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Chapter 6: My Totem

May 8, 2010

For the last several months I’ve been preparing for a bodybuilding competition and today I get to see if all my hard work will pay off. My ass is shaved, my food is prepped, self-tanner applied, and my posing trunks—a step up or down from a thong (depending on your view)—are hidden under my sweatpants. And these are just the preparations I’ve made today. I’ve spent the last several weeks working out as much as possible, restricting my calorie intake, and tapering my fluid consumption to thirty-two ounces a day with the purpose of dehydrating my muscles so they’re more visible when I’m posing on stage.

Keith and Tony, two good friends from the gym, are carpooling with me to the competition. Keith, a bulky, clean-cut man in his late-twenties with a shaved head and wiry glasses, has decided not to compete. But Tony, a tall, muscular redhead the same age as Keith, has transformed himself from pale and freckled to bronzed effigy with a few coats of self-tanner. I have essentially done the same, except I look more like an Oompa Loompa with raccoon eyes.

We hit the road, cruising toward Highway 101, the happiest bodybuilders in the world. The morning sun peeks through the groves of redwood trees lining the busy road as it takes us from south to north to west. The light is warm on my face. It stings my tired eyes. I flip down the overhead visor to shield them from the sun. On the visor, attached by a paper clip, is the laminated hospital bracelet from the car accident.

After we pass S section, C section, and then D section, we finally make it to the commercial area of town. Tony is giving Keith shit about not competing, and as entertaining as their conversation is, all I am thinking about is the big, greasy pizza I get to eat at the end of the day, my just reward for starving my body the last several weeks.

We’re stopped at the last intersection before the highway when a brisk California breeze blows through my fingers tapping on the outside of the car door. I glance at the driver’s side-view mirror and see a large object rushing past traffic. It’s really moving. It looks like an ambulance trying to get through the gridlock.

I turn my head to get a better look. It’s not an ambulance but a truck that has hopped the curb and is now barreling down the sidewalk. Pedestrians are running, jumping out of the way, tackling each other. Bam! The truck takes out a road sign, a street lamp, then another road sign.

This has to be the worst timing, the worst possible timing for an imaginary car crash. My subconscious obviously has an agenda that doesn’t take my bodybuilding aspirations into account. I’m trying, really trying to keep it together, but I’m obviously failing.

What do you want? A trophy, somebody to give you an award for “trying to keep it together”? You can’t keep self-sabotaging like this, you just can’t. It’s not healthy or constructive. You are only making things harder for yourself by letting the car accident interfere with your life.

I shake my head, bang my hands on the steering wheel, then look outside. The truck is still there, whizzing through the intersection, narrowly missing cars, people, traffic lights. I’m still here, I think, holding my breath and clawing the steering wheel, on the verge of getting out of the car and running down the street, frantic, like a dehydrated meth addict in the middle of summer.

The truck hops another curb and flies straight into an embankment.

Okay, you obviously can’t control yourself right now. You should have Keith or Tony drive the rest of the way. Either that or, right here and now, realize that the accident on the bridge is never going to happen to you again, except by reliving it through these episodes. The guy you killed in the car accident was either really unlucky or he wanted to die. What are the odds his car stalled out in the one place on the bridge that you couldn’t see up ahead? And he didn’t get out of the car, put the hazard lights on, or even try to pull over to the shoulder. He just fucking sat there. He wasn’t trying to kill himself, he was waiting for you to do it for him. You will never see that on an official report, but it’s the best explanation you are going to get, and because it’s your own, it is the only one that truly matters. Now get over it or give over the keys.

I pull over to the shoulder, my hands shaking and my heart practically jumping out of my damn chest. My eyes are brimming with tears as I shut the engine off and yank the keys from the ignition. I think about who to hand them to, Keith or Tony, and how to explain that I’m too emotionally damaged to drive. They will surely question why I’ve delayed our trip, why I’m crying, and what the hell is wrong with me. I brace myself to describe my tragic past, expecting to answer questions about what a burning body looks like, and if an exploding car really does what it does in the movies. I will try to convince them that I don’t want sympathy or attention, except why else would I be making such a big deal about the trauma? I mentally prepare myself for the big reveal, the stupid mood-spoiling-day-ruining-all-about-me big reveal. Then I turn to my friends. But they’re gone.

Keith and Tony have disappeared—their seats empty, car doors swung wide open. Through the windshield I see the truck; it’s still there. The driver’s door springs open, and a dog comes vaulting out. Keith and Tony run towards the truck and futilely try to corral the dog as a large man plops to the ground. He’s lying on his back with his knees in the air, holding his chest, appearing to have a heart attack. He takes out his cell phone, likely to call 9-1-1, but he abruptly hangs up as if the exertion of holding the phone to his ear was too much, or maybe he just realized that fifty people had already called when he ran over the first street sign.

I remain in the driver’s seat of the Xterra, paralyzed by shock. Then I snap out of it and frantically feel along the center console, the dashboard, the door, searching for a totem—something to show me that this is actually happening. I need to prove that this is real and not some elaborate, far-from-funny prank my subconscious is playing on me.

I look up. The overhead visor is still flipped down and there it is—my totem, my own personal reality check right in front of me. I unpin the thin plastic hospital bracelet. I feel the air bubbles in the lamination and the dulled adhesive on the corners. I read the faded letters of my name. Like the person it identifies, the bracelet is worn and tattered, but somehow still intact.

Next Chapter: Chapter 7: What I Need