When you’re in a car, going 60 miles per hour on an eight-lane highway, options are limited.
You can pretty much go forward….or…not.
How many times have I slowed to a stop on the freeway and thought, Accident. I hope no one’s hurt. God, I can’t even see it. How long is this going to take?
This past September, I traveled to Chicago for the wedding of two dear friends. C couldn’t go because he was in NY being all Broadway-y, so I had a solo adventure…happily ignoring the person in the seat next to me on the plane, exiting with only a carry-on, and being pretty smug with my fastbreak rental car.
I was given this huge, red SUV, for some reason. I felt important.
I got on the highway and headed north.
My friend S is good in a crisis. He readily admits to flipping over small things, but when the shit goes flying, he’s the eye of the storm. Cool, I remember thinking.
From the airport, the highway heading toward Chicago is four lanes going north, separated from the opposite four lanes by a low concrete barrier. That afternoon it was a balmy 90 degrees or so, and traffic was pretty good.
I found myself in second lane from the right, in the pocket – that empty space between packs of cars. I remember this, because when I first heard the sound, I saw that the cars in front were a decent distance away, and that I was leading the cars behind.
The sound was unmistakable. Have you heard the sound of rubber coming off a tire? It’s a FLAP-FLAP-FLAP sound, and it’s loud. It came up from behind, and I saw a white SUV pass me on the left.
What happened next was very much how people always describe an accident.
The rubber flew off the tire. The white SUV lost control, angled to the left and slammed into the concrete barrier. Then, it began flipping, sideways, over and over in the air.
I was going about 60 miles an hour, and the SUV was flipping at the same speed, right next to me. I think I started yelling oh my god and that’s when a man’s body flew out of the car.
Days later, when I talked to this man for the first time, he asked if my car was red. Yes, I said. Yes. I remember seeing it in the air, he said. Then he wept.
I grew up believing in a pretty nice God. It was a Father-Mother concept, and it was Love, capital L style. I’ve always been grateful for that, even though nowadays, my concept of what is divine has changed a bit. No matter. I think that if there is a God, whether people believe in it has very little to do with it.
When his body came arcing into the air I saw that he was wearing a white tank top and shorts. I saw him hit the pavement and roll. To this day, I don’t know how I didn’t hit him with my car.
Instead, I pulled over to the right and dialed 911. The operator answered as I was running back to the accident, and I did my best to tell her where we were and what had happened.
The man was lying across the two middle lanes. He had flown out of his shoes and was wearing white socks. He looked to be in his late 20s, early 30s. I crouched down on his left side and saw a small pool of blood to the right of his head. I never went around to that side. Amazingly, he was conscious.
About five men jumped from their cars and ran to help. One flew into action and grabbed a big orange traffic cone and blocked off the lanes. Then he directed traffic past the accident, yelling at people to keep going. Another man stood over and asked questions: Can you wiggle your toes? Can you wiggle your fingers? The man could and he did. He tried to raise his head and we collectively shouted at him to stay still.
Oh my god, he kept saying. It’s not my car. It’s not my car.
It doesn’t matter, I said. It’s okay.
No, it’s not, he said. It’s not my car.
It’s not your fault, I said. I saw what happened. There was nothing you could have done.
Really? he said. Really?
The sun was blasting down and heat radiated up from the blacktop. Someone got a towel and held it up to block the sun. What’s your name, man, one of the guys said. J____, he said, after a pause. Can you call my brother, J asked. Yes. Yes of course, I said. What’s his number.
But J couldn’t remember. Then, about five minutes later, he did. I called his brother and left a message.
Okay, I called him, I said.
What? J said. How did you know his number?
You gave it to me, I said.
I don’t remember doing that, J said, upset. I was going to see my son, he continued.
He’ll still be there, I said.
All told, I think it only took about 15 minutes for the firetruck to arrive. Everyone backed off and let the EMTs get to work.
One of the firemen talked to me as he opened the stretcher. No one else was involved in the accident? he asked, incredulous. I shook my head. He raised his eyebrows and turned away.
That’s when I started shaking. A very nice man saw me and gave me a hug. You did good, he said. Your voice was really comforting. I choked a thank you and shuddered.
He kindly drove me the 100 feet back to my rental car and made sure I was safely inside. Take your time, he said. Don’t rush it. Then he drove off.
I sat there and cried. I couldn’t stop seeing him flying through the air. I had a flash of what it would have been like to hit him and freaked out a little. C was in performance and couldn’t answer his phone. So I called my dad. And was suprised and happy to find how much hearing his voice comforted me.
After a little while, I carefully merged into traffic and spent the next half hour driving so, so carefully. Everything felt bright and wide and sharp. Breathing slowly became a mantra. The city was celebrating Labor Day weekend and I felt like an alien who had just landed.
There was no tear in the cosmic fabric, no enlightenment, only a strange sense of gratitude and jittery pride. I didn’t flip out. It was probably the most traumatic physical experience I’ve ever had, and my head stayed attached.
A few days later, after a beautiful wedding and returning home to LA, I got a call from J’s brother. He’d like to talk to you, he said. He’d like to thank you.
After crashing and flipping his car and flying through the air, J suffered only some minor head abraisons and a broken pelvis.
When we spoke on the phone, I told him how many people had rushed to help. I didn’t know that, he said, clearly moved. Oh yes, I said. Many people.
We keep in touch, texting each other on holidays, wishing each other well.
The next time I’m in Chicago, we plan on meeting. I’d like to give him a hug.