About twenty years ago, now, it all began with a nagging sense that I'd forgotten something. It's hard to believe I can remember the exact moment, the butterflies in my stomach that brought me back down the hall to my front door, back into my apartment, and down into the hell of a life I have now. But that was it; I stood with my hand over the doorknob, unable to touch it. Like after we had scooted over the new carpets, as children, and thrilled ourselves by daring each other to touch the brass clock.
My landlord coming up the stairs finally drove me to grab the thing and open the door. I was behind on the rent again, and the fear of losing my apartment was stronger than much else at that point. I would lose rent control, have to sell all my records . . . I forced my hand down onto the metal, and the cold brass slid innocuously into my palm. My landlord saw me anyway, me laughing with relief, and waved a notice at me with a scowl.
The fear returned in the darkness of my apartment, and the familiar shadows seemed to swim like the bedroom ceiling after a nightmare. I jumped at the refrigerator cycling on, and jumped again at a car outside, and spun around and into the bathroom door in frantic panic at the sight of my cat streaking past me.
My heart began to pound so hard it hurt, so that I could feel it in my eyes like a tight rubber band. Literally one step at a time, I forced myself into my own apartment and to the light switch across the room. But, of course, I never got there.
I don't remember any sound, although my neighbors report a deafening crash. One whole wall of my apartment erupted. I do remember plaster, and records, everywhere. Records flying out, towards the other wall, in slow motion . . . and the twelve-foot-tall library bookcase in front of me, a bookcase full of at least two-hundred pounds of records and books, slammed down exactly three inches from my feet.
I stood perfectly still for about ten minutes, looking down at my feet, and up at the wall. The bolts stuck out like ugly fingers from the cracked plaster, which was sloughing off in sheets. I could see the bricks behind it.
Down at my feet. Up at the wall. Although it all sounded distant, like I were underwater, I could hear sirens, and shouting, and I began to notice that the mortar between some of the bricks was loose and crumbly. That was when I finally backed into the kitchen, and sat at my table. I wasn't going to make it to work.
They kicked me out of my apartment, obviously, while they assessed whether or not the building was still sound. The police held me for about twenty minutes while they questioned me, and I got a chance to see the delivery truck that had slammed into the side of the building. The driver was killed instantly, I read later, which was obvious to me the minute I saw the twisted remains. They say the brakes failed, that he was going at least forty miles an hour when he hit the outside wall.
Shaken badly, I headed straight for the hotel room and simply sat for several hours in its dark silence. I'd snuck my cat into my hotel room, and she was asleep in my lap. By nightfall, I was finally calm enough to order a pizza and come back to life a little bit. If you were going to be evicted, I thought smugly as a I poured myself a cup of hot tea off the hot plate, you might as well be evicted from an apartment that just had its external wall knocked in.
But as I raised the cup to my lips, I noticed my hand had begun to shake. Sour bile crept up in my throat, and the tea did not force it back down. My heart began to pound, again, harder and harder, until I was sure the people in the room next door could hear it.
I switched from tea to wine, and then from wine to bourbon, and drank myself into such a stupor that I was nearly four hours late for work the next day. The hotel claimed they had called my room for a wake-up, but I remember nothing.
One of the new hires was late with me, and I managed to slink around him as he was being dressed down and make it into the locker room before the manager saw me. The new guy joined me there in several minutes, his eyes looking up at me like a bloodhound and his face as long.
I managed what I think was a smile, but I'm not sure what it looked like because my heart began to pound again. There, underneath the hangover, it was still there. I excused myself quickly, and almost didn't make it to the bathroom again; I threw up until my ribs ached. When I came out, the new assistant manager, the one who wanted that management position, the one who had caught me making lewd tableaus with the produce, was watching the bathroom door.
We only had to make eye contact for her to get his message across to me. I was finished.
“There's a cart out on the corner again. Go bring it into the parking lot. After that, come see me in my office.”
My legs shook, the room was strangely dim, and my heart was louder than anything else I could hear at this point. But not because of my impending job loss, not because I would suddenly be out of both a job and a place to live; that would have made sense, but this was a nameless fear. There was something else.
The cart had actually veered into the crosswalk, and a man was trying to wrestle one of its wheels up out of a storm drain. I headed toward them mechanically, exhausted and dizzy with fear. I entered the crosswalk just as the woman made her sharp right, and faced the grill of her enormous car with two options: down to the ground or onto the hood. My body made the decision for me, and I lost consciousness on her windshield without even seeing her face.
But I strangely, vividly remember her hairstyle. Large, dark, and frosted at the very tips. It was scalloped and pointy like a big brown and gold meringue. I was pondering this hair seemingly moments before a man suddenly shined a tiny flashlight in my right eye and asked me what year it was. I was suddenly lying down. I think I vomited on him, but I don’t know if I answered the question.
I do remember a light sense of joy, however, almost immediately. The fear was gone. Its simple absence made even a hospital seem like paradise.
My mother was the first person to inform me of my wondrous luck. Although she obviously hadn’t witnessed the accident, and indeed had not approached any closer than her usual three thousand miles since it’d happened, she had it on good information from the hospital staff that I had been mere inches from death. And in my stupor of painkillers, I had told her about the apartment. And the job.
“People reinvent themselves over less than this,” she said, taking a long drag off her cigarette, and exhaling into the phone, “you’re too lucky.” I could tell she was making dinner because I could hear her swear under her breath every few minutes at the food. A series beeps would interrupt us as she squeezed the phone between her ear and shoulder and stirred something frantically, “you're going to end up in the gutter one of these days, just dead. And I'm going to have to go down there and identify the body, and say to those people 'that's my child, and I don't know why she didn't listen to me and . . . and . . . figure her life out before this happened . . .”
She finished the sentence with the long sigh that had become a part of it at this point.
She’d given up. She was going through the motions. There had been real feeling in her speeches, at one point, but years of studious apathy on my part had killed it. She’d moved on to my younger sister and brother, and was preparing herself for their children.
“Mother, I'm fine.”
They released me from the hospital only hours after I’d been admitted, with nothing more than a mild concussion and a few bruised ribs. The doctor stressed the fact that I’d been lucky. Amazingly lucky. With the bruising on my head, she professed great surprise at not seeing more damage inside. The woman who'd been driving the car had collided with another vehicle coming out of the parking lot, and had still not recovered consciousness. Apparently, I had rolled off her hood just in time to avoid being crushed between the two cars.
“You’re fine,” she smiled and patted my shoulder brusquely, standing to usher me out, “you’ve got a hard head!”
The nurse offered to call a cab, and escorted me to the taxi stand on her way to have a cigarette. She sat by me on the little concrete bench that used to be for smoking.
She’d had a nephew my age, she told me, who’d been hit by a car in a crosswalk, just like me, and died. She described the accident in detail, emphasizing how each gruesome injury could have been mine. Two hook and ladders passing through the intersection ended the list. The nurse abandoned her story to scratch at something that looked like toothpaste on the knee of her green pants, and smoke in silence. I stared at the toothpaste stain on the toothpaste colored pants, and said nothing. Finally, the nurse sighed a long sigh.
“We all have our place in this universe, you know, and . . . he was part of that,” she sighed, “I think this is just one more sign that you’ve still got things to do here.” She leaned in a little, smelling of baby powder and cigarettes and smiled. Then she was gone, snubbing out her cigarette and returning to her shift.
The cab was warm and claustrophobic, smelling of nachos and stale beer. I had to stop five blocks from the hotel before I was sick in the back seat, but I tipped the driver generously.
And the minute I stepped outside, I started to sweat and shake. I began to look behind me, over and over again, as I walked, until my neck became sore from doing it. I stopped at a bench to stretch, trying to breath slowly and relax.
Three young women were out in their bikini tops on a balcony across the street, and they blended into the bronzy windows of the building behind them. Three young men led a class of schoolchildren down the sidewalk on a field-trip. The kids were about three feet tall, and looked like tiny postal workers in their uniforms. A clarinet floated over from some other corner, grandmothers argued in Cantonese, ten tiny dogs swarmed out from a single leash.
I stopped, doubled over, like I’d been punched in the stomach, unable to decide what to do. An old woman in gray sweats passed me and narrowed her eyes.
“Crazy,” she muttered just loud enough for me to hear. She made an exaggerated arc around a parking meter to avoid me.
I started walking again towards the corner, and looked slowly from right to left. On my side of the street was a branch of my bank, on the other side a liquor store and a dry cleaners. I waited for the light to change, my head buzzing and my fingertips tingling. It was coming.
Three people came out of the bank, looking around frantically. They seemed stunned, their legs bent and guns out in front of them. They wore balaclavas. It wasn’t funny, but I found myself laughing under my breath. Just like a movie. Something was missing. A car, maybe? A man came running to them out of the park, shouting something. We heard the first sirens, from four directions. Then the building alarm at the bank.
Five cars arrived nearly simultaneously. The first police officer out of his car was shot; so was one of the children caught in-between him and the gun. I crouched, counting gunshots with my eyes closed. I heard a scream and footsteps very close to me. I rolled to the side as a burning pain ripped into my lower back.
Eventually, I was lifted onto a stretcher, and someone was putting a plastic mask over my face. It smelled like a new pool toy. I heard the word kidney from somewhere near my head, and then something poked into my side and I passed out.
I awoke, with all kinds of tubes in my arms, in what I knew from endless hours of hospital drama shows to be the ICU.
The first thing that came to my mind was a little braid of hair, soft and dark brown, lying on the sidewalk next to a motionless face. I could see the reflection of my eye in one of the shiny, pink balls at the end of it. One of the children on the field trip.
I stared at the ceiling of the room, trying to will the image to leave my mind.
The nurse that came to check on me was the same nurse that had called me the cab. This time her face was lined with exhaustion. How long had it been since I’d last seen her? She looked like a caricature of a sleepy person, like a cartoon character who might try to prop open her eyelids with a tiny jack.
She didn’t say anything to me at first, instead attending to another patient in the room. When it was my turn, she came to my bedside and quietly busied herself with my IV drip.
“So, what’s the prognosis?”
“Well, you’ve been in surgery for several hours. Do you remember anything?”
I didn't tell her about the little girl.
“You were shot. They had to remove one of your kidneys.”
A cold sensation washed over my face and throat. She smiled a little, cool and professional, and patted my hand.
“The bullet went right through your kidney, and didn't do any other damage. I know it sounds alarming, and it's nothing to take lightly, but you'll be okay. You can live with one kidney just fine. You'll be out of here in no time.”
“Well that’s good, I guess . . .”
She interrupted me with a stern, quizzical look, and put one hand on her hip.
“You know,” she put my chart back at the foot of my bed and came to my side again, leaning on the wall behind us, “I don't want to scare you, but you were right in the line of fire. I have to tell you that most of the people around you were either killed, or very seriously injured. You must have been standing in exactly the right place, at exactly the right time.”
She fixed her large, unblinking eyes right on my pupils until I had to look down at my hands.
“I know I don’t have to tell you this, but,” she cocked a thick eyebrow and chuckled a tiny bit out of the side of her mouth as she adjusted the blinds.
“You’re lucky to be alive.”
Gold stripes cut across my legs and knees, and she left the room.
I could tell you more, but you could probably guess the details just as well. These days, I just live for the moments I don't have the fear. Let me tell you: there's nothing like a little peace when you haven't felt it in a while.
I get by. I'm not like some animal, or anything. I stay away from the city, until I need to eat. There's a man that brings me bagels, sometimes, on his way to work. He even bought me coffee, once.
Nobody ever really bothers me, not anymore. The people on the street know me, and the people at the shelters won't take me anymore. Not that I'd try to stay there; I did at first, but not anymore, not after the first few times . . . well, there's little kids in those shelters, sometimes. I've seen one child die in front of me, I just couldn't stand it if it happened again.
Mostly, I sleep out at the beach. Every once in a while, some new young cop comes onto the beat and I start getting taken downtown for a while until things start happening, and people start getting hurt. He either learns his lesson, or the other police that already have get him removed. The last thing they want to see downtown is my face.
I can't count the number of people I've seen fall from the cliffs; I used to sleep on the beach itself, but the paramedics kept having to fish me out. Now I just figure, well, there's signs posted. These cliffs are dangerous, those fool kids don't need to know why. At least the people who fall, I know they've been warned.
And, well, I wait. I wait for death, I suppose, but the creeping feeling that it's not coming for a while has taken root lately. I've been inches from it, like my mother said years ago, literally thousands of times.
They don't talk about it at the hospitals. They don't keep any files at the station downtown. But they know; we all know. When I say I have a feeling something bad is going to happen, you want to get as far away as you can.
At least, there is a thread of comfort I've grabbed onto lately. It makes me smile, as I'm drifting off to sleep. The thing is this: I have to die, someday. I've been close to it enough times, but I'm still a human being. It'll come, one way or another.
And the thing that gives me joy, where there was none before, is this:
I am certain, when my time is here, that I will never see it coming.