I shimmy into another dress and arrange myself in the fitting-room mirror. My fiancé steals glances.
“I think we go back to the blue,” I say. For our rehearsal dinner, the simple navy satin A-line will do.
“The blue is my favorite!” he says. I’m not surprised. It’s the perfect fit and price, the perfect time to get out of there and walk home.
It’s raining when we exit Saks on 49th and Fifth, so I pull umbrellas from my tote. The walk sign blinks, and I move quickly. He blocks my way. Bouncing back from his chest, irritated, I search his face for a reason. But my mind softens. I don’t care where we walk, I’m just happy about the dress, happy that after fourteen years, we are finally getting married. At the corner of 49th and Madison, we stop again before crossing, this time to adjust the hanging bag so it doesn’t drag on the wet ground.
I hear it, though I don’t know what it is: a concussion. Continuous crunching. Bright tone of cracks ripping rapid-fire across glass. Mellow whup whup whup as tires spin free. Wheeze of bubbled liquid bursting through tiny fissures. Then: “Help me, God, please help me.” Against the blaring onslaught, I futilely cover my ears.
“Don’t go,” I say. But I know he will.
It takes me several seconds to understand: a car, flipped over, flattened and smoking, undercarriage black and tires still rolling, sits menacingly out of place—as though a boulder dislodged and crashed on the sidewalk—on the southwest corner of 49th and Madison, the spot where, if he hadn’t blocked me, if we hadn’t paused to adjust the dress, we would have been standing.
Whatever I’m saying to the 9-1-1 operator must be clear. She says, “You’re the first to call,” and, “Help will be there soon.” I’m panicked that the smoking car will explode. Three bystanders hoist it so a fourth can drag out the screaming driver, whose face is veiled by a blood mask. Still in the street, my fiancé holds his palms up to stop traffic. “Come back,” I mouth to him when first responders arrive.
We watch police and paramedics and firefighters run the rainy scene.
“Do you think the car landed on anyone?” I ask.
“I don’t know. But a pay phone was there.” He points to a concrete sidewalk square
pried up on an angle. Black spots mark where metal legs were anchored. “Now it’s not.”
“Does anyone use public phones anymore?”
“Not many. Some. Or they wouldn’t still have them, right?”
“Pay phones seem useful only in emergencies,” I say, barely registering irony.
We interlace our fingers and step deliberately under the still-drizzly sky. I stop us several feet back from each curb. I want Mexican food, hot enough to burn my mouth. Over chili at Comfort Diner, my fiancé and I recount the event, piecing together the timeline that has already become shaky with shock.
“Why did you block me?” I ask. We should have crossed to the south side of the street. That’s what you do in New York, cross when you can.
“I don’t know. Something told me to stop you. I had this weird feeling we should walk on the north side.”
At home, he calls his parents with the story. It sounds foreign, some details different from what I remember. He describes a tire screech. I don’t remember a tire screech. He says he waited before running into the street to stop traffic. I remember him bolting. I remember this, because by bolting, he left me on the sidewalk, alone in my fear for the driver, for pedestrians who might be under the car, fear for another version of us standing on that corner.
And now, a few minutes later, I think I remember feeling aloneness, because aloneness is my biggest fear. I’ve fastened my biggest fear to something big and frightening that just happened.
And now, by wondering about it—
And now, by writing notes to log that it happened, should I ever doubt—
I have altered the memory again.
When I was six, a drunk driver on Interstate 95 in Connecticut killed my father. I don’t remember my father, but I remember the crash like I was in the car, superimposed on my figment father, my legs too short to reach the brake. The few times I’m in control of my intrusive memory that is not a memory, I decelerate the oncoming car and tell the drunk driver to veer to the shoulder. If she can understand me through her inebriation, maybe she’ll be that woman in that car pointing the wrong way by the guardrail rather than that woman in that car smashed all the way into my father’s hood, windshield, and torso. Just a few feet to her right. Sometimes when I’m driving in real life, I think I see the oncoming car, so I brake as if it’s real, because even though I did not see it when it happened, it was, once, real.
I don’t call my mother, or anyone else. Instead, I turn on the television, flipping to a Travel Channel marathon of “Bizarre Foods.” I empty my closet into heaps and try everything on, while host Andrew Zimmerman tastes Sicily’s craziest cuisine—cow stomach soup, chocolate rabbit, tuna sperm. We’re planning to drive around Sicily for our honeymoon. I make a note to look for tuna sperm. I’m not an adventurous eater. But aversion to something like tuna sperm has dissolved into smaller particles of apprehension, and I feel like I could try a taste. Maybe on pizza.
I find an older dress, a black silk slip with lace overlay in rich rose and moss green. I should wear this to the rehearsal. I hang up the blue dress, still in its Saks bag, and change into pajamas.
Within a few hours, I can barely remember how it happened out there on the sidewalk, but it imprints nonetheless. When it rains, I will not stop on corners or near pay phones, and I will look all around me, because now cars come from anywhere, even the sky.
Suzanne Farrell Smith’s work explores memory, trauma, health, education, and parenthood. She has been published in numerous literary journals, including the Kenyon Review, Literary Mama, Post Road, PANK, Referential Magazine, and Crab Creek Review. An essay is forthcoming in Creative Nonfiction’s anthology Oh Baby!: True Stories About Tiny Humans. She was honored to have an essay in Hippocampus Magazine‘s inaugural issue. A college writing teacher and freelance editor, Suzanne lives with her husband and three sons at the foot of the United Nations in Midtown Manhattan. More of her work can be found at suzannefarrellsmith.wordpress.com.
IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Jenn Vargas
So powerful – and I love how you segue into the past, and how we shift our own memories.
Just reread. Yes, it is as I REMEMBERED. The last line is appropriately terrifying in its impact. Unanticipated, just like the event. This my friends is how it’s done. Bravo, Suzanne!
You’re so kind to return! For so many of us, we anticipate multiple traumas and tragedies almost all the time, yet are stunned when a new one lands on us or nearby.
Suzanne, I love the balance you strike here, the lightness of the dress with the way an incomprehensible event so quickly becomes imprinted, and haunting. Beautiful.
Thank you so much for reading, Jennifer! And a huge congrats to you as well!
Beautifully told all around, but what I like best is the way you talk about how this event almost instantly becomes memory, and so links to previous memory (and embellished non-memory that has been fashioned into its own kind of memory) and will spike future events, tiny and huge, that will also, in a fraction of an instant, become memory. This is how we make ourselves.
Thanks for this, Claire. I find it eerie how much self making happens during times when the self is nearly undone.
Thank you so much, Elizabeth!
A stunning, layered narrative that lingers and grows with each reflection. Thank you, Suzanne!