All That Matters

Megan is moving or talking to me or picking the broken glass out of her hands, her feet, her scalp—I don’t have a clue. But she is alive. That thought: Megan is alive Megan is alive Megan is alive. Only then do the visuals come back. Sorting through glass and phones and chargers in the cup holder and glass and bags and snacks on the floor. Looking out the window into the skid lines I’d dug into the median. Looking at each other so that we don’t cry or to know that it’s okay to cry. We tell each other that we’re okay. We don’t cry.

A man appears at my window. Don’t move. I’m an army medic. Don’t unbuckle your seatbelt. I’m glad you were wearing it. Don’t turn your head. Now look here. He asks us to follow his finger. He could tell if we were okay. He would tell us if we were okay.

Time had not stopped. There were steps. Here was a progression, a structure. He’d called 911.

I called my mom. No answer. I called my dad. I didn’t want to scare him. I didn’t know how I wanted him to react.

I said, “We’re okay. We are totally okay.”

I said, “But we just got into a car accident.”

He said, “Where are you?”

I said, “Abilene. Just outside Abilene. We were about to exit.”

He said, “Did the other car pull over?”

I said, “I don’t know. It was a house.”

When the fire truck and the ambulance came, they told us lots of people had called. No shit lots of people had called. I’d hit a house. I was trying to pass it as it drove along next to me, hitched to a truck: an elaborate clapboard parade float. Someone’s future home.

While people came to our aid, the house apparently kept trundling along. A reverse hit and run. Presumably, up until the house’s drivers saw the mess I’d made of both Megan’s car and the median, they continued down I-20 unaware that I’d hit their barn-red, single story, one-and-a-half-lane abode just at the spot where they might have been planning to install a window planter upon reaching their permanent address. Eventually, the house and its drivers pulled over two exits up. We never met its owners. I thought about them all summer. Did they think about us each time they looked out that window? Did they build an addition with their insurance claim?

***

Megan and I had embarked on this relatively short road trip (7 hours from Dallas to Marfa) for her 21st birthday. We’d taken her car—a Volvo XC90, car of choice in my grade of anxious suburban parents—because it was deemed safer than my sedan. Because Megan elected to take the wheel far more frequently than I when we were in high school, this mini-SUV became the car of my teenage years—afternoons driving together to tutor at local middle schools and weekend movies and awkward dances. And now I had totaled it in my burgeoning adulthood. Still sitting in its beige leather seats, we tried to assess the damage. A few broken windows could be replaced. The airbags hadn’t gone off. Maybe it really wasn’t that bad.

***

Our army medic is relieved by the actual medics, who are dismissed once they declare us un-concussed. We pass into the custody of Trail, a mustached police officer who offers to drive us in his police pick-up truck to the Cracker Barrel and shepherd Megan’s car to the wrecker. The wrecker. The wreck. To wreck. The location, the noun, the verb. They cycle through our conversations like a language lesson on verb tense and semantics.

We climb out of the car through the one working door and into the grass of the median that in March and April was speckled with bluebonnets, but by late May is already brown. The bumper has fallen off the front of the car. The Volvo’s white doors have mud splatters reminiscent of a safari jeep. Circling the car we move toward the westbound side of the four-lane highway. The ground is wet and squelching but the grass is tall and itchy. I try not to think about what would have happened if the median hadn’t been there, if I’d been driving not between a house and a grassy swath, but between a house and a concrete barricade. We march through this miraculous open space, feeling the glass in our shoes, finding it in the folds of our t-shirts, lodged into our palms. We cross the highway, to the service road where Trail’s police truck waits.

In the back of the truck, I try to come up with comparable failings, mistakes, mishaps of the past twenty-one years that I’ve recovered from. I can’t. I’ve never felt this guilt, this responsibility, this shame. “This is everyone’s worst enemy,” I finally say because I can’t find the word fear. “No, it’s not,” Megan says, a concise comment as sobering as it is reassuring.

I keep telling Megan that I’ve just totaled her car and she keeps telling me that it’s okay, that we’re okay and will be okay. Insurance, etc. Trail turns around and looks me in the eye. “She’s a really good friend.” If totaling a car is the true test of friendship, Megan has passed without stopping to think. This is the girl who gives me homemade snowglobes to mark important life events, who reminds me that the boys don’t matter, that the passions are valuable, that the goals are attainable. It was with this affection and unconditional trust that she climbed into the passenger seat.

 ***

Even before the accident, I did not have a reputation as a Good Driver. I exercised my right to vote before I exercised my right to drive on a highway despite merciless teasing by everyone from my boss at the local newspaper to my little brother’s highway-savvy friends. So Megan drove us out of Dallas, navigating what we call the Mixmaster, a complicated system of winding elevated freeways that reshuffle cars in overlapping loops to rival those at Six Flags Over Texas. It is constantly under construction, portions of it christened with the name of this or that Bush every so often.

After leaving Dallas, Megan turned the drivers’ seat over to me My only task was to drive 340 miles on I-20, a straightforward highway designed for a state where you can drive 340 miles squarely within its borders. But we only made it 188 miles, two exits from where we’d planned to stop for lunch.

 ***

Now in Abilene, we deposit the battered Volvo with the wrecker. We retrieve whatever we remember to retrieve (not my water bottle, not my sunglasses, I would later discover). My dad begins his drive to Abilene, retracing our route to pick us up.

From the back of the police cab on the way to the Cracker Barrel, I try to give my mother a play-by-play of the crash. I know Trail is listening, I know this is evidence against me, but I don’t care. I need to describe what happened, as if laying it all out will soften its impact.

When I get off the phone, Trail tells me he’s been listening. He says he’s going to have to write me up. My offense? Failure to pass safely on the left. Accurate, though a terrific understatement. It’s the first thing that’s made us laugh this afternoon. Some days later I’ll wonder how we would have been treated if we weren’t two graduates of a 102-year-old former finishing school, but two black boys or Hispanic boys whose glove compartment had been crushed so that we couldn’t retrieve our insurance documents.

We pull into the Cracker Barrel parking lot and Megan tries to open the door so we can get out. Of course you can’t open the back of a police truck. Trail lets us out, and we thank him and go inside, walking past the souvenirs meant to evoke a time before washing machines. We tell a young-ish, blond-ish waitress that we’ve just been in an accident, that we’re waiting for my dad to pick us up, that we’ll be there for a while. She brings us menus, we order coffee. It’s warm and tastes like somebody offering some sort of comfort, but it doesn’t really taste like coffee. She keeps coming back to see if she can get us anything, but we aren’t hungry. Megan has cards. We play gin rummy or something. We avoid the topic at all costs. We keep our phones charged. We wait for my dad. When he’s close, we ask for the check.

Our waitress is confused, “I’m not going to charge you! You only had drinks.” As though she hardly even noticed our three and half hour presence. As though there aren’t restaurants where you can get a glass of wine for the price of Cracker Barrel’s most expensive entrees. But of course, this is the Cracker Barrel in Abilene, Texas. We leave a nice tip and meet my father in the store section. His hug is grateful and understanding and makes me feel much, much younger than a new driver. His questions have a lot to do with the mechanics of the crash, of what the car and the house looked like before and after. I will learn in the next few days that after the requisite “all that matters is that you’re okay,” this is what most people are most interested in: how does one possibly end up in a car accident with a house?

We drive back down those two lanes I thought I could navigate, passing trucks bearing OVERSIZE LOAD signs but not houses, back toward the Mixmaster that will spit us out in Dallas. In the shower, finally, I wash more glass from my hair. I consider treating my one small cut with Neosporin, but I want the scar to stay.

 ***

For a torturous 24 hours afterwards, I can watch Megan’s Snapchat story of the seconds before the accident. If the sound is on, I can hear the music from our eight-hour playlist in the background, a faint giggle, my voice. The image: the ongoing expanse of barn-red house moving alongside us, going on for an almost unbelievable number of seconds, till the car (the car is me, I am driving the car) is just feet from passing the house. And then it ends.

Maybe I glanced over and veered right, or maybe I went too far left and into the median and lost control in the wet grass. In those seconds, instead of passing those last four feet of moving house—a version of the Snapchat I imagine over and over and over again—I was wedged into a muddy median, facing oncoming traffic. But it’s the mystery that makes it hard to watch, not the facts.

 

When Caroline tells people she’s from Dallas, their most common reaction is surprise. If you like surprises, you can reach Caroline at caroline.sydney@yale.edu, she’d love to meet you.

 

Comments are closed.