I was in the far-right lane. I was in the far-right lane even though I usually stick to the left lanes on that highway. I was in the far-right lane and that was unusual because I’m usually in the left lanes and I had just passed a strip of chain restaurants. For some reason, I was in the rightmost lane on a four-lane highway just past a strip of chain restaurants and then I saw headlights coming the wrong way down the highway. I was in the right lane and I passed a Red Lobster and a TGI Friday’s and a car was going the wrong way down the highway so I swerved into the middle-right lane. I was in the right lane just past the exit for 15th Street and I saw headlights coming the wrong way so I swerved. I hit a sedan in the middle-right lane. The guy going the wrong way hit the car behind me.
I said I didn’t want to do anything too late. I had to get back home to the kids before bath time. How about happy hour? She said there was an unassuming sushi place by her apartment with great food and drink specials. I said I could really go for some yellowtail. She was suffering from writer’s block again. She had already told me, but she didn’t have to. I could see it in the forked vein on her temple and in her mussed hair, oily from her hands obsessively running through it. She smelled like cigarettes and mint and she didn’t make eye contact much in the first few minutes after we sat down. The question was, “How’s the piece going?” But we both danced around bringing it up. She asked about the kids instead. “Well the little one still doesn’t talk much,” I said. “And the older one doesn’t shut up.” Self-deprecating jokes. Old tropes. She smiled good-naturedly. She looked anxious and beautiful. She asked about my husband. I asked about her dog. We each ordered a glass of the house white. I ordered a spicy tuna roll for $4. Edamame for $3. Potstickers for $4. Nigiri for $5. She picked at her fingernails. I told her not to make me eat all of that by myself.
You know what a car crash sounds like. You’d know even if you heard it in the middle of the woods and didn’t know there was a road nearby. You’d know it if you had never watched TV or movies with car crash scenes. You’d know it if you were deaf your whole life and then suddenly could hear and a cacophonous screeching and grinding of metal was the first noise you ever heard. You’d look around for the car crash. When the cars collided behind me the sound was so close that it made my teeth hurt. Or I thought it did. But later that night, in a scalding bath I ran to stop the shakes, my tongue traced over my back molar and found a jagged edge. So maybe right before the collision I had set my jaw and gnashed my teeth. I can’t remember. What I remember is slamming on my brakes when I heard the sound. I remember looking into the rearview mirror and seeing headlights. I remember flying forward. I remember a flash when the airbag deployed. I remember a ringing in my ears. I remember the taste of sushi in the back of my throat.
“Did you read the article I sent you?” we both asked each other over and over. We communicated primarily through articles. Little tidbits of things we enjoyed, things that made us feel stimulated. Mostly the ridiculous and the corrupt. I supposed we sent them to each other for different reasons. She was reading the news to escape the creative nature of her work. I read long-form pieces looking to tap into my creative side, to shelve the tedium of daily life. The wine loosened us and soon we were in a familiar back-and-forth of jabs and witticisms. I felt smarter and funnier than I normally did. We talked about politics, the current administration, the local elections. We talked about music that I hadn’t listened to yet but promised I would. We talked about books we were reading and books we had put down and never picked back up. When the food arrived and the rapport was re-established, I knew it was time. “How’s the piece going?” She rolled her eyes and inhaled deeply. The piece was looming over us. She had brought it up in bits and pieces over our last half-dozen meetings, and I had been reading and editing bits of the article as she spun it out. I was heavily invested now. The story was important. It gave us meaning. It was an academic acid trip. A long, winding story about crime and politics and art and money. The most interesting story that had never been told. It was her magnum opus, the feature piece from which could spring a documentary series, maybe a movie. She was breathing life into it. I was living vicariously through the thrill of its birth. I ordered another glass of wine. She didn't speak. I ordered another on her behalf.
I was walking before I knew I was walking. I had been in fender-benders before and had always taken a physical inventory before moving; checking my teeth, my nose, my neck, and then the damage in the car before getting out. But this time I just stumbled out and started walking. I walked to the car behind me and looked at a middle-aged man getting out of the crumpled sedan. He said, “Are you okay?” “Yes. Are you?” I heard my voice saying the words but the sound was muffled. I don’t remember actually talking. “Yeah, I think so. Jesus Christ.” There was a fire burning in the left lanes. All four lanes were blocked. A dozen cars were stopped and people were starting to pour out. A few cars started slowly rolling by in the shoulder lane, going around. I turned to watch an old woman drive by with her window down. She was on the phone. She screamed, “The police are on their way!” But she kept driving. Jesus Christ, I thought. Jesus Christ. “Oh, Lord!” I heard a man scream. He was walking away from the fire and back towards his car. He pulled his cell phone out and started dialing. “Oh Lord God! Oh Lord!” No one was coming out of the fire. People were looking into the cars and screaming at no one to stay back and calling out to God. I remember thinking, it’s like we’re praying. We stopped four lanes of traffic on I-75 at 9:16 PM on a Wednesday and now we’re all in church.
“I’m stuck,” she said. She had the story mapped out, knew all of its intricacies and reveals, and she could feel the story arc moving along gracefully. But she couldn’t translate it into words. The piece felt unfinished. The drama was there but it didn’t flow. The reveals felt like bullet points and not action. She had been killing herself over it. Working long hours to make ends meet, looking for character and inspiration in every bar patron she served, and then smoking weed and shooting vodka into the morning hours hoping the words would start to flow. “I want your life,” I said, and it tumbled out so casually that I didn’t have time to feel embarrassed. I was on the dregs of my second glass of wine. She demurred. Her life had so many flaws, she said. The student loans, the roaches in the kitchen, the leaky ceiling over her shower, the exhaustion after a ten-hour shift slinging drinks in a hole-in-the-wall bar. All of the agonizing over this piece which might never see the light of day. But, I said. The independence. The future. Freedom. “I just want stability,” she said. “It’s not all that,” I replied. And I put my hand up to flag down the waiter. Two well whiskeys with Coke. $1 off. “Happy hour is over,” the waiter said. “Even better.” And I ordered us good whiskey instead. She asked if I was writing anything.
You might not know what the jaws of life sound like. It’s a totally different sound, even though all of the same components are there. The jaws of life sound like screaming, like urgency. It’s a high-pitched whining sound, held up by undertones of silverware scraping plates and chalk squeaking against a blackboard. And when you’re up close, the jaws of life sound like morbid curiosity and fear. It sounds like everyone is looking, even though it’s dark out and the fire has been extinguished. The jaws of life sound like firefighters yelling at people to back up, like paramedics rushing to aid. It sounds like boots making imprints in puddles of tacky black motor oil pooled around the wreck. But then a light hits the oil and it’s not black, it’s red. If a car crash sounds like the climax then the jaws of life sound like the epilogue. Maybe there’s more to the story. Maybe not. The noise will stop eventually, but then a worse noise reverberates over the road. Quiet. The sound of finality. The sound of three white sheets and three empty stretchers. The sound of no through traffic. The sound of the paramedic saying, “It’s up to you. If you feel okay then you can call someone to come get you.” The sound of, “I know it’s late but you’re going to have to wake them up, the car is totaled.” The sound of, “What happened?” I was in the right lane just past the exit for 15th Street and I saw headlights coming the wrong way so I swerved. I hit a sedan in the middle-right lane. The guy going the wrong way hit the car behind me.
“I’m too busy to write.” After work I pick the boys up from school and it’s time to clean out lunch boxes and put the dishes in the dishwasher. There are gummy white bread and chip crumbs and fruit juice pooled in the containers. The boys are running around in the living room. I put a movie on but we’ve all seen it a hundred times so they’re no longer distracted by it. They want something to eat. I’m cooking dinner. They want something to eat now. I said I’m cooking dinner. The oven is on and the burners are on and I’m sweating and I turn the A/C up. Then one of the boys is crying because he fell and goddammit I said I’m cooking dinner. Where is your father? When will your father get here? When he gets there I move to the couch and I stay there. I scroll through my phone. I watch the movie we’ve all seen a hundred times. My husband asks if I want some time to write. I say, “Why don’t you go buy us a bottle of wine?” “I’m too busy to write,” I replied in the unassuming sushi restaurant that was no longer honoring happy hour prices. And she nodded like she understood. “One more?” I asked as I drained the whiskey. “I have to drive home,” she said. “So do I.” And I ordered one more.
“Do you think he was drunk?” I was in the bath. The boys were back asleep. He was holding my hand even though I didn’t want him to. Drunk or suicidal. “Are you going to call in tomorrow?” I don’t know. Don’t have any PTO left. “We need to talk to the boys tomorrow. They were really scared.” Okay. “How much did you have to drink?”
She asked if I’d be okay to drive. I said yes, it’s just a straight shot down 75. She said we shouldn’t wait so long to get together again. I wondered what she could possibly get from our friendship. Maybe I’m the inhibitor that she can pair with the catalyst of her life. Maybe I’m the anchor tethering her to reality. Maybe she is writing the world’s least interesting story about me and I don’t even know it. A story about a white woman on the wrong side of thirty with two kids and a husband and a liberal arts degree and a recycling bin full of empty wine bottles and a dream that will never be actualized. “Yes, let’s do it again soon,” I said. I focused hard on walking back to my car.
I was going eighty miles per hour. I started in the left lane but I was weaving in and out of lanes so I wound up in the right lane. I was going eighty in the right lane. I looked over at the neon signs for a group of chain restaurants and I thought about stopping for one more drink before everything closed for the night. I didn’t want to go home yet. I was feeling light-headed. I was thinking maybe I’d have sex with my husband when I got home; it had been awhile. I had just picked up my phone to text him when I saw headlights coming the wrong way. My arm moved the steering wheel before my brain could process what was happening. I hit the brakes when I heard the collision and I got rear-ended by the car behind me. There was a fireball of metal and blood going up behind me and three people were dying. I had a small headache and a ringing in my ears. I was feeling light-headed.
It was in the news the next day. The shakes came back while I read it. She was a middle-aged third-grade teacher who had just had dinner with her daughters and son-in-law. She was driving in the right lane. Her youngest daughter was in the passenger seat. Maybe they never saw the headlights coming, because the car in front of them swerved. Wrong-Way Crash Kills Three. A mother and her daughter were killed by a drunk driver, it said.