I was in a car accident yesterday. A woman in a bright green SUV tried to pass me while I was turning left, plowing into the driver side front panel. No one was hurt. But the accident would echo with an event from my teenage years, of familiar voices in strange circumstances.
Anxious, I fumbled with my new cell phone, could not pull myself together to call the police. I tried calling 411 to get the local number. I answered a series of automated questions and was connected not to the police but to Sam, a friend of mine. I did not dial his number; it was dialed by the automated 411 operator. I immediately recognized his voice when he answered the phone and I rushed my apology – I was in an accident, trying to call the police, so sorry, long story.
Here’s the surreal part: this kind of thing has happened to me before, 40 years ago, age 15, the end of summer between 9th and 10th grades.
It was like this: I am waiting at the bus stop for the next bus that will take me home. Charlie, my older sister’s friend, pulls up in his red Volkswagen Beetle and asks me if I want a ride. “Sure,” I say and get into the passenger seat. We are on High Street in front of the Catholic church where my dad once taught third grade science, where I spent Sunday mornings in Catechism (we read Jesus comic books) and then mass until my dad decided we weren’t Catholic anymore.
Charlie asks me to hold onto the steering wheel while he puts an 8-track cassette into the tape player in the backseat. (I’ve asked myself a million times why he didn’t ask me to put the cassette in the player instead.) Terrified, because I’ve never driven a car and can’t get a feel for what driving is supposed to be like down a small hill, I freeze and the Volkswagen veers right into a telephone pole.
When I wake, I am bleeding. I see Charlie running into the ravine next to the church. The windshield is shattered and glass is all over me, on my jeans, on my halter top, in my hair, on my face. The car is still running and I think I have to get out but I can’t open the door and can’t lift myself over to the driver’s side.
I look up and see my 7th grade science teacher and his wife, knocking on the passenger window. They pull me out of the driver’s side and take me to a spot of grass next to the sidewalk. I look up and everyone I see is someone I know: the older brother of a guy I once dated, the best friend of another guy I once dated, a neighbor from up the street.
I expect to see strangers gathering, but I recognize everyone.
The police show up and three run after Charlie. One comes back with a bag of pot, holding it up for all to see. The other officers come up with Charlie. I am still sitting on the sidewalk, saying, “Oh, my god. Oh, my god.” The teachers are hovering. The older brother and the best friend are standing, laughing. I have a vague awareness that teenage boys are assholes.
An emergency squad arrives. Charlie has broken his arm. Our former family doctor also appears and takes a look at me, says I don’t have to go to the emergency room.
When I get home, I go to bed and my dad wakes me up every hour or so. My head is throbbing; yes, I know my name, the day, the year, the president’s name. The next day, my forehead is twice its normal size. The day after that, I have two black eyes. Charlie comes over to ask if the police have questioned me. He doesn’t apologize. He asks me what the fuck was I thinking, steering the Bug into the telephone pole. Later, the police stop by and I tell them nothing except that Charlie asked me to take the wheel and I froze.
Everyone else, all my friends, treat me like a loser; they visit once and laugh at my deformed head. Word has gotten around that I froze, that I chickened out, that it was my fault.
But my father tells me that he loves me more than life itself.
I am confused about life, accidents, friendships, coincidences, about what is fate and what is chance. I read a Christian book from my sister’s library, Hinds’ Feet on High Places, and for a couple of weeks decide I am Christian, born again. I wonder about the strange appearances of familiar people minutes after the wreck. I am changed after this. I shed my friends. The bruises on my face fade to light purple and yellow, matching a blouse I wear to work at the A&W stand during the state fair. Strangers ask what happened to me.
I am different after the accident and so is Charlie. A few years later, riding his motorcycle from Ohio University to Columbus, he veered left of center, hit a semi, and died on impact.
All of this flashed through my mind yesterday as I waited for the police officer to write the woman’s citation. (It was not my fault. It was never my fault, I tell myself.) The sound of Sam’s voice, perplexed. Me, dumbfounded by the strangeness of life, like a Fellini film.