher. I start to wish for the mundane, sedentary boringness of the everyday. I eagerly anticipate reading in bed, or clicking a mouse, or just sitting outside. I keep remembering the accident, and it's a memory I don't want to have.
But I know that I'm here and that works too.
The nurse comes back.
"Do I get to make a phone call?"
"Well, it's kinda like prison, except you get to make as many phone calls as you want!"
She continues like that the whole hour I'm lying in wait, strapped and shaking and confused. It wasn't offensive or enraging, simply alien. I lay restricted, post-trauma, post-life-or-death scenario, trembling and existential and reevaluating life choices. And she's giving me the rehearsed enthusiastic humor that I normally give to customers looking at ink cartridges.
No less than five different staffers come see me, each with different tasks. Some run a test or two, some have me sign things. As I sign a paper that allows them to treat me, I notice a glint in my palm. Against the light bulbs in the ceiling, I see a tiny fiber of glass sticking out of my hand. I finish signing the paper and pick at it. It's no bigger than a splinter, almost inconspicuous. I pluck it out. It is tough between the pinch of my fingernails. I wonder how many microscopic shards are embedded within me.
It is strange to be in a hospital, alone. Although professionals are mending you, in your own mind, you are looking after yourself. The forms, responsibilities, emotional support all come from your own person. You are your own shoulder, your own held hand.
Thought: I am an adult.
A guy named Lee wheels me to the X-Ray room, where they check my back and leg. It is a huge, hulking, beige machine on ceiling tracks. I have difficulty moving into the positions he requires due to the stiffness of my limbs. I note that I can't make my left foot bend upright in a 90 degree angle as I lie down, as it just won't bend all the way. Later I learn this is a light sprain, the worst of my meager injuries.
I am wheeled back to my familiar spot and listen to the ambience of conversation amongst the nurses. "Trust me, if someone were to kidnap me, I'd be kicked right out of the car in a few minutes." The other nurses laugh, for they have context.
I wish for a paper pad, or just someone to talk to. It's a small room where my stretcher rests against a wall. A curtain is drawn, hiding a bed, but I know there is an old person and a baby in there, because the nurse is making baby noises. She calls the baby beautiful, the baby makes beautiful noises back.
I have nothing to do but wait for my phone call and the results of my x-ray. I stir in my mind, in flashbacks of the first and second hit, and the craziness of this universe. I wonder at the absurdity of car accidents, how inescapable they are sometimes, how dangerous it is, and how there must always be a second hit. What are you to do in that instance between hits? How, in your panic, can you ensure that you are best prepared for whatever is probably going to come next? How do you know where is a safe place to stand, where "out of the way" points to?
Thought: I need to make some positive twists to my life story.
My eyes well up for the second time, but I do not let a thing fall. The nurse cleans my wounds with hydrogen peroxide. It increases the sting, and I endure it. She misses a cut that she doesn't see, on my underarm, inside my sleeve. I fail to mention it and the pain passes.
My mother and sister come, to my surprise. I hadn't been able to tell them where I was, that I was even going to the hospital. Their investigative skills were sharp, and my mid-pandemonium voice mail was not in vain.
I relay my tale to them, glad to be able to talk and have company. It is not long before I am signed out. I am surprised to find it past midnight. After a few more forms, a prescription for vicodin, and a relaying of insurance information, I stiffly climb into a wheelchair. I see the baby, lying up in a bed, smiling at an older gentleman who is watching me shamble. He looks back to his child and loved one.
I can barely sit up without wincing, and any attempt at standing or walking favors my left leg in a limp. New stinging pains make themselves known. It seems stillness makes everything okay, at least, until you decide to move and all that built-up hurt comes back. Classic muscle fatigue. I am told it will get worse on day two and three, that my shin bruise will swell up. I think about vicodin and home.
When I am home, I take a shower that feels like fire for the first few seconds. It is as if even the tiniest red pore on my pock-marked skin is ablaze. The water runs down, and I examine the unseen burns and cuts in the mirror. A bruise here, a cut there. Abrasions like tiger stripes.
I empty out my pockets and find two fragments of glass, small as dimes. They look like crystals with intricate honeycomb patterns, shining and rolling across the landscape of my palm.