My parents, after offering the quiet-voiced inevitables, told me not to beat myself up about it.
I don't remember what Dave and I did the rest of that afternoon. I certainly didn't phone Celine's family. She and I hadn't known each other - not well enough, or really much at all-and so I was too afraid to call, or even to look up the Zilkes in the white pages.
"You should go to a movie," my parents told me, trying their best.
A benign suggestion, maybe, but I didn't want to be seen trying to enjoy myself. Judging by the EMS workers' concerned brows, I was afraid Celine might actually die. She could already be dead. I didn't want to appear capable of any emotion but remorse - so I traveled to a theater in some other town. I must have believed that keeping up a picture of constant remorse was the same, morally, as living in constant remorse. That night, Dave and I drove down near the county line to see Stand and Deliver.
Heading to the multiplex, the weirdness of being out, of not being under house arrest, settled on me like ash. (Shouldn't I have at least considered visiting Celine's hospital room?)
Before Stand and Deliver had even started, in the lobby I came across a guy from my town. (Why visit her hospital room, though? What could I offer? Celine and I didn't even know each other ...)
In one of those coincidences that life hands over more realistically than fiction can, the guy in the lobby was my good friend, Jim.
Jim jogged up to me on line at the ticket booth. "Heard what happened," he said.
"Yeah," I said. "I didn't see her until it was too late," I apologized.
"Holy shit," he said. Was there something off about his facial presentation? Where was the concern, or even a little solemnity? I sensed something weird in him right away - mockery nibbling there at the side of his mouth - and now he raised his hands, palms out. Next, a high-pitched "Ahhh!" Then: "Please! Don't run me down!" and then more comic squeals, little darts tossed in the air.
Dave showed Jim an eloquent frown, quit it, quit it.
But next, an even nastier sound: Jim's slashing laugh. He was cracking up at me.
Dave's appalled stare, the shuffling feet of a conversation breaking down. Then Jim said, "No, you're upset? Really? Come on, hey. Nothing wrong with a joke. What's wrong with a joke?"
Everything. I felt panicky and bright and swollen: hugely sad, acutely seen. I slouched away, tucked myself into the theater's dark, and had a sense of being extinguished.
The letup in perception, the no-input cluelessness - that's the kind of shock everyone's familiar with. But shock is not a one-time event. That system-junking you experience at the start goes away, of course. But then a lesser shock keeps showing up, to hurl a big muffling blanket over you. And when you push out of that, you feel it almost as a sudden blinking exposure to light. I'm talking about how your mind behaves after the broken circuit appears to be back up and running. I mean, why did I feel half-okay there in the multiplex parking lot, and why had I continued to feel that way until Jim's cackle? The truth about shock, and about our bodies, is that they don't want us to feel things deeply. We're designed to act, react, forget; to be shallow. I knew I was normal - I had been a normal, normally embraced person twenty-four hours before. But would a normal person feel even halfway okay, as I seemed to feel now? Was it as if I'd somehow forgotten the accident?
Well, I remembered, of course. I remembered without end. In fact, one me kept remembering how another me from a second ago had just remembered the maybe life-destroying horror on West Shore Road (destroying, perhaps, two lives). And I'd remember how I'd just been enduring that a second ago - and catch myself remembering it. And then I'd remember her reflector scuttling up the windshield, the sensation of my working to swerve, the surprise of her being so close and detailed. It wasn't really me feeling it at any one time - rather, I was remembering those other mes, and we each shared it together, and all of us were overly compassionate to one another.
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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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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