I talk to cars quite often, which I’m guessing is why my screaming “No, no, no, no, no!” as if the other driver can hear me seems natural.
It’s a two-lane street. I’m in the right lane, going uphill. He should be in the left lane, slowly driving downhill, but instead, he’s also in the right lane, heading downhill, right at me and Jude, my Saturn Vue.
There are only a few seconds to make a decision as to what I should do. I am about to enter an intersection. Do I speed up, hoping I make it there before him so I can take a right? Because he is driving in my lane, should I swerve to the left—into what would have been his original lane—to avoid him? No, there are other cars in the left lane. If I swerve into their lane, I will become the reckless driver, and I will hit them head-on. Do they even know what’s happening? And if so, why the hell don’t they just pull over so I can move into their lane? Can’t they tell I need an escape?
There isn’t much more I can do. Park Avenue in Woonsocket, Rhode Island is a busy street. Businesses and tenement houses line the road. I consider driving up on the sidewalk. Jude is an SUV; I have faith he could jump the curb with enthusiasm, but there is nowhere to go. I would simply crash into the building in front of me, ensuring an accident. What if the erratic driver actually notices he is in the wrong lane and pulls his car back into the correct lane, missing me entirely?
My choices: pull into the left lane and cause an accident, which would be my fault. Pull onto the sidewalk and be in an accident, which, again, would be my fault. Or, stay in my own lane and be hit by a car coming downhill, in my lane, directly at me, which is still, in fact, another accident. But the lack of time makes the decision for me. The driver aims his car even further to the right, completely aiming at the building. Instinctively, I bear to the left. I’m not thinking, but later, I will assume that my reasoning was probably that if the car was going to my right, and there were cars on my left, maybe I could just squeeze through the middle.
It is as if the driver—who is probably drunk or on drugs—senses my intentions. Either that or he realizes he was driving downhill in the wrong lane and he yanks the wheel back towards the left. What do I do now? I pull my car back into my own lane. There’s no more time to think. No more time for action. I don’t even have time to react. All that’s left to do is close my eyes. There is a small chance that because he has pulled back toward the left, he will miss my car completely. I close my eyes.
And then I spin. The car is hit, and it’s spinning.
Then it stops.
It’s slammed into something.
I can’t see. I can’t breathe.
It smells as if I’m on fire.
I fight the airbag off of me.
I see no flames.
There is powder residue all over me. The airbags, I think. It’s the airbags that smell like that.
Every time I’ve been in an accident, I’ve had a sudden urge to rush out of the vehicle. Maybe I’ve watched too many movies, so I expect the car to blow up. I feel as if the airbags are still pressing against me, but I’ve already pushed them away. I can’t remove the seatbelt. It unbuckles just fine, but something is tangled in it. My arm? My leg maybe? I open the door. Left leg first, right leg next. I seem to fall out of the car upright. I’m still holding onto the safety belt.
My car is facing the wrong direction. I’m against the sidewalk, in the same lane, but backward. I’m not crying. I feel as if I’m not breathing. I am, but I can’t feel myself take breaths, and that worries me.
The man in the other car. I have to check on him. His car is in front of mine. It slammed into the sidewalk like mine, and then hit the utility pole. There has been no movement from his car. I start to walk toward it when a sudden pain strikes my knee, as someone hit me with a baseball bat, and it stops me. I’m physically stuck in the same spot on the sidewalk. I absolutely cannot open the door to his car and see a dead body; at the same time, I’m thinking that I need to return to my car because my pocketbook and laptop are in it. The door’s open. A crowd is beginning to gather. My feet don’t move.
A woman runs across the street screaming. “Oh, my God! Are you okay?” I’m shaking. I think so, yeah, I think so. I tell her I need to check on the driver of the other car. The car door opens. Feet appear.
“No, don’t even bother. That drunk motherfucker has been driving all over the road since we got off the highway,” she screams as she holds my arm. A man who’s with her has crossed the street and is at my side now, too. They’re both talking to me. I understand what they’re saying, but at the same time, I’m not really comprehending what they’re telling me.
“He’s been driving drunk since we got off 146. We’ve been on the phone with the cops for two miles now. Don’t worry, honey, the cops are coming.” They’re asking me if they can do anything for me. They’re ghetto, real Woonsocket, but they’re kind to me, and I’m about to break down.
Suddenly, my car gushes all its liquids. I’ve seen this on TV. The car loses all of its gasoline, and then it blows up. I jump through the driver’s side and grab both of my extremely heavy, over packed bags. I stand on the sidewalk near my car. This seems safe until I realize that if my car blows up, I’m not far enough away.
The woman is still asking if she can help me. She’s also still screaming at the drunk driver. “You stupid motherfucker!” she says, “You could have killed this girl! You should have died! I hope you fucking rot in hell!”
They tell me again how they’ve been on the phone with the police. I hear the sirens. “We saw everything,” they both tell me. “What can I do? Can I help you?” the woman asks again.
I need a hug. I think that’s what I tell her. I can’t believe I just asked this woman to hug me, but whether I did or I did not, she hugs me. And I begin to break down.
I’m confused. But I think I’m actually more confused about why I feel confused. But I took my meds today, I think. It’s as if I’m saying to myself, “I took my ADD meds, so my thoughts should be clearer. I shouldn’t have such cycling thoughts. I fully comprehend everything that has happened. Why do I still feel so cloudy?”
I don’t want to break down. I want to be strong. I try to call Ryan. His voicemail answers. It’s late, and he has his son. He’s probably sleeping. I try to call again. Voicemail, again. I hit redial.
The man and woman keep talking to me. “Are you okay? What can I do for you?” I ask them if they have a camera. I don’t. I always have a camera. I carry a camera in my pocketbook 98 percent of the year, and today, I do not have a camera. “Yes,” they say. He runs back to his car to get his camera, tells me he is going to take pictures of the cars.
The woman alternates between screaming at the drunk driver, who is still sitting sidesaddle in his driver seat, and offering to help me. I can’t quite figure out what to do. I sit on the sidewalk. I stand up. I put my pocketbook and school bag in the back seat of my car. I leave the doors open. I sit back on the sidewalk. I get up, take my wallet out of my purse and move it to the glove compartment. I lean against my car. I can’t figure out why I need four doors open, so I walk around the car, closing each of them, and then go back to sit on the sidewalk.
The police officer approaches. “Whose car is this?” I tell him it’s mine and hand him my license, which I took out of my wallet before placing it in the glove compartment. Why did I put it in the glove compartment?
He motions for the EMT to come over. I tell him my knee hurts, but I can walk on it. “Do you want to go to the hospital?” he asks me.
This is when I start to cry.
No, of course I don’t want to go to the hospital. I want to go home, in my own car, and pretend like none of this took place. I want my boyfriend to pick up the phone. I want someone to tell me what to do. I certainly don’t want anyone to ask me any more questions.
“I don’t know,” is all I can muster between my whiny tears. “I’m sorry for crying,” I tell him, “I just can’t stop once I start. My boyfriend isn’t picking up the phone” As if that’s more important than my medical history, which he is trying to discern.
“Is there anyone else you can call?” he asks. “And do you think you hit your head during the accident?”
I’m not sure if he is asking because it’s an important question to ask an accident victim or if it’s because I’m overly emotional.
“Of course I can call someone else,” I manage. “I’m so sorry. I was so calm before.” I want the police officer and EMT to think I’m in control. I want them to know that absolutely none of this is my fault. I want to tell them that I just left work as a psychiatric case manager, as if to imply that my job title means that I can handle emergency situations, that I’m professional, responsible.
“How about we go to the hospital?” he responds. “I know you said you didn’t hurt your head but that your left knee was really throbbing and that your back and hand hurt, too. Let’s just get it checked out to make sure everything is OK.”
“But what about my car?” I ask, when I suddenly realize I never checked on my MacBook. It was in my bag on the passenger seat before the crash. That bag was partially wedged under the seat after the impact. Without telling the EMT my thoughts, I walk around my car, open the back door, and pull out my bag. I take out the laptop.
“Miss,” the EMT says, following me. “I need to finish checking you out.”
“I need to check on my laptop,” I tell him, crying harder now. “I need to tell the police officer if it’s broken.” The EMT doesn’t appear to understand my logic. He asks me again if I’d like to go to the hospital. I press the power button and the screen comes to life.
“Motherfucker,” I say, although I’m thinking the driver is damn lucky he didn’t kill my new $2,000 laptop. I haven’t backed up any of my schoolwork since I bought the computer four months before. I’m thinking I’ll need to tell the police if it really is broken while I am on the scene.
“Miss,” the EMT says again.
“What do you think I should do?” I ask him. I want someone to tell me what to do. I’ve spent my whole life taking care of people, my whole life making choices for other people. Why is it that whenever I need help, there is no one available to step in and take care of the details for me?
“I’m fine.” I say. “I’m OK. I just got hit by a drunk driver, and I’m fine. It’s just a little bruise. I’m alive, I’m OK.” I continue with a diatribe on how fine I am when the EMT interrupts me.
“Well, ma’am, it really isn’t my job to make that decision for you,” he pauses. He must notice my look of defeat. “But if I had just been hit by a drunk driver at fifty-plus miles an hour, I’d want to make sure I got checked out by someone to be on the safe side.”
I nod. The tears start coming again. I agree to go to the hospital. There is no reason to stay. The entire front end of my SUV is crushed inward. What would I do, walk the thirty-five miles home? I haven’t called anyone other than Ryan’s voicemail. I’ve got a headache.
“I need to get my things,” I tell the EMT, “then I can go.” I walk over to my car, open the door, and grab my two bags. I start to walk away when I remember the wallet I hid in the glove compartment. I still don’t know why I took it out and put it in there. I grab three CDs: Maroon Five, Frank Sinatra, and Tupac. I’ve got a case of water in my trunk, and I’m worried about what I should do with it. The police officer is standing near me again.
“Erin, you really don’t need to bring a case of water with you to the hospital, now do you?” he asks.
“I don’t know. You told me to take everything of importance out of the car before they towed it away.”
“But is a case of water really that important?” He has a valid point.
“Well, do you want one?” I ask him. Leaving the water alone in the trunk doesn’t feel like an option. I just bought the water four days earlier at Target. Yes, it was on sale for $2.99, but I had only drunk one from the case.
“No, ma’am. Do you need anything else from your car? Are you ready to go now?”
“I don’t know,” I say, and I start to cry again. “I’ve got my iPod already in my pocketbook, because it started to die while I was at work,” I tell him through tears. “I’ve got my registration and all the other junk in the glove compartment. I’ve got some CDs. I’ve got a few sweaters that were in the backseat, my cell phone. You said I should leave the water. Yeah, I guess I’ve got everything.”
As he starts to lead me toward the ambulance, I notice the other EMTs helping the drunk driver onto a gurney. He’s going to the hospital as well.
“Is he OK?” I ask the officer.
“Who cares?” he says.
He looks at me. I stop walking. I’m calmer than before.
“That asshole could have just killed you, and you’re wondering if he is hurt? Don’t waste your time caring for him. Not once did he ask if you were hurt. Not once did he ask about the person he hit. Don’t you forget that.”
“Is he OK?” I ask again.
My anger is misplaced. I’m mad at my boyfriend for not answering the phone. I’m mad that he puts his phone on silent or vibrate when his son goes to sleep so that it won’t wake his four-year-old. I’m mad at the way he says his name on his voicemail, a sound I once adored. I’m mad that he probably chose to sleep at his brand new apartment, rather than his mother’s house. If he were there, at least he’d be able to leave his son with his mother and come get me… if he ever picked up the phone. I’ve transferred my anger onto him because I’m too scared to be angry at the drunk driver.
“He could have killed you,” the officer says, “and by the looks of this accident, I’m shocked that he didn’t.”
The ride to the hospital is very bumpy. I feel every pothole, every crack the ambulance hits, in my knee. I try calling Ryan a few more times. This new EMT tells me that Landmark, the hospital they are transporting me to, is packed, and I’m probably going to have to wait a while. I call my best friend, Amy, when I get out of the ambulance, tell her that a drunk driver hit me and I need her to come get me.
The ER is busy. All the rooms are already taken. Someone offers to find me a cot, but they will have to put it in the hallway because there is no room for me. I move out of the way of the incoming cot when I see him, the drunk driver, lying on his own cot in the opposite hallway. He sees me and begins to pull his upper body off the cot. I’m about to walk away when he smiles, as if I’m a long-lost family member, and gives me a thumbs-up.
Erin Ollila is an emotional archeologist who graduated from Fairfield University’s MFA program with a concentration in creative nonfiction. Her writing has been published in: A Review of Text and Image, Revolution House, Lunch Ticket, Paper Tape, Shoreline Literary Arts Magazine, The Fall River Spirit, and RedFez. She is the co-founder and editor of Spry Literary Journal. Her blog, Reinventing Erin, is her outlet for ruminating on the minutiae of everyday life.