"Don't forget the time," my coworker, Liz, reminds
me. It's 4:30 and I've promised I'll be ready to go at 4:55 sharp.
I'm always late in the morning, and I'm always late leaving in the
afternoon. But tonight I've sworn to have my computer shut down and
my coat on by 4:55 so we can make the earlier shuttle to the parking lot.
"I'm on it," I assure her. "I am sending one more email and then I am shutting down!"
"Good, because we need to make the 5pm shuttle, otherwise we'll be stuck with the slow guy and we'll miss the movie!"
"I promise, I'll be ready," I say.
"I just need to clean out my car a little bit before we pick up Kelly," Liz says sheepishly. Her car is a mess, but I assure her that mine isn't exactly the picture of cleanliness either. She tosses papers and bags and clothes into the trunk, clearing off the passenger seat and half the rear seat in her pretty blue mustang. As the radio comes on, I remark that’s she’s a smartypants, listening to NPR in the car.
"I just like to know what's going on outside our
dungeon office," she says, blushing.
"I only listen in the car."
"Huh," I can’t resist teasing her, "that's weird. There's a world outside our office?"
"What station do you listen to?" she asks, her hand on the radio dial.
"Do you have the Twilight soundtrack?" I ask.
As we start drive, she turns the wrong way out of the parking lot. "Um, we need to go right, don't we?" I ask.
"Oh, sorry! I was just on autopilot, heading home!" We U-turn and get caught at a red light. She pulls our her cell phone. "I'm just telling my husband we're leaving," she promises. "I don't text while I'm driving, don't worry."
"No problem," I say.
We hit rush hour traffic leaving the city, and we agree we're both lucky not to deal with this on a daily basis.
"People here drive like maniacs," I say. "I'm still not used to it. I mean, people drive aggressively in
We're quite proud when we find Kelly's house without a single wrong turn. I get out of the car to give her the front seat, and Liz apologizes again. "I should have cleaned off the other side of the seat, now you have to sit cramped behind me! Do you want me to put that stuff in the back so you can sit behind Kelly?"
"Don't worry about it," I say, sliding into the back as she holds the seat out of the way. "There are benefits to being 5'1!"
We're running a little bit late, but Kelly knows the way to the theater and we've built a few minutes of getting lost time into our schedule. I glance at the dashboard clock; it read 6:08. The movie starts at 6:10. I tell myself that there certainly won't be a line at the movies on a Wednesday night. We might miss the previews, but that’s OK. Better than going to the late showing and not getting home until midnight.
I see the crash first and feel it second. What's happening, my mind thinks, confused. We're going the wrong way. Instinctively, my body braces. Then I hear the sounds. Metal, loud. Tires, screeching. Glass, breaking. We're in an accident, my brain realizes. We're crashing. The car is still spinning, I have no sense of orientation. Please don't let anyone else hit us, I think. We're crashing.
We stop spinning, but we're still moving. I hear the brakes screaming and we slow to a halt. I am frozen, braced for another impact. It's dark. It's silent.
I hear Liz start to cry in the front seat. "Are you OK?" I ask, reaching forward, while I simultaneously wonder if I am OK. I don't feel any pain, but I'm shaking. Liz is crying and freaking out. Kelly's not answering. The other car hit her side, she's lying still in her seat.
I find my phone and dial 911. "I was in a car accident," I say, nearly unable to get the words out. I feel very stupid when the operator asks question after question and I have not a single answer. I don't know if anyone is hurt, I think so, my friend just had surgery. I think she is conscious but I can't tell. I'm in the backseat. I don't see any smoke, but I'm not sure. I can't tell what the other car looks like. I have no idea what street we're on or what we're near. I can't remember the name of the theater. We were going to see a sad movie about a dog.
A woman appears at the window and is very excited. She's already called the ambulance and she saw the whole thing, she tells us. She asks for a paper to write down her information. "I'll testify for you in court!" she says. "We saw it all! He ran the red light!" I hand her the Mapquest directions to use as scrap paper, but I can't find a pen. I thought I had one in my purse but I can’t find it.
We sit in the car for what feels like a very long time. I am fairly sure that I'm not badly hurt, but I can't stop shaking and nothing feels right. Kelly is awake, but clearly in pain. Liz is panicking. She can't find her phone, it was in the door compartment and she can't find it. I had her mine and she calls her husband, leaving a tearful message. "What is taking them so long?" Kelly wonders. "The fire station is right up the street."
Several off-duty firefighters appear at the window, assuring us that we'll be fine. There were in a car waiting at the light; they've called on their radios and the ambulance is on the way. They seem calm enough, so I decide that everyone must really be OK. They'd be doing more than standing there if someone were really hurt.
Soon a firefighter in full regalia is at the other window. She helps Liz out of the car and holds the seat forward for me. I try to step out, not trusting my legs. I exit the car, thinking to turn back for my purse. I should call Joel, I think. Liz has my phone. I can't see where she's gone. There are so many cars around. So many lights. I look down and see my employee badge lying on the asphalt. The cord is still around my neck, so I can't figure how it got there. I pick it up and walk in the direction the firefighter is pointing. As I move to the other side of the car, I see Liz's badge lying on the ground there. How did it get outside the car? The windows were closed. I pick it up. I turn as the firefighter calls me, and she hands me a silver cell phone that was on the backseat of the car. It's Liz's. I take it.
I stand around awkwardly, not knowing what to do. I don't want to get in the way, and I don't know where to go. I feel very stupid. I stare at the car and see that firefighters are struggling with what looks like a giant pair of pliers, trying to wrench the passenger door from its hinges. A white sheet covers a body in the seat, and for a moment my heart stops. Kelly is dead. Why aren't they HURRYING, I wonder, she needs help! I can feel my eyes growing wide, but everything else is frozen. As they move with excruciating slowness, I realize the sheet is protecting her from the broken window they're clearing off. She's OK, I realize. They'd move faster if she weren't. The sheet is just for the glass. The door comes off and they roll a stretcher to the car, slowly.
I see Liz sitting in a fire engine and I hold up her cell phone. She takes it and hands me mine. "I'll pay for your minutes," she says, sobbing. "I'm so, so sorry." I want to tell her not to worry, but I don't think I say anything out loud.
I am herded into an ambulance and sat down on a gurney. "I think I'm OK," I respond when asked. I am not sure what to say; I'm pretty sure that nothing is broken or badly injured, but everything hurts. My neck hurts, my chest hurts. Is that bad, I wonder? I give them my license when someone asks; otherwise I just stare blankly at the ambulance doors in front of me. I hope Kelly is OK. I tell myself over and over that they would have hurried more if she weren't. She's OK. She has to be OK.
"What's your name?" asks the paramedic. I tell him it's Jennifer. "Hi, I'm George," he says. You're going to be OK; we're going to take care of you. I just need to get some information. Can tell me how old you are?"
“Twenty-eight,” I tell him, and immediately realize that's not
right. "No, 27," I correct.
“Twenty-seven until tomorrow."
"Happy birthday," he says sincerely. He's nice. I like him. He's ignoring the driver of the other car, who's been brought into the ambulance and sat down behind me. I wonder if George is ignoring him because he's mad. Does that mean that the accident was the other driver's fault? I wonder.
"It sucks having a birthday so close to Christmas,
doesn't it?" he continues. "I've always hated it. I'm
"New Year's Day, wow," I say. In my head I'm thinking eighty five? He's younger than my baby brother.
The ambulance starts moving, and I'm surprised that there are no seatbelts. I've got one strap holding me to this gurney, but I doubt it will do me any good at all if this ambulance flips over. It seems like a very long ride, but we don't crash. I leave two messages on Joel's voicemail, knowing he's at the gym right now. I am impressed when the driver backs the ambulance right up to the curb. Nice parking job, I think.
I'm terrified when they start to move my gurney out the back of the ambulance. I'm afraid they're going to drop it, drop me. Even when they don't, I still feel nervous. I flinch at every corner we turn, sure the gurney is going to slam into it. We don't hit a single one and I'm finally moved to a wheelchair. I want to refuse it, but I'm not sure I can trust my legs. I sit in it and am instantly glad I did. I don't know where to go, but it's OK because I'm being wheeled the right way. They drop me at a desk where a bored-looking woman in pink scrubs is sitting at the computer. She takes all my vitals, and when she puts the thermometer in my mouth I realize I'm still chewing gum. It tastes terrible.
She gets up and another woman in identical pink scrubs sits down. She asks me all the same questions as the last woman, and I answer again. She asks if the other woman took my temperature and shrugs when I tell her "yes." She puts the thermometer in my mouth again, and then tells me to take a seat in the waiting area and listen for my name to be called. Before I'm wheeled away I think to ask her where I am. She tells me the name of the hospital and I repeat it in my head, trying to memorize it. I've never heard of it before. I ask her if my friends are here, and she promises to look them up and tell me in a minute. She never returns.
I'm taken to the waiting area, reeling. The TV is much too loud. My neck and chest hurt. I wonder why Kelly and Liz aren't here. Does that mean they were more seriously hurt? I text my other two coworkers. "We were in an accident. Everyone is OK I think but Kelly and Liz went somewhere else. No dinner tonight." Immediately, Sarah calls me and offers to come out. I tell her I think Joel is coming soon and promise to call her when I find out where Kelly and Liz are. I hope I won't get in trouble for using my phone in the hospital.
I hear my name called and struggle to get out of the wheelchair. My legs won't work correctly and I'm tangled in a blanket. I clutch my jacket and purse and feel around for the sweatshirt I had to take half-off so my blood pressure could be taken. I can't find it. Where did it go? I finally see a swatch of green fabric and pull it out from under the blanket. I stumble forward, moving slowly. Everything hurts and I'm not sure who called my name. Seeing my confused look, a man in pink scrubs asks me if I'm Jennifer. I nod my head and he points to a room to his right. "Get in there," he says. He's so mean and I want to start crying, but I just walk to the room as quickly as I can.
Inside the room is a woman wearing a sparkly shirt under her lab coat. The shirt has a tattoo pattern and I can make out the world "love" on it. She's the nurse practitioner, she says, and then asks me what happened. "I was in a car accident," I say stupidly. Shouldn’t she know this? I feel like I've repeated this a million times. When she asks me what hurts I'm not sure how much I should tell her. I don't want to seem like a drama queen and I know that I'm OK, generally speaking. But everything hurts. Especially my neck and chest. She pokes me all over and proclaims that my trapezius muscles are spasming, as if that explanation should make me feel better. It still hurts and as I've been sitting there my knee has started to throb and now I'm seeing spots, too. That scares me. Is that normal? The longer I sit here, the worse I feel. "It hurts a lot, I tell her as she looks at my scraped knee," I say.
"It's going to hurt a lot worse tomorrow," she
tells me. I want to cry.
Why are they being so mean to me? I didn't do anything wrong. I wasn't even driving! I struggle not to cry as I am ushered back to the waiting room. I dial my mother's number and I'm so happy when she answers.
Joel calls and wants to know where I am and I know nothing but the name of the hospital. I look around for someone to ask, but I am afraid of all the people in the pink scrubs. I find a security guard at a desk, and he tells me the name of the street. I have no idea where it is, but I repeat the name for Joel. He needs more information, and I start to ask the guard for more details but he just gestures for me to give him the phone. He looks very annoyed.
I'm called back to the desk and asked to sign some papers. This man isn't mean, but he talks very slowly and deliberately, as if I'm a child. I'm grateful because I'm not sure what I need to do. Do I need to pay? I want to go home. Everything hurts. He gives me some pills, which he says are muscle relaxers and will make me sleepy. I hope he's right.
Finally, Joel arrives and we leave this stupid, mean hospital. I hate everyone here and I am so worried about Liz and Kelly. Sarah is at their hospital and I'm so glad. She's the kind of person you want around in an emergency. She always knows what to do.
I want to stop at the other hospital on the way home. I need to see Liz and Kelly with my own eyes and know they're OK. I feel terrible and I was in the back, away from the crash. They must feel even worse. We arrive there after one wrong turn and we find the emergency entrance. Sarah finds me and takes me to Liz's room. Joel isn't allowed to go back; they're over the visitor limit.
I'm braced for Liz to be hysterical, but she is laughing. Her husband looks OK, too, they're OK. She's had a lot of painkillers, Sarah explains. She's hooked up to an IV and has electrodes on her chest and a blood pressure cuff on her arm.
Kelly looks worse. She's in a hospital gown and has wires everywhere. She's OK, her dad assures me. They did a CT scan and took x-rays and everything is OK.
Everyone is OK. I watched the driver of the other car walk out of the other hospital, and Liz and Kelly are OK. Everyone is OK.
Sarah is outraged that I wasn't given a single x-ray, and I wonder if she's right to be angry. "I didn't like that hospital," I say. She tells me that I need to go home, and I agree. I'm so glad she's there. She's called our boss already and she promises to take care of everything. "I have a conference call at 9:30 tomorrow," I tell her. She promises she'll take care of everything.
We stop for burritos on the way home so I can fill my prescriptions for 600mg ibuprofen and muscle relaxers. The CVS pharmacy is closed. The burrito doesn't taste right. I take a shower and then run a bath, but the hot water runs out. I sit in the bath for a few minutes, shivering. I notice a nasty-looking bruise forming on my left arm and I wonder where that came from.
Joel microwaves the hot/cold pack and I settle into bed with it under my neck. I'm so thankful that we have our comfortable bed. I get as comfortable as I can and read a few pages of Breaking Dawn before falling dead asleep.
The next morning, Joel kisses me as he leaves for work. "Happy Birthday," he says.
Oh. I'd forgotten.
"Thanks," I say. I test out my limbs and they still feel sore. I roll over and go back to sleep.