warning for content: this essay discusses a car accident and mentions the murder of mia zapata.
we ride on the river in a small motor boat, and i have never done this before. when we move fast, the waves undulate and take the boat up and down, side to side, in broad and gravity defying movements. i’ve spent time on ferries and other large ships here and there but for the first time i am confronted by a strong “what the hell” sensation when i think about “sailing” as a concept. in this moment it is inconceivable to me that there are human beings capable of changing the direction of sails made out of strong cloth, with or against the best efforts of wind and currents, forces of nature that are famously much stronger than those human beings, who scramble around decks tying knots and such to make it all work. it feels absurd especially while on this little motorized boat, gasoline powered propellors letting us travel anywhere we want to go along the river, no elemental manipulation necessary outside of the engine. i think of how sailing is something you have to learn, and something people die doing. it seems impossible and hard and potentially wrong in a “god’s plan” sense. the little boat we are in speeds along the surface of the water, and when we encounter bigger waves made by cruise ships we slow down, so as to not flip ourselves over.
i picture this on an endless loop in my head: the boat turning over on itself, all of us being plunged into the water, a shock of instant cold on my skin, gulping water into my lungs. i can imagine being weighed down by my clothes and belongings and being unable to right myself in the chaos and being unable to find ryan or his family because the water is dark, and i cannot breathe, and i am panicked, and we drown. i picture this over and over on the little boat, speeding across choppy water, and i have to remind myself to stop. i dull the scenario in my brain – catastrophic thinking isn’t helpful, but i also cannot follow that line of thought into fears that picturing certain death will magically make it happen. i walk a line between anxieties, letting them sit numb inside me and making sure to breathe. the wind is gray and clear and whips my face. air hovers above the water we skip along and it feels fresh and tinted green while the clouds hang low over the scattered islands.
i was on the highway to cape cod with my aunt, uncle, and their three kids when we got into a car accident. we were on our way to meet my mother at a campsite on the cape, my uncle driving a large truck towing an RV camper. a car cut us off on the interstate and my uncle had to brake suddenly, the camper began to sway from this sudden shift in directional velocity, and the force of the swaying camper threw itself, the whole truck, and all of us in it over the guard rail and down a hill. at this point the truck rolled until it hit a tree, but i cannot remember this part. what i can remember was: settling into the long drive and reading my book (Twitches, a book about twins who are witches), looking up once i started to feel the truck swaying side to side in what my cousins and i assumed was a prank or some other trick, and my aunt yelling “everybody tighten your seatbelts!” right before the truck flipped over. after that there are shards of memory mostly faded, some bright and reflective at certain angles: being pulled out of the broken window of the truck, feeling outside of my body while running to a safe distance (in case of an explosion), police and EMTs standing around my aunt and uncle, walking along the hot asphalt of the hospital parking lot in those socks they give you with the grippy feet, wondering about my mother who didn’t know where we were and who i knew would be so scared to find out.
i needed a few stitches in my head and there were shards of broken glass that appeared in my hair all summer. after the appropriate amount of time, my mother and i cut the stitches out while standing in the kitchen, and it didn’t feel like anything.
my mother told me that we had an angel watching us on the day of the accident. there were emergency service vehicles traveling less than a mile behind us who were able to help us right away, and my family’s story is that we would have died without them. she’s probably right because she usually is. the car accident happened on july 7th, which was the anniversary of mia’s death — my mother’s friend, my namesake, murdered in seattle while my mother was pregnant with me in oakland. when i was a child i thought that if mia was a guardian angel i’d hope she’d make it so we hadn’t gotten into an accident at all but as an adult i’ll take what i can get.
the flashes of memory i have of the aftermath are mostly faded. i do still often think of the sensation of swaying in the truck right before the accident, my brain not able to comprehend that what could happen next would be the unthinkable thing – a car accident, a brush with death, a vehicle moving at high speeds crashing into a tree in an instant and taking its passengers with it, definitely ruining a camping trip, definitely shifting the trajectory of our summer and/or lives.
i wonder if my brain thinks it could be safer to dwell on disaster, that if i can picture it over and over again in an endless loop i won’t be so surprised when the earth shattering event happens, as if surprise is the worst part of it. but i can turn down the dwelling at this point in my adulthood. i’ve learned breathing exercises and ways to spot dangerous and circular thinking. if i look up from where i’m sitting i can see the flecks of river water turn crystalline in the air. if i let my weight shift with the undulations of the little boat i can feel my blood rushing to follow the movement, a closed river circuiting my body with my breath.
ryan tells me about waking up just as the sun is rising and looking out onto the water. he tells me the surface becomes like glass, and i can picture it. i like to imagine what he sees – the water that is deep and green in the afternoon is now an icier blue, darker and reflecting pockets of pale morning sky and coniferous trees. the water is not yet populated with little motor boats disturbing the surface, but some loons begin their day looking for whatever it is they eat. i can think of the long days ahead and the sun buried beneath clouds. under the surface of the water all the tiny glittering fish of the river swim and eat bugs and algae and things, carried by the current and swimming against it in turn.