I know I’ve mentioned it before. My life could have stopped at age 14.
But it started with this: when my mother was 8 months pregnant with me she was in a head-on collision. At relatively slow speed, but there were injuries. My brother's forehead shattered a corner of windshield. He had a concussion, had been standing in the passenger seat. My mother was scraped up as well and had internal bleeding.
Today I watched a documentary about languages and the way the voice explodes out of the head in all directions, how two sound waves coming together create something different. Propagation, sinusoidal, interference, diffraction. When I’m writing or speaking I get snagged on some words. I can’t say Ibuprofen without slowing considerably. With some words in their similarity (perhaps only similar to me), I get frozen for a moment waiting for the word correct to the usage needed to step forward. Vocabulary and documentary are like this for me. Just now I wanted to say I watched a vocabulary.
When I was 14 I lived in Holland, Pennsylvania. Bucks County, not far from Joan Rivers’ place, though we lived in a townhouse, nothing like her stately affair. Every Friday my mother drove me to George’s Music in Feasterville, a few towns over for guitar lessons. The man who gave me lessons had hair like Slash from Guns n’ Roses. He smelled like sneezes or new blossoms before they take on fragrance. I don’t remember his name. I can still see him sitting close, in grave concentration, his Les Paul on one knee, lines just beginning to form around his eyes. I thought he was old, but he was probably 30 years old. Too old to be teaching stupid kids the guitar.
When the lesson was over Tim would drive me home. He taught drums, was in his early 20s, and lived fairly close to me. I’d been taking lessons for two years and had gotten a ride from him every Friday for the better part of a year.
The way it would go: I would finish my lesson and wander the store for awhile looking at strings and at sheet music (which I couldn’t read). I would listen to the end of the drum lesson, muffled thuds from the soundproof room that sounded like small fists punching a feather bed. When the punching stopped I would stand outside. In a few minutes, Tim would come out and we’d get into his car, a Buick, once his mother’s, bought cheap. We’d chat about nothing, music, he’d tell me about girls he would date. We’d stop at the gas station a few blocks up on E Street for him to buy beer, then turn left and head back the way we came, down E Street, to Buck, to Old Jordan and then home. He’d drop me off in front of my house and say “next week?” as though I would ever say no.
I wasn’t in love with him. He never left room for that. There wasn’t any question of clean divisions. I’d never hugged him, had only shaken his hand once or twice after meeting. The one Friday in two years I missed my lesson, I had strep throat. I’d had it all week. That night the six-pack was in the passenger seat where I would have been. Tim turned out of the gas station and someone speeding struck the back of his car. Because of the speed and how he was hit, the car spun a half turn into the on-coming lanes. A truck coming from the opposite direction hit the passenger side hard enough to cut almost the whole way through the car. Tim died instantly.
Tim’s organs, harvested, went to 17 different people. This included eye and heart transplants and skin grafts. There was an article in the paper about it. I took it out regularly when I wanted to cry about him.
We moved six months later, six hours away. My mother told me no more lessons. Money was tight. I’ve never gone back.
I’m writing this for a particular purpose, but I’m not getting there fast. Those who know me know I’m fascinated by almost deaths. This accident made it easier for me after we moved. I didn’t care to fit in. I didn’t try. I read a lot. I wrote. I drew pictures of cities I’d never been to. I taught myself about trees, taught myself Roman history, then Italian, ucello, ragazza, prendere due piccioni con una fava, about painting, sculpture, a lot of things.
Memorial Day weekend 2005 I got into a fight with Lynnea. From the time I started walking out the door, had I not hit traffic, I would have been precisely where a truck pulling a travel trailer went left of center, crossed the grassy median and hit a few cars heading northbound. Two hours later they were still cleaning up. It took a long time to get through Marysville, the accident was just north of there, within sight of the casino. There was paper all over the road. I wondered if someone was a writer.
My father tells a story of falling asleep at the wheel on a road like the one up to Mount Baker. Switchbacks, steep drops in elevation, nothing but rocks and trees and bears, lots of looking off in the distance. He was with a girlfriend who would leave him after the accident. He woke with the car more than half way to vertical, trees whipping past the windows, fast, growing speed, a branch snapping into the windshield, shattering, then the forward thrust being stopped by a large Douglas fir, the back end of the car rising from the force, falling sideways, coming to rest against another tree. From their perch they could see there was still a long way down. Though a tow truck was called, the car is still there today. The man took one look at it and said, no.
There’s a difference between my story about Tim and looking death in the face. Surely I would have died had I been there. But I can take nothing visual away with me, except the idea of what the car used to look like and what the paper said it looked like after (they wouldn’t show pictures on the news).
When I was six I tried to touch the bottom of the neighborhood pond while near the lip of it. I knew I should be close, but every time I swam in a little I’d feel around with my feet and still feel nothing. I swam a little closer in and tread the water, then threw my arms down in one big motion to lift my body up, then arms up to push my body down. The bottom was right there. And I was stuck in it, my eyes just above the water line, my mouth and nose below. If I stretched with everything I had I could get my nose out, breathe. I couldn’t get my mouth out in order to yell. Yelling underwater did nothing to get the attention of the boys walking away from the shore. My brother and his friends, a few older boys. There was a wind I hadn’t noticed until then making small ripples on the surface of the water. Small ripples became massive waves that entered my nose. The littlest bit of water. So close to the surface. I flapped my arms to splash and it made it worse and no one saw. Everything seemed quiet, except for my heart. Without even closing my eyes I can imagine this scene perfectly. I know what each of the boys was wearing. I know the placement of trees. I know the white look one of the older boys gave when he finally turned around. All of this watched while swallowing water, with water pouring into my nose. He pulled me out.
To repay, I had to take a shower with him. I remember this was quick. I think once we were naked he lost interest in me. I didn’t look like the women he’d seen in his father’s magazines.
It was like this Sunday. I can tell you the color and make of the car, a white BMW SUV. I can tell you what the woman was wearing, could describe her face and hair exactly. If I ever see her again I will know it is her. I will thank her for being no worse of a driver than she is.
We were driving to Oliver and Meredith’s for dinner, and to play with Lucas, playing with rocks. It’s 30 miles to get there on a two-lane road. I used to go to the mountain every weekend when I first got here, but don’t get out there much anymore. Traffic was light, as it usually is. There were horses and cattle, stables, farms, a place to pick berries, a place that will work with you on properly inseminating your horse.
She was probably distracted. Maybe texting, maybe answering a call, maybe grabbing her purse from the backseat. Her car dipped off the lip of the pavement onto the narrow shoulder at 60 mph. She overcorrected into my lane, right in front of me, then righted herself just in time. I felt my heart the whole rest of the drive. It wouldn’t slow down. Carol didn’t say anything, which is how I know she was scared. Five minutes later I said, “we almost died, you know.” “I know,” she said. I would guess that our cars, with possible mutual impact of 120 or so miles per hour came about three feet from colliding, which means it was probably at least double that, maybe more. It was close enough that I didn’t even react, which is probably good, considering I had nowhere to go.