Living for TwoThe lonely road of the accident survivor
Half my life ago, I killed a girl.
I had just turned eighteen, and when you drive in new post-adolescence, you drive with friends. We were headed to shoot a few rounds of putt-putt. It was May 1988. The breeze did its open-window work on the hair behind my neck and ears. We had a month before high school graduation. I was at the wheel. Up ahead, on the right shoulder, a pair of tiny bicyclists bent over their handlebars. The horizon was just my town’s modest skyline done in watercolors. We all shared a four-lane road; the bicycles traveled in the same direction as my car. Bare legs pedaling under a long sky. I think I fiddled with the radio. Hey what song is this? So turn it up. Then one of the bike riders did something. I remember only that—a glitch on the right. My Oldsmobile stayed in the far left lane. After a wobble or two, the bicyclist eased a wheel into the road, maybe thirty feet away. My tires lapped up the distance that separated us.
Next the bicycle made a crisp turn into the left lane and my sudden car. Dark blond hair appeared very clearly in my windshield. I remember a kind of mechanical curiosity about why this was happening and what it might mean.
This moment has been, for all my life, a kind of shadowy giant. I’m able, tick by tick, to remember each second before it. Radio; friends; thoughts of mini-golf; another thought of maybe just going to the beach; the distance between car and bicycle closing: anything could still happen. But I am powerless to see what comes next; the moment raises a shoulder, lowers its head, and slumps away.
And then it’s too late. My forearm hooks to protect my eyes. The front-seat passenger shouts. I picture my foot disappearing under the dash, kicking down for the brake, straining farther than any real leg can go. Yet the hood of my Oldsmobile met Celine Zilke at forty miles an hour. Her head cracked the windshield. I remember the yellow reflector from her spokes, a useless spark, kicking up the glass incline and over the roof.
My car bumped onto the grassy median. And then I must have done all the normal driver things. Put on the clonking hazards, rolled to a stop, cut the engine; I must have stepped onto the grass in my T-shirt and shorts. I simply have no memory of how I got there.
Celine Zilke, the girl on the bike, was sixteen and always will be sixteen. And I knew her: Celine went to my school. She was an eleventh-grader. I see her playing field hockey in blue gym shorts—Celine had been that lively, athletic type one always imagines in shorts. Or I see her settled in beside friends on the concrete benches just outside the cafeteria, or dashing off notes in the public-speaking class we took together. Celine sat by the window. When I look back now, she strikes me most of all as young.
I walked to where Celine lay on the road. I didn’t know who I’d hit or even that we’d had a serious collision. I thought in terms of broken arms and getting in trouble with my parents. Then I reached her and noticed the peculiar stillness of her face. This stillness transformed her—I didn’t even recognize her. The eyes were open, but her gaze seemed to extend only an inch or so. This openness that does not project out is the image I have of death: everything present, nothing there. She lay on the warm macadam in oblique angles—arm bent up and out, foot settled under a knee. In the skin between her eyebrows there was a small, imprinted purple horseshoe of blood.
“I think maybe she’s hurt,” said my friend Dave. We couldn’t tell if there was any life coming from her pale, parted mouth. Maybe she’s hurt might pass for an obvious statement when you read it now, but it didn’t as we stood over Celine on that morning. Her face looked relaxed, as if she were lost in thought. Yet I could feel my own breathing speed up. And that’s all I felt.
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.
“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 U.S. 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.
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.
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.
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.
At home in bed that first night I had patchy, mundane dreams about normal things.
A police officer called the next morning to say that Celine had died in the hospital. It was unclear whether her parents, who had been on vacation, had been able to see her.
My father answered the phone. The officer never asked for me.
The police, Celine’s biking companion, and the recollection of five cars’ worth of eyewitnesses all conspired to declare me blameless. No charges were filed. A police detective named Paul Vitucci later told the newspaper, “For an unknown reason, her bicycle swerved into what you might call the traffic portion of the street, and she was immediately struck by the car. There was no way he”—meaning me—“could have avoided the accident, no way whatsoever.”
I remember coming down to breakfast, and my parents showing me that article. I remember thinking two things. 1) I am fine. The sweet, marshy part felt—You made it. And the other part said 2) Well, that’s it, I’m in the paper for the world to read about, there is no hiding from this. And I was right. After the story appeared in the local paper, everyone did find out. One friend of mine who lived about an hour north was startled awake by his mother with the news.
Very soon I got to the article’s denouement: Vitucci, eyewitnesses, unprovisional absolution. Society was clearing me. But how could any reporter be so certain? If I hadn’t been with my friends, felt them next to me and in the backseat—if I hadn’t tried to point all of us toward something fun—maybe I would have focused on Celine, or driven slower. Or honked sooner (though I was positive that I had honked, when I’d first seen her inch away from the shoulder and into the right lane). Any of ten different actions on my part might have led to an alternate ending. Maybe I hadn’t felt the right amount of alarm just before the girl jumped across two lanes.
My father and I went to the funeral. At the church door I took a shaky gulp and wrapped my palms around the handles and my heart was a live bird nailed to my chest. Selfishness was thrumming at me: Don’t open this door, just take off! Maybe it only seems like the right thing to do, showing up today, but probably mine is the last face her parents and friends and whoever want to see, yes that’s true maybe it only appears that the more mature thing is to open this door right now, but in fact the braver thing is maybe to not face it. I mean, I am the guy who drove the car and I’m showing up to her funeral? Are you serious about this? Because no one and I mean no one would expect you to have to, even if it is the manlier thing to do, or whatever, because you’re not even a man yet really, etc.
My father stood at the door and showed no expression of any kind: it was up to me. I opened the door.
I bowed and averted through the crowd, I swallowed and hesitated. This was—and remains—the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. But I was relieved to feel tears on my face. Among the selves jostling inside me was an actor who could manipulate people, while the frightened kid in there sweated out his confusion. Real tears, some part of me knew, were right. I wasn’t fully aware of most of this: I felt so much but understood so little, could express so little.
An old man clamped his eyes on me as if he wanted to cut my heart out. Imagine outliving not only your children, but your grandchildren. The man was frail, with the body—slim hips, short, a big belly—of a schoolgirl eight months into a mistake. He stood to the left of my path and didn’t move; my father and I had to glide around him. His head revolved carefully, never releasing me from the grip of his gaze. I turned and looked—my father had, too—and the man kept staring.
I was bewildered and guilt-ridden and I hadn’t even faced Celine’s parents yet.
And then I did. Some mortician or other heartache functionary shunted me into a back chamber where they were—it was like a green room for this particular death’s celebrities. I tried, for some reason, not to cry here, as if that was what was expected of me. I was trying to act as a kind but hard-judging person would want me to act.
I had the child’s faith that going through every official rite would restore me to an appropriate place in everyone’s eyes. Darin was brave enough to go to the funeral. He didn’t duck, nor did he shirk. He did The Right Thing. I hadn’t realized that the hard-judging person was myself.
Celine’s father, a big man, came to me with a surprisingly light step. He didn’t know what to do with his face. It was soft and jowly, and he wore glasses that gave him a Tom Bosley, Happy Days aspect. This made me think he’d be gentle and understanding.
In the long moment before he found words, and as he took my hand, Mr. Zilke settled on an expression, a hard-won glint of: I will be friendlier than you have any right to expect me to be. “You’re Darin.”
My voice and my face behaved as if this were a regular meeting between cordial strangers. I was nervous about sounding nervous, and nervous about sounding anything but nervous. (Even now I feel my face go red as I remember this: having complicated her parents’ grief with the question of how to treat me was perhaps the worst thing I could have done. A possibly brave act for me, but awful for them.)
Celine’s mother joined us. (The thing is, I still don’t know what would have been the right and respectful thing to do, other than having shown up.) I think her mother attempted a smile, but not a single muscle obeyed; she stood there exempt from all expression. Then her cheeks flared a difficult color. She was preparing to do something.
First, a clenching of her body, a steeling herself for something personally odious. She let out a noise: part sob and sigh, part venom. She hugged me quickly, and just as quickly shrank away. “I know it was not your fault, Darin. They all tell me it was not your fault.” She swallowed, and took me in with exhausted eyes. “But I want you to remember something. Whatever you do in your life, you have to do it twice as well now.” Her voice went dim. “Because you are living it for two people.” Her face was a picture of the misery that had worn out the voice. “Can you promise me? Promise.”
Yes, of course, of course, Mrs. Zilke—and the accident churned my stomach. And here again came that reflector sliding up and over my windshield. But somehow it still didn’t seem right to promise Mrs. Zilke this. How can you commit to something you don’t even understand? Was I to become the Zilkes’ son now, visiting on school breaks, calling in with news of grades and girls?
I tried to scrub my face of all emotion and message, to let Mrs. Zilke fill it with whatever meaning would bring her comfort.
“Can you promise me, Darin?” Her eyes got very hectic. “Promise. You’re living for two. Okay? Okay?”
I nodded quickly.
And she continued to gaze at me. Not too unkindly or even severely, just for a long while. I swallowed what had become a big pointy stone in my throat. Some clock somewhere kept beating its subdued cymbal. I looked away and then back. She was still looking at me. Why are you the one who is still alive? her eyes seemed to be saying.
I opened my mouth to tell her—what? Nothing. Finally, at once, she turned to leave: she wanted, forever, to have no part of this life she’d doubly freighted. My dad leveled his hand on my back, on my shoulder. A kind of drape of family, holding me, recasting me as his, and our family’s.
Next I’m standing before Celine’s open coffin. I don’t remember how I got here, who brought me. I only remember the tingly awareness of the two hundred whispers at my back, and how that got every hair on my body to stand up. Celine looked almost like herself. What I mean is, she now looked more like her high school self than she had when I’d mistaken her for someone pale and dozing on the road. Her face was soft and broad, pretty and unpretending. Pretty without being stagy about it.
I turn from the casket. I’m hurrying past all the stares in this neat and unreal spectacle. The heels of my unfamiliar dress shoes clack on the church floor. My stomach has been clutched and empty all morning; it’s already been a long, hungry day. Soon enough I’m spluttering past the old grandfather, almost at the exit. And my dad keeps buzzing in my ear, “Keep your head up—just keep your head up . . . ” The grandfather’s head is dropped so he won’t have to bear the sight of me.
I hadn’t realized I’d been slouching my own head. I felt buoyed by an almost infant-level admiration for my father, and I wondered if I would ever know the things grown-ups know. I lifted my head.DARIN STRAUSS, A92, is the best-selling author ofThe Real McCoy, More Than It Hurts You, and Chang & Eng. His work has been published in twenty countries, and he’s received numerous awards, most recently a Guggenheim in fiction writing. His latest book, Half a Life, has been excerpted in GQ, on NPR’s This American Life, and in this issue of Tufts Magazine.