My mother always told me, or someone’s mother did, “pride goeth before a fall.” Yesterday morning, I delivered the keynote address at my alma mater high school’s biennial career day. I spoke to an auditorium of teenager girls who could have been my own classmates, climbing the stairs my feet still remembered to the stage that will probably always smell the same. Leaning over the podium, I spoke about the importance of creating something, of leaving your mark on the world, of owning your own voice and your own person, but letting that person grow and change, too. Familiar faces in the audience, of teachers who had formed me years ago, nodded and smiled along to sentiments they recognized as ones I may have held then, or that they had seen budding, in those days. I don’t remember everything I said. As always, I tried to write a speech ahead of time, but the words never feel real on paper, not when they’re meant to be spoken aloud. Even in my bedroom, when I practice ahead of time (I didn’t), they feel false without an audience.
But the audience was receptive, or deceptively so, and the small, in-class presentations I gave on what it’s like to be a journalist and a writer seemed to go well, too. My former teachers and I reconnected on that level so few of us get to experience: two adults, speaking on a level playing field. I felt like the prodigal daughter, bringing home largess from the big, wide world. It’s satisfying to see my book in my former English teacher’s hand, like achieving some unwritten expectation.
On the way to work after career day finished, I felt invincible. Higher than the sun that glanced off the blizzard snow that’d fallen the day before, my spirits danced as I steeled them for a long night of writing, editing and pagination.
I hardly remember where I first started to slide. My car has an icon that flashes a warning yellow when the tires can’t find traction, but it’s behind my hand when I grip the wheel, and I saw it flashing between my fingers as I turned, twisted, turned, thinking in pictures more than thoughts. Frozen slush that caught in my wheel-well. Other cars? No. Bridge. Slim railing between me and the street below. Guardrail on the other side. Twist, turn, try to come out of this.
Ok. Cosmetic. Get out of the road. Off the bridge. Donthitmedonthitmedonthitme. On the side, flashers on, cars whizzing by. Head aching.
I didn’t have time to get scared until afterward. The guardrail my car hit seemed to leap at me, white and silver teeth bared and flashing in the sun. But it wasn’t as terrifying as the edge of the overpass, that gripped my heart like cold steel fingers. A long way to fall, and I didn’t know how those railings would hold. My hands shaking, I surveyed the damage.
Front bumper, crumpled. Part of the driver’s side door accordioned, as if scraped back by some angry hand. Headlight, unbroken. Tire, pulverized.
Self? Self. Throbbing, shaky, but ok. So far, ok.
I called AAA and explained my location, best I could. Called my boyfriend. My boss.
“You chose today to get in a car crash?” He’s not one to mince words. “How am I going to get a paper done?”
“I’ll let you know when I’m done getting my head examined,” I told him. And returned to the business of fixing up my car and myself, best I could.
A police officer happened by, as I made the rounds through my employees waiting on me, my parents, anyone else who needed to know.
“Guardrail, huh?” Hands on his hips, he surveyed the damage. His tie was a knit, bright purple. Square edge, like the brim of the ranger-style hats state troopers always wear so square over their eyes. I wondered if they got to pick their own tie styles, and what his said about him.
“That one?” He pointed several yards behind us.
“Yeah, that’ll happen. You call a tow?”
He offered to call a truck again.
“They come faster for us, and it’s cold out here,” he said, winking as he trudged back to his own car with my license in hand. It always makes me nervous when a cop runs my plates. Even though I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong.
The tow truck came in short order and we barreled down the road, “Here Comes the Sun” on the ancient radio. The truck smelled like cigarettes and gasoline, an aroma that both frightened and comforted me. My grandfather had started a mechanic’s shop in the 60s, one my uncles still owned and where my family all took our cars. I’d grown up with that smell, in a way. It knew me.
My boyfriend enfolded me in an embrace that felt like coming home, as soon as we arrived at the collision shop. Sometimes, arms and shoulders can speak more truth than words, when words stumble over each other on their way.
The private ER we visited was empty when we arrived, the physician’s assistant younger than we were, still a disconcerting sight. She spoke in questions, but used words that belied her knowledge. Medical establishments are always brisk and intentionally mystifying. My keynote speaker outfit seemed ridiculous under a hospital gown, but the bracelet matched my skirt.
CT. X-ray. Put your hands like this, follow this light up, down, sideways, just your eyes, OK, go.
I left whiplashed and sore, dizzy from lack of food or anxiety or head-meets-window or all of the above, Awoke in a fog I recognize from the last time I hit my head, a sort of ethereality that makes colors sharper but edges softer, less extreme. The world seems more open to interpretation, this way. To happenstance.
So today, I’m thinking about what I told the students yesterday, about the fragility of that message, of myself. I told them to follow their dreams, to be themselves, to live cliches we’ve all heard a hundred times before, in a slightly different way. Sometimes I wonder if we’re all just talking to the versions of ourselves we see in each other, the mirrors we want to mold into our own best conceptions. And I wonder if I needed to crash my car to think about where I’m headed, and how much it means to me to get there. Wherever that may be.