by Will Dodson
I was driving home the worst date I’d ever had. She wasn’t really to blame, though her flirtatious behavior with the cashier at a leather goods shop in the mall was suspicious to say the least. I was primarily at fault. I asked her out under false pretenses, and then had the embarrassing lack of imagination that leads so many sixteen-year-olds to take their dates to the mall. Those false pretenses do not require here further explanation; suffice it to say they were false and leave it at that.
We lived in rural southwestern Virginia, Appalachian country, and the roads at night were dark, deserted, and windy. We weren’t speeding, but we weren’t wearing seat belts, either. All I could think about was getting this girl home and never calling her again, but the deer only wanted to get to the other side of the road. The deer appeared, she screamed, we lost control, and then, nothing.
At various times since the wreck, I’ve remembered the moment right before crashing in different ways. Each memory is vivid and feels true, yet they contradict one another and so cannot all be the way it actually happened. I remember leaning across the girl, shielding her with my body. I remember her grabbing the wheel when we saw the deer, and struggling to keep the car on the road. I remember going through the windshield, hitting the tree, and bouncing back onto the hood of the car before blacking out. I know that I woke up inside the car, so I must not have gone through the windshield, but that memory is so vivid….When memories contradict one another, how do we know what really happened?
I woke up dazed. My knee and a million points on my face throbbed in sharp, stinging pain. The pain in my neck felt particularly intense, and I reached up with my left hand to touch the wound. My fingertips brushed against a shard of glass and I winced. Without thinking, I yanked the glass out of my neck. Two inches, easily, of the glass was red with blood. How had it gone in so far and left me alive? I stared out of what was left of the windshield. We had gone into a ditch and smashed head on into a tree. The girl started moaning. I asked if she was okay, and she complained about her arm. I forced her door open—mine had been smashed in to my seat—and helped her out. Amazingly, I could still walk. Her arm, I think her right arm, hung limply, and she was dazed. I helped her up the dirt bank to the side of the road. She kept saying she was tired, that she wanted to go to sleep. I remembered some movie or television show where going to sleep meant you died. I kept her awake, made her count forwards and backwards, say her alphabet, anything to keep her talking while we waited for a car to pass.
I look back now at the blackout. I have no idea how long I was unconscious in that car. It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes, possibly only a few seconds. Traffic was light on the road, but someone would have passed by if we’d been there long. What I wonder about most are the characteristics of the blackout. There was nothing. No visions, no dreams, no sensations, nothing. When I woke up, I didn’t feel as though I’d been asleep. I just was, I wasn’t, and then I was again. Is that what death is like? Ingmar Bergman said he thought the death experience would be something like an experience he’d had at a hospital. He went in for a routine, minor surgery, but was given too much anesthetic. For eight hours he was just gone. He said he felt nothing, not even the moment before he lost consciousness. There was nothing. When he woke up, he could have been out for seconds or years and it would have made no difference. There was no pain, no sensation, no fear, nothing. Not even darkness. Just nothing. Is that what death is?
Eventually an ambulance came, and the police. They started asking me questions. I was dazed. They asked me if I’d been drinking. They went down to look in the car. I kept telling them not to do that, telling them that they had no probable cause. I’d had a recent civics class where I learned that the police are not supposed to search your car without permission or probable cause. Of course, I know now that not giving them permission gives them probable cause. What could I do then? I was confused. I’d hit my head. Two ambulances had come, and they were taking us to different hospitals because of our respective parents’ insurance. I resisted, insisted that they turn around and take me to the hospital where the girl was being taken.
The rest of the night is inconsequential to me. I got stitches in my knee. My face was a map of scabs and scars. The girl had a broken arm and ruptured spleen. They had to transport her to another hospital for an operation. I had to go see her in the hospital often, and couldn’t stop seeing her for another few months, which would of course have been quite bad form. She never became more attractive as a person, and my obligations only agitated my resentment, which lasted long after we finally parted company. The nightmare never ends.
I knew it wasn’t my fault. She said it wasn’t my fault either. Yet I felt guilty, of course I felt guilty. She could have died, I could have died. I knew also that everyone at school thought I was at fault, though that didn’t bother me at all. I still drove fast and recklessly—ironic considering I was driving safely when the wreck occurred. But now, now the memory is different. The guilt faded quickly, and the story of the wreck became a funny story I told about the worst date of my life. I would build the story for five, ten minutes describing in intricate detail every moment of the awful mall date—the drive to the mall, the walking around and inane conversation, the flirting with the leather store guy, making out in the parking lot and being caught by mall security—and finally the punchline: on the way home we had a violent and near-fatal wreck. Ha ha ha.
But now I review the memories, and I wonder what really happened, and I wonder about death, which is always near. And I wonder, who is a person who plans and dreams and hopes and seeks amusement and comfort and accumulation, only to become nothing at any moment? Even as I focus my energy on such considerations, yet my mind triangulates the reality of death away from my consciousness, abstracts it in order to concentrate on more immediate concerns (but what could be more immediate a possibility?). And so one wonders at life’s purpose, the amazing faculty we have to communicate inane ideas, the importance we place on such patently unimportant things, and all the other basic questions theologians, philosophers, mystics, and acid heads have asked over the centuries. The wreck was the closest brush with death of which I’ve been aware. Yet it was ten years before I even considered death’s possibility as an element of the wreck. That we survived, sans seatbelts and so forth, was of no amazement to me at the time or much later. But now, I can only wonder what it is I’m doing now, what it was I was doing then, what we all do and will do and so on and so on. What is all this?
No matter how long a story is, our consideration of the story is what gives it length and, such as it may be, significance. The wreck was no real tragedy. We survived without permanent damage. The girl had her spleen removed, but otherwise was fine. We were lucky, or unlucky for crashing and lucky for making it through relatively physically unscathed.
I wonder what she thinks about it, if.