Previous entries in the DUI series can be found here.
Claire and I had an agenda planned for the night he hit us with his car. Our idea was to do a truncated bar crawl in downtown Santa Cruz. The first bar we’d walk to by ourselves; we’d meet up with some friends at a second bar later, where they were heading over early to secure a booth.
We were celebrating an anniversary: that night marked two years I’d been in remission. I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer when Claire and I were living together during our sophomore year of. I opted to stay in school through my surgeries and chemo treatments, which meant Claire spent most of her free time taking me to appointments and quietly cleaning clumps of my hair out of the shower.
Two years later, Claire was back from her year studying abroad and we were living together again. That night, I was also secretly celebrating that my sickness, which had made me wholly physically and emotionally dependent on her, hadn’t put a permanent strain on our relationship.
We walked to my boyfriend’s house, who wasn’t joining us. He said it was because he had to work early the next morning, which was true. But he didn’t have to get up so early that he couldn’t spend the evening hanging out with a friend of his I hated. My feelings were hurt, so I made Claire accompany me to his house while she was over. I wanted to be rude to him and then dramatically not kiss him goodbye.
Point proven, Claire and I then walked downtown, first to a bar called the Rush, where everyone in the history and literature department drank. I ordered whiskey and threw ice at a TA who slept with my friend and then didn’t call her back while Claire smoked cigarettes with a cute boy who tried to sell her Adderall. We were having a lot of fun.
It was after midnight when we left the Rush. We hurried over to the Red a few blocks away, hoping our friends had actually managed to save us room in a booth. We were in the crosswalk, I think arguing over whether going to the Red meant we would be too hungover the next day to work on our midterms, when Claire interrupted me.
“That car is coming at us really fast.” She quickened her pace and grabbed my arm.
I shook her off. “He has a stop sign. He has to stop.” I sneered at the oncoming headlights, as if my icy stare would stop him dead in his tracks.
“I don’t think he’s stopping, Becky!”
Claire was right. He hit her first, sending her flying into the edge of the sidewalk. I wound up on the hood of his car. He drove half a block before swerving to dump me onto the road, where I landed on my head. I heard my skull crack before I felt it.
He did eventually stop at the end of the block, but only for a moment. Then he sped away.
I don’t know what I was thinking, expecting some man to not hit me with his car. I didn’t know this person at all. It was stupid to trust he wouldn’t hurt me.
It was especially stupid because I should have already learned this lesson. Picture: me as a college freshmen, running around a house party hosted by upperclassmen I want so desperately to impress. They’re the boys who run the college humor newspaper, which I just joined, and I’m still insecure enough to think they’re smarter and funnier than me. Brian is the one who gets a crush on me. He’s nice but I’m not attracted to him. We flirt anyways, because he’s the first person on the paper to finally pay attention to me.
Most eighteen-year-old girls don’t know how to handle alcohol, and I am no different. I end up getting sick one night at Brian’s house. He offers me his bed to sleep in, but then follows me into his room and gets on top of me. I push him away and he pushes back harder. There’s no point, I think to myself. The room is spinning and I’m swallowing vomit. He has a foam mattress, and I feel it encase my body under his massive weight as I try not to choke.
I need to remember this, I think to myself the morning after, when I’m too embarrassed to let him see my breasts in the light. It’s just really unwise to give any stranger the benefit of the doubt.
I remember everything that happened right after I hit the pavement with surprising clarity. A boy ran up to cradle my neck while his girlfriend scrambled, gasping, to pick up the scattered contents of my purse. I asked the boy if I was bleeding out of my ears. He said no. I told him I knew he was lying, that I could feel my brain deflating. His girlfriend burst into tears and I yelled at her to go away.
I saw a fleet of bikes whiz by the corner of my eye. I learned later they were chasing the car to try and get the license plate. I yelled for Claire but she never answered. The boy holding my neck told me she was knocked out. When I was lifted into the ambulance, I asked the EMT permission to go to sleep. She said yes. Then I woke up suddenly in a helicopter. My sweater and bra were being cut off by a different EMT and I was very cold. I snapped at him that he just ruined my favorite bra. He looked startled; I don’t think he thought I’d wake up.
Claire and I were airlifted to Stanford because the Santa Cruz hospital didn’t have the equipment to deal with our injuries. From there, my memories feel like a patchwork quilt.
I got a lot of brain scans and told the doctors to not shave my head; I’d rather die than be bald again. I kept telling everyone it was my cancer anniversary and then regretting saying anything about it. I didn’t want them to feel sorry for me, but I couldn’t stop babbling. I just remember feeling as though I had to justify being out that late.
My contacts were covered with specks of dried blood, or maybe gravel, and I couldn’t see, so a nurse took them out for me. They were my last pair. I insisted she save them in a urine sample cup filled with saline, which I later lost.
We shared a room in the ICU with a few other patients, all of whom I hated. I criticized them loudly and constantly, talking over Claire as she tried to shush me. There was one boy in the room our first night who wouldn’t stop wailing about bugs on his arms. My body was still strapped to a gurney and I couldn’t tell what was happening. I started to get really scared, so Claire narrated the whole event to calm me down.
He had taken some sort of hallucinogen and was just having a bad trip, so the nurses were ignoring him. Claire said he was accompanied by his very irritated-looking girlfriend, who probably had better places to be on a Saturday night. When I learned he was wasting everyone’s time with a dumb non-ailment, I yelled at him until he stopped screaming or one of us was taken away, I’m not sure which.
I asked the same nurse who took out my contacts to hold a phone up to my ear so I could call my boyfriend. It was around 4 in the morning, and my call went straight to voicemail. I told the nurse about my refusal to kiss him goodnight earlier and asked if this was my punishment, if she thought he’d even bother to listen to the voicemail. She said she didn’t know, but that she would leave the hospital’s contact number in a message for him anyway.
My boyfriend did listen to his message, of course (he’s not as immature as me), and came to the hospital as soon as he heard. My mom did the same, making the normally five-hour drive from her house in Ventura to Palo Alto in less than three. As soon as she saw me, she threw up.
I became convinced an EMT cut up and/or stole the jeans I was wearing. I obsessed over it for days, even after my mom retrieved them, unharmed, from their secured storage locker and put them on my bed.
Claire was allowed to walk before I was and got to leave a few days before I did. Her face had been split open, but her doctor did a perfect job sewing it back together. The scar was hidden in her hairline. Despite that, she was swollen and bruised beyond recognition. I still couldn’t stop babbling, and I told her she looked like the Elephant Man.
I had a subdural hematoma and a broken skull, and though I didn’t end up needing surgery, I still had to be closely monitored for brain swelling. I don’t remember much of this, including how many days I even spent in the hospital. I mostly recall being so irrationally angry they wouldn’t let me leave that I performed all my neurological exams very sarcastically.
No one could figure out if I was being difficult or if I had actually lost motor skills. I finally told my favorite nurse that I just wasn’t in the mood to be bossed around. She nodded and then brought me a popsicle or a pudding cup, I can’t remember.
When Brian raped me, I dealt with it by pretending we were an item. It’s what made the most sense, since he told everyone else on the paper that we’d slept together as soon as I left his house. It felt like it was my fault, and it was too late anyway, so I went with it.
We had sex a few more times, although I always made sure to be on the verge of blacking out before we did. Afterwards, I would compulsively pick at my skin. One night, after making a line of welts across my collar bones, I excused myself for the bathroom, climbed out a window, and ran. I treated him coldly until he stopped trying to talk to me. He told everyone on the newspaper I was crazy, and they eventually stopped talking to me too.
The man who hit Claire and me eventually turned himself in after police found his car. He admitted to, among other things, smoking weed before the accident. His attorney said this admission proved this man had a sound moral compass and should not be legally reprimanded. Sure, he’d hit us, and then he’d left us there to die, but then he saw the error of his ways. Eventually. When I heard this argument, my nose started bleeding.
We had the option of not pressing charges. He was in the country on a work visa, Claire pointed out, and was now going to get deported. That seemed like punishment enough. She wanted to put the whole thing behind us. I was furious with her for wanting to back down. I fumed as I organized and reorganized our fridge for days, which I was also upset with because it was cluttered with unopened mason jars, the contents of a get-well food basket our well-intentioned next-door neighbor had made us.
When the mason jars could be pushed into no further arrangements, I sat on the end of Claire’s bed and sobbed. I cried because I let Brian feel like he dumped me so I wouldn’t have to confront him. I’ve never regretted anything more. This man was careless with our lives, like Brian had been careless with me.
That’s what I wanted to say, anyhow. Weeks after the accident, I was still babbling, something I learned is a long-lasting side effect of many serious brain injuries. I don’t think I completed any of the above sentences, or even said any of the words in the right order. But Claire understood.
The man was charged with two felonies and sent to prison. I haven’t bothered remembering his name. I don’t lose any sleep over it.
This post is a part of Step Out Of The Car, Please, a recurring and unglamorous series about DUIs and drinking problems. If you are interested in submitting a story either anonymously or under your own name for consideration, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.