A tragedy's first act is crowded with supporting players: witnesses crimping their faces, policemen scribbling in pads and making radio calls, EMS guys unfolding equipment, tubes and wheels.
I must have managed to ask how Celine was doing, because at some point a policeman told me that she was unconscious but holding on. I remember talk of cardiac arrest, of a medevac helicopter coming to take her to the hospital. I had a somewhat thickheaded sensation that everyone was responding appropriately to what was clearly a crisis. But I still didn't think there was any reason to freak out. This was something fixable; it was being fixed. Still, I had been careful not to stand anyplace where I could see Celine again - her face's semblance of musing calm, her unnatural position.
Police had suspended traffic on the highway's two sides. My friends made cameo appearances as standers, mullers, back rubbers. I thought how strange it was that, in normal life, we all touched so rarely. Traffic, I now understood-I'd started to think abstractly - is a kind of stream crowded with fish, a rush of momentum, and we'd been yanked to the side of the brook and forced to dry in the sun. I'd become one of those sights I'd driven past a hundred times on the expressway, the locus of a thousand strangers' curiosity.
That's the thing about shock. You can have these clear and selfish perceptions, as you circle without looking at the truth lying alone on the street.
The most embarrassing memory of that day came when two teenage girls materialized from one of the stopped cars nearby. I heard the thunk of doors closing. And next the young women came walking over the grass. They were sexy and not from my school. Both wore shorts and white sleeveless undershirts; one smelled, optimistically, of suntan oil.
"Hey," she said. "You in that crash?" - her voice a mix of apprehension and prying.
"Yeah," I said.
"Wow - oh, man."
"You all right?"
"Yeah," I said, "I am, thanks," and walked away.
Having acknowledged my own centrality and drama, and sensing the girls were still watching, I dropped to my knees and covered my head with my hands-fingers between the ears and temples, like a man who's just won the US Open. This plagiarized "emotional" reaction, acted out for girls I'd never see again, is one more stomach-turning fact of that afternoon.
"Aww," the girls said, coming over to me. "You know it wasn't your fault."
I didn't even nod - I just got up and showboated away from them, shoulders back; I went over to the bustle around Celine, the bustle from which these girls were excluded. I can only explain it like this: there was still a disconnect between me and the realness of what was happening.
I've come to see our central nervous system as a kind of vintage switchboard, all thick foam wires and old-fashioned plugs. The circuitry isn't properly equipped; after a surplus of emotional information the system overloads, the circuit breaks, the board runs dark. That's what shock is.
My father arrived. Someone must have called him, though this was before cell phones. It was the sight of my dad that day, the clean sadness on his face, that turned this real, finally. All this had happened to me; I had done this; I was his son. Dad was somehow like a new circuit in the fuse box. He arrived, emotion could flow. In his hug I went out all at once into tears, as I never had before and haven't since.
I don't remember how long we'd all been there, whether I'd gone to look at Celine's excessively pale face again. (A psychologist later told me such memory skips have been installed for our own protection. Trauma makes a spark that in a white glow washes out details, guilt, shame - a flare that throws the recent past into shadow and deep obscurity.)
A policeman shambled over. His eyes glided across my face; he asked me clipped questions. How fast had I been going? Had I been drinking? (About forty, I guess, and No, no. Jesus, no.) Someone, perhaps a new EMS arrival, finally took charge. All right, folks-step back. He decided on the best way to transport Celine. The how of his plan escaped me, and still does. But an ambulance did wheel in and get Celine, finally and somehow, away from all the stopped cars. They took her to the hospital. And my passengers Mike and Jeff - twin friends who'd been in the backseat - also managed to get out of there. And then, after the traffic was unjammed; after the police told me I was "free to go"; and with a suddenness and ease out of sync with the scale of what was happening - it seemed a form of insanity to touch the car again - my dad just slipped into the driver's seat. Dave took Dad's car, I fell into mine beside my father, and we were off. I sat in the front passenger seat. A crack in the car's windshield measured the length of the glass. Sunlight caught in tendrils that raked out from its sides.
Excerpted from Half a Life by Darin Strauss. Copyright © 2010 by Darin Strauss. Excerpted by permission of McSweeneys Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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