By Shannon Lell
It was just before midnight in that sticky August air. My windows rolled down, feeling the wind my car made as I took the winding back roads listening to Fleetwood Mac. I was leaving the next day, for good, and I wanted to feel the hot wind of my hometown one last time. The back of my year-old 1996 Pathfinder contained all the belongings from two years of a desk job. On the seat next to me, a Tupperware container with the remains of homemade fruit salsa with sticky apples and grapes and jam along with homemade tortilla chips sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. It was for my own going-away party.
I was warm from all the things; the air, the apples, the love of my people I was leaving behind. The beers.
In that moment, I felt like I was leading up to the peak of a joy wave; one my life I hadn’t known for many years, maybe since I was little girl. That next day was my last day of my desk job. After work, I’d leave to get on a plane which was taking me on a greatest adventure of my life. First, I’d go to Seattle where the life was waiting. From there, we’d travel for a month to a Pacific island, through the Grand Canyon, over the Rockies, to the Bayou and to our new home together in the south. For a girl who’d barely left the Midwest in her 23 years, this was a very big deal. I’d gotten my first passport.
The hot air grew still as I stopped to turn into my neighborhood. In less than a minute, I’d be back to spend one more night in my girlhood home. One turn into the subdivision and another into my parent’s driveway and I would be a key turn away from sleep in a familiar bed if I could even sleep at all from excitement. As I prepared to make that turn I’ve made a thousand times, a stone dropped heavy from the sky. Hard, shiny metal twisted, scraped and ripped apart. Glass splintered, burst, and flew across my face in slow motion. A bag of air encased in a white, canvas sack flashed out of nowhere and slammed into my body whipping my head to the side and burning my arms and lungs. Acrid smoke filled my mouth. A million sounds screamed inside my head at once. Red fruit salsa dripped from my hair. I touched it. I thought it was blood.
When my car stopped moving, I was facing a different direction, almost a hundred feet from where I last remembered. The only sound left on the dark road facing nowhere was Stevie Nicks graveling out Silver Springs. I sat there, stunned as her voice died a slow mechanical death singing, “Baby, I don’t want to know.”
If I close my eyes I can still see it coming under the orange glow of the street lights; that steely grey rabbit Porche. It felt rabid, looked wild-eyed as it covered a football field’s distance in less than three seconds. I would learn later – after the hospital, after the BACs were taken, after they told me he was dead, after the detective took down all the witness’ statements – that the speed at impact was 86 mph. I’d also learn that it was a kid with his whole life in front of him, 22 to my 23. His rabbit and BAC didn’t stand a chance against my Pathfinder.
I count myself among the brave but I did not run to the smoking, twisted metal animal to see if I could save him. Before anyone came to save us, when it was just him, and me, and Stevie under the orange glow of the street lights, my body knew he was dead before they came to tell me it was true. I didn’t run to see for myself because when I stepped out of my car I felt alone. I felt it in my bones and if my bones already knew, there was no use showing my eyes.
I was laying naked under a sheet on the x-ray table, my cracked knee propped up, when they told me he was dead. My fractured bones knew, but my brain was holding out hope, and when they told me I began to wail. “I saw him.” I cried. “I saw him die on my car!”
My brother was there, and he said that’s what I said. He thought I was delusional. Because of course I didn’t see him, I just told you that.
The next day, I didn’t go to work and I didn’t leave on an airplane. But leaving on the airplane was the only thing I wanted to do, so I rescheduled my flight for the very next day. I got on that plain with my crutches, pain-killers and even more baggage than I had planned on taking and felt better with every mile I could put between me and those familiar roads and fresh skid marks. Because I didn’t want to see it anymore and the quicker I could start brain forgetting, the better off I’d feel. Out of sight, out of mind as they say and if brain forgetting is coping, then the Grand Canyon seemed like a great place to brain forget everything.
Over the years I developed a coping calcification process for bad brain memories. I harden my true-to-life tragedies and then push them away, outside of myself, into orbit so that I don’t have to have them swirling inside my head all the time. My brain forces them into foreign objects.
But my body is made of the all the things that orbit and so it knows when I’m coping to myself. My body whispers… psst, that’s your story. That happened to you.
Just as the orbital path of the moon commands the ebb and flow of tides, these tragedies ebb and flow inside of my bones. The pressure builds over time as a silent river rages – cuts canyons just below my awareness – and brims with the force of life’s fragile unfairness. Why me? Why not me? Why him? Why now? My brain might push it away but my body always remembers that stones fall from the sky in the middle of the night, and in less than three seconds you can be facing a much darker road.
Sixteen years later, and I’ve seen bigger stones and darker roads than this.
And when these times come – when the pressure is too much – I often find myself lying prostrate, arms out, weak from holding back and gazing up at all the things in my orbit. In that position, with nothing left to cover me, I know in my every broken and healed bone that what separates me from everything else, is nothing. And in that nothingness, is where me and that doped up kid are still alive.
Shannon Lell is a single mother and mountain biking enthusiast living in Seattle. Her writing as appeared on Longreads, The Rumpus, The Washington Post and elsewhere. She’s writing hard at work on a memoir about her political, sexual and spiritual awakening titled, “The Conservative Slut.”
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