June 13, 2009
The wind on the Napa River Bridge feels like thumbtacks poking my face. My arms cling to the bridge’s railing like a child on an inner tube floating in the water below. I look down at the current slowly moving under the bridge. The water is calm, the opposite of how I feel inside. All I can think about is what it would feel like to jump—maybe nothing, maybe everything; maybe, just for a second, like drifting through outer space. It’s a thought as scary as it sounds and one I shouldn’t entertain for long because surviving such a fall—like the teenager who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge head-first—would be the least fun imaginable. That is, except for what has just happened.
As I turn away from the water and the thumbtacks, my blurry eyes inspect the concrete shoulder, a place I’ve only been a few times on other highways waiting for a tow. Then I see it—what I had hoped wouldn’t be there, what I’d hoped I had imagined—the wreckage and short trail of tire marks leading up to it.
I watch as fifteen gallons of gas gushes from my 4Runner’s ripped fuel line—a deluge running down the bridge. Most frightening is the other car—a pluming inferno only feet from the stream of gas. All at once I am in a haze trying to figure out how all of this happened.
I remember filling up my car with gas just off Highway 4 in Martinez. Then I drove up Cummings Skyway, jerking my head for glimpses of the water and the Carquinez Bridge. I was messing with the radio, or rather it was messing with me. I was trying to find a good song on one of my three favorite stations. Frustrated with the selection, I pulled out my phone to connect it to the auxiliary cord attached to the stereo. I was distracted with one hand on the wheel and one hand on my phone reaching for the cord. It was dangerous, but I was invincible, or maybe just invulnerable—not understanding the fragility of my mortality, expecting to still be around a year from now, healthy and unharmed.
I finally connected the auxiliary cord and, with one tap of my phone, the perfect song hummed through the speakers. It felt inspirational, like watching a montage in a movie or TV show synced to a fitting soundtrack. I was driving—or what felt like floating—down to Interstate 80 and across the Carquinez Strait with what seemed like a fun evening ahead. A fun evening was not ahead, but the Napa River Bridge was.
The incline of the bridge created a dangerous illusion, leaving a blind spot a few car lengths up ahead. It was, on this day, more dangerous than trying to connect my phone to a stupid auxiliary cord while driving.
I drove up the arching bridge, expecting to make it to the other side like any other driver, but at the top—a spot of which I hadn’t seen—a car was stopped in my lane. Never in my life has so much happened in so few seconds. There was the throttle, the brake, the crash, the flames, the explosion; then, the sizzling sound. It’s a familiar sound—you could spend your entire life hearing it—an overcooked piece of meat still in the oven, a flaming marshmallow in a campfire, but once you associate it with burning human flesh, it changes you.
* * *
I gape at the flaming car, utterly paralyzed. I’m afraid to move, scared that anything I do will cause further damage, that if I take another step, or so much as breathe too much, I will end someone else’s life.
A middle-aged man runs up to me on the bridge. He’s out of breath and looks as disturbed as I feel.
“Shit! Someone’s trapped in there.” The man points to the burning car. He catches his breath, then looks over at my car. The driver’s door is wide open and the front end looks like an unfolded accordion. The man glances back at me. “Do you know where the other driver is?”
I snap out of my haze and take a long breath.
“I am the other driver.” My voice is hoarse, like I’ve been yelling, but I haven’t said a word until now.
“What? Seriously?” I nod and he looks at me nervously. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“You’re not okay. Look at your car,” he says gesturing to my totaled 4Runner. “You should sit down. An ambulance should be coming soon.”
I retreat back to my spot on the bridge railing, but there is no comfort there, nor anywhere. Not even the vast, calm slough off in the distance can soothe the turbulence of this moment. I feel empty, like I’ve lost something. Something priceless. What innocence I had is gone now that I’ve seen the destruction that can happen to a person, how a body and the life it holds can be destroyed so violently and so quickly.
I look at the road behind me. Across the median cars are stopped, drivers and passengers are watching in awe, some are taking pictures of the giant fireball beside me. I want them all to go away, or better, I want to go back in time, rewind to an hour ago and just stay there. Then I wouldn’t have to think about all the things that could have diverted my fate away from this moment — a phone call, a stoplight, a bathroom break, and the one failed diversion that haunts me most: a soy corn dog.
Earlier in the day I had passed on an offer from my friend Ian’s dad, David, to enjoy the meatless snack.
“Hey, how ‘bout a corn dog before you go?” he’d asked. “They’re almost ready ….”
“No, thanks. I gotta get going. I have tickets to the Giants game and need to stop at home first.”
“Okay, maybe next time,” he said. I smiled at him and nodded.
“Don’t you think it’s weird that you love meat, but would rather eat a soy corn dog instead of the real thing?”
“No, I like them,” David replied. I should’ve stayed, I like them too.
It wasn’t twenty-four hours earlier that David and I had an almost identical conversation, except then I had stopped to relax and eat. It was a small yet fateful part of a wonderful weekend reconnecting with friends, but now it seems so long ago, like a story from a bygone era.
* * *
Under the railing there’s a gap before the bridge turns entirely to concrete. My head fits nicely. It’s a slice of shelter where the thumbtacks can’t get me. Wispy clouds float above, shading me from the sun. I rest my chin on the grainy concrete, my forehead on the cold metal railing. Then I dig my phone out of my jeans and call my mom. She doesn’t answer. I keep calling but there’s still no answer. I try my dad next. He won’t be here for a few hours. I call David. He and my friend, Ian, will meet me at the hospital.
I put my phone away and look up to see an ambulance and a fire truck zig-zagging through traffic on the bridge. The firefighters get to work putting out the flames on the other car. Some of them appear detached, apathetic even, and without a trace of compassion, while others seem sympathetic, but are more puzzled than worried. The Highway Patrol officers are also on the scene and, after a lead from a witness, home in on me with both fervor and confusion. One of them tests my motor skills to see if I’m drunk in the middle of the day. Hard to blame him; it’s his job. Finally he clears me to leave and I get into the ambulance.
On the ride to the hospital, the paramedic is sincere, but not as comforting as a friend. We arrive at the hospital—Something Solano. Remembering the name of a hospital is like trying to remember the name of a street in the desert—they all look the same and you’re too focused on getting the hell out of there to care.
I step out of the ambulance and walk into the emergency room without help, looking healthier than the nurse waiting to put me on a gurney. Inside, an ER doctor takes a seat next to me. He’s a confident man, probably in his early forties, but gray-haired and his exhaustion exposed by the dark bags under his eyes.
“Jameson, like the whiskey?” the doctor asks.
“No. It’s spelled with an i, not like the whiskey spelled with an e.”
“Great name, but they got it wrong on your form. It happens a lot. I’ll fix it for you in a bit.” He smiles at me. “We have some juice and crackers coming for you. It’s all there is at the moment.”
“Thanks,” I say.
“So, Jamison, you have an abrasion on your forehead . . . how do you feel? Any dizziness or pain in the rest of your body?” the doctor asks.
“Uh, no, I feel fine.”
“Well, you can thank your airbag for that.”
“I didn’t have one.”
“Wow, that’s pretty miraculous for such a serious accident.” He glances at me with a surprised expression, then looks down at his clipboard. “Okay, Jamison, so we’re going to keep you for a couple hours just to make sure you don’t have anything serious going on. Now, I know it may not be exactly the same, but I have some idea what you’re going through. I was in a pretty bad car accident myself—I woke up in the hospital with a broken jaw, concussion, and a bunch of shattered bones.”
“Oh,” I mumble, staring off in the distance.
“Who knows why people like you and me are spared. It could be to finish what we started in life, or it could just be plain luck. I’ll bet you don’t have the slightest idea why this happened, or maybe it doesn’t matter to you, but I bet at least part of you is wondering why you’re still alive, remarkably so, and why the other guy isn’t. It’s all yours to sort out … or not, your choice,” the doctor says, leaning forward in his chair and resting his elbows on the gurney. “But, Jamison, if you’re anything like me, there’s a good chance you’re going to get so frustrated trying to make sense of all the bad things that happen in your life, especially this, that you may want to give up. Maybe you already do, but if you’re as smart as you seem, in that moment everything will make as much sense as it needs to.”
The doctor rubs his face, a red gloss coating his tired, sincere eyes. Talking to him makes me realize something: crashing into that car on the bridge may have been incredibly unlucky, but, of all the people fate brings to this emergency room, I am one of the lucky ones. I get to go home. My life will go on.
The doctor pats my leg, gets up, and walks away. He comes back a few minutes later, places his hand on my wrist, and gives me a smile.
“I got you taken care of.” He attaches a laminated bracelet, which thanks to him has the correct spelling of my name. It’s a small gesture, but knowing that this doctor has an idea of what I’m going through, and cares enough to make sure my name is spelled right, brings me some peace. He may not be able to take away my pain, but he doesn’t have to; having someone here who empathizes with me is enough.