Generations Three Car Crashes and the Long Afterward
The story is no longer me and my vehicles but my mother and hers. We called it an accident, but it wasn’t.
When I remember it, I remember wrong; I remember versions. I hit the truck or the truck hit me. I saw it coming or I didn’t. I’d forgotten how to stop, I never knew how to stop, I should not have been rollerblade-soaring down the neighborhood hill. All I wanted was my freedom.
By the time I dragged my body home it was a foreign color. A moon was rising high on my thigh, an astral rock that, all these years on, is glowing.
It frightens me.
It is me.
When I was struck again, I was only walking—early on my way to a teaching day on an urban campus, headed for the train. There was ice on the roads and the signs and the wires. The sun on that ice was blinding. At the four-lane crossing, the only car I saw had stopped to wave me forward. Into the dazzle of the road I stepped. In memory, I still do not see the second car. I only hear the shattering. Then vision returns: The busted side mirror of the car on the asphalt. The commotion of books. The far-off toss of the hat that had been ripped from my head. The old woman beside the old man in that old car, praying.
The train shivered in. I collected what could be collected and abandoned my asundered hat and jagged toward the platform, hardly breathing. The train doors opened then closed on the crowded heat and the car rocked and suburbia blurred and my left arm was now too thick for the sleeve of my shirt, the sleeve of my sweater, the sleeve of my jacket; my left arm was detonating. I have been hit , I confessed to a stranger. Eight stops east, we left the heat of the train for the cold of the city. The stranger flagged a taxi. She slid in beside me and we sped, and now, in the emergency room: x-rays, a sling, codeine, a three-hour wait for my release. Release me. I walked the campus to the Victorian room with the damaged velvet curtains and taught the students who had been waiting, the students I called my Spectaculars, for nothing had been broken.
All of this arises in the horizontal now, on a crooked page, during a morning’s bout with vertigo. All these words are suddenly here, drawn up from the unguarded well of my remembering, and now another thought stirs—unruly, undisciplined, implicating: I was my mother’s first-born daughter, but not her favorite . It is a single inapposite assertion, an eruption from the middle child who is far too old to be haunted by former disequilibria and secret exclusions, the history of preference for the second daughter, but here I am—ridiculous and entrenched—writing the words down on the page.
Vertigo tilts perspective. I stare at the words but not her favorite and the story pivots. The story is no longer me and my vehicles but my mother and hers. We called it an accident, but it wasn’t. What happened to my mother involved thieves—a premeditated snatch of her purse while she was zippering herself into a fashionable choice in a Boston dress shop. The hands reached beneath her changing-room door. The feet ran. There was jewelry in my mother’s purse, there were keys, there was pride, and she went running, shoeless, after the assailants into the street, where the getaway car was revving. She was nearly there. She inhaled and stretched. She was knocked to the ground and the car accelerated over thighs, knees, feet, over neurons, axons, over electrochemistry.
I was a college freshman when my father brought my mother home from Boston. I returned to the house each weekend to sit by the couch where she lay. I brought Termini Brothers biscotti, train-station flowers, F. Scott Fitzgerald, medical news on crush and chronic pain and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulations and bags of ice and glass bells and glass apples and glass angels and anything, anything to short-circuit her short circuits, but my mother had been thieved.
After I hit the truck or the truck hit me, I stopped rollerblade-soaring toward freedom. After my arm sliced the side mirror from an old man’s car, I could barely leave one side of the road for the other, and crossing stops me still: the hyperventilating doubletakes, the east-west calculations, the curbside stranding, that mark on the asphalt where it happened. After my mother was shoved beneath the wheels of the getaway she was permanently rearranged—new messages sent through new pulse pathways toward a self-defending brain.
She missed dancing the Charleston.
She missed walking the beach.
She missed bike rides and tennis games and easy sewing and sleep and unswollen knees and the first-born daughter who, once, had had no need to fix her, who, once, had not asked after pain she couldn’t explain, who, once, had not been cureless, clueless, even. Week after week.
Time is a glass arrow. Time is the ice on the telephone wire, the distortion of the gleam. Now onto this crooked page I am writing my twenty-first birthday. I am placing myself on the fourth step of the hallway stairs in the house with the couch while my mother is on the phone in the kitchen talking to her best friend. Her nerves misfire, and her thighs tumefy, and her pain is the pain I cannot cure, and she is saying: Beth is the daughter I wish I’d never had. Beth is too much trouble.
After I hit the truck or the truck hit me, I stopped rollerblade-soaring toward freedom.
If saying is the wreck of a thing, so is not unhearing.
In the long afterward—my marriage, my child, my home, my words—my mother and I bought each other many things. She bought me winter coats and reading lamps, shelves and volumes, necklaces and rings. I bought her porcelain shoes and pepper shakers, Humpty Dumpty figurines, more F. Scott, glass hearts, glass apples, glass wings.
The things were hieroglyphs and intercessions. The things were the wedge between. The things accounted for the fact that I had never told my mother what I had heard, had not explained my own self-defending brain, had left her in the dark regarding my emotional retreating.
When I remember it, I remember it wrong; I remember versions. All through my mother’s living I called her every day. All through her dying I was there, by her bed, with orchids, pumpkins, tea cups, tea. Her last three words— I love you —were spoken to me. And in that moment, of that moment, I was undefended; I believed.
Still, in this long morning, this afternoon, now, of vertigo, the old wounds rise, astral. The old wounds turn a story twice, and so I stand from the bed and steady myself and head downstairs to the box where I have been keeping a handful of my mother’s letters, most of them written in my twenty-second year. I have had these notes for many years now, and I have never read them.
If saying is the wreck of a thing, so is not unhearing.
I remember when I was 22—all day I said to anyone who would listen, “Today is the 22 nd of May and I’m 22.” Wasn’t I clever? But I suppose that, in a way, is not all as dumb as it sounds. Perhaps that is one of life’s mysteries—to find a near perfect balance between life’s simplicities and life’s mysteries.
Now last night, when sleep was reluctant to rest on any pillow, I thought of beautiful things I could say to my beautiful 22-year-old—now, however, it just seems that I don’t want to be clever or wordy—I just want to tell you how much I love you—Dad and I—and how pretty your little brown head of curls is. Your smile is an instant frown remover and your talents abound. Mostly, we just love you.
1. May the wisps of childhood-like occupations always remain to replenish, uplift, and delight you. They should always be a tool of your craft.
2. This gift required the convergence of all there of our ideas—what would please Betsy most? This is our collective worldly interpretation. Were we close to the mark?
3. Your father and I want to tell you that whatever the weights and hollowness of attending Penn, you did do it on your own intellectual magna-cum-laude terms. More importantly, however, you did it on your own moral terms. No one can underestimate that achievement. Dad and I are suitably proud of you for that.
I think I’ve jumped around a lot, but images don’t always assemble themselves in a rational line. Feelings are brittle, porcelain-like. They crack, they chip, and sometimes break into smitherins. (Now there’s a word I’ve heard used many times and don’t think I’ve ever seen. It’s a word, isn’t it?) Sometimes a chip doesn’t matter. But sometimes the finest artisan can’t repair the damage and it must be discarded . . . The summer has been such a maze. Trying to rationalize you there, us here.
You were once an etherial creature.
Smithereens is a word, Mom, yes.
Your smitherins break me.
I saw it coming, or I didn’t. I heal myself with versions, or I won’t. I cannot rationalize her there, me here, and the astral rock grows, and I miss her walking the beach, miss her waiting for me, miss her not underestimating me, and perception tilts, it will never, now, stop tilting.