You’re stuck on Union Turnpike. The red stoplight glares in the darkness, projecting its authority like rays from the sun.
There are cars in front of you, behind you, and to the right of you, all packed between the white lines painted on the road.
Your left is open; there’s no traffic on the other side of the street. It must be nice to drive that way.
Your thought is interrupted; your heart is beating fast because a truck is headed towards you.
The truck’s coming from the opposite direction despite the light demanding that it stop; it’s hurrying without explanation.
It’s so much bigger than your little car.
It honks like you’re in its way because you are. It’s making its own way. The barrier of white lines won’t protect you, their purpose moot.
It bumps over the concrete divider onto the wrong side of the road. Its lights seem to flash as the truck bounces up and down.
You have to move.
You turn your wheel as hard as you can and let go of the brake. You don’t know how, but you move over a few feet. It’s enough.
The truck straightens out as it accelerates past you driving down on the wrong side of the road. You look in your rearview mirror as it continues on, probably seeking out someone else to smash into.
You feel weak. Your hands are shaking. You want to call your spouse and tell them, “I love you,” but you can’t, the light’s green now. Taking your eyes off the road is the last thing you should do. A car accident after that is a story you don’t want to tell.
You shouldn’t be this nervous on your way to work.
The Next Day.
You don’t want to open your eyes this early, but you have to. You hit snooze for five more minutes, but you know you’ll actually get up in twenty. That’s gonna cost you.
Your morning routine is succinct. You exercise, take your vitamins, brush your teeth, put your lunch in your bag, and shower. Dressed, you rush to your car. You don’t like leaving after six o’clock in the morning. There are too many people on the road like that trucker.
You turn on the heat, it’s cold out. People say you’re lucky to have your own little compartment, your space. You have your levers, pedals, and your wheel. They tell you that you have a choice. You don’t understand what they mean because to them driving is a choice.
But you didn’t want to choose this burdensome commute. The train takes double to triple the time. If you walk, you don’t have nine hours to spare. What about biking? I forgot how to ride.
You’re helpless; driving on the Van Wyck, there’s a truck without a trailer. One of its outside wheels is slanted, sparks are firing off of it. You wonder, Is that OK? Can he drive like that?
You decide to ask him or warn him. You try to pull up near his window. But it’s too late; your thinking brought you too far away. You stare at him in your rearview mirror, slowing down to tell him. As you watch-his wheel fires off from the left side, where you would have been.
The truck makes it to the shoulder where you can’t see. The driver’s probably calling someone. You assume he’s okay and go on; you have to get to work.
What can you do?
You’re safe and warm in your car.
A little while later; day, weeks, hours, or sometime before that—you’re not sure anymore as everything seems to blend.
It’s cold, so you put on the heat and fire up the seat warmers. It’s nice to have them; you didn’t know a car as old as yours could have had that option, you’re lucky.
You forgo Union Turnpike today. You’re driving on the Van Wyck with no traffic; how can I be so lucky?
A man is standing on the shoulder outside his car, what you assume is his car. He’s on the phone. His car is on fire; the morning darkness is pushed aside. You feel the heat coming out of your vents and wonder if you needed to open them on at all.
You’re taking in deep breaths and letting them out slowly; why am I shaking?
You want to help.
But what could you do? You can only hope that it was really that man’s car, and he wasn’t calling for the person inside.
If this was that kind of story, you’d pull three people out of that car, all unsinged. The sole effect of the fire would have been to burn off the hair from your arms, revealing rippling muscles.
But you have to get to work, and no matter how much you want to, how much you feel the need, you can’t do more than that man on the phone.
You go to work and do your job.
Another commute on another morning.
It’s even colder today, the Van Wyck is behind you. You left late again; there are too many cars on the road. You say you’re worried about traffic making you late, but rocket wheels and fire are what’s on your mind.
You drive, and the road opens up for a bit near your exit. With your seat so warm, you drive, noticing the overpasses, one after another after another. The fickle traffic slows you down every so often.
On one overpass you notice the chain link fence and the woman climbing up it. She has a headscarf and a brown Pakistani-style dress. You can’t tell if she’s smiling or grimacing, but she’s climbing a fence over the highway with no way to go but down.
The other side of Belt Parkway is riddled with traffic. You can’t get back in time. And besides, what would you do if she did jump? Open your moon roof and catch her? Would you get out of your car like a movie and save her with those hairless arms?
This isn’t the story, that kind of story.
You keep driving, make note of the exit number it’s closest to, and call the police.
You tell them what you saw and everything you can that you think would help. You wonder if she’s squished on the road. You wonder if there are people driving around her knowing there’s nothing they can do, thinking there’s nothing they can do.
You wonder if you killed her.
You hope the police get there in time. In the parking lot at work, the police call you back and ask you exactly where she was again.
You tell them and hope she just wanted a better view of the highway from up there.
The next few days are silent on the road; the next week is too. You’re driving between the lines, always signaling when you need to change lanes,
All you can think about are those four days on the road and how helpless you are in your warm, cushioned seats.
You turn up the radio.
You’re on the Belt Parkway; you left early enough today. You’re close to work, and all the other cars are just starting to get on the road. Out, a little bit in front of you, where you’re speeding up to, three cars drive into each other.
Parts fly off of each of them. All of the cars hit the divider on the right side of the road over the bridge. Even though you’re watching, you don’t see it; you just see where they land. Thank God they’re still on the bridge.
You pull over, get out to help. One man’s car isn’t a car anymore, the front and rear are missing. His airbags are deployed, with just the middle left, the rest is smashed in. He’s taking pictures.
The other two cars are behind him. One is pinning the other to the side of the bridge. You ask the driver in the outside car if she’s okay.
She’s crying but tells you she is.
The other woman is trapped in her car. Others stop and try to get her out, but they can’t. The front door is too warped, and the back is pinned down by the other car. The crying woman tries to move her car, but her wheel fell off, nothing spins as the engine revs.
You and a group of Samaritans pull on the door. It doesn’t work.
Now you’re trying to push the car without the wheel, but it won’t move. You can’t get her out.
You call work to tell them you’re going to be late and why.
With phone in pocket, you’re trying to help but can’t.
The police come and say the fire department’s on the way; they’ll get her out. You wait. Maybe you can do something, anything.
No, you can’t.
The fire department comes, you start to walk back to your car. You tell the woman that was crying, “Nobody was hurt, the cars are broken, but that’s what insurance is for. I know it’s hard now but don’t worry, everything’ll be okay.” You don’t wait for a response. You walk back to your car and drive to work.
At work, word got around about what you did, the stopping. Some people are calling you a hero. You tell them you’re not but stop short of saying you were helpless.
You sit alone at your desk. You feel a breeze. It makes the hair on your arms stand up. The windows are open, but you don’t close them. You don’t want to feel warm.
You want to feel the cold.