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Monica Bielanko
A chronicle since 2005 of my marriage & move to Brooklyn in my twenties; becoming a mother in my thirties; moving to Pennsylvania and learning to amicably coparent after divorce in my forties while living 3 doors down from my ex-husband in a small country town.
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Wednesday
Aug192009

Side Effects

I've been a journalist, working in one newsroom or another for about a decade. The biggest side effect, by far, is my extreme fear of car accidents. It only gets worse as time goes on. We've covered every kind of accident, victims of every type; drunk, sober, guilty, innocent, babies, elderly, even pets. The only common denominator in every crash is the rapidity of destruction. In little more than a second someone's life ends. Like THAT. One minute someone is driving down the road maybe thinking about a loved one, maybe thinking about that bag of Doritos they're going to eat in front of the television and then it's over.

Even still, despite my encompassing fear of accidents, I devour the details. This man fell asleep, this woman was changing lanes, didn't see the car next to her and over-corrected, this one was texting, that one was drunk. I comfort myself with lies. I would never do that, I'd never text and drive. Lie. I wouldn't fall asleep while driving. Well, who plans that sort of thing? We've all experienced our near misses on the freeway.

I think, above all, the scariest thing about car accidents is the fact that even though you wear your seatbelt, drive the speed limit, do everything you're supposed to do the possibility of an accident is still out of your control. There's always the other guy. And what can you do about the other guy? You can drive defensively and that's about it. This car accident fear, it's a nasty side effect of my job and my anxiety has taken it to the nth degree.

Photographers are sent out to shoot the scene and bring back the videotape. I log the tape, listen to the soundbites and inevitably I see a shot, a quick frame of carnage that I can never erase from the photo album of my brain. A girl driving a jeep. It rolls on the freeway. There is a shot of her sheet covered body as the emergency crew attends to the scene. Their unhurried movements, the sheet all signs of the grim reaper. The photog pans his camera. We see an overturned jeep, crunched metal and now just freeway. Empty freeway. As he's panning he sweeps over an item in the road so he doubles back. Assuming it's wreckage from the crash he zooms in. It's wreckage from the crash, just not what he's expecting. Or me. It's an arm. Her arm. A young girl's arm lies in the road, rings on fingers reflecting sunlight.

Shit.

I reflexively scroll the tape forward to escape death. Losing myself in the routine I log soundbites from stoic Utah Highway Patrol troopers using impersonal words and phrases like fatality, indicate, caused the vehicles to collide, ejected from the vehicle, under investigation and victim's name not released until next of kin is notified. Trained to give impersonal statements that manage to make death boring. Banal trooper blathering that almost takes the death out of death. It's not until you get a witness on tape that death gets all shoved up in your face uncomfortable and real. The troopers feel it, I know. If I feel it way back in the newsroom I know they feel it. But like me they have to pretend like it doesn't get to them. Else how would we all earn our living?

An elderly couple is traveling down a busy road, oblivious of the destructive manner in which their sixty years together on earth is about to end. A semi pulls into an intersection to turn left. The couple's car broadsides the semi, nearly rolling beneath it. The roof of the car is sheared off. The scene of the accident as viewed later in the gray confines of the newsroom is spectral. A violently sunny day. A slight breeze tussles the hair of emergency responders who casually mill about. The car remains merged with the semi, some bizarre vehicular intercourse. A sheet is spread across the entire front section of the car where the couple still sits, seatbelted in place. I am frozen but the time coder on the videotape continues. You can't stop time. The digital dial counts the seconds on the tape as I let it roll. I watch as the breeze whips the tell-tale white sheet, a universal symbol of death. The wind flirts dangerously with the corner of the sheet and I can't stop watching. It flaps like a flag in March until a particularly strong gust blows it up and I catch a glimpse of what's beneath.

Her gray, curlered hair blows casually in the breeze as though even now she's taking a pleasurable drive with the love of her life. The sheet whips down again like I'm watching a peep show and my quarter's run out. Still, I watch and am rewarded with a lifetime image. The sheet dances up into the wind again revealing death. Her face is virtually gone. A split second of caved in nothingnes, the sheet drops again and she's gone. But she's still here, the moment of her death branded in the movie screen of my mind like a ranch insignia seared into cattle hide. It owns me.