Sunday, October 5, 2014

Northern Lights

First there was the confusion that follows sleep, the disorientation to time and place that accompanies being awakened before you are ready. Otherworldly red and blue patterns were flashing across our bedroom walls and ceiling the way I’d always supposed the northern lights would appear: vibrant, thrumming, spectacular. Jack was still a tiny baby sleeping in his crib across the hall from us, so I was able to shake my head clear in an instant, as only new mothers can. But the baby monitor revealed nothing except its steady-state static. I glanced at the clock, which read 5:19AM. I turned to my husband, sleeping hard. And then I thought to look out the window. Behind our back yard in a narrow strip of untended woods between us and a country road stood at least a dozen officials. The lovely colors on our bedroom wall we owed to the flashing sirens of a police car and an ambulance pulled to the side of the road. I looked more closely and discerned the wreck of a car. Its front end was wrapped grotesquely around a tree, now an unnatural amalgam of metal and wood.

Someone had brought in high-beam lanterns, which had the effect of making the scene before me look like staging for a movie set. Surreal on multiple levels, then. The cast was milling about, no one in a hurry to extricate a body, or two, from the mangled vehicle. One man even stroked his beard, contemplating the scene just as I was, behind the window in my nightgown. Now I moved to awaken my husband. He and I stood together as we processed the news: that a person had (possibly, likely, most certainly) died some short distance from our back yard. I went to check on the children to reassure myself that the world had not gone completely topsy-turvy. They slept splayed out and heavy, the sweaty, untroubled sleep of innocents. I tucked in their sheets and blankets, aware as I did that I might wake them. I think now that I hoped they would rouse and comfort me. Instead they slept on.

My husband and I ended up going back to sleep just as daylight started to slant its way into the far corner of our bedroom. Later, perhaps that afternoon, I learned that a man, a father, a husband, driving too fast, had missed a curve on the road and driven straight ahead, sailing into the late night air for a moment before slamming into a tree in our little culvert. He was a doctor. He’d been on his way to the hospital, some said. But it was too early in the morning for that, others chimed in. He and his wife had been arguing, people whispered. They’d been drinking, or so went the water-cooler chatter. The truth is that there is no truth, except possibly the man’s wife’s truth, which she hasn’t shared, and why should she? Some believe that he committed suicide, some that he looked down at the most inopportune moment of all and missed the curve. It doesn’t matter. He died, and that is all.


When we’d been on the market to buy our first house, we’d walked through a house that we rather liked. After the showing, as we stood outside squinting in noon’s bright light, the realtor had cleared her throat before speaking. “I do have to tell you,” she’d started weakly, “that there was a suicide in this house. In the master bathroom. Some people aren’t bothered by that, but others…,” and she trailed off. Her words hung in the humid July air. My husband and I nodded, acknowledging receipt of the information. We’d save discussion for later, in the privacy of our own bedroom, where I confessed that there was no way I could ever live in that house, knowing what I now knew. My husband was more sanguine. But I was adamant. I would not be able to shower, bathe, or even brush my teeth in that bathroom without imagining the middle-aged woman who’d… Well. If my husband didn’t agree, he accepted my perspective, and we moved on, to another house, to the house in which we’d live for three years before a man drove his car into a tree in the scrubby woods behind our back yard.

We don’t live in that house, our first house, anymore. But my new job has me drive down the exact stretch where a country road swings left and our old house sits right. It is a tricky curve, and I can see how easy it would be to blink and miss it. Every weekday morning I take the turn and remember the fellow who didn’t. I imagine him floating for a second or two, I imagine his surprise and shock. I imagine the moment of grinding impact. I wince. And I think of that young woman at the window watching the accident’s aftermath; I think of her aimlessly checking her children, her house of cards, before finally returning to bed for lack of anything better to do.  

written in 2012