Wednesday, April 07, 2010

6:17 p.m.

I'm walking home from work. I hear tires screech.

All afternoon I've been hearing this. I work on the fifth floor; traffic noises don't rise, but four times today we all went quiet at our desks, listening. The first time we waited for the crunch, but there was none. The second time we waited again. The third time a colleague got up and walked to the window, looking out and down. The fourth time we looked up for a moment, then back to our screens.

I'm walking home from work, and again I hear the screech. I'm not paying attention. I'm shamed from an email exchange with a friend. I was clumsy; the friend stung.

At the office, I locked myself in the bathroom stall and covered my face with my hands. Last week, there was a woman crying in this stall. She was past the point of being quiet. All she could do was lock herself behind the metal door of the stall. Symbolic privacy.

I don't cry.

I'm walking home from work, and the screech is right in front of me. A white car veers onto the sidewalk then sharply away, into the middle of the street. I know there was a clash - there were two at least - but the sound is strangely distant. Like it's happening in a soundproof room.

The car reels toward me and I can see the driver inside, her arm lifted.

Why doesn't she put on the brakes? I see airbags puffed out stiff. She passes only a few feet away and I turn to see her door open, the car still going, but the door open.

The door is open and she's past and she rolls out of the car. Something stops the car, but my mind can't hold onto it. The car is stopped and she is two yards behind it, on the street.

She's lying on her back. She's young, maybe twenty. She's crying.

I'm walking into the street, dialing 911. She's almost at my feet when the operator answers. I look up to see two cops. There are already police here, I say into the phone, and then I see the highway patrol building is right across the street.

One cop lifts the walkie-talkie on his shoulder to his mouth.

I hear a quiet voice behind me. It was me, she says. We all turn to see another young woman, blond, half-smiling. She holds one hand to her chest, one finger pointed up toward her own face.

It was me.

The woman in the street is crying. I can't breathe, she says. Of course she can breathe, or she wouldn't be able to speak, but she can't make words for what she's feeling. I can't breathe, she says again.

I want to cry, too, but I don't. It would be rude to elbow into her disaster. I'm just someone passing on the street, already in the way, already cruelly gawking.

I am aware again of the bags I'm carrying. I pull away, and start slowly down the street. The story shows itself as I go: the blond's white SUV, headlight smashed, rear-ended the little white car. The little white car was pushed into the parked truck. The truck's owner is there. Did you see what happened? he asks a man smoking. The smoking man shakes his head. All I saw was a car on the sidewalk, ready to hit me.

I see the truck's tailgate is demolished, tools lying scattered and twisted in the street.

More police are arriving. Shards of the accident have stuck to me, sticking in and sticking out. Anyone to embrace me now would be shredded.

The wave follows me out from the center of the accident. A woman is yelling at her boyfriend, ineffectually putting her arms around him as if to throw him to the ground.

Four blocks on, a man shouts. Can I help you? He yells. Can I help you? A man crossing the street the other way yells back, but his voice is lost in the siren.

An ambulance turns my way, beating it past me and down the street. The siren is gratifying. Appropriate. I'm the only one to turn and watch it go.

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