Last month, I was involved in a car wreck. And by “was involved in,” I meant “caused.” And by “car wreck,” I meant “complete debacle, kicking off one of the strangest chain reactions that’s ever had me at its epicenter.”
I’d never been at fault in an accident with another car before. I’ve had some close calls, had my vehicle rear-ended once, and been in collisions between one car and a deer, signpost, or unfortunately placed concrete column in a parking garage – but never been the at-fault party in an automobile collision. My impression of the whole ordeal is, it sucks.
And the kicker is, I wasn’t even supposed to be there. I had finished volunteering at my son Matthew’s school, and was supposed to go set up at a nearby Panera, so I could put in a couple hours of work before picking him up at the end of the day. But a friend needed something, so I drove the other direction to pick it up for them. I was heading back to Panera when the accident happened.
I’m still not sure how. Traffic was moving along the interstate at a steady clip. Then it wasn’t. And somehow, I didn’t notice in time. All I remember is the sudden view of a car RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME, at the back of a long line of stopped cars. My brain had time to register the thought “too close” (or maybe it was “too late”) and I thought my foot moved for the brake, before time simultaneously sped up and stood still. My mind sort of shut down with the aforementioned “too close” thought resonating in a continuous loop in my head as I watched my car’s hood disappear into the trunk of the sedan in front of me.
There was a jolt and a resounding crack like the report of a rifle, followed by an unknown period of time that I can think of only as “stasis.” I don’t believe I ever lost consciousness, but I’m pretty sure I lost a little bit of time while I sat there, suffering a brief lack of awareness.
Once that time passed and regular time was registering again, I became aware of three things – pain, a strange odor, and a white blob in front of me. It turns out that last one wasn’t the fabled bright light of the afterlife; rather, it was the airbag from my steering wheel. I eventually came to believe its deployment was the cause of the pain. And the third thing, the odor, was undoubtedly coming from the smoke that was steadily filling the car.
When I looked up from the white blob – which was strangely smaller than I’ve always assumed airbags to be – I saw that everything around me had returned to the way it had been prior to the sudden stop. Cars were moving at regular speed on either side of mine. But there was no car in front of me. This puzzled me, as I could have sworn I’d just hit one, and I expected it to be attached to what was left of my hood. But there was nothing there, and vehicles were merging from either side into the lane in front of me.
At first, I couldn’t figure out what I’d hit. In my stupor, I thought maybe I hadn’t hit anything at all, somehow convincing myself that it had just been my imagination. Then, in a moment of clarity, I again understood I’d hit a car, and I assumed it must have moved on. More stupor made me think, “Good, maybe I didn’t cause any damage to their car, so they kept going.” Yeah, no.
Next, I’m ashamed to admit I thought, “Maybe they have damage, but they left the scene. That means I won’t be at fault!” Neither was true. I’ll get to that in a moment.
Some indistinct period of time later, I thought it might be a good idea to pull my car out of traffic. First, I found my glasses – they were on the floor, under the gas pedal, where they’d flown when they’d left my face. In retrospect, this is a good thing – if they cleared the airbag, then it didn’t hit my face.
A couple other things were out of place. I’d had a water bottle in the cupholder; it was on the floor underneath the glove compartment. My phone had been charging on the passenger seat; it was out of reach on the floor under the glove compartment, thankfully out of range of the leaking water.
I retrieved my glasses and looked at myself to assess physical damage. My left forearm had a small, non-bleeding cut and a pink blotch that hurt a little; the latter turned out to be a friction burn from the airbag. My right pinky had a bleeding spot on the knuckle, as if I’d smashed it against something hard enough to break the skin. My right ring finger hurt a little and had what appeared to be something dark on it – it looked gray, as if it were a smear of some sort of grease from somewhere in the car, but it turned out to be purple. I’ll get to that later, too.
My torso hurt like hell; there were sore spots on the right side and the front of my ribcage, and it hurt my chest to breathe deeply. At first I thought “heart attack” but I put that aside after a moment or two of sitting without further agitation. (Note: I’m not in the least bit qualified to diagnose or rule out a heart attack.)
The engine had stopped running and the two vanity lights above the rearview mirror had turned on. They toggle on and off whenever someone presses them. I don’t know if inertia had caused them to press inward and turn themselves on, or if an electrical problem had caused it. Regardless, I turned them off and turned the key, hoping the car would start again. It did, but it sounded very, very sad that I was asking it to do any more work in its condition.
I looked around and realized two things – I was in the rightmost lane, and there was a steady line of traffic on my right. First, I was surprised that I was in that lane, because as far as I remembered (and still remember now), I’d been in the middle lane. I have no memory of having moved into the rightmost lane prior to the accident, but that’s where it had happened.
As for the traffic on my right – yes, people were pulling onto the shoulder and driving at normal speed to get around me. I turned on my right turn signal, having no idea if it was working, looked over my shoulder, and waited 30 seconds or so for someone to actually LET ME MOVE MY WRECK OFF THE HIGHWAY.
As I waited, I must have pulled further out of stasis and regained some sense of myself, because I clearly remember falling back into my usual mood when I’m in bad traffic (albeit with a car in better condition). I watched in the rearview mirror, looked over my shoulder, and shook my head as I waited for someone to let me in (or is that out?), muttering my usual assertion in disgust: “People are dicks.”
Yep, I was coming out of my funk.