by Emma Carmichael
In the final few weeks of what was, for me, a pretty bad year, a phrase has hung around in my head. I say it to myself sometimes: “Babe. Neither of us r the same.” It’s a seven-word excerpt from a Twitter story that captivated the internet for a few days this fall, and it’s only as deep as you want it to be.
About six-and-a-half months ago, my cousin and I were crushed between the passenger side of a fourteen-thousand-pound Ford F450 truck and a line of cement Jersey barriers, the only objects that separated us from a very long drop into very shallow water. It was a Thursday in the first week of June, nearing midnight, and we were trying to get from New York to Rhode Island for a bachelorette party. We had a flat tire, and then the car caught fire and, anyway, we made it as far as the Q Bridge in New Haven.
I’ve been having a hard time writing about what happened, which is odd because I find it easy to talk about. I talked about it my first conscious day at the hospital, when I was so loaded with narcotics that I don’t remember a single word I said and regularly picked up imagined fragments of conversations out of the air. “Did you talk to the guy?” I’d ask my dad, out of the blue. I’m told I said a lot. I knew some details, the basic angles, of what had happened. I remembered the way a pair of headlights flashed in a stranger’s eyes right before my back, pelvis, and leg were shattered and my cousin, Molly, nearly bled out onto the pavement a few feet away from me.
Neither of us are the same. I’m still learning how that will be true. A week into my hospital stay, a doctor mentioned that I’d broken my back, a detail no one had yet told me. A few months ago at a follow-up appointment, my surgeon said that they’d been unsure whether or not I’d keep my leg. I look at my leg and try to imagine it gone; I look at the new titanium in my X-rays and try to imagine the surgery, my skin opened up to bright lights and probing tools. It’s hard to excavate or linearize the in-between, the moment the loud noise in my memory became the scar on my leg, the way I flinch at certain sounds now.
I talked about it in the weeks following, as friends came to visit. “Want to hear what I remember?” I’d ask. I was prepared, even if my audience was not. For a while, I found comfort in re-telling it, and even in seeing their horror. I couldn’t remember much, but I could tell you about where we’d been standing, and just how it looked when my vision mercifully faded black as I went into shock. Telling it, more than the rods protruding from my body — four down my left leg, one in each hip — was proof that it had happened. It all felt like a dream, so the story mattered.
At dinner not too long ago, I found myself using salt and pepper shakers to show where the cars had been, a fork to show the side of the bridge. See? And then, after a long look: Is this weird? Another time, meeting with a new physical therapist, I found I had to stifle laughter mid-story as her face shifted from interested to frightened. It’s not that it was funny, it’s just that I didn’t know what I could say to comfort her — and yet I knew that part was up to me, too.
Like any good, accommodating young woman, I have learned how to read my audience, to decide how much of myself I’d like to give someone or how much they can take. I have, by my own measure, overshared; I have also said very little. Once, when I was on crutches at a house party, someone asked what had happened. “I broke my leg,” I said. A friend guffawed. It was true, I pointed out later.
A story becomes less your own when a public version of it exists, which is a funny thing for a blog editor to learn first-hand. One day removed we were already “pedestrians” who’d “suffered serious injuries to their lower extremities”; not long after that I was the editor of a “a popular news site” who was “recovering from a fiery 3-car crash.” We learned, quickly, that much of figuring out what to say meant deciding what kind of reaction we were game for. Molly won’t say “car accident” because she thinks it diminishes the fault of the driver that hit us. Sometimes I say it anyway because there are fewer follow-up questions. “I got hit by a truck” is technically true but also gets a double-take. “Car fire” is incomplete; “flat tire” feels like an inside joke. “Well, babe,” I think I’d love to tell a stranger, “neither of us are the same.” I’m still figuring out how to control the story’s general emotional power; sometimes even just stating the facts induces tears.
I’m surprised at the way the arms of my trauma unfold and pull people in. The young man who stopped to help us says he no longer slows for cars on the side of the road. My dad remembers the caller ID flashing late at night, an institutional voice on the line asking if I was his daughter. My younger brother thought, for thirty minutes between phone calls, that Molly and I were both dead.
“I went over to the first victim,” one of the first responders on the scene told a local news station the next day, in a segment I watched twice and then never again, “and I thought she was just leaning up against the truck. She told me that she was trapped and that her cousin was trapped. I didn’t see her cousin so I looked over and it was one of those, oh my god moments.” I don’t remember seeing him, but I try to place myself there, stuck, hurt enough to scare someone.
When I left the hospital in July, after a six-week stay, I was in a wheelchair and had a series of metal bars protruding from my pelvis that made it look as if I had a perpetual, giant boner; some weeks after that I was using a walker with tennis balls on its legs to get around New York City; a few weeks after that I was on crutches. I only just ditched the crutches at the beginning of December. For the first time in more than six months, I have no signifier that announces that Something Bad Happened Here, so I don’t have to explain myself as much. This is both a startling adjustment — what am I now that I’m not hurt? — and a welcome one. It’s nice to get around unaided, and to skip that conversation, the probing addendums that come with it: Many people have absurd unsolicited advice for how we should have behaved differently when we nearly got crushed to death.
You shouldn’t have pulled over, I’ve heard. You should have run, I’ve been told.
But we were so lucky, I’ve said again and again. I know it’s true, and also that it’s a hollow line for a moment of chance I’m unable to make sense of. I try to understand it as a physics problem — salt and pepper shakers and a fork — but I was never any good at physics. My cousin and I both turned to our left at this moment, and then we turned back to our right at this moment, and for some reason, when the truck crushed us, it did not paralyze or kill us. God sent His angels down to that bridge to save you, a nurse told me as I cried in her arms in the hospital one morning. I nodded because I needed to feel the warmth of her belief as much as she needed to have something to say. Some people have told me we should have stayed in a burning car, and I don’t have much to say back. If I can’t fill the in-between, at least I can listen to the version of the story someone else is more comfortable hearing. The physics of it, though, are no more comprehensible to me than a nurse’s conviction that I was saved by God. I don’t understand why it wasn’t final. I try to understand that what I am dealing with here is essentially the results of unfortunate circumstances and fortunate spacing. I try to picture it.
I’ve been made to believe that a natural progression from a close encounter with death is to have a new perspective on things, maybe a steelier resolve. On some level, this must be what people mean when they ask me now how I’m doing, or if things are back to “normal” yet. Molly and I talk about how our version of “normal” has necessarily shifted, but that’s a functional blanket for an infinite number of things that have slowly moved around, not a sudden tectonic rupture. It’s not that deep, but neither of us are the same.
When I was staying in an accessible building this summer, I often sat out on the balcony in my wheelchair, five stories up, and calmly pictured the structure departing from the building facade and dropping me into traffic in the West Village. Not long ago a curious but erratic cab driver brought me through a quiet section of Bushwick, asking me about my crutches. As we crossed a four-way intersection I saw an eighteen-wheeler coming at us with no signs of slowing. The driver accelerated slightly and I looked out my window at the approaching headlights and thought to myself, “Oh, it’s going to happen again.” The how of it speeds by, and all I can see is the collapse.
A few months ago, I found some comfort in the part of the narrative I knew. Now I’m trying to find comfort in what I don’t, that proximity to powerlessness, in not really knowing what to say.
Photo by Emma Carmichael
Save Yourself is the Awl’s farewell to 2015.