It’s 1988 and I don’t remember much more about the date and time than that but I know that the world has gone from a torrent of wild emotion to one that is anything but.
When I wake, I’m greeted by concerned faces and expectations that I don’t understand.
My head hurts and, even though it would seem like I should understand why, I’m the only one who doesn’t know why.
She screams and a soda in a plastic cup with an ill-fitting lid flies through the air. She tries to move faster than life allows movement to happen.
Nearby, others are standing nearby but not entirely sure what’s happening or why.
No one expects life to change.
It happens, of course, but no one ever expects to have to see it happen in real-time.
It’s the equivalent of a sudden drop in barometric pressure or a tornado emerging and touching ground when all anyone was expecting was rain.
All anyone can do is panic or watch.
These are options that bring an absolute lack of comfort. The equivalent of being asked a question and only having an answer of, “huh?”
It’s 1989 and I’m running. To each side of me are others, most of whom I know but don’t really know.
Some are behind me, but not many.
Some are in front of me, but not many.
When I wake up, my head hurts and the world is quiet and empty.
All those people whose names I didn’t know are just as known as their faces are visible. It’s a vacant landscape of black and green that doesn’t make sense.
I walk into a brick building to random looks like a ghost has just come calling.
They look at me in the same way I’ve been looking at them for days, if not years.
Everything about this is both normal and entirely abnormal all at once.
No one knows what to say, especially me.
What began as a normal day suddenly shifts. People shift their weight and stop moving so suddenly that people tip and fall. Others, looking only forward, keep moving without realizing that the world has changed – that reality has flickered.
No one who cares knows and no one who knows cares.
Like so many others who don’t know what to do, or why, or how, they try to process the scene before deciding that sometimes the best thing to do is nothing.
Sometimes life is like this.
Even if that weren’t the case, what could anyone really do? After all, they’re not doctors. The oldest person watching is only nine.
The people who should be watching aren’t watching at all.
Isn’t that how it is most of the time?
It’s felt like an eon or maybe that’s just how time feels when you stop feeling it the way you’re supposed to. It’s 1998 and I’m in the passenger seat of a car and the driver is listening to the woman in the back seat complaining that she doesn’t have a lighter.
I see him fishing for the lighter and then look away from the road entirely so that he can give his attention to the person behind him.
He’s never known honest affection, only the literary versions of it and he doesn’t really see the difference just yet. Because of this, he cares more about caring than he cares about living.
He turns and lights a lighter that anyone on earth could have operated without his assistance or attention and I say, “Hey…” before we hit a light pole at forty-five miles an hour.
Life has a little black space where reality is supposed to go, but it’s missing in that moment – this little block of film in my mind’s memory playback loop.
The impact becomes a thing that was in the past so quickly that it was never in the present.
I get out and stand by the car while cops appear and people take statements and the man driving laments the consequences of caring so much that he forgets to care at all.
She’s fishing for a cigarette and she’s saying, “You got a light?”
He goes reaching for it. He’s so mindful of giving her what she wants that he cares so very little about what that actually means. So worried about starting fires that he doesn’t care what they lead to.
When the impact happens, bodies snap forward and pause in that moment like a rollercoaster at the peak of a sharp hill right before it plummets. Legs and arms extended like they’re reaching toward everything and nothing – grasping for salvation or an answer and knowing they’ll never find either one.
No one knows what to say once time starts moving again.
All they have left are little platitudes and affirmations about what it all means and why.
That’s what people do, after all. They wrap little bows around things so that even cancer is just a present because it was wrapped in festive paper.
There’s enough strobing red and blue lights that the whole world looks purple even though it’s the middle of the day.
It’s 2001 and I’m on a raised platform and that’s really all it takes sometimes. It’s the illusion of importance but, in my defense, when you tell a group of fifty people to do your bidding and they do it, it’s hard not to feed on that kind of energy.
The world isn’t standing up straight right and not three hours earlier I was asleep in the backseat of a car in weather so warm and humid that I woke up poorly rested, somewhat sweaty, and somewhat sticky from the many layers of dried sweat that came before.
When I move, my foot meets the edge of the platform and I feel myself spin.
Looking forward after I correct my stance I can see the divide not far from where I’m standing. I can see where a skull could rupture, a back could break, a leg could shatter. I see where a life can change and I’m glad that I’m as lucky as I am.
The drunk driver almost never dies. It’s almost always the sober driver in the other car that get’s eviscerated.
What began as a growing din and what became a thunderous swell of percussion and voices and general noise that – if transcoded – would amount to something that later cultures would decipher as being little more than a collection of abstract noises at different volumes suddenly grinds to a halt.
One man has no idea that anything has changed and the sound of toms and cymbals echoes his obliviousness. One other is looking around suspiciously but thinking that seeing means little and less.
Not ten feet away, more than twenty people are trying to comprehend what just happened and why even though dozens of people behind them are still locked into a time signature that has nothing to do with life and vice versa.
Sometimes music is like that. So transcendent that people lose track of reality. So absorbed in the chaos of a defined musical structure that things like atoms and molecules and gravity cease to be the reality in which we’re all living.
It takes a while to notice that things don’t sound quite right.
The emerging consensus is, “I thought there was a short in a wire or something.”
It’s 2003 and I’m in a room and people are making as much noise as I am even if I can’t really hear anything but myself. It’s like that sometimes.
I’m not fully aware and, if I’m being honest, that’s hardly out of the norm for me.
I don’t notice the faces or the reactions because I don’t care and I don’t need to and if I tried to tell anyone why, they’d tell me to stop drinking.
Time lapses like it does when you’re too inebriated. Suddenly it’s not the time it is and it’s another time entirely. I’m in a car and I don’t know how I got there and I’m not sure why it happened.
Someone is telling me something and I’m not fully understanding what they’re saying or why and I’m mostly sure that I don’t care because I don’t have to care.
I focus on making myself comfortable so I can sleep on the two-hour drive home while everyone else deals with whatever they think I did in the previous few hours.
If anyone were to have asked me – which they never do – I would have told them to calm down because everything is fine. It’s always fine. They just don’t realize it yet.
He’s gone from a scowl to something worse. His friends have largely followed suit.
The bulk of those nearby have done the same.
When the ocean shifts, it’s never gentle. That’s how major oceanic events occur: rapid changes that are more extreme than the environment can adapt to in such a short time.
It’s like gravity.
Tensions run high and only the people noticing are really dialing in on what’s going on while the rest of the world is oblivious.
That’s how it is most of the time. People only care when things affect them directly.
It’s like a change in taxes for married couples – all the single people shrug, but the married people panic.
The last one to pay attention is the drummer who is too engrossed in hitting things with sticks to notice anything else is happening.
There’s an irony there that other people have to explain to him more than one for him to see why it’s funny even though it’s never really funny when someone dies.
It’s 2004 and I’m in a car with a woman that I’m mostly certain I’m attracted to. If I’m being honest, I don’t know if that’s true or not because life is blurry and life is weird and it’s rare and unique for me to feel like someone wants me to be in such close proximity and I’m just happy to be there.
All the steps that led to this point feel like awkward stumbles and accidental steps that led me to something that I wanted but normally wouldn’t have known to want let alone how to get.
I turn to her and I tell her that I’d love to hear her sing even though I have no idea if that’s true. I just know that I want to say things that she’ll like because I want her to like what I’m saying so that she’ll like me for saying them.
When we hit the tree, it’s so jarring that I have no time to realize that it’s happening at all.
I don’t get to say, “Hey…” or anything else.
The airbag inflates and shoots the plastic cover off with such force that my eye is stuck in a squint from the impact.
She hits her legs and knees and is in too much pain to move easily and her friends – who aren’t far behind us – come and collect her.
I try to hold on to the moment because once it’s over I don’t know how long it’ll be before it happens again. I tell myself she’s in pain and I should care more about that and every time I try to it warps into a reality where I just want her to keep being in a car with me so I can be in a car with her so I can be anything other than alone.
Life is like that sometimes, though. Nothing but a build-up that leads to a dead end. To disaster. To pain. To a reminder that what we want isn’t ours. That what we want can be taken. That what we want is based more on us feeling better than caring about how many people have to feel worse.
He stands there trying to comprehend the turn of events.
He was driving. They were driving. They were all driving.
A small team of cars with no great purpose other than arriving at point B from point A.
But now he’s standing there and he’s trying to wrap his mind around what happened like this car is wrapped around a tree and he’s trying to make sense of a world that can operate this way.
He doesn’t cry because it hasn’t really landed yet.
His mind is in flight and, even though he can see reality for what it is, he can’t really understand it. Part of him is still lost in the false narrative of “maybe” where a person suddenly coughs like they do in a movie and they start breathing.
Instead, he stands there staring. Trying to figure out what to do and why.
He ends up with three other people trying to pull people out of a crushed frame of metal and fiberglass and he holds one of them and tries to articulate all the love he never said out loud because fathers don’t say those things to their sons until they’re dead and then it’s too late.
He pinches himself and he tries to wake up because this can’t be real.
He waits until strobes of red and blue appear and no one’s all that worried about the fact that they were driving drunk anymore because some people will never drive again.
It’s 2010 and I’m in a small home and I’m loaded.
I’m not sure where the tipping point was or when I got there but I’ve a passion for being “not all the way here” because that’s my wheelhouse as much as linear thinking isn’t.
I’m drinking something my friend calls a Russian Quelude and I don’t know what it tastes like but I know it tastes like salvation.
It tastes like escape.
I hear myself whisper an apology at some point before I open my eyes to a world of crumpled metal and shattered glass and flickering lights because a hand with a flashlight is knocking on my window.
I taste copper in my mouth and I stand barely upright while I say that I’m fine. Totally fine.
I pretend with everything I have in me before they put me in handcuffs and escort me away.
In the back seat of the car, stuck in hard, plastic seats, I shift my hands so they’re in front of me because it’s more comfortable and I say I’m sorry but the two officers think I’m saying it to them and one of them replies, “Not yet, you’re not,” because he thinks he’s clever but he has no idea what he’s talking about.
In a brick room of eight by eight, I pace the night away and then have a nap before waking up and having a sandwich and some chips as packaged by the world’s most frugal mother and I say I’m sorry again even though I know the camera and microphones in the cell are making the officers in some other room shake their head as though I’m offering those words to them.
Myopia affects us all, I suppose. Maybe it’s easier that way.
They’re standing there and they’re not entirely sure what to do or say.
She breaks first.
Maybe that’s just what mothers do, or maybe it’s just mine – I don’t know for sure.
They watch the light display and the cops and ambulance showing up and they hear the man tell them that they can’t cross the yellow tape and she says, “I’m his mother,” but the man with the badge doesn’t care what people say because he has a perimeter to keep intact.
He’s as much at a loss of words as he was the time before with the tree but, of course, he wasn’t him in that equation just like he isn’t now.
He watches and tries to understand while tears are forming that won’t emerge for days while she’s crying and trying to tell people that she wants to see the body and she wants to be in the ambulance on the way back and she’s saying, “He can’t be dead. My baby can’t be dead. Tell me he’s not dead.”
But the cops aren’t saying anything because they don’t want to say the truth and they don’t want to tell a lie, and so they don’t say anything at all.
It’s a hard ride to the hospital and a harder wait before a doctor comes out to explain the inevitable.
Life is like that sometimes – a fully settled bill just waiting for the rest of us to catch up to the payment.
I see life slow around me, if only just.
I hear myself say the words to the me that can’t hear.
I say, “I’m sorry,” and I mean it because it’s all that I can give.
I know that when the impact happens – when the consequences balance – when the pendulum finally swings the other way, I’ll do this again.
I’ll do it again.
I’ll look forward and I’ll say, “I’m sorry,” as though that’s enough.
As though that’s meaningful.
I’ll see reality right before it’s about to crash and I’ll take from the next me in the chain. The me that didn’t fail. The me that didn’t falter. The me that didn’t die.
I’ll see that reality and I’ll say, “I’m sorry,” right before I let the next me suffer and die so that I don’t have to.
I wouldn’t say I live a charmed life, after all. I’d merely say that, well, life has many ways that it can pan out. All the versions of me can’t live forever and it’s not my fault that I know how to give my worst moments away.
I tell myself that, maybe later, I’ll learn to do better. I’ll stop killing myself. I’ll stop saying that not running from death is the same as running from it.
Until then, I guess all I have to give are apologies to all the me’s I’ve killed. All the me’s I’ve destroyed.
I tell myself that, all things considered, it’s not really all that bad. After all, I’m still here, even if I’m not.
After all, we’re all me – just different iterations.