If only I wasn’t such a social butterfly, a hostess-with-the-mostess, a proud, doting teacher—I would have made it to the back room and had my costumes packed before ten o’clock after our holiday dance recital.
If only I had let someone else drive a friend home after her truck broke down, I would have made it to Walmart twenty minutes earlier.
If I had just braved some holiday crowds and finished my shopping earlier in the week instead of waiting until three days before Christmas, I wouldn’t have gone to Walmart at all.
If I had arrived a few seconds earlier at the checkout and beaten the man in the tweed overcoat and clomping boots, I wouldn’t have had to wait four minutes until the single cashier was through with her midnight closeout.
If I would have been a creature of habit, I would have taken my sneaky-route home through the back streets.
If I would have been a speeder, I would have been home already.
I wasn’t and I didn’t and I hadn’t, so I passed the Bijou Exit on I-25 at 12:13 a.m. on December 21, 2000.
I used to love driving at night. All summer, I drove with the sunroof of my little Mazda open, turning my face into the night air to enjoy the hush beneath the stars. That night, it had just snowed. Typical for Colorado Springs in winter, so my car was sealed tight with the heater on full blast when I veered onto the entrance ramp in a last-minute decision.
Such a tiny thing.
Another road. Five minutes. The word ‘yes’. Change any one of them and I wouldn’t be writing this story today. That’s neither good nor bad. It simply is.
Am I stalling?
Perhaps. This is one of the most violent memories of my life.
Do I need to tell you about it?
Maybe in exchange of laughing in satisfied mischief as you hop onto social media and post the location of that DUI checkpoint you passed on the way home, you might be inspired to share this instead.
And you, over there—maybe you’ll think twice and hand over your keys on New Year’s Eve.
Or you—maybe you’ll wrestle the keys from your boyfriend when he slurs about how he’s “just fine” and isn’t too drunk to drive when you know better, and maybe you won’t give a spluck of Christmas figgy pudding that he’s mad at you the whole way home.
Maybe you’ll save a life.
Yours. His. Somebody’s grandma. Maybe it’ll be somebody’s five-month-old child like the one that was killed by her drunk father on the same highway a few months after my wreck. He survived, you know. So did her twin sister. Maybe yours won’t.
So let’s have done with it, shall we?
For once, the freeway wasn’t jammed with traffic. I relished in a sigh. Ahhh, the blissful solitude of an unencumbered thoroughfare. A rare treat for I-25. ZaZa crooned from the CD player, further lulling the atmosphere after such a hectic night. “…we came like water and like wind we go…”
As I approached the long-standing construction zone, I slowed in case of black ice. Thankfully, the pavement was dry. I flashed a triumphant grin at the mileage sign, glad that I would no longer have to take the Uintah exit with its infestation of orange cones and narrowed lanes. My new apartment was off Fillmore, two exits down. I had moved three weeks ago—my reward for landing a better paying job at a local internet company. I was their new office manager, whipping the barely organized chaos into shape, already part of The Team.
I’d never had a two-bedroom apartment before. So much space was a luxury for me, the former denizen of college dormitories, teensy apartments, and a converted porch that had been little more than a sublet closet for my bed and dresser. Now I had a kitchen big enough to fit a table, and a living room that moonlighted as a dance studio. To top it off, I even had an office/writing studio, complete with costume closet.
I couldn’t wait to get home, take a bath in my nice big tub, and slather myself like pre-warmed butter all across my nice big bed.
Isn’t that when they cue the spooky music?
As I drove, I took a reflexive glance in my rear-view mirror—took a startled breath when I caught sight of headlights that hadn’t been there a moment ago. Their reflection filled my mirror, growing larger by the second. My eyes went wide. That’s gotta be twice my speed! A cop on the chase? I checked my speedometer: 52 in a 55. Hah! They’re not after me.
Besides, there were no flashing lights.
I glanced back at the mirror, squinted harder. No light bar at all. Yet this car was flying up the highway like its tailpipe was on fire!
“I hope the cops get you,” I grumbled, glaring at the two swelling orbs.
Zaza’s voice nudged into my thoughts. “Words of wise men ring in my head…words that will haunt me until the end…”
I maintained speed—huffed and waited for the car to pass.
The lights stayed on course, straight behind me in the right-hand lane.
I aimed a glare into the mirror. Oh, I hated that, when hot-head punks wait until the last second to zoom past.
The car sped on.
My gaze darted from road to mirror. Road. Mirror. My heart thumped. “Pass me. Now.”
“Where lies the answer? Who holds the key?”
“Pass me, damn you!”
“What of our soul once it’s set free?”
The orbs overwhelm the mirror.
I can’t make the exit.
Should I ditch my car? Left lane—safer? Not? Will I swerve just as they do?
I hit the breaks, clench my teeth, hope the slope of the ravine won’t flip the—
The other vehicle rams mine.
Jaw-slamming impact. Me—thrown at the steering wheel. My car—a stone skipped on water. It lands and lurches sideways. Skids across the centerline. Foot smashing break pedal. Already on the floor. Horrific screech. The seatbelt digs ruts in my chest and hips.
Construction median looming on the left shoulder. It hunkers down. Glares at me. Gray hunk of unyielding concrete. Headlights flare in the southbound lane. Will the median hold? Will I blast through it into oncoming traffic?
I strain against the steering wheel. Battle to correct course. The dashboard shudders. Convulses my arms. Rattles my teeth. Knuckles—white. Screech—deafening. Another crunching BOOM as my car rams the median. The bumper crumples like aluminum foil. Then ZWING! The whole left side pops up in the air. The world goes sideways. My body whips with it. Black road. Black sky. White lines. Pinpoint stars, all whirling.
A random thought strikes me in that moment, drawing my eyes upward toward that dotted firmament.
Humph, so this is what a rollover really looks like from the inside.
Commander Spock taught me the eyebrow thing really young.
I can actually lift either one by itself. I can also roll them in a wave.
Ever since I was a child, I’ve had dreams like this. Rollovers, mortifying screeches, collisions, explosions. That last moment before death. That final farewell to life, earth, family, loved ones. That instantaneous, I’m-sorry-I-love-you-goodbye-okay-I’m-ready-take-me, before the bolt upright in bed with a ragged gasp.
As it happens again, this time for real, I blink as if through water, enthralled with the color of the street lamps. Such a soft, warm glow. Quite golden, compared to all the cool tones of a winter night. Lovely. And the warmth surrounding me like a loving embrace… Well-I-wasn’t-quite-ready-to-go-yet-but-I-guess-it’s-time-okay...
But my hands still strain on the steering wheel.
My voice still groans refusal.
My foot still grinds the break pedal into the floorboard and somebody must have done their job really well when they constructed that median because instead of a roll-over, the car careens around on its passenger-side wheels—a miraculous stunt for video. It curves back across the road, dips, wavers, rights itself. BLAM! Another body-rocking thud. I bounce off the seat—arrested by the belt.
CRACK! My head against the door frame.
Screeeeeeeeeeech! More shuddering.
Grooooan! Car lurching like Frankenstein.
Grrrrrrrowl! Burning rubber stench as it skids sideways, back across both lanes—please don’t let anybody else ram me.
Crunch of gravel and a final, jarring stop.
Blackish grass in the ditch I’d been aiming for.
Never got that far.
ZaZa, mid-track. “…caught in the storm day after day, your arms are the only shelter that I see…” Different song.
Dashboard lights glowing.
Hands still death-gripping the wheel.
Am I breathing? I think so.
Can I move? I dunno.
The Uintah exit is right there. So close. If only I was a speeder. Could have squeaked off the freeway to safety. If only I hadn’t hit the brakes before heading for the ditch. They might not have hit me. If only I would have swerved into the left lane…
But I didn’t and I wasn’t and they did.
As I sat there alone, struggling to comprehend that the old trajectory of my life’s course had been obliterated in under a second, I didn’t remember that I had asked for it. Two months before, I had created a dance about my desire to discover the almighty meaning of life.
In a traditional tarot deck, the first card is The Fool, and she has no idea what she’s about to endure by taking that first step beyond her comfy home with its nice big bathtub and its nice butter-warm bed.
All we can hope for her is that she’ll meet the right people along the way, be guided by the right stars, and acquire the tools to finally set herself free.
The eerily fitting song that was playing in my car that night...and me. Doing what I do.
More Presents from a Drunk Driver: Traumatic Brain Injury & Scoliosis
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