My younger sister Beth is driving home from a visit to her college town. She is flipping through songs on her iPod, listening to her friend Matt talk in the passenger seat. Christmas was a few days ago and snowflakes drift lazily through the air, too light and swift to land. The day seems simple and good.
Beth rounds the interstate’s corner. A minivan is upside-down in the ditch. Four people are standing in a circle nearby, but their heads snap tick-tock toward the van and back at her, so she knows there’s someone inside. She pulls over, calculating geometry in the hacksawed tire tracks. An ambulance hasn’t been here yet. She shoves the car door open, out into the snow bare-armed in her t-shirt, past the group of people standing—if they are standing and talking they must be mostly okay—yells that she is an EMT, runs toward the upside-down van. A woman is ragdolled under the back tire, her body tangled in metal. Her head is the wrong shape and part of her skull hangs open, wet and glistening, the snow falling in and melting inside. Beth pulls herself into the van. The engine clicks; it’s still warm from the heater, chugging through the Michigan winter. Beth puts two fingers into the woman’s neck. Underneath her fingers the woman’s pulse, utterly improbable, beats.
Underneath her fingers the woman’s pulse, utterly improbable, beats. Across town, I’m pouring a glass of pink wine.
Across town, I’m pouring a glass of pink wine. I’m in a wine bar in Howell, one of the single-street small towns that spiderweb their way across the Midwest in square-mile grids before fading away into forgotten storefronts, forgettable suburbs. Garlands twisted with Christmas lights wrap around each streetlight. I lift the glass to my mouth and sit back into the shabby, bottomed-out couch. My two friends are talking about weddings. I am visiting home from Boston where I now live, 25 years old, the age where it’s no longer surprising to talk about weddings. Brittany is already planning hers even though she and her boyfriend aren’t engaged. Sarah got married a few years ago under an awning in her parents’ backyard in a short white summer dress, reception in the local dive bar with greasy pizza and pitchers of beer and homemade cakes brought by the people who loved the couple, three months pregnant and clueless and happy. Sarah is planning the wedding she never had, the one where her parents aren’t deadbeats and she doesn’t have to be pregnant, one with white-starched tablecloths and overpriced centerpieces. Instead of talking about love we compare blue versus pink bridesmaids. Brittany is talking about tuxedo vests and I think, is this all that we have become? Will real things stop happening to us? To me?
* * *
I have a history of not knowing the right thing to do or the right way to be. Or maybe there is no right thing to be done.
While I was in ninth grade World History, writing a note to my friend about how cute Mike Munsell looked in his Abercrombie shirt, terrorists crashed a plane into the World Trade Center. Living in Michigan, I wasn’t sure exactly what terrorists or the World Trade Center were, but I knew they must be important by the way the teachers ricocheted through the hallways like electrified pinballs.
By fifth hour band, kids with family in New York had evaporated from school. Everyone was already rehearsing their stories of where they were when it happened and it was an unspoken contest of whose was the best. I had no idea what was going on but it was big and important and I wanted so badly to be important. Alisa knew how tall the towers were and had been able to cry about it so she was already ahead. And then I remembered—how could I have forgotten?—that my aunt and her wife lived in New York.
In reality, they lived somewhere woodsy, too far away to see anything or be seriously injured, but in my mind I moved them into a high-rise downtown. Here was my chance to stop being irrelevant.
But as with most of my grandest plans, I was too afraid to actually do anything. I couldn’t cry and no one would notice me otherwise, so I elbowed one of the crash cymbals out of its tray. People turned and I put my hands to my mouth, all ready to be distraught, but completely lost my nerve. Everyone turned away, back toward the television while the towers angrily smoked. I turned to the boy next to me and interrupted his conversation.
“My aunt is in New York,” I said. His face did not register anything. I was crushed. So I said it again. “I have an aunt. In New York. Right now.”
“Is she okay? Why didn’t your mom come to get you?” I had no answers. I didn’t know anything. I became obscure again.
Mr. L, the band teacher, tried to get us to play. I thought he should probably say something important like how the music would bring us joy in this time of tragedy, but instead he jabbed his white baton at us like he hated us, just a little more than usual. I leaned my head on the big upright bass drum and let the vibrations thunder through me like I was empty. The second tower fell. The trumpets blared their hideous solo while I counted 42 measures of rest.
For the next few years I lied, trying to tell a better story, even though I can’t understand why I wanted to. I made Mr. L a sympathetic character. In this version, he doesn’t make us play. His radio won’t work, so he lets us out into the parking lot to listen to the news in our cars. Probably he sobs over our practice records in his office. In this version I follow Ryan, the junior drummer, out to his car with a group of somber-faced friends. There is not enough room for me in the back seat, so he pulls me onto his lap, and I am close enough to touch the odd half-moon dimple above his left eye. The towers fall, and we think we hear people screaming, and Ryan locks his fingers around me. In this version I am visible, wanted, important. In this version I know about tragedy.
When I get home, my mother rests her head against the humming refrigerator and cries. I start to fear bombs the way my mother fears nuclear fallout. I’m sure the next one is coming. For weeks I can’t stop myself from doodling American flags, over and over.
* * *
On the side of the interstate it is far too quiet up in the cavity of the minivan while this woman tries not to die, except for the slow chugging of the exhaust of passing cars, the people inside open-mouthed, saying oh my god and so glad it isn’t them. They will drive home and tell their families; they will feel as if they’ve been a part of something important. Someone else has pulled over, and a swarm of new hands are clutching at the woman trapped in the car. Beth doesn’t look up and swats them away, knows they might break her neck or worse if her back is broken (though she wonders how, really, it could be worse) until she sees the red lights swirling dizzy-round, big men in fire suits, a plastic blue backboard sliding in the snow with its reassuring straps and buckles (she thinks ridiculously of sledding, snow and ice white-hot-cold on her face); snow drifts, gorgeous and grotesque, into the woman’s hair while the firemen crack the ribs of the minivan wide, slide the woman out. Beth is small so she sits on the backboard with the woman and starts bloody-handed CPR, a cadence she can’t stop, chest compressions. She does what needs to be done. She does not have time to think about its importance. The woman’s chest creaks like a door closing and Beth presses over and over.
The woman’s chest creaks like a door closing and Beth presses over and over. Across town, unaware, I’m opening a third bottle of wine.
Across town, unaware, I’m opening a third bottle of wine. We have decimated the cheese plate, which wasn’t really a cheese plate at all but clearly just crackers from a brown-plastic sleeve and cheese sliced from a few blocks by someone’s mother. It’s all so small I could die. My friends are talking about the pros and cons of buffet versus family-style wedding dinners. None of the things I have to say fit the script. I want to say, really, how many of us are going to be divorced? I want to say that I’ll probably never have enough money to want to buy a house, and is buying a house something I have to care about now? I almost blurt the word mortgage into my glass of chardonnay because that sounds right. So I mention engagement rings, and realize that, fuck me, I’m enjoying myself.
* * *
Five years old, at a campground called Marble Springs, I was climbing down the ladder into the swimming hole when I saw a girl floating face down in the water. Tiny waves from the other kids on the shore lapped over her blue bathing suit. I looked at her like she was a sea creature, her blonde hair an anemone crawling outward. I do not remember feeling afraid. I did not know I should be afraid. She was a curiosity. I went to my mother and said, “A girl is floating over there.” My aunt, the one I would later forget on September 11, went over and fished the girl out of the water. Here my memory stops, and I only know what I’ve been told. The girl was heavier than she should’ve been for such a tiny person, so full of water. My aunt, another trained EMT, says she was dead, but she started mouth to mouth anyway. Soon the girl choked, regurgitated water. So much water, my aunt says, gallons and gallons of it. The girl turned from gray-blue to pink again, cried, alive. If it weren’t for you, everyone says, she would probably have died, her brain drowned. But I felt that I had done nothing. I didn’t know anything about ownership of tragedy. I knew I was not a hero. I went back to playing in the sand. To me the water was still clean.
* * *
In my family I am surrounded by women who know what they are doing: four trained EMTs, three nurse anesthetists, one medical student. When something bad happens, they do. What if I had been a bit older when I’d seen the drowning girl at Marble Springs, without the instinct to go straight to my mother? Would I still have stepped forward? Or would I have stood back, thinking—what’s going to happen to me?
* * *
On the side of the road, the paramedics have finally shown up. Beth still leans on the woman’s chest, trying to pump her unwilling heart, sweating through her clothes; the sweat starting to freeze over, though she can’t tell what’s sweat and what’s blood. She isn’t thinking about the complexities of life and what is meaningful and how we manage it—she does a job. She counts, one two three four five, important numbers. The paramedics lift the back board into the ambulance while she’s still pushing on the dead woman’s chest—and of course she’s dead, how couldn’t she be, with her brain glistening like that, with pieces of her on Beth’s jeans?—but Beth’s arms move compulsively one-two-three-four-five, a bird perched on the back board, until the paramedics say no, stop, she’s gone, too bad, so near Christmas—they say time of death, stop Beth’s counting. Everyone moves so slowly now. Beth is wearing a brand-new outfit, unwrapped from bright-red paper, the fabric perfect and meaningless. Her heart hammers out its own one-two-three-four-five and she is her own earthquake, shuddering. She has to walk back to her car, drive home, have dinner, so fucking normal. Her friend Matt throws up at the sight of her and she tells him it’s okay even though it isn’t, even though he had to stand there talking to the woman’s family, telling them it would be okay when it wouldn’t.
The cashier stares at her and she realizes she’s still covered in blood, her hair wild from snow and sweat.
On the way back Beth realizes they’ve forgotten dinner so they pull into a Wendy’s. The cashier stares at her and she realizes she’s still covered in blood, her hair wild from snow and sweat. In the bathroom she tries to clean her face with scratchy paper towels. She does not want to look in the mirror. Matt orders fries and they sit at a plastic table, saying nothing. The fries are hot and salty and she does not want them to taste so good but still, they do.
When I come home, Beth sits on the couch, wrapped in blankets. She can’t get warm. When she tells me what happened, I have nothing to say. Beth had always complained that she drives by accidents too late to help. She always just missed it, and wanted so badly to do something, to be a part of it. I apologize to her like it is my fault, and I feel like somehow it could be.
The next day Beth’s body will ache like she’s absorbed too much, tender to the touch. It will be New Year’s Eve, when we are pretending to start over. The light from Times Square will flicker from the television. On my way out, Beth says, “Wear your seatbelt.” I can’t help myself from telling the story later on that night. I can’t stop telling it. It is a great story for a party. Telling it makes me feel like I might absorb some of my sister, like instead of getting drunk in the afternoon and talking about carats, I might have been doing something important. Later Beth will say she wishes she’d missed the accident. She should never have wanted to be a part of it. She throws her bloodied clothes into the washer because somehow things have to get uncomplicated and clean.
* * *
Two years after I have left Boston for San Francisco, two men have bombed the finish line of the Boston Marathon. I am riding an exercise bike when I find out, watching the TV with the sound off. Red banner; breaking news. CNN plays the same ten seconds of explosion footage over and over until I realize that I recognize the streets. This, now, is the bomb I have always been sure would come. People lie bleeding with shrapnel studding their bones on Boylston Street where I used to walk to the library, walk to get frozen yogurt on my lunch breaks, my umbrella whipped out of my hand and into the gutter on windy rainy days. I pedal and pedal on the exercise bike, legs whipping in circles, too fast. I can’t seem to stop. I finish my workout but I don’t know why. I tell myself I am too afraid to go find my phone. I try to fend off the thought that finishing my workout might be more important to me than a bombing.
In the locker room, I sit on a wet bench and text all my friends in Boston, my coworkers in the building near the second bombing site. Everyone is fine and I expect to feel relief or feel like I have been a part of something, but instead I feel nothing. I feel sick. I stand in the shower until my skin is red.
I walk to have someplace to go. Here in California, summer winds have blown into town early at 40 miles per hour. The wind blows so hard that my legs are knocked around, askew. I lose track of my feet. I end up in a deserted sushi restaurant. The waitress brings me hot tea and I order much more than I can eat. I’ve been consuming nothing but news for hours. I used to live in Boston, I say. I still can’t help myself. A very bad thing, she says, and turns the TV to CNN for me, turns up the volume. Marathon runners cross the finish line in slow motion. Their legs tick the seconds. One, two, then the bomb blooms orange beside them, the energy wave rippling through their bodies simultaneously. It is almost beautiful.
In the library next, I try to read. The wind howls at the windows like an angry cat. It claws in through the seams so hard that I can feel it through the walls. It feels wrong that it should be so sunny. On my phone I thumb through the news. A picture is marked as graphic; a friend warns me not to look at it. I want to be the kind of person who doesn’t want to look. But of course I am. Of course I look. A young, ash-covered man in a wheelchair clutches his thigh. From the knee down, his leg has been blown off. His bone is so white and his skin flutters like bright red ribbons around a maypole. His eyes are open. He is awake.
Everything ordinary is horrible: the Styrofoam coffee cup in front of me, the blonde-haired boy in the fiction section clutching at his mother’s leg and calling mom mom mom. While Boston is in lockdown for the manhunt, my friend calls to tell me she is terrified, but she is taking her dog for a walk anyway, and it feels big and important. I want to tell her she is important. An ordinary thing is good. I want to be okay with smallness but I know the big important things will continue to come and I will still be unsure how I measure up. My father calls me and says he is glad I’m not in Boston anymore. I tell him, me too. For once I do not want to be a part of it.
I want to talk to Beth. She would know what to do, how to act, where to measure the pulse, how to breathe properly. I want her to say, that girl is floating over there; I am an EMT. I want to go back to the swimming hole and save the drowning girl not by accident, but on purpose; to know the simple and right thing to do.