I wanted him to tell me that he loved me. I wanted him to say it more effusively. I wanted to hear something such as that without me he would perish. I was not telling him I wanted that. Instead, I was lamenting a failing of his – I can’t remember which.
He wanted things from me, as well, but I couldn’t hear his things until I believed he’d heard my things. This was on a sidewalk in Oaxaca, a weekend midnight. We jumped back when the motorcycle sped past, hadn’t even exhaled before it smacked the yellow taxi in the intersection. The motorcycle’s rear rider – I hadn’t had time to register two men so for a terrifying moment I thought one had split in half – went sailing over the taxi and landed in a pool of street light.
The motorcycle’s driver stood right away. Blood streamed from under his eyebrow ring as he walked in circles, groaning.
While we waited for the ambulance, I sat on the black street and cradled the rear rider’s head on my lap. His breathing sounded like pain. I forgot my Spanish for a solid minute, but when I remembered, I told him: “You’ll be okay.”
He told me: “No.”
An actress from Our American Cousin climbed the stairs to President Lincoln and cradled his broken head on her lap. Her health and career were wilting. She wanted a place in history. She believed that she could take someone else’s pain and suffer no consequences.
Conspiracy theorists speculate about her role in the assassination.
Soon after that night, she cut her bloody skirt into pieces and gave them away.
I was deeply depressed and researching a park ranger named Roy Sullivan who had survived seven lightning strikes. In my Google searches, I stumbled upon a lightning strike survivor convention that was scheduled for that weekend in Virginia. It felt like a sign – of what, I can’t say. I charged a plane ticket to my credit card and told no one I was going.
At the convention one man had no arms. A woman had so much skin grafting she looked like fishnet. A man who had fought in Vietnam told a story about waking up in the morgue.
“What happened to you?” they kept asking.
I mumbled something about a friend getting struck by lightning. I kept thinking about Roy Sullivan who, as an old man, shot himself over unrequited love. My bones ached from depression. From longing for something my tongue couldn’t give shape to.
The survivors had brain injuries that had left them psychic. They told stories about predicting weather, weddings, catastrophes. They told me: “You’ll feel better if you talk about it.”
Some New York City train conductors have been forced to assist suicides. By the time they see the jumper, it’s too late to brake. Many report the same experience: As the train approaches, the jumper waves, smiling, as if he’s caught sight of his lover in a crowd. Then he takes a well-timed step and falls to his death.
One winter, I was driving a rental because my car was in the shop. I was madly in love for the first time. He didn’t love me back in equal measure because we were at that age where men couldn’t love the way women could. No man can adequately serve a devotee of Sarah McLachlan. My roommate was riding shotgun. I guess I was distraught. I guess I was disoriented. I drove into the side of the house that contained our apartment. I heard something go crunch. My roommate started to laugh. I backed up, panicked, and drove into the side of the house again. There was quiet. Our breaths were visible. Viewing my breath is always disarming; I’d rather not see what’s inside me.
The next day I took the car back to the shop and played dumb.
“There’s a pretty big fucking dent,” the mechanic said.
“Where?” I said.
In college one night we were having a party and I hid Eric’s keys. He became angry the way drunk people do when you hide their keys. But we were all laughing. I’d never met anyone who had actually died of drunk driving. It was a game – our skinny friend Eric with the wire-rimmed glasses and the stringy ponytail stomping around our apartment, in search of something he’d never find. I was wearing a halter top. I did a shot by sucking vodka from a tampon. It was a good party. Everyone made out with someone, except Eric who passed out on our couch and slept through the fun part.
Four months later, he got day-drunk with friends on Easter Sunday, hopped on a motorcycle, drove into oncoming traffic, and never saw his twenty-first birthday, which, when you’re twenty, is all you want to see.
One theory about life that I find pretentious is that it’s just a dream we can learn to control; we can learn to lucid-dream our lives. If that’s true, then every accident is no accident and every death is a suicide.
One of those New York City train jumpers changed her mind: As soon as she went over the platform edge, her survival instinct leapt up like a cobra. She flattened herself between the rails. Once the train passed, she sat up.
I was driving to Wyoming to move in with my boyfriend. Everything I owned was packed into my car. I couldn’t see out the back. I skid on ice and remembered what my father had taught me: Steer into the skid. It won’t feel natural. You’ll want to fight. But don’t fight.
My car somersaulted front over back, front over back, front over back down a hill. I heard myself scream. I heard these words so loudly, I wondered who’d spoken them: This. Is. It.
I landed upside-down. I remember the song that was playing: “Time After Time.” I didn’t yet know that my face was bloody, that my right hand didn’t work, that a shard of glass was stabbing my arm. I didn’t yet know that it was 30 below out. In my t-shirt I didn’t shiver. I saw upside-down cows. My metal watch stuck to the roof. I didn’t want to move in with him. I didn’t want to live in Wyoming with the man I would one day leave. I unbuckled my seatbelt, which had done what it had always promised to do. I saw the window emptied of glass and climbed out.
Diana Spechler is the author of the novels Who by Fire and Skinny, of the New York Times column Going Off, and of a forthcoming nonfiction book based on that column. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Paris Review Daily, GQ, Esquire, New York, Glimmer Train Stories, and elsewhere. She teaches writing for Stanford University’s Online Writers’ Studio and for The Wounded Warrior Project. She tweets from @dianaspechler.