HALF A LIFE
McSweeney'sCopyright © 2010 Darin Strauss
All right reserved.ISBN: 978-1-934781-70-8
"By the time you've run your mind through it a hundred times, relentlessly worked every tic of your terror, it's lost its power over you ... [Soon it's] a story on a page, or, more precisely, everybody's story on a page." -John Gardner
Half my life ago, I killed a girl.
I had just turned eighteen, and when you drive in new post-adolescence, you drive with friends. We were headed to shoot a few rounds of putt-putt. It was May 1988. The breeze did its open-window work on the hair behind my neck and ears. We had a month before high-school graduation. I was at the wheel. Up ahead, on the right shoulder, a pair of tiny bicyclists bent over their handlebars. The horizon was just my town's modest skyline done in watercolors. We all shared a four-lane road; the bicycles traveled in the same direction as my car. Bare legs pedaling under a long sky. I think I fiddled with the radio. Hey what song is this? So turn it up. Then one of the bike riders did something. I remember only that-a glitch on the right. My Oldsmobile stayed in the far left lane. After a wobble or two, the bicyclist eased a wheel into the road, maybe thirty feet away. My tires lapped up the distance that separated us.
Next the bicycle made a crisp turn into the left lane and my sudden car. Dark blond hair appeared very clearly in my windshield. I remember a kind of mechanical curiosity about why this was happening and what it might mean.
This moment has been, for all my life, a kind of shadowy giant. I'm able, tick by tick, to remember each second before it. Radio; friends; thoughts of mini-golf, another thought of maybe just going to the beach; the distance between car and bicycle closing: anything could still happen. But I am powerless to see what comes next; the moment raises a shoulder, lowers its head, and slumps away.
And then it's too late. My forearm hooks to protect my eyes. The front-seat passenger shouts. I picture my foot disappearing under the dash, kicking down for the brake, straining farther than any real leg can go. Yet the hood of my Oldsmobile met Celine Zilke at forty miles an hour. Her head cracked the windshield. I remember the yellow reflector from her spokes, a useless spark, kicking up the glass incline and over the roof.
My car bumped onto the grassy median. And then I must have done all the normal driver things. Put on the clonking hazards, rolled to a stop, cut the engine; I must have stepped onto the grass in my T-shirt and shorts. I simply have no memory of how I got there.
Celine Zilke, the girl on the bike, was sixteen and always will be sixteen. And I knew her: Celine went to my school. She was an eleventh-grader. I see her playing field hockey in blue gym shorts-Celine had been that lively, athletic type one always imagines in shorts. Or I see her settled in beside friends on the concrete benches just outside the cafeteria, or dashing off notes in the public-speaking class we took together. Celine sat by the window.
When I look back now, she strikes me most of all as young.
I walked to where Celine lay on the road. I didn't know who I'd hit or even that we'd had a serious collision. I thought in terms of broken arms and getting in trouble with my parents. Then I reached her and noticed the peculiar stillness of her face. This stillness transformed her-I didn't even recognize her. The eyes were open, but her gaze seemed to extend only an inch or so. This openness that does not project out is the image I have of death: everything present, nothing there. She lay on the warm macadam in oblique angles-arm bent up and out, foot settled under a knee. In the skin between her eyebrows there was a small, imprinted purple horseshoe of blood.
"I think maybe she's hurt," said my friend Dave. We couldn't tell if there was any life coming from her pale, parted mouth. Maybe she's hurt might pass for an obvious statement when you read it now, but it didn't as we stood over Celine on that morning. Her face looked relaxed, as if she were lost in thought. Yet I could feel my own breathing speed up. And that's all I felt.
A tragedy's first act is crowded with supporting players: witnesses crimping their faces, policemen scribbling in pads and making radio calls, EMS guys unfolding equipment, tubes and wheels.
I must have managed to ask how Celine was doing, because at some point a policeman told me that she was unconscious but holding on. I remember talk of cardiac arrest, of a medevac helicopter coming to take her to the hospital. I had a somewhat thickheaded sensation that everyone was responding appropriately to what was clearly a crisis. But I still didn't think there was any reason to freak out. This was something fixable; it was being fixed. Still, I had been careful not to stand anyplace where I could see Celine again-her face's semblance of musing calm, her unnatural position.
Police had suspended traffic on the highway's two sides. My friends made cameo appearances as standers, mullers, back rubbers. I thought how strange it was that, in normal life, we all touched so rarely. Traffic, I now understood-I'd started to think abstractly-is a kind of stream crowded with fish, a rush of momentum, and we'd been yanked to the side of the brook and forced to dry in the sun. I'd become one of those sights I'd driven past a hundred times on the expressway, the locus of a thousand strangers' curiosity.
That's the thing about shock. You can have these clear and selfish perceptions, as you circle without looking at the truth lying alone on the street.
The most embarrassing memory of that day came when two teenage girls materialized from one of the stopped cars nearby. I heard the thunk of doors closing. And next the young women came walking over the grass. They were sexy and not from my school. Both wore shorts and white sleeveless undershirts; one smelled, optimistically, of suntan oil.
"Hey," she said. "You in that crash?"-her voice a mix of apprehension and prying.
"Yeah," I said.
"You all right?"
"Yeah," I said, "I am, thanks," and walked away.
Having acknowledged my own centrality and drama, and sensing the girls were still watching, I dropped to my knees and covered my head with my hands-fingers between the ears and temples, like a man who's just won the US Open. This plagiarized "emotional" reaction, acted out for girls I'd never see again, is one more stomach-turning fact of that afternoon.
"Aww," the girls said, coming over to me. "You know it wasn't your fault."
I didn't even nod-I just got up and showboated away from them, shoulders back; I went over to the bustle around Celine, the bustle from which these girls were excluded. I can only explain it like this: there was still a disconnect between me and the realness of what was happening.
I've come to see our central nervous system as a kind of vintage switchboard, all thick foam wires and old-fashioned plugs. The circuitry isn't properly equipped; after a surplus of emotional information the system overloads, the circuit breaks, the board runs dark. That's what shock is.
My father arrived. Someone must have called him, though this was before cell phones. It was the sight of my dad that day, the clean sadness on his face, that turned this real, finally. All this had happened to me; I had done this; I was his son. Dad was somehow like a new circuit in the fuse box. He arrived, emotion could flow. In his hug I went out all at once into tears, as I never had before and haven't since.
I don't remember how long we'd all been there, whether I'd gone to look at Celine's excessively pale face again. (A psychologist later told me such memory skips have been installed for our own protection. Trauma makes a spark that in a white glow washes out details, guilt, shame-a flare that throws the recent past into shadow and deep obscurity.)
A policeman shambled over. His eyes glided across my face; he asked me clipped questions. How fast had I been going? Had I been drinking? (About forty, I guess, and No, no. Jesus, no.) Someone, perhaps a new EMS arrival, finally took charge. All right, folks-step back. He decided on the best way to transport Celine. The how of his plan escaped me, and still does. But an ambulance did wheel in and get Celine, finally and somehow, away from all the stopped cars. They took her to the hospital. And my passengers Mike and Jeff-twin friends who'd been in the backseat-also managed to get out of there. And then, after the traffic was unjammed; after the police told me I was "free to go"; and with a suddenness and ease out of sync with the scale of what was happening-it seemed a form of insanity to touch the car again-my dad just slipped into the driver's seat. Dave took Dad's car, I fell into mine beside my father, and we were off. I sat in the front passenger seat. A crack in the car's windshield measured the length of the glass. Sunlight caught in tendrils that raked out from its sides.
My parents, after offering the quiet-voiced inevitables, told me not to beat myself up about it.
I don't remember what Dave and I did the rest of that afternoon. I certainly didn't phone Celine's family. She and I hadn't known each other-not well enough, or really much at all-and so I was too afraid to call, or even to look up the Zilkes in the white pages.
"You should go to a movie," my parents told me, trying their best.
A benign suggestion, maybe, but I didn't want to be seen trying to enjoy myself. Judging by the EMS workers' concerned brows, I was afraid Celine might actually die. She could already be dead. I didn't want to appear capable of any emotion but remorse-so I traveled to a theater in some other town. I must have believed that keeping up a picture of constant remorse was the same, morally, as living in constant remorse. That night, Dave and I drove down near the county line to see Stand and Deliver.
Heading to the multiplex, the weirdness of being out, of not being under house arrest, settled on me like ash. (Shouldn't I have at least considered visiting Celine's hospital room?)
Before Stand and Deliver had even started, in the lobby I came across a guy from my town. (Why visit her hospital room, though? What could I offer? Celine and I didn't even know each other ...)
In one of those coincidences that life hands over more realistically than fiction can, the guy in the lobby was my good friend, Jim.
Jim jogged up to me on line at the ticket booth. "Heard what happened," he said.
"Yeah," I said. "I didn't see her until it was too late," I apologized.
"Holy shit," he said. Was there something off about his facial presentation? Where was the concern, or even a little solemnity? I sensed something weird in him right away-mockery nibbling there at the side of his mouth-and now he raised his hands, palms out. Next, a high-pitched "Ahhh!" Then: "Please! Don't run me down!" and then more comic squeals, little darts tossed in the air.
Dave showed Jim an eloquent frown, quit it, quit it.
But next, an even nastier sound: Jim's slashing laugh. He was cracking up at me.
Dave's appalled stare, the shuffling feet of a conversation breaking down. Then Jim said, "No, you're upset? Really? Come on, hey. Nothing wrong with a joke. What's wrong with a joke?"
Everything. I felt panicky and bright and swollen: hugely sad, acutely seen. I slouched away, tucked myself into the theater's dark, and had a sense of being extinguished.
The letup in perception, the no-input cluelessness-that's the kind of shock everyone's familiar with. But shock is not a one-time event. That system-junking you experience at the start goes away, of course. But then a lesser shock keeps showing up, to hurl a big muffling blanket over you. And when you push out of that, you feel it almost as a sudden blinking exposure to light. I'm talking about how your mind behaves after the broken circuit appears to be back up and running. I mean, why did I feel half-okay there in the multiplex parking lot, and why had I continued to feel that way until Jim's cackle? The truth about shock, and about our bodies, is that they don't want us to feel things deeply. We're designed to act, react, forget; to be shallow. I knew I was normal-I had been a normal, normally embraced person twenty-four hours before. But would a normal person feel even halfway okay, as I seemed to feel now? Was it as if I'd somehow forgotten the accident?
Well, I remembered, of course. I remembered without end. In fact, one me kept remembering how another me from a second ago had just remembered the maybe life-destroying horror on West Shore Road (destroying, perhaps, two lives). And I'd remember how I'd just been enduring that a second ago-and catch myself remembering it. And then I'd remember her reflector scuttling up the windshield, the sensation of my working to swerve, the surprise of her being so close and detailed. It wasn't really me feeling it at any one time-rather, I was remembering those other mes, and we each shared it together, and all of us were overly compassionate to one another.
And here's a cruel truth: the more accurate thing is that I kept sort of remembering without end. My brain persisted-as any bodily organ would-in trying to heal what was in effect a bruise. The bruise was the memory. And to remain what I thought of as human, I had to keep fighting against my basic, animal, healing response. That's what the first day was like. The sensation I was fighting is maybe close to denial. But it's not exactly denial.
My fear now is that all of this sounds over-aestheticized, and vague. There were times when the size of what had happened felt like a kind of nauseated grin: I'd done something this incalculably big, and here I was, still alive. I was okay. I'd hit a girl with my car, but the way the world worked I wasn't in jail, I wasn't hurt; I was free to indulge in a movie. It was this thought that made me leave the movie before it ended. The part of the brain that isn't automatic is an imagining machine, feeling all possibilities of feeling: it keeps pushing its way into this marshy, pleasant terrain. You struggle against that push, and start to feel your stomach protest. It's not so much even a type of consciousness as it is a circumstance, into which you pass by slow degrees. I've never seen this sufficiently examined. It mutates into a less-unreal reality that still seems different, somehow, than being fully present. Self-hate is rarely unconditional. I don't pretend it's all right that I felt even half-okay.
At home in bed that first night I had patchy, mundane dreams about normal things.
It would be nobler and less uncomfortable to write that I tossed sleeplessly. Or that I woke with a scooped-out pain in my gut. Or that I sat down in my underwear at my desk that had moonlight on it and I had the terrible sense one gets, after something irrevocable, of being in the wrong place-of having awakened into a new and cramped world. (This is the sense I would have, on many nights, later.) I ended up scouring through details of the day: those EMS guys talking about cardiac arrest, about loss of blood, about not liking her chances. I homed in on that word-"chances," with its promise of upside-and not on how the paramedic's voice had tightened, the odds seizing his throat.
So few of our days contain actions that are irrevocable. Our lives are designed not to allow for anything irrevocable. The school part of our lives continues to be the school part for eighteen years, the work parts stay the work parts, and if we're lucky nothing disarranges them; the small inconsistencies get buried under talk, explanations, rescheduling. If everything couldn't continue as planned, no real plans could be made. But the breakfasts and TV afternoons and band practices of teenaged life had been disrupted by something irrevocable, and I was new to it. And how did I handle this? What I want to write is that I lay there until morning, with tear-stained eyes, a tear-stained pillow, a tear-stained life. What can one do with levels of gloom and guilt, fear and disbelief, of bewilderment above one's capacity to register?
I slept soundly.