The Accident

This is not going to be a funny story.

I mean, yes—if I tried hard enough, I could probably think of a way to make it seem clever or ironic. But that would be a cheap thing to do, and while I’m shockingly up-in-my-head sometimes, and too glib (inappropriately sardonic), I am not in the business of cheapness.

I don’t have a written account of what happened, and in a way, I’m glad. When you write something down, it’s like that version becomes the official one. It starts to eat away your memory and whatever you left out will slowly disappear, until all you have left is what’s on the page.

So, I remember the little things because I didn’t write them down. And other things I’m almost sure of. I think it was a Friday. I think they were both wearing white T-shirts, but I couldn’t swear to it.

Here are the things I remember:

We were standing in the bus circle, waiting for route 38 to come and take us home. In two weeks, Irish would get expelled and I would not be devastated, or even very surprised. I remember that Irish was smoking, which he wasn’t supposed to be doing, so we were standing strategically, Little Sister Yovanoff and I positioned in front of him, arms linked, while Irish cupped the cigarette in the palm of his hand so the security guard wouldn’t see.

It seems important to point out that in this moment, I was really, really happy.

So happy that I was actually thinking about how happy I was, arm-in-arm with my sister, discussing John Steinbeck and watermelon gummi-O’s and whether or not I should grow out my bangs. (We decided yes. Which is good. Because they were really terrible).

Her hair was dyed a purple so purple it looked black. Mine was summer-bright, strawberry-and-caramel. We were like this perfectly mismatched set—her, and then me. Rose White and Rose Red. We were like this idealized version of us that only ever really existed in pictures.

me high schoolmaddy high school

In my head, I was making up a fairytale, how we went on an adventure. I was thinking how glad I was that we were related but didn’t look like it, how easy that made everything. How strange it was to be standing outside with your sister and a boy who used to tell you all the time that he was your made-up brother and now he only talked to you when none of his cool friends were around.

Little Sister Yovanoff and I leaned against each other, laughing at Irish’s jokes, at the plume of smoke drifting up from his hand. The sun was so bright and the grass was so green that for weeks afterward, I kept dreaming about it.

Here is what happened next:

They came across the parking lot together. The other boy, Rooster, was much bigger, and the way they were hanging onto each other, it was hard to tell who was holding up whom. Except Rooster had a hand against his face. He was putting most of his weight on #4’s shoulder, and every time he stumbled, I thought they would both fall.

And still, no one really noticed. No one looked at them, not really, not even me. (Before this happened, I’d always been so unshakably sure that I saw everything.)

We kept talking, quoting lines from Tommy Boy and debating the usefulness of the word “circumambulate.” Little Sister Yovanoff was teasing Irish about the cigarette, pretending she would slap it out of his hand.

Then #4 dropped Rooster on the grass in front of us and straightened up. His T-shirt was splattered red.*

At first it seemed like it had to be a joke, that there was just no way so much blood could come out of one person. Rooster was sitting slumped over with his hands pressed against his face while the blood ran down his arms and dripped from the points of his elbows. It landed in the grass, so shiny I thought it was glitter, the kind you buy in a canister at the craft store for two dollars. Then I thought it was paint. Then I don’t know what I thought.

We watched as Rooster fumbled out of his shirt, pulling it over his head and pressing it hard to his face, all one motion, very composed. With his free hand, he kept gesturing for #4 to just sit down. Blood was pouring off his elbows in rivers and #4 looked ready to pass out.

“Hey,” yelled Officer Jim, the security guard, pushing his way into the gathering crowd. “Hey, hey, you can’t take your shirt off on school property!”

Then Rooster raised his head and Officer Jim fell back mid-sentence, saying, “Don’t you know you can’t be—oh my God.” He gestured frantically with his hands, an up, up, up gesture.

Everyone was staring at Rooster, who sat bleeding on the ground.

I wasn’t.

I was watching #4, how he kept scrubbing at himself, trying to scrape his skin clean with his fingernails. His face was so white, and I had this weird, dreamy thought that it must be his blood welling up from the cuts in the Rooster’s forehead. That had to be the only explanation. It was simply that Rooster was bleeding out his blood. I knew it wasn’t the truth, and still it was the only thing that made sense.

Then Irish put his hand on my shoulder and it was like I woke up. The stupid, dreamy feeling went away, and the whole world got very clear. We stood there on the sidewalk, watching #4 hold his bloody hands away from himself. I knew, in a sudden wrenching twist of what might be considered my moral compass—I knew that I should go over to him, maybe offer him my hoodie. I should help him wipe the blood off his arms. Irish had me by the shoulder though, and I didn’t move.

By the time our bus showed up, the paramedics had come and were crouching on the grass. One of them was resting his knee in a puddle of blood and I could see it wicking up through the fabric of his slacks.

We filed onto the bus, talking in low voices.

“God, I think I’m going to puke,” Trip said in a slow, sleepy way, but no one paid attention because Trip was always saying things like that. His contributions were always running parallel to the conversation.

I was still thinking about #4—how he’d stood holding his bloody hands away from his body and I didn’t do anything, even though less than half an hour ago, I’d taken a zero just because of how tightly he was hanging on to the corners of his desk. Just because he’d looked like he wanted to be invisible more than I wanted a checkmark next to my name.

And now, I hadn’t even been brave enough to do something for him that he actually needed and I felt guilty in a way I’d never been guilty before. This fast, ugly rush, like I’d just failed at doing the decent thing because Irish had held me back without even knowing it, and because I was scared to touch a stranger. Like it should have been me—more than anyone—because earlier, when I’d been trying to hang up our poster in history class and I was too short, #4 had reached out and taken the tape. His fingers had brushed my wrist, just barely, and the shock of it made me freeze like a deer.

It should have been me because blood has never scared me. Thinking, For the rest of my life, I’ll remember this feeling.

“$%&@,” Irish said, dropping into the seat behind me. “That was pretty bad. That, ladies and gentlemen, is why you should always wear your seatbelt.”

Little Sister Yovanoff and I nodded in unison. The bus was less than half-full, but we were sitting together, even though we usually sat across from each other.

“Look,” Irish said, reaching over the back of our seat. “My hands are shaking.”

Across the aisle from me, Trip leaned forward and threw up Cherry Coke down the heater.

Irish sighed and let his head flop back, closing his eyes and looking long-suffering. “Trip, what the $%&@? Do you have any idea how bad that’s going to smell when it gets to be winter?”

But by then, Irish was expelled, and we had to open the windows whenever the heat came on.

*****

Okay, now I’m feeling helpless and kind of guilty all over again, so for the discussion: Tell me about a time you wanted to do something important for someone else and for whatever reason, you just couldn’t.

Or, maybe you could and did—in which case, I want to hear that too.

Also, emergency situations: do you act? Do you freeze? Do you indulge in surrealist daydreams about bleeding someone else’s blood? Inquiring minds want to know. (And by minds, I mean . . . well, I really just mean me.)

*To this day, I don’t know the true story of what happened. Substantiated fact: it involved a car.

High school is easily the most aggressive rumor mill you will ever encounter, but the popular version is that Rooster tried to flick a lighted cigarette out the driver’s-side window and hit Homer in the face, which caused him to swerve violently and hit a very large tree. This may or may not be remotely close to true.

I found a more reliable source on information in my aunt, who is a nurse at the hospital. On Labor Day, during a barbecue at her house, she told us that Rooster had fractured his skull, requiring a lot stitches and a lot of blood, and for the love of God, I hope you girls always remember to wear your seat-belts!

#4 was in the back seat and sustained no damage.

15 thoughts on “The Accident

  1. If I could highlight everything I loved about this post, it would be a very colorful post, indeed. Even though I was cringing for most of it… just reading about blood and accidents gives me sympathy pains!
    I’m a have-a-panic-attack-when-someone-is-in-need kind of girl, which makes me want to stay inside and never leave because it feels so selfish and awful. I was at a restaurant with my mom once, when I was about 18 or so, and as I worked with kids at the time, my CPR certification was up to date. Well, someone either started choking or had a heart attack just outside the door and I saw it from the window by my seat, and a woman ran in immediately, yelling, “Does anyone know CPR!” and I … had a panic attack. Full on red face, sweating, crying, frozen… it was horrible, but so much worse because my mom was staring at me, like DO SOMETHING and she even said, “Marisa, GO!” when I wouldn’t. And I couldn’t move. Someone else jumped up and helped the man and I just sat there unable to do anything but cry until after the man went off in an ambulance and we left.
    Ugh. Just thinking about it now reminds me of how useless and awful I felt!

    • It’s weird, I’ve absolutely never been bothered by blood, but even now, as an adult who should know better, I can’t imagine doing CPR on a stranger. I feel like I would freeze too. And maybe that’s not true, maybe in the real situation, I would hop to and do what needed to be done, but I’m not entirely confident. I think I might just get stuck on what I’m supposed to do.
      It’s endlessly fascinating to me how hard it is to prepare for things. Like, you can know that something might happen and go through all the training, and be very acquainted with what has to happen, but the real event is still so much MORE than going through the steps. Maybe that’s the trick—to just forget everything except the steps until it’s over.

  2. We only had one quasi-emergency when I was in high school. It was in my math class, which was on the third floor in the corner, basically as far away from the office as you could get. A boy in the front row had a seizure. I yelled “B, move the desks!” almost before he hit the floor, and then looked up the math teacher, at her face. For the first time in my life, I realized that the grown-up in the room had lost control. I remember thinking “She doesn’t know what to do. She doesn’t know what to do.” and then I don’t remember anything until I was standing at the bottom of the stairs, waiting for the ambulance.
    Apparently in the interim, I shouted things like “G, there are three PE teachers teaching math on this floor. Find them.” and “A, office. Ambulance. Now.” and “W, his sister is at the funeral [a classmate’s mother had died and half of 11th grade was at the service down the road], make sure she hears this from you.” and “Everyone else, cafeteria. Now.”, but I honestly have no recollection. I didn’t do any actual first aid, because he was still seizing and I wasn’t actually certified yet, but I made sure the right people were present (and, lordee, I’ve never seen anyone run so fast in heels as the VP ran that day!).
    I wish I remembered doing it. I have the CPR/FA certification now, and I don’t know if I could ever do it. It’s weird.

    • First of all, that is amazing! I know for a fact that I couldn’t have done it, and especially not in high school. At the time, my horror of taking charge was quite possibly stronger than my compassion or my sense of duty, or anything else.
      For the first time in my life, I realized that the grown-up in the room had lost control. I remember thinking “She doesn’t know what to do
      I think this is such an important moment—knowing that adults are not going to sweep in and save the day, because they can’t. In that regard, I think so much of being a teenager is living through all those moments where you realize that hey, you’re kind of on your own.
      I babysat a lot growing up, so I’ve done my fair share of monitoring fevers and deciding if cuts needed stitches, that kind of thing. But those situations always felt like my province. I was already in charge by default. Taking charge when the grown-up is supposed to be doing it and is now failing—that’s something completely different!

  3. I’m quite good in an emergency. I drove my mom to the hospital a couple months ago after a dog attacked her. I had my flashers on and just went for it. After I got there, gave them her insurance information, and got her to a nurse, I went outside the lobby and just shook and cried.
    When I tried to go back in, after I calmed down, the nurse told me I couldn’t go into the ER until I was calm. Which pissed me off, because I felt truly calm. I know now that she was right, that I was only calm in comparison to how I felt five minutes ago. But at the time it felt like being disqualified from a spelling bee after spelling a word correctly.
    The incident has given me a sort of fascination with nurses and doctors, and how utterly cold they seem. My mom was bleeding everywhere, and the nurse just gave her a towel to hold to her mangled hand while my mom answered questions about the dog, and about insurance, and about her horoscope sign. I know that she must have seen way worse in her career, but at the time I wanted to scream at her that we could do this AFTER my mom, who is the toughest person I know, stops crying from the pain of two brakes and a lot of rips. The burnout rate for ER nurses must be incredible.

    • That is really scary! I love dogs, and I’m still so scared of the damage they can do when they’re not trained right or they’re really aggressive or they panic.
      My aunt is a nurse, and she says you just turn it off and do your job, until it’s your own family. And then you freak out and ask a million questions and demand to see another doctor and start telling everyone how to do their jobs, because the thing about being a nurse is that you actually know what’s going on and exactly how bad it can get.
      I’ve always thought that I could be a coroner more easily than I could be a nurse, which I know sounds totally morbid, but when your job is to do an examination and make a report, that’s a world away from being responsible for people who come in scared and injured and in terrible pain, and doing that job every day.
      Wow, this sounds very serious all of a sudden. I think I asked for it, simply due to the topic!

  4. Oh this was painful and I know exactly how awful you felt/feel. I have a story like this, but it’s so bad that I am too ashamed to put it on the internet.
    I do think though, that because of that moment, I am now a person who does something in an emergency instead of just watching. It’s like there’s a little part of myself that always reminds me about the time I didn’t act and it won’t let me turn away.
    I always forget to tell you how much I love your high school stories and how brave I think you are to both relive them and share them with the world. Don’t ever stop. Um, please.

    • I won’t make you reveal your incident for all the internet to see, then :)
      However, I can’t promise I won’t nag you about it in person, because I am so curious it’s indecent. I don’t mean to be! I just want to know. And by know, I mean everything. Ever.
      I do think though, that because of that moment, I am now a person who does something in an emergency instead of just watching.
      I feel like this, too, although I have to admit, I’ve been lucky enough that it hasn’t really been put to the test. I tend to think of myself as a cool customer, but all that really means is, I don’t freak out about things. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I do the right thing, though.
      And I’m glad you like the high school posts! Not only do I really like doing them, but I have literally thousands of pages of journal entries, so there will certainly be no shortage. Also, when I had to ask myself the blogging question—you know, the what-do-I-have-to-offer question—it was this or shortbread recipes.
      This is more literary.
      The shortbread is really good, though.

      • Oh I will totally tell you because I’m pretty sure you will still be my friend after!
        Now I’m more like that crazy chick who calls 911 on you when you leave your dog in a hot car with the windows up while you run into the store, and then waits to make sure someone gets it out. So perhaps an overreaction, lol.

        • Oh, dogs in cars! There is nothing that makes me madder!
          (Well, there probably is, but I can’t think of it right now, because I am so hypothetically mad about hypothetical dogs left alone in hypothetical hot cars.)
          Also, I *have* seriously been considering adding a cooking feature to the blog, partially because I become massively more domestic in times of stress, so baking does actually relate to writing—kind of. But also because I make up recipes like woah! Also sort of like writing. At least, I’m pretty sure I could invent a metaphor.

      • Also. Shortbreads are my favorite. And just the other day I was wondering how one manages to make them at home when they seem so… professional. So I vote for the recipe some day!

  5. Firstly, just have to say that you are a terrific writer. I just love everything about your prose here. Terrible circumstances, but a great retelling of them. And I feel so bad for younger-you! I want to be there and tell her it’s okay if that happens because not everyone can handle bad situations–especially high schoolers!
    And secondly, most of the time in day-to-day stressful situations, I’m a screaming, sobbing, blithering mess. So I’m not really sure how it works, but for some reason, whenever there’s an emergency, my brain just goes into this other state of being. I suddenly get all calm, rational and precise, and I’m able to break everything down into the actions I need to take to make a certain result appear. (A skill, I’m sad to say, I totally lack in normal life). It feels like everything slows down by half except my brain, and all the answers come to me faster.
    The best example I can think of was when I was fourteen and got caught in a rip tide. At first, I kept screaming and sobbing and trying to get my family’s attention, which only made my situation worse. For one thing, my family had no idea that I was fighting to keep my head afloat (and largely failing), because they were on the shore and couldn’t hear me at all. And for another thing, all that fighting and screaming wore me out and made it even more difficult to keep myself from drowning. But then that little switch flipped in my brain, and everything slowed down, and I realized that if I didn’t get myself out of it, no one would. And then the sign by the boardwalk proclaiming to “swim parallel to the shore if caught in a rip tide” popped into my head out of nowhere. Needless to say, I survived.
    All of my emergency situation stories are like that–instances where I’ve needed to rescue myself or one of my animals. (If I ever have kids I will be a force to reckon with, because when one of my animals is injured I become supernatural in my ability to take care of them.) I’ve never been in emergencies with other people, besides holding a few car crash victims’ hands. I know I would be a good person to have around in those times, though, because my brain just goes into ACT NOW mode.
    And thanks for the stories. I love reading them/responding to them. :)

    • most of the time in day-to-day stressful situations, I’m a screaming, sobbing, blithering mess. So I’m not really sure how it works, but for some reason, whenever there’s an emergency, my brain just goes into this other state of being.
      I totally get this. I’m awful at things like decisions—they make me stressed-out and incoherent and then I go into the kitchen and make 200 potstickers and pretend the decision doesn’t exist. (No, seriously. This is why my freezer is full of potstickers.)
      But in a real emergency, like when the brake-line went out in my car while I was going down a very steep hill, there’s this amazing clarity, like a counting-down, thinking “Well, I have maybe ten seconds to figure out what to do and then do it. Otherwise, we might actually die.” Maybe that’s it—the might-die thought. Once you get there, everything else just falls away.
      What I’m still really bad at is taking charge. If there’s someone else there to do it, I’ll just stand back and wait, even while they make a bad call or mishandle the situation. This is not a very good grown-up quality. If I feel like an emergency is my responsibility, though—like if it’s happening in my territory (for instance, car)—I’m all over it.

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