It was my fault.
Unfortunately, unlit road and dark stop sign and invisible intersection notwithstanding, it was entirely my fault.
I bought an americano, proofread my essay about Poo Poo Point, and drove out of La Conner (where I always half-expect to bump into the writer Tom Robbins) for ten minutes, if that. No alcohol or iPhone or rain, just my eyes not scanning where they should have. I didn’t see the stop sign until I blew through it and I didn’t see the car until I hit it.
While I was hitting it or right before, I thought, I’ll hit that car but I shouldn’t because Chelsea doesn’t get in wrecks–and then there was the almighty echoing boom that slammed everything in all directions and promised to reverberate for weeks. I spun one way or the other, I don’t know, and the airbag deployed and smelled funny and my pants were wet with coffee that went instantly icy. I didn’t yell or curse but the car screamed. I didn’t say anything. I just participated in the crash, knowing exactly what was happening.
I thought all these things in that one second I wasn’t sure if I was going to be fine or hurt or dead: I should not have run that stop sign. Now I’m hitting another car. I hope that driver is okay. I hope I’m okay. I see the airbag has appeared, which will probably save my bones if not my life. But I don’t know if we’ll be okay yet. This could be how it ends. This kind of thing doesn’t happen to me. This can’t be happening. I might die right now, but I won’t know for sure until this crash concludes. Once I come to a stop, I’ll assess the situation, check for injuries, and go from there. Will this mess up my face?
But I also didn’t know at all what was happening. I saw a stop sign and a car and then I guess something hit me that sort of hurt and then I was in a ditch with wet pants and a steering wheel that had split down the middle to projectile vomit out a floppy white pillow.
I suppose it took two seconds.
The Jetta skidded, slid, rolled, I don’t know, to a halt in a ditch and as soon as it stopped I started. I immediately unbuckled and took my phone from the passenger seat and opened the door. I wondered why my pants were wet and I saw the lid of my coffee on the floor and the cup nowhere to be seen. I was stepping over some tall weeds and walking to the other car on the other side of the intersection, dialing 911. How many times I’ve almost accidentally dialed 911 on my iPhone.
I had no emotions. My mind was sharp and cold and clear.
The phone rang a few times before someone answered.
“Hi, there!” I said. I noted an improbable, inane spring in my voice. “My name is Chelsea Greenwood and I just hit a car!” I didn’t know what else to say and was afraid it’d be an awkward thing to open with, but the operator knew to how to make me feel comfortable and asked me questions. I answered them, and that made paramedics show up in a flashing red fire engine.
They talked to Teresa, the woman I hit, and she said she was all right, and I said I was all right. A sheriff car appeared and a short, slight man with gray hair and a mustache appeared and asked me questions. He was kind and calm but he wasn’t jovial.
I called David, like I daydreamed about doing the day before in my hypothetical keys-stuck-in-poop scenario, but in real life, he didn’t say he had to get things done and could come after work. He said, “I’m on my way.”
“Do you have someone coming to pick you up?” asked the cop, whose name was Steve.
“Yes, but he won’t be coming for a while,” I replied.
Teresa was shocked. I was shocked. I said “nice to meet you” to her and then said, “Sorry, I guess this is a bad time to meet.” Then I kept chatting with her anyway, about how much I liked Subaru Outbacks, like the one she owned I’d just destroyed forever, and about her job at a hardware store and her commute to Stanwood, and about how I had taught a theatre workshop for homeschoolers that morning and didn’t expect to end the day like this.
La, dee dah.
I was cheerful.
It was creepy.
She was kind to me. She didn’t say anything about how I just ruined her day. She talked about it like it was a natural disaster we were both victims of.
I went to the Jetta, and the passenger door wouldn’t open. I opened the back door and reached for my backpack, which I hastily filled with the most precious things in my car: my park passes, my concha shell from the camino, my nice red leather shoes.
A tow truck arrived and a man got out. At this point I was just standing in the ditch in the dark with my wet pants, calling my dad to ask questions about insurance and other things I pay for but never needed to understand.
“How’s it going?” said the tow truck guy.
“Oh,” I said, and took a long pause as he flashed a light and I saw the mangled body of my car clearly for the first time. “Oh, goll…. Pretty great.”
“That’s good to hear.” He laughed.
I stood there watching him try to tow my car for a long time. My damn pants were still wet. It was cold out. I wanted to change into a spare pair, but there was no place to get privacy in the red, white, and blue emergency light show.
I waited in Deputy Steve’s police car while David drove the 90 minutes north to get me. I had never been in the back of a police car.
“I’ll crack the window for you,” he said, “because you can’t open the door from the inside, so you can holler if you want out.”
“Awesome, thanks so much!” I said.
Then I sat there. I opened Instagram and looked at a photo of a van rolling through a tall forest and double tapped. David and Dad both called to see how I was doing, and my voice nicely filled the plastic chamber I was in.
The seat was hard and molded and the seatbelt was anchored to the barrier separating me from the driver. There were bars on the windows.
I was there a long time. Deputy Steve wrote me a citation (“Awesome, thanks so much!”) and offered to drive me to the Denny’s in Mt. Vernon.
“It’s a little closer to Seattle, so your boyfriend can pick you up there,” he said.
“Thanks, I’d appreciate that,” I said. “I’ll let him know.”
We were quiet for ten seconds. Then I said:
“He’s actually my brother.”
He started the car and I asked if I needed to buckle. He said yes, and I told him I couldn’t figure out how to work the seatbelts.
“Just push the red button to release it and secure it to the other part of the buckle by your shoulder.”
“I can’t find it.”
“It’s right on the end of the buckle, like a normal seatbelt.”
“So silly! I can’t find it!” I was tapping and twisting and thumping the contraption loudly.
Deputy Steve got out and opened my door and buckled me in. When I saw him do it, I realized how easy it was. I giggled and said, “Awesome, thanks so much!”
We drove through the night, away from the woman I didn’t apologize profusely enough to, away from the car I’d been driving for ten years, the car I passed my drive test in. There was too much adrenaline to get sentimental, but I noted dryly that its last act as my car was to save my life and lose its own.
I wasn’t happy, but I wasn’t sad either. I couldn’t believe what I’d done. I wanted to press the undo button. I needed to press it. I dreaded the emotions that would come in the morning, when I began to process the weight of my mistake. I dreaded all the consequences this mistake would entail.
More out of obligation than true feeling, and by way of indirectly apologizing to the world, I told Deputy Steve, “I feel awful. But I guess that’s to be expected.”
Deputy Steve replied with a laconic cliche, but it was the most comforting thing anyone could have told me as I sat in the back of a cop car reeling from a catastrophe I caused:
I clung to the cliche the next morning when I woke up and didn’t have any adrenaline to shield me from the onslaught of emotions. I opened my eyes are glared at the ceiling for a long time before sitting up and putting my feet on the floor.
Everyone says it about bad surprises like accidents or breakups or diagnoses, but the strange thing is that the moments before were so normal. I had had a downright pleasant day. I had taught in Snohomish. And then I had been hiking at Deception Pass, where all year long the madronas are red and the water is green. And then I had been browsing La Conner’s little shops at twilight and visiting the art museum. There was a bookstore with Tom Robbins books, and the last non-car accident related text I’d sent was to my family, asking for more of his work, but not Still Life with Woodpecker or Tibetan Peach Pie, because I’d already read those.
Still Life With Woodpecker is full of wonderful sentences that I underlined, but there’s one quote of his that I haven’t found in print yet: “I want life, all of life, the miserable as well as the superb.”
I didn’t have the wherewithal to languish in those words the next morning but there they were, anyway.