You were tired, that day. You were riding in a car with your daughter Caroline and Jay, her new husband, and they were arguing. They acted as though you weren’t there. Caroline swerved once, narrowly averting a collision. You bit your lip, you sighed, you rested your head back against the seat. The noises from the front continued, unabated.
A number of years ago, when Caroline and your other child, Brian, were young, you experienced a catastrophic accident. Let me clarify: you were not the injured party. You simply sat in your car and watched as a girl who was crossing the street was struck by a man driving a BMW convertible (you think it was a teal color: that is, not really blue, not really green). The girl subsequently died, as was only to be expected. She had been flung up in the air (so high you could only compare it to the image of someone jumping on a trampoline) and landed back down on the windshield of the other car, which cracked with a loud noise that reverberated in your eardrums for days afterward.
Your feelings at the sight of the young girl in the air were indescribable. Or perhaps there were no feelings at all. Perhaps a more accurate description would be to say that you were numb.
Numbness can be the result of shock, you have read this somewhere. The mind refuses to accept the evidence of one’s own eyes. Therefore, all feeling shuts down. For, unable to identify what it is exactly that one has seen, that one has experienced, how can one know what to feel?
You realized that to feel anything, you needed permission. Perhaps it’s as your psychology professor used to say: Women can’t just feel. They need validation.
Since the accident happened so unexpectedly, however, no validation was forthcoming. Except perhaps from the man who had struck the girl. But aside from the long moments when you and the man had stared at each other, the girl’s body lying on the street between your cars, there was no further contact between you.
Later you saw the man being led away, crying with great, trembling sobs. A woman had wrapped her arm around his shoulders. No one, it seemed, thought to comfort you. You gave your statement calmly to a policeman, and then went home. It was May.
Later, as you were sipping coffee in front of the TV set, you saw the girl again: how quickly she had rolled off the hood of the car: you saw again a flash of pale legs, an upraised skirt, the tangled hair.
The other driver was a man, older than yourself. Now, you are older than you think that man was, when he killed the girl. (What would it have meant to him? In the subsequent decade? Would he have been able to put it out of his mind? Or would he have allowed it to damage him — refusing, for instance, to ever again get behind the wheel of a car?) Even though, during the deposition, you were asked to describe every particular of the accident, you remembered nothing more about him. There was merely his car, the girl, the day, you, your car, the object of your trip (to fetch your children from school), what you had been about to do (switch radio stations) and the fact that you were vaguely concerned about money.
You never mentioned the accident again, didn’t even think about it, until today when you were riding in the back of Caroline’s car, and Caroline suddenly said something which brought your mind (which always tended to wander to irrelevant details, especially when you were not yourself driving) suddenly back to the present. With a wrench.
“What was that?” you said, your breath quickening.
Caroline gave an exasperated sigh. “I said, Mom, that Jay and I are going East, to live with his parents in Vermont.”
You didn’t know much about Caroline’s husband. He had attended the East Asian Studies Program at Berkeley. But Caroline had been married to him less than a year. And for half the time she had been married, you had been in the Philippines, nursing your mother until the day she died, only last month, from breast cancer.
When you returned, you felt that everything — even your husband, even your children, had changed. Your actions became tremulous with uncertainty.
Now you begin talking very fast. You tell Caroline the story of the girl, the accident, the man — what mystery propels you? Jay listens silently, with his head turned toward the window.
How rude, you think. My daughter is married to a rude man. I didn’t even know it until this moment.
Caroline is driving across the Golden Gate Bridge. You look up, and you see the rust-red color (not at all golden, whoever gave it that name was a great liar), the cables flashing by. They seem tangled, as in a net. As though reflecting your own thoughts.
The images wind back, and back. What you feel most of all is sadness because you are no longer that woman in the car, the one who stared at the other driver with such great and profound shock. The one who wanted only to get everything out of the way so that you would not be late picking up your children from school.
Instead you are here, now, with Caroline. And she is a stranger. As you are, to yourself.