Like a Butterfly
It is one o’clock in the morning when I leave The Rainbow Room. “Nothing good ever happens after one AM,” says my mother. I’ve been a night owl since high school. Mom is wrong. I have had a lot of fun past one.
I’ve had a couple cosmopolitans that I surely sweated out on the dance floor. My low-cut black tank top is plastered to my body and the lower layer of my permed hair is curled in sweaty ringlets on the back of my neck. I’m carrying my stilettos to my Honda CRX, parked a block and a half away. I walk on the balls of my feet, like a beginner ballerina, so as to lessen the risk of stepping on any of the glass that sparkles in the neon lights of the Roxy. I tear a hole in the left foot of my fishnet hose and step on a wad of gum with my right.
I don’t want this night to end, so I decide to drive to Diamond Bar to surprise my boyfriend. I have the key to his condo and I finally have a car. I’d been carless for my first two years in Hollywood, walking two miles each way from my apartment at Franklin and Wilton to my office at Melrose and Gower. It is no small thing to have the freedom to go anywhere I want whenever I want to go there.
Won’t my boyfriend be so surprised when I climb into his waterbed at 2am? We can make breakfast and read the paper together in the morning. He’s twelve years older than I am, and in his presence, I feel more adult-ish. That is, when he doesn’t talk about a television show I’ve never heard of or share the story of his first concert the year that I was born. He doesn’t care to go to the clubs, and so Saturday nights are our nights together. The rest of the week I hit the dance floors at will.
Tonight, as I turn the key in the ignition, the odometer reads 935. That’s how new this car is. I will cross the 1000-mile markthis weekend I think, giddy with possibility of the places my car will carry me. I hop onto the 101 then merge onto the 60 going at least 75. Human League is blaring on my cassette deck:
Like a butterfly A wild butterfly
I will collect you and capture you
You’re my obsession
I’m in the fast lane, singing loudly and rounding a curve when I see a shadow along the wall in the distance but I’m closing in fast. “What is that?” I think, squinting.
And then it all happens fast. There is something in my lane and I barely have time to check my side mirror before changing lanes, but I’m not quick enough. I clip the object and my car spins, out of control across five lanes of traffic, somehow not hitting any other cars, my tires pop and there are sparks and I am sure this is how it ends for me, in an explosive fireball outside Hacienda Heights early on a Saturday morning and then BAM!
“Are you ok?” A couple of strangers are looking at me through a hole in the pale green mosaic of my door window. Glass. There is glass everywhere. There is blood on the airbag and I reach up to touch my face. Yes, my forehead is bleeding, which isn’t surprising since my windshield is shattered. Smoke is coming from the hood, which is crushed against a light post. “Can you get out?” someone asks, as they try to pry open my door. It takes effort but they do.
“Hit your hazards” the guy says, “There aren’t any hazards on the car you hit!” I am shaking as I search for the red triangle on my new car and emerge like a butterfly from my compact cocoon, glass falling from my hair and from my skirt.
Some cars are slowing to look, but mostly traffic is still whizzing by and then we hear the loud screech of brakes, tires gripping the freeway and SMASH! Oh god it is loud.
Then BAM! BAM! Screech! BAM! Four more cars have piled up, the first one hitting the abandoned one I clipped. This is bad.
Traffic mostly slows, but doesn’t completely stop. People are still trying to get where they’re going, changing lanes to avoid the debris, experiencing moments of gratitude I suppose, but not enough to fully hit pause on their lives and STOP. The guy next to me is itching to go over and help, but it is too dangerous to cross the congested freeway.
Ambulances and fire trucks arrive. First just two, likely called for me, but soon there are flashing lights from emergency vehicles blocking all the lanes. In the midst of the commotion I realize that my feet hurt and I notice that I am standing, barefoot, save for pieces of my shredded hose, in a pile of broken glass. My rescuer observes this at about the same time. “I have tennis shoes in my gym bag in the back of my car,” I say. He tries to get to them but the hatch won’t open. He grabs a crowbar from his car. “Your car is toast,” he says, “One last broken window won’t matter,” and he smashes the back window of my brand new now totally totaled CRX, shakes off the glass and passes the bag to me. I wipe my bloody feet off with an MTV tshirt and put on my Adidas.
It is then that we notice how lucky I am. Had I not hit the pole, I’d likely have flown off the embankment or rolled 30 feet down. The paramedics are dealing with the pile up when a police officer finally comes over to where the three of us are standing. “Are you ok?” he asks. And that is when I realize I’m not. It don’t think I’m seriously hurt. I can’t yet feel much pain, but that was scary and I suddenly feel like I might faint. He signals for a paramedic, and a gurney is wheeled over and they make me sit down. As the paramedics check my vitals, the officer talks to the couple that helped me, stayed with me, saved me from being alone in a car crushed against a light pole. After they share what they saw with the police, they come over to my gurney and say they need to go. It is probably 2:30am by then. I don’t think to get their names.
“We should take you to the hospital now,” the paramedic says. I try to protest. What will this cost? I only just got a job. Has my insurance kicked in? Am I really hurt? I honestly can’t tell. Then I look at my car. The line of traffic on the 60 likely stretches for miles now. If I don’t go by ambulance, I don’t know how I could get out of this place. As a tow truck loads my car onto a flatbed, I’m loaded into the back of the ambulance and I close my eyes and listen as the paramedics talk about what happened. One dead. Five critically wounded. Several other minor injuries. I feel so lucky, but I also feel guilty because I keep thinking about the effect on my insurance premium, the $80 in my checking account, and wondering if my car ever crossed over the 1000-mile mark.
Three broken ribs, a sprained ankle, five stitches on my forehead and seven on my buttock from a shard of glass that was lodged there for hours before anyone noticed. That was the extent of my injuries. I had to give a deposition in a lawsuit by the family of the deceased claiming my initial accident led to the pileup crash, but that was never substantiated. The car that was abandoned in the fast lane had been stolen. I guess mom was right, “Nothing good ever happens after one AM.”
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As shared at Story Salon on November 2, 2022.