It was almost eleven at night and we were driving through New Haven. Emma asked me if I saw smoke coming from the back of the car. I turned around to check. Dense orange. Fire. We had to pull over, I told Emma. She said we couldn’t because we were on a bridge. I hadn’t thought about the bridge part, which seemed irrational. I said the car was on fire. It might explode. I felt more annoyed at my cousin, who doesn’t like to do be told what to do. She and I are the same age. When we were younger, she’d steal chocolate mints from a wicker basket at our family’s favorite restaurant and eat them in the bathroom before dinner. I did it too, sometimes, but only so she’d like me. We’d giggle together in one stall and let the mints dissolve in our mouths. When skirts pooled around high heels in the stall next to us, we’d shush and listen to the muffled shake of a purse or the unwrapping of plastic that signaled something adult.
Emma gave in, and we pulled over and jumped out. Time gets tricky here because fire makes everything go faster. A twenty-something guy, James, had been driving right behind us. He swerved his Ford F450 pickup to a stop behind our car, scrambled out, and ran to us with a fire extinguisher in his hand. He told us later he’d been trying to get our attention for miles.
At the time, this made sense. There was a fire, and James put it out. I don’t remember relief; I was focused on the tow we needed, that call to AAA, and God knows how long that’d take. James was tattooed, like the men I admire from afar. He had that big truck and he’d just gotten off work doing something that sounded like construction. How convenient, I thought, if I’m meeting my future husband.
James told Emma to call the cops. After she hung up, I remember her stating that she never wanted to see her little red Subaru again. She’d bought it from a family friend for one dollar, and it had taken us all over the Northeast. It felt sad leaving the car on the side of the bridge.
We stood as close to the side of the bridge as we could, backed up against the barrier in a straight line: black truck, me, James, Emma, red Subaru. Emma and I made small talk with James while we waited for the police. He lived close enough to my dad’s house that I almost asked him for a ride. I thought about what that would be like, the three of us jammed in that truck. I figured he’d probably fall for Emma since guys always do. When I flirt, I get too eager, and can’t help lying. I’ve seen the guy’s favorite movie or I turn my one mushroom trip into a dayslong adventure. While we waited, Emma said one word to James for each of my twenty. I don’t remember any shouting, but there were lots of cars passing us in the left lane. The right lane had cleared out.
I only realized something bad was about to happen when I saw James’s face. He was lit by the headlights of his own truck, and his eyes grew huge. When I call it back into my mind, there’s something cartoonish about that face he made. Like his head was about to explode. I turned to see what he was looking at: the driverless F450 was moving toward me. Mostly I saw the headlights, the way the bright started to drown out the rest of the night.
The doctors say that my left side was hurt more than my right because of the way I tried to shield myself from the impact. Given the fact that Jack was going fifty-five when he hit James’s truck with his SUV, it’s ridiculous to imagine I’d have been able to help myself in any way. But I tried, and that’s why, in surgery, they went in on my left side. It was Emma’s left, too. Her whole leg crushed by the front bumper of the truck.
James ended up fine, a fact that later made painkiller-stoned me almost believe in a higher power. James had saved us from a burning car and never suffered physically for it. He later told Emma he’d be hesitant to stop to help anyone on the side of the road again, though, so I didn’t end up worshipping in anything new. Sometimes I wonder whether James would refer to this night as traumatizing.
I know Jack, the kid who hit us, considers himself traumatized because his lawyers talked about it during the trial. All I have of him in my mind is Young Guy—turns out he was nineteen. I couldn’t see him because I was crushed between the guardrail and the passenger-side door of James’s truck. I was sliding down very slowly. Jack was on his phone. Emma and I both remember him saying “Dad” and “It’s so bad” over and over. No one made any eye contact. My attention first fixed on Emma, because I half-thought she could save me from whatever had just happened. But I kept looking at her because her face had contorted into something impossible. She looked pale in the headlights and her eyes were full of terror. She was stuck, which I didn’t realize. Stuck and yelling like a wounded, furious beast: pure, disembodied rage. She wasn’t looking at me, though I said her name, I think. I reached a hand out for her.
When we were little and Emma’s family came down to Rhode Island from Vermont, we often dressed up as twins. Our grandmother bought us the same clothes from froofy catalogs: floral jumpers, bibbed tops. Emma was lanky and athletic; I was plump and disheveled. But we did our best to convince any stranger who’d look that we were identical. We spent hours poring over teen magazines together, picking out hot boys and gaping at embarrassing anecdotes about first dates.
In the headlights, I didn’t know her. When I held out my hand, she held hers out too, but we couldn’t reach. Not only could I not move my body, but I was sliding down, toward a seated position on the street. As my hand stayed in the air between us, I was getting farther away from Emma, and she needed me. It took three years for me to realize that, maybe, I reached for her with such urgency because I needed her, too.
We briefly grazed fingertips. I told her I couldn’t breathe. I began to feel the blood running warm between my thighs. No pain, just warm, fast blood. Way too fast. I was having a lot of trouble with breath. My chest started to compress and I tried to push myself away from the truck, but my body had no hope. I thought something along the lines of, well, this is how it goes in movies. This is the bad thing and it’s happening to me.
The police showed up. The sirens and flashing lights announced their presence long before I could see any of them. They’d been coming to help with the Subaru when Jack plowed into the truck. I was annoyed it was taking them so long to pay attention to me. I found out later from a news story that they couldn’t even see me. I was almost flat on the pavement by then.
They took Emma right away. She was there one second and then she was gone. James was gone, too. How deserted I felt—the outrage of it. That the universe had the audacity to spring this on me was appalling. I called out for help. Then I saw my sneaker in the street. My brain took a few cautious steps forward to put it all together: I couldn’t feel my right foot.
I’d worn my new neon running shoes on that car ride. Hadn’t wanted to cram them into my backpack with all the dirty laundry I planned to do at my mom’s house. I’d just recently moved into my own apartment sans roommates and, despite its lack of a washing machine, I loved it—a tiny studio with folding chairs crammed into the closet for company.
Running had become part of my daily routine when I was in college. As a social person, it was my source of alone time. I was an anxious type, and it was a means of meditation. The thought of never being able to run again, I’d once thought, would surely ruin my life. I’d become fat and unhappy, and all-around unpleasant. Running was mandatory, and the loss of it would be akin to losing one of my senses.
Pinned there, I yelled. Eventually, a guy came over, but I could only see his hazy outline in the headlights. He asked what I needed and I asked him whether I still had a right foot. He told me he had more important things to deal with, implying that he was trying to keep me alive. But I wasn’t having it. I needed to know right then. Told him I couldn’t feel my foot, and my sneaker was in the middle of the road, for Christ’s sakes. It was one of the few things I could see besides the passenger door and all that light from the headlights and cop cars.
The policeman finally got down on his hands and knees and looked under the front of the truck. He stood back up, brushed his hands off.
“You have a foot,” he said it as if he’d just bestowed one on me. I felt momentary relief, but my mind wasn’t going to let me settle into any one feeling. My brain ping-ponged to the next thing: breath. The cop walked away, and I started yelling up into the light that I couldn’t breathe. I still felt my own blood pouring into the street. Later, they told me I lost half the blood in my body that night.
I now wonder why I didn’t think to ask anyone about Emma. The way she tells it, she asked about me during her ambulance ride and, when no one would answer, she assumed I had died. Emma wasn’t on my mind, though. Survival mode, I guess. A young cop came around the front of the truck. He told me help was on the way. They were trying to figure how to get me out. I told him I couldn’t breathe and I asked him to hold my hand. Actually I stated it like a command—I know because he wrote me a Facebook message months later and made a joke about all the orders I’d barked.
He said he couldn’t reach me to hold my hand but I said it again. I only knew I needed human contact, which now makes objective sense. It was going to happen. He figured it out, manipulated himself and reached down from above. We held hands.
It wasn’t until I was getting briefed for the trial that I found out he’d had a cop-buddy hold his belt while he stood on the guardrail of that massive bridge. He could’ve fallen in. Having some agency—being able to command him into that posture of comfort—felt to me like progress. If I do this, then it will be okay. If he holds me, I can breathe. He asked me my name. After that, every time he turned his attention away from me, I’d pretend to pass out, let my neck go slack, my head loll to the left, and I’d wait to hear him say my name. “Molly,” he’d say, “Stay with me, Molly.” And I’d act out a person blinking back into consciousness.
His name was Aaron, I found out. I complained to him about how I couldn’t breathe, and he told me that couldn’t be true since I was speaking. It bothered me, how he was right, but I knew I needed more air than I was getting. Two years later, I tried to use his name in a poem. He goes by “Air,” and the students in my workshop agreed that it felt too heavy-handed. They liked the poem at the end, with the changed name. At least that’s what they said. I cried when I read it aloud, and I think that had a lot to do with the fact that I hadn’t written it right. Hadn’t done Aaron justice. He saved my life.
The blood kept occurring to me, too, but I didn’t want to bring it up to anyone. It gushed out from between my legs in a forbidden way. Cops milled around, glancing over at me sometimes and then turning their backs. I spoke with what I wanted to be authority. “Someone needs to get me out,” and, “I don’t understand why this is taking so long.” Eventually, a man informed me that the plan was to roll the F450 off my body. The ambulance was waiting, doors open and glowing like a portal to another dimension. I told Aaron he couldn’t allow that. They’d crush my foot if they did that. Aaron told them not to do it. He explained to the other men that they’d have to roll the wheels of the truck over my body, that there must be another way. They listened to him, which later occurred to me as remarkable. He was probably the youngest guy on the force, but he was respected. When he came to the hospital to visit me a few days later, I wasn’t quite awake. I’m told we spoke, but what I remember is the fact that he cried.
They ended up getting a firetruck, or maybe the firetruck had been there all along. Either way, something was rigged up and they moved the truck off my body the wrong way: the way the wheels don’t go. Into the empty road. There’s something unnerving about the fact that I have no recollection of how I got onto the stretcher. It’s the only gaping hole in my memory from that night. I’d like to think I dictated the paramedics’ every move like a puppet master. That would keep me in character. After my parents were confident I’d stay alive, they sometimes allowed themselves to smile at the reports of my demeanor that night. “That’s Molly,” my mom would say.
As a kid (and an older sister), I was often called “bossy.” I got “class pet” a lot, too. My parents would tell you I’ve been loud since the second I was born. I remember a need to make my voice heard over the loosening grasp of my parents’ marriage.
My mom and dad waited until I was eight to split up officially. I rarely saw them in the same place for years afterward. When I recall my childhood, they’re only together on Christmas and for fighting. This is objectively false, given all the happy photographs, but I can’t summon much else. Just a single snapshot: my dad combing my mom’s hair in the kitchen. My mom had her eyes closed, and I asked for my dad to comb my hair, too. He was the one who took care of the snarls. They told me no, not now. I was incensed. The scene must stick out because I don’t remember any other moments of tenderness between them.
On the stretcher, before the ambulance, I knew not to look at my body—had no urge to. I scanned myself with my mind and felt the gum in my mouth for the first time since Emma and I had pulled over.
“There’s gum in my mouth,” I looked directly into Aaron’s eyes as I said it. Shouldn’t I have been rushed into the ambulance? I thought so, but there we were, outside of it, and I needed to need so I could feel some power over my smashed state. I said it seemed like it was probably dangerous for me to be chewing gum and that it needed to be removed. I’ll bet I used what my friends refer to as my teacher voice. Aaron looked down at me; the headlights were behind him now.
“You want me to take your gum?” he asked. When I said yes, he held out his hand, and I spat. Then, as my memory plays it, I was inside the ambulance and we were moving fast.
I told the paramedics to call my dad. I recited his number over and over. They promised they’d contact him, and then someone asked for my social security number. I remember saying it as if bored. I didn’t want them to know how impressed I was with myself for remembering it while my body bled out. They cut off my clothes, which seemed nonsensical because I was wearing a zip-up hoodie with only a sports bra underneath. The sweatshirt had been my dad’s in college, and it was the softest thing I owned. I chastised them for their carelessness and mourned the loss of my clothes. It was then the pain hit.
When I tell this story, I often liken the sudden onset of pain to getting a tattoo. I have one on my left bicep, a branch of a raspberry bush to remind me of the house my family lived in for those years when we were whole. I’m not sure the artwork is botanically accurate, but the woman who designed it convinced me without much effort. As she needled it on, I sucked a lollipop and chatted with a friend who was stationed in the corner. When the artist was almost finished, she informed me, “Just ten minutes left!” and that chunk of time felt like a series of days full of pain. This is why we all walk around hunched into ourselves, clenched jaws and tight fists. If we let ourselves relax, we start to feel.
It’s difficult to define where “the accident” stops in my life. Sometimes, when I refer to it, all I mean is the exact moment I was hit. But it can also be the months leading up to my release from the hospital. Or until I could walk again.
Once in a while, I describe a phase in my life as “the accident time.” When I say this, I mean the months when I was still dealing, on a daily basis, with the fact that I had been hit by a truck. And by “dealing with,” I do not simply mean experiencing PTSD, although that’s certainly part of it. I mean actively completing tasks—going to physical therapy, picking up opioid prescriptions, buying new compression shorts—associated with the fact that I was crushed by a truck. One thing that remained a weekly constant on my calendar during “the accident time” was therapy.
I’d already been seeing a therapist before I was hit, but our weekly meetings turned into sporadic phone calls whenever I could find privacy. I’d request that friends leave my overpacked hospital room or, months later, I’d wheel myself out to the stone patio of the handicap-friendly condo where I lived with family while I waited to walk again. It wasn’t until two years later, long after I moved back to my studio in Brooklyn, that my therapist proposed EMDR treatment for my PTSD.
When we met for our first session, all I knew was the goal: to weaken the effect of my traumatic memories with the help of a machine. She pulled a postcard-sized pouch from under her chair. I’d been expecting something wheeled-in and flashing.
“Okay,” Joan said, “please hold out your hands.” Her tone was more formal than usual, but I didn’t hesitate. Overtime I have realized I not only trust her, I also have an ingrained desire to please. That’s something she and I have talked about a lot, actually.
Joan placed a plastic object in each of my upturned palms—smooth and flat, designed to be grasped, shaped like oversized kidney beans. One grey, one black. My nerves made me fidgety; I moved a few of the overstuffed pillows to the opposite end of the couch. Sunlight shot through the picture window and heated the side of my face. I hadn’t been hooked-up to a machine in a while. Maybe this will cure me, I thought. The problem was, I couldn’t articulate what was broken.
It has been over a year since I started weekly EMDR sessions. Each time, I close my eyes and tell Joan when I feel ready. But I still don’t really know what “ready” means in this context, so I always just hope I’ve waited a believable amount of time. While I’m waiting, I listen to the city traffic and try not to wonder where the sirens are headed. Then I give the signal—a nod, or an “Okay”—and Joan turns a small dial on something that looks like an outdated TV remote. A pulse travels through it, up two wires, and into the kidney-bean-things I’m clenching. Back and forth. Short, gentle vibrations that make my bones hum. The whole thing has something to do with my frontal lobes. Left and right. We wait a moment before she tells me to begin remembering.
The first time Joan and I did this together, I began my “private movie,” as she calls it, with the moment I got into the car. Nothing traumatic there. I played my boring movie through the Brooklyn traffic, the break for iced coffee, the last-minute planning for Kelly’s bachelorette party. The fire stopped me.
“Okay,” I said. “Got it.” I opened my eyes; Joan had been scribbling on a notepad. How could she have something to write down already?
“Good,” she smiled. I’d pleased her. “We can begin desensitization.” I felt like I was in a SciFi film.
Joan pulled a crumpled piece of paper from between the pages of her notebook, placed her glasses up on her forehead, and squinted down toward her lap. Her nose almost touched the page as she read a series of questions aloud.
“How does this memory make you feel?”
“Yes. Just seeing the flames.”
“Confused?” If there was a right answer, this probably wasn’t it.
“And how traumatic, on a scale of one to ten, would you say this memory is? One being totally fine, and ten being the worst thing in the world.”
“Um. Eight and a half.” The “half” felt like wiggle room.
“Great. Okay. And what negative belief about yourself do you associate with this memory?”
“That I shouldn’t have been inside a burning car.” Easy.
“That’s not quite a negative belief about yourself. You had no choice.” Damn. “Try to articulate how you feel inside this memory,” Joan said. She crossed her legs and balanced her notebook on one knee, pen aimed at the page.
“I felt unsafe.” I said. “I mean, I believe I am unsafe.” Joan nodded, scribbled, gave a quick hum of approval. Then she sat back upright and pulled her glasses down her forehead.
Every week, I play through as many of these memory patches as I can in sixty minutes and, together, we try to figure out how I can best calm my mind. She asks where in my body I’m feeling the trauma. My chest, I usually tell her, though it feels more like every hair on my skin is being magnetically attracted to something far outside of that corner office in Manhattan. Chest is easier.
I always wonder if I’m cheating. The problem is, we’ve only got a single, pricey hour. If I’m going to be cured of this thing, I’m going to do it as efficiently as possible. Sometimes, when she asks if I feel like I’ve found the right mantra to repeat—“I’m safe” or “Help is on the way”—I say yes just to keep us moving. I often do start to feel better in the moment, but I still can’t differentiate this kind of “better” from the “better” I feel after I’ve listened to a siren for a full minute. I’ve become pretty good at shutting off my mind. And doing that, blocking traumatic memories out, is a perfect example of cheating.
The memories are mostly tied up in little packages now. In fact, that’s something she and I do together. If we haven’t quite gotten through a memory before her next patient buzzes to be let in, she tells me to close my eyes and put the scene in a jar with a tight lid.
“Okay,” she continues, “now put that jar somewhere safe for now.”
“Done,” I say, glancing at the clock. I declare, for example, that the sight of Emma being crushed between the guardrail of the bridge and the front of the truck is tucked away in a closet for next time. In truth, I still can’t write those words without feeling like my intestines are unraveling. But if Emma’s in a jar in a closet, if the image of my blood running thick on black pavement has become safe, then what?
I heard on a TV show once that the pain of loss is sacred because it’s all we have left of the person or lost thing. It makes sense, then, that I feel compelled to write it all down. I still feel the reflexive gut-wrench of near-death every time I walk in front of a black F450 pickup. I have dutifully turned the events of that night into my own private movie: a construction intended to aid erasure. At the same time, I cling to my story with teeth bared. There’s a thick black line at the center of my memory. Before and after. I don’t want to do the work of reconsidering myself. After months of these sessions, my almost-safe, familiar fear is backlit by something new. Yes, I can look straight-on at ambulances again, but the movie’s still playing and I’m gripping my armrests at what’s coming.