Andrew Jacono is a sophomore at Wesleyan University majoring in English and French. He has been writing ever since he could grip a pen.
The first thing you notice in a car crash is the sound.
The shriek of metal grinding against a bulletproof blackboard as tall as a skyscraper. The ricocheting gunshot of the airbag and the swelling static, a din similar to a particularly overzealous fire alarm. The inundating whoosh that sweeps you away before you know what you hit, like being submerged in the Pacific without a raft.
You can’t swim to the water’s surface and breathe the briny ocean air until the tires stop squealing and the engine stops bumbling.
You find yourself enduring something akin to a cluster headache, crunching on glass crackers bitter from the regurgitated coffee you drank at lunch. For a moment, you aren’t sure how those little shards ended up in the cavity where you stick your food, until you glance at the sheer-white windshield, the ripples of glass spreading like the tendrils of a spider web.
Off to the side, you see something move. Twitch, more likely. You turn your head.
The second thing you notice in a car crash is your best friend in the passenger seat and the limp white bag between his legs. Pink, frothy stuff all around his mouth. It looks like he dove head-first into a pile of half-digested whipped cream.
You lean into him, holding your breath, and grasp your throbbing side. His skin is turning a sickly white like the hard shell of a pistachio. A rough gurgling sputters out of his throat.
He’s a half-breathing, half-choking pistachio shell. Except he’s filled with an inedible soup of raw meat and gore instead of a vaguely sweet green nut that happens to make for good ice cream.
The third thing you notice in a car crash is time.
Spending sixty seconds in this sort of silence feels like enduring a particularly confusing hour at a death-metal concert.
Of course, it’s not completely silent. There’s an obnoxious, staccato honking and the clink and scrape of glass and plastic on the asphalt and a patter of frantic feet outside your door. But that’s all white noise. The blackest kind of white noise.
More guttural protests from your friend. Liquid stuff bubbling at the back of his throat like a mound of undigested pop rocks, the most disgusting candy on the face of the planet.
For three seconds, you want the defective airbag in the back seat to pop. You want to hear more glass burst. You want to go back to the moment of impact so you can listen to the unfortunate physics lesson etching itself into the blackboard. You want to hear the ricocheting snap of metal and contorting plastic. Ringing to drown out that noise.
For four seconds, you think of time travel. You think of Marty McFly and Dr. Brown. Eighty-eight miles per hour and the unsteady fire that skidded behind the DeLorean’s wheels. Time backpedaled in a straight line. Effortless.
You were going eighty-nine when you hit the brakes and the steering wheel slipped out of your hand like a sheet of melting ice. So much for expired childhood dreams.
The fourth thing you notice in a car crash is the water all over your face.
The tears are saltier than you remembered, and no, they are not running out. You wonder why people say that they’ve cried all they can, because you’re certain that you would have ran out a few minutes ago.
Your cheeks are itchy, and they’re pruning like fingers submerged in a pool for half-an-hour. You almost lift a hand to take care of the tingling sensation but you don’t.
It’s partially due to laziness but mostly due to the fear of making another mistake. Moving causes mistakes more than anything else. And if you move a hand and make another mistake your face will get wetter. You can’t stand the soreness that wrings your throat every time you well up. In fact, you barely handled the strep throat you contracted two weeks ago.
You stop yourself from swallowing the glass in your mouth and carefully suck back some of the phlegm waltzing behind your uvula.
The slop lands in your stomach like three bricks and a Cornish hen.
Some glass shards tumble to your gut anyway. You wince.
The fifth thing you notice in a car crash are your hands.
They haven’t stopped shaking. You figure it’s some sort of involuntary response, scoffing in the face of your silent protest.
You always used to jitter your hands in front of your best friend in the passenger seat, botching the guise of a seizure. He would always laugh. You wonder if he still would if he were awake, but something tells you that he wouldn’t.
Your hands suddenly become muddled in a haze of unsteady movement.
You’ve never seen them like this before. Not on you. Your hands are excellent at deftly shifting chord shapes over a guitar neck. Your hands are great at precisely gripping jagged crevices over steep rock-climbing pitches. Your hands can make your girlfriend swoon with a gentle whirl of the hair on the back of her neck.
No, these fingers are not yours.
Your fingers wouldn’t glare back at you. Your fingers wouldn’t cackle in your misery, relishing this grim schadenfreude.
This is your brain on adrenaline, and somehow, the hand spasms are protecting you. You don’t know how or why, but that’s what you learned in biology class all those years ago. You almost thank your body but end up cursing it instead. How haven’t you evolved past fight-or-flight responses that make you—
You shut yourself up. What’s the point in trying to control nature, anyway?
The sixth thing you notice in a car crash are the sirens.
The ephemeral relief. The phantom comfort of a gurney.
You glance at the cracked digital clock on the dashboard. It’s been eleven minutes since you ended up in the skunk-scented ditch at the side of the road.
You almost laugh but your throat aches and you restrain yourself. Your best friend in the passenger seat was a paramedic a few years back. He once told you that response time must be within nine minutes.
The seventh thing you notice in a car crash is the way the glow fades.
Your best friend in the passenger seat hasn’t moved more than two inches since you last checked on him. His groans have petered out. There is a bump, already the size of a light-bulb, swelling above his eyebrow. Blood is running down his neck and dyeing his tacky blue Giants Jersey a vengeful crimson.
You scrutinize his face but you don’t recognize it. You even call out his name. There is no response.
That body is not him.
You could have thrust your best friend in the passenger seat into a crowd of similarly short, lanky men with spiky brown hair and big gray eyes and artificially tan complexions and you would have been able to tell him apart because of the glow in his cheeks. The treasure chests radiating at either end of his unrelenting grin.
You watch the body for more than a minute, searching for the glow.
You don’t find it.
The eighth thing you notice in a car crash is that you are telling yourself that you know everything will be all right.
Knowing things comforts you.
Your mother was a professor who knew more about the French Revolution than the people who lived through it. She used to tell you about the Reign of Terror and Robespierre’s curly white locks and Mary Antoinette’s feathery gowns and the exact weight of a guillotine blade. 40 kilograms. 88.2 pounds.
Your mother overcame heroin addiction because she knew things. So you grew up telling yourself that knowing things saves you.
On the night of your seventh birthday she told you about the Storming of the Bastille. You lay on the couch with her and she held your head to her warm, flat belly. You picked at the crusty frosting stain slathered on one of the frills of her blouse. You stared at the reddish scars on her forearm. You sniffed the mellow lavender perfume she would wear three days out of seven.
You swear you can smell the mellow lavender perfume she would wear three days out of seven.
The ninth thing you notice in a car crash is the smoke.
You did not notice it before. You did not notice the acrid stench of burning rubber, either.
You were probably lost in your head. Your best friend in the passenger seat always gave you grief for being a thinker.
You are about to plunge back into the deep when there is a rough banging on your car door. You turn to look. Fully-geared firefighters.
You hadn’t realized that the engine had been in flames for a few minutes and had only been extinguished within the last two. You didn’t feel the heat even though your whole body had been wet. Even though the air you had been breathing had been hotter than a crowded day at a waterpark on the surface of Betelgeuse.
You absentmindedly watch the firemen pry the door open. One of them, burlier than any man you’ve ever seen, grabs you and hauls your limp, contorted body toward the ambulance parked alongside your vehicle’s shell. You wonder if any of the black smoke furling from the engine will become part of a cloud in the twinkling night sky.
You turn your head and stare at the crowd of people gathered ahead of you. Then they watch the thick blue veins pulse in your lacerated forehead as you vomit bile and glass over the fireman’s suit.
You apologize and offer to buy him a new one. He quickly refuses the offer.
* * *
The first thing you notice in the aftermath of a car crash are the people hovering over your best friend who was in the passenger seat.
One of them is jabbing their hands roughly into his chest and another is squeezing a big blue balloon over his mouth and another is holding his head tightly against the asphalt.
While you’re being strapped to the stretcher you remember what your best friend who was in the passenger seat said to you back at the bar an hour ago, when his cheeks were glowing.
Jesus Christ, slow down. Your drink’s not going anywhere.
You didn’t listen to him then. But you’re listening now.
The second thing you notice in the aftermath of a car crash is how quickly things wind down.
The people who were hovering over your best friend who was in the passenger seat push the crowd around them back. The sirens stop blaring. A few firemen are still circling the car but most are heading back to the truck.
While you’re being lifted into the back of the ambulance by three or four people in black suits who you don’t know, telling you that you’re lucky to be alive, you hear your best friend who was in the passenger seat’s voice.
You blink twice, lethargically. You crane your head and stare at him. He is still lying on the asphalt. His arms are still stuck to his sides as if by suture. His lips are moving. You are sure of it.
You listen to what he has to say.
The third thing you notice in the aftermath of a car crash is that dead people don’t move, and are really quiet.
You always drifted around the back of the room at every wake you attended because you never wanted to see the cold, blank bodies of your grandparents or your uncle or your mother.
This is the first time you are seeing a dead person this close.
You almost tell yourself that that your best friend who was in the passenger seat can speak for all dead people, but shut yourself up.
Dead people can’t speak. The living can, but sometimes they have nothing to say.