Crashing: Chapter 1

It’s so cramped in the car, all crushed around me, and the seat belt is digging into my shoulder. But my first thought isn’t to wonder why I’m hanging upside down, why there’s blood all over the dashboard, or even why there’s a paramedic shining a flashlight in my face. It’s that I really, really need to pee.

“Where were you headed?” the paramedic asks me.

“I was going home from work.” Right? At least I think I was.

What happened after work? I don’t even remember leaving.

There’s an opening where the windshield used to be. The metal is bent and jagged, but it looks like I could squeeze through if I released the seatbelt.

“Just hang tight. We’ll get you out of there.”

“I really have to pee.” I’m not sure why the peeing matters so much to me.

The paramedic reaches in and tries to free me, but he can’t. He walks away, and I hear him talking to another first responder on the scene.

“He’s gone,” he says.

When I hear it, I figure I must already be a lost cause, dying but not quite dead, hanging upside down in my car with the certainty that it will soon be over. I don’t feel like I’m dying, or what I’d expect dying to feel like. But I suppose he has no reason to lie, and he’s the pro, right? 

Everything I’ve ever done, everything I’m in the middle of doing, and everything I plan to do in the future plays like a high-speed movie reel, the scenes flying by and overlapping before my mind’s eye. I think about Laura and the pain she’ll go through when she learns of my death. I’m supposed to graduate from law school in a few months and ask her to marry me so we can start our life together. She’ll never get to see me win a case, I’ll never get to watch her walk down the aisle to me, and we’ll never have the three children we both want. I’ve wasted all this time preparing for our life together, and now it’s over. I’d do anything for just one more day with her. Even one more minute.

I wake up in the hospital, groggy and disoriented. I’m sore and nauseated, and I have a horrible headache. My left ear is burning, and when I reach up to touch it, it’s swollen and tender. I feel gashes on the side of my head. 

I didn’t die. I was in an accident. It must have been bad. How did it happen? Am I going to be okay?

I ask a nurse, but she doesn’t tell me anything useful. “This is the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center.” 

“Was anyone else hurt in the crash?” She doesn’t reply.

A while later, a hospital chaplain approaches my bed and introduces herself. 

“The nurses told me you’ve been asking about what happened last night, about whether there were other injuries. Mark, there was a passenger in the car with you.”

Who would be in the car with me after work?

The truth circles my consciousness like a lion stalking its prey, ready to leap unseen from the grass. I sense the danger, the hairs standing up on my arms, and search uneasily for some clue in my fragmentary recollection of the day before.

It started like any other Friday. I woke up and got out of bed, careful not to disturb Laura in her sleep. She gets grumpy in the morning if she’s awakened suddenly. She’s taught me to wake her gently, like her parents did when she was growing up, by brushing her hair with my fingers and softly rubbing her back, letting her rise slowly to consciousness. 

She always sleeps with her hand curled up on her chin, her long brown hair cascading over the pillow. I stared at her for a moment. It’s been three years since we started dating, but I still can’t believe she’s mine. I wanted to wake her up, to be in her arms before starting my day, but I knew I’d be late for work if I did. 

Sighing, I walked out of our room, and on my way to the bathroom noticed that the smell of the carrot cake she made for my birthday still lingered in the air. I don’t have classes on Friday, so I went straight to the tax court where I work as a law clerk editing court opinions before their publication. I grabbed lunch at Starbucks up the street from the court, ran into one of my classmates, and had a short chat. On the way back to the court, I gave half of my sandwich to one of the men outside the shelter on E Street. I got off at four o’clock and walked the mile back across town to the free parking on D Street near the Capitol. 

That’s odd. I can’t remember driving home. Most days, Laura would have been waiting for me, smoking a cigarette on the low stone wall that surrounded our front porch. I don’t remember her greeting me after work though.

And then, all at once, the lion pounces. The night before comes flooding back. The birthday party Laura had for me. Celebrating with friends until the bar closed. Leaving Chris’s so she could drive us home. She must have been next to me in the driver’s seat. 

“Where’s Laura?” I panic. “Where is she? Is she okay?” 

A wave of nausea floods over my entire body as the realization dawns. 

They wouldn’t be acting like this if she were okay.

“She didn’t make it, Mark. I’m so sorry.”

The chaplain leaves, and I don’t know if it’s from the IV drugs I’m getting, the head injury I must have suffered, or the shock of finding out Laura is dead, but I drift into a dream-like state. I’m not really asleep, but I’m also not aware of what’s happening around me.

It’s my sophomore year of college, and I’m meeting Laura for the first time. She’s just moved into an apartment with her best friend, Theresa, who is in the group of friends I met in the dorms last year. 

Laura and I quickly bond and become the closest of friends. We sit on the couch in her apartment playing SSX Tricky on the PlayStation. She always gets the high score. Then we’re at the house she rented with Theresa the next year, dodging cicadas in the summer when the seventeen-year brood and the thirteen-year brood emerged at the same time. There are thousands of them in the yard, and I’m untangling one that’s caught in her hair. Now we’re at Fridays, hanging out with her work crew from the Rainforest Cafe where she waits tables. She’s wearing her rainforest safari guide uniform, which isn’t very flattering, but I admire the curve of her hips anyway, stare across the bar and unconsciously smile when she laughs, her eyes squinting with mirth.

Now it’s Valentine’s Day of my senior year. For three years of our friendship, I’ve had a crush, but I haven’t had it in me to let her know. She’s had a few boyfriends along the way, and I’ve been jealous. I haven’t had any girlfriends, just a few random college hookups.

Laura tells me she’s upset she didn’t receive Valentine’s flowers from anyone. I go home and order some for her, but I don’t have the courage to have the florist put my name on the card, as if not signing them leaves me a little wiggle room to call the whole thing off if she isn’t interested.

“Do you think he sent them?” she asks me after she receives the delivery. She means the boy at work who kind of creeps her out.

“It was me,” I say. “I didn’t mean to freak you out—”

“Aww, Mark. That was so sweet. You didn’t need to do that, but I’m glad it was you, not him. Why didn’t you sign them, you weirdo?”

I thought the flowers would make my feelings clear, but I was wrong. A week later, I ask if I can stop by after work to talk to her. She says yes. “But why do you think you need permission to come over?” I usually just stop by unannounced.

I walk down the stairs to the basement and find her sitting on the sofa watching a show. I don’t look to see what’s on. I’m too focused on what I came to do. She’s sitting cross legged with her elbow on her leg and her hand on her chin, wearing her at-home uniform— an oversized hoodie and baggy sweatpants. The smell of cocoa butter and cigarette smoke surround her.

 “I need to tell you something,” I feel so awkward, like I’m reliving middle school, asking my first girl to hold hands at the skating rink. “I didn’t send you those flowers because I felt bad that you didn’t get any. I sent them because I like you, like, I like you, like you.”

“How is this not completely obvious to you?” I wonder to myself.

I spend the next three hours convincing her that we should start dating, that it won’t destroy our friendship, and that I’m serious enough about it that it’s worth a shot. 

“I’m sorry. I’ve just never even thought about you like that, Mark.” She doesn’t say it to be cruel, but it stings anyway. “I’ve never thought about it, so I don’t see how it would work.”

“Then you should just follow my lead, because I’ve thought about it a lot.” I always fall back on humor when I’m uncomfortable.

“But you’re Mark. You’re, like, my best friend.”

“I still will be. There’d just be more. And I’d get to kiss you,” I smile and blush.

It doesn’t work. By two in the morning, I’m out of good arguments and about to fall asleep. 

“Well, I’m gonna go home,” I say, feeling more than a little embarrassed, distraught, and defeated. 

“And you’re going to come back tomorrow night so we can finish this conversation.” I’m still in the game! 

I return the next night for another marathon conversation, but this time I’m more confident. She must be open to the idea of being together. Why else tell me to come back? Now it’s just a matter of negotiating the terms and not talking so much that I screw it up. Exhausted from several more hours of discussion, we stop talking and sit there quietly. I start to doze on the couch in her living room with my head in her lap. 

“Okay,” she finally says. I sit up straight, heart racing.

“Okay what?”

“Let’s give this a try. How do we start?”

My heart leaps. I put my hand in her hair and kiss her softly.

“Like this.” 

February 15th, the day I sent the flowers, becomes our Valentine’s Day.

I distinctly remember the paramedic saying “he’s gone” when I’d heard him at the crash scene. But now I think I must have misheard him. He must have said “she’s gone,” and she was Laura, the center of my universe, the girl I loved and planned to spend the rest of my life with. 

She’s gone.

I sit in total despair, staring into the curtain that surrounds the hospital bed but seeing only Laura’s face. The brutal truth repeats in my head. She’s gone. She’s gone. She’s gone. How can she be gone? The divide between “she is here” and “she is gone” is infinite, yet it’s only the difference of a few hours. Now she is here. Now she is gone. 

I think I’m going to be sick, and not from the heavy drinking at my birthday party last night. I’m coming unhinged, and the adrenaline pumping through my veins is making my skin tingle and crawl. I don’t know whether to weep, scream, or laugh hysterically at the madness consuming me. 

This can’t be real. It must be a demented joke of some kind. 

I reach for my phone to call Laura, and in the moment I realize I don’t have my phone and can’t call her anyways, a nurse pulls back the curtain around my bed. She’s accompanied by two state troopers, and the more senior of the two informs me that I’m required to provide a blood sample. 

“It’s required by state law as part of our investigation of the crash.”

The younger one starts to ask about the night before. She’s a petite mid-twenties brunette, and she looks so much like Laura that I can’t even talk. All I can say is “you look just like her.”

She quickly switches places with her partner, who brusquely informs me she needs to take my statement.

“Were you drinking?”


“How much?”

“I don’t know. A lot. It was my birthday party.” 

I watch as my blood begins to flow through the syringe in my arm. I’ve never been squeamish, but the sight of it churns my stomach. Without any memory of her from the wrecked car, the image of Laura conjured in my mind is gruesome and bloody. 

The trooper continues with her questioning. I probably should have known sooner, but it hasn’t occurred to me until now because I know Laura was driving: They think I did this.

I’ve driven drunk before. And like a lot of people who’ve driven drunk before, I knew it wasn’t smart but occasionally did it anyway. But it wasn’t supposed to happen last night. Laura and I are growing up and being more responsible. We don’t do that anymore. I’m in my last semester of law school, and I’m so busy that I don’t go out very much. Last night was a special night. We had a plan. Laura was our designated driver. 

I couldn’t have been driving. I wasn’t driving.

The troopers leave, and my bed is moved to another part of the hospital for a test or for doctors to examine me or maybe for a CT scan. At some point, I stop being a part of it. I separate from the situation, like I’m floating near the ceiling, looking down on myself and the doctors examining me. I don’t feel sad or scared. I don’t feel anything except a little bit of curiosity and pity for the man I am watching, me. It’s interesting and intriguing, like a movie or a story. But it isn’t my story. 

When I come back to my body again, they tell me I have a concussion and ask me to try standing and walking. I don’t know why they’re so concerned about my concussion and wish they’d focus on the more pressing matter: a terrible mistake has been made. Laura can’t be dead. 

The next couple of hours are like that. Sometimes I’m experiencing being in my body in the hospital, panicking and desperate for someone to understand that this is all a big mistake. Other times I’m just distantly observing my body and the doctors and the nurses. I don’t understand why it’s happening, but at the moment, the periodic detachment from the enormity of the situation is saving me from losing my mind.

I couldn’t have been driving. Could I?

My concussion is minor, and I leave the hospital on the same morning as the crash. On the way out, I realize I’m leaving through the same door where I used to pick Laura up when she’d been an assistant in the hospital and explored her career interest in psychology and health. It’s a place I would have passed before without thinking of its role in our life together, but now it sends a jab of sharp pain from my stomach and up through my chest.

Laura’s been gone for eight hours. I’ve known for four. But none of it seems real. She was here, right here in my arms, just last night. I have no idea how I’m supposed to be in a world without Laura. Am I supposed to act differently now? What should I be feeling? My emotions are all over the place, and I can barely identify what’s happening in me from one moment to the next. It’s complete emotional chaos, like when you spin around so fast you can’t see anything clearly, the world whirling by in streaks of color.

My dad says he’ll take me to his house. In the car, I vomit all over myself. I don’t even try to control it. I don’t care about anything.

What’s there to care about now?

After we stop at Target for cleaning supplies and do our best to get the puke off me and the upholstery of the car, I’m completely exhausted from the late night, the long morning in the hospital, and the crushing weight of loss that has descended on me. I close my eyes as we pull back onto the highway.

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“This can’t be real. It has to be a dream,” I say to her. 

“I’m not sure, babe. Those cops seemed pretty real to me,” she replies.

“I don’t want to be in the world without you.”

“Do you remember our first summer together?” she asks.

“How could I ever forget?”

We basked in the time together, knowing we would be apart when I left for law school in the fall. We’d promised each other that night on her couch when I first kissed her that we would give the relationship a try, but we wouldn’t let it ruin our friendship, we wouldn’t let it get too serious too fast. But how could it not? We’d already been best friends; the emotional stakes were high from the start. Neither one of us wanted to be the one to admit that it had become serious. I didn’t want to scare her away, but I knew I was falling in love even before we started dating. She didn’t want to acknowledge that it was serious enough that she could get hurt again. Her last breakup had been painful. We didn’t talk about what we would do when I left for law school, whether we’d stay together or break it off amicably. When we did discuss it, we both agreed long distance relationships never worked, but maybe we could be the exception. By July, I couldn’t take it anymore, and I told her I would visit as often as I had to if it kept us together. 

“There was no way I could imagine living without you even then,” I tell her now in my dream.

With a month to go before I’d leave for law school, we spent a week at the beach in North Carolina. The Outer Banks in August were packed with vacationers. Laura and I were young and still living with roommates, and it felt luxurious to have our own space even though the hotel we stayed at was nothing fancy. Our room was on the first floor, and we could walk out of the sliding glass door right onto the beach. The cheery yellow of the shower curtain and wallpaper matched our lighthearted happiness. 

The sun was high, and the sand was hot on our feet when we walked out the sliding glass door for the first time. We were falling in love, carefree and in the moment. Laying there on the beach, listening to the sound of the waves crashing, we soaked ourselves in the glow of being together. 

We laid on the beach the whole first day we were there. At one point, Laura rolled onto her side and looked at me, her long brown hair falling over her shoulder and onto the top of her green and white paisley bikini. She was so cute, a real girl next door type, petite but spunky. The ocean seemed to bring out the green in her eyes. The strap on her top shifted a little, revealing the white tan lines on her bronzed skin. Staring at her, I could hardly breathe.

“Hey, mister. What are you thinking about?” she asked playfully, flirting with her smile and her eyes. She had a way of being so sweetly innocent and so mischievous at the same time. I couldn’t resist it.

“Nothing. I just love it here,” I said. There was no obligation to keep, no deadline to meet, no plans, no future or past, nobody and nowhere else. There was only her. And it was perfect. I reached my arm around her waist and pulled her toward me. “I could stay here forever.” 

“Or go back to the hotel room,” I’d thought lustily.

“I knew I loved you then,” I say.

“I knew it too. I wondered when you would say it.” She has that playful look in her eye again now.

“It wasn’t too long after.”

A month passed from that perfect day on the beach, and there was only a day until I left for law school in Virginia. I would be three hours away from Laura, and I planned to drive home to Maryland every weekend to see her. I would be away for only a few days at a time, but it felt like it would be forever. 

The night before I left for, we laid together in her bed, my head resting in her lap, talking about how hard the distance would be. 

“I love you,” I told her for the first time. I’d never said that to a girl before and known what it meant. I had a girlfriend in high school, and we said we loved each other, but it was nothing like this. I didn’t need to eat or sleep or anything as long as I was with Laura. When she looked at me, I felt like I was taller, stronger, and about to melt into a puddle all at the same time. 

“I was nervous you might not say it back,” I tell her. She was more experienced in love, and I worried saying it would push her away and that we weren’t that serious to her. 

“You’re a silly, foolish man. With two sisters, I would have thought you could read a girl better than that,” she says.

She had said it back—“I love you too”—then leaned down and kissed me, and the anxiety and excitement of the moment turned to pure and complete contentment. 

“I wished I could just linger in that moment and never leave, never spend a second away from you and the softness of your eyes looking down at me,” I tell her.

The next morning, we held each other by the front door of Laura’s house, wanting to make the goodbye last a little longer and the time apart a little shorter. I was the first to start crying. “You can’t cry,” she whispered. “You’ll make me cry.” But she already was.

“I honestly don’t think I can live without you, Laura. Being away from you for a week at a time was agonizing.”

“I’ll never leave you,” she promises me.

The car stopping in the driveway wakes me, and I drag myself into the house.

“Maybe you should take a shower,” my dad suggests. “I’ll grab you some clothes.”

I turn the water as hot as I can stand it. Glass and blood fall from my scalp as I desperately scrub, trying to wash away the horror. I put my head against the wall and cry, the tears mixing with the near-scalding water, blood, and glass running down my face.

The lion having sprung on me in the hospital and subdued its prey, it toys with me now. I alternate between hysterical grief and calm reflection. I spiral downward in hopelessness and anguish, and at the moment that I’m on the verge of collapse, the lion lets me go so I can catch my breath and enjoy the fleeting sensation of escape. I know I should be losing it. I remember that just a minute ago I was losing it. And yet, for just that moment, I am removed from the pain. I know what has happened, and I consider it with academic detachment. Laura is dead. The police think I killed her. It’s not an ideal situation.

I step out of the shower as the hot water runs out. They cut my clothes off in the hospital, so I left in a hospital gown. Now I put on one of my dad’s shirts and a pair of his pants. I take as long as I can to dress and brush my teeth, removing the residual chunks of vomit from the car ride home. I have to call Laura’s parents, and I’m putting it off as long as I can. I wish I could just never speak to them again, pretend they never existed, but I know that isn’t an option. I’ve been part of their family for three years. David, Laura’s dad, knows I’ve been planning to ask his permission to propose. 

They are my family, but according to the police, I’ve just destroyed their family. I can’t imagine that I’d been driving, but it seems unlikely the police would be confused about that. It seems like an important detail for them to get right. On the other hand, I know from my criminal law classes that mistakes happen.

I pick up the phone, unsure of whether Laura’s parents know what has happened and terrified they already hate me, that they’ll forbid me from attending her funeral, and that they wish I was dead too. If I were them, I’d hate me just for living, whether or not I was driving.

Are you supposed to make small talk at the beginning of a “sorry your daughter is dead because of me” call?

David answers on the first ring. 

“David, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how this happened. I am so sorry.”

I ask if I can come to Laura’s funeral but say I understand if they don’t want me there. I don’t expect any compassion. I don’t expect anything but anger.

David interrupts me. “Mark, we were so worried we lost you too. Thank God you’re alright.”

The state troopers had come to his house in Florida to notify him of Laura’s death, but they wouldn’t tell him what happened to me. 

“We know how happy you made Laura, how much the two of you loved each other,” David says. “Laura wouldn’t want us to be angry at each other, Mark. We’re going to need each other.”

I don’t know what to say. I don’t deserve to be treated like this. I deserve to be dead. Their little girl is dead, and it was my job to keep her safe. The police say she’s dead because of me. And her family is worried about me. I’m so grateful and astonished. And I also want to scream: “HATE ME! Please, hate me!” 

I hate me.

The first thing I notice is that our house feels like a different place than before: eerie, quiet, sacred. The happiness and comfort of it are gone. As I walk through the front door and into the living room, I’m tiptoeing in a graveyard and whispering to Laura’s parents who just arrived from Florida. We’re here to go through Laura’s belongings and divide them among us.

After a year of law school in Virginia, I transferred to Georgetown to be closer to Laura. We rented this small house together in Magothy Manor outside Annapolis. Manor makes it sound fancier than it actually is, but it’s a nice little neighborhood. Our house has four small square rooms, all about 15 feet by 15 feet, a small bathroom, and a small kitchen. The landlord said we could paint as long as we used light colors. We made a blue room, a yellow room, a pink room, and a green room. In the backyard, there’s a little patio, and last summer we planted giant sunflowers that grew seven feet tall with flowers that were a foot across. Now their stalks hang limply toward the ground, the weight of their dead blooms too much to bear.

The second thing I notice is that the house smells like her, like us, in a way I’d never noticed before. Our pillows smell like her. The couch. The air. Smell is so strongly tied to our memories. It’s like inhaling every moment we ever shared. I can hear her voice and see her face more clearly here.

Every year for my birthday, Laura made me a carrot cake with her family recipe that used jarred baby food and homemade cream cheese frosting. It’s my favorite dessert, and there it is, sitting on the kitchen counter where we left it, the two pieces we’d eaten the only parts missing. Everything is just as we left it: Nintendo remotes on the couch from the last time we played our favorite snowboarding videogame, outfits Laura tried on for my birthday party and tossed on the floor, dinner plates in the sink with the hardened sauce from her homemade manicotti stuck to them.

“Anything that you want to keep is yours,” David says solemnly, putting an arm around my shoulder. “She’d want you to have some things to remember her.”

“Thanks,” I mutter. “I appreciate that.” They know I don’t remember driving the car the night of the crash’s nd they know Laura was supposed to be our designated driver, but I still don’t understand how they can be so kind.

I pick out some souvenirs from places Laura and I went together—tickets to Georgetown basketball games, matches from the bar we went to in Las Vegas, cards we’d sent each other when we were apart, a shamrock headband one of the bars had given out on St. Patty’s Day two years back. I’d hidden eighty love notes around our house when we moved in so she would find them randomly. I keep the ones she found and collect the ones she never saw. I find a sheet of Limericks I’d written for her, some sweet and some smutty. I’ll put it all in the scrapbook she started but never finished for us.

I want to protect Laura’s honor and virtue even in death. And I want to protect her parents’ memory of her innocence. I hope they won’t notice the half-smoked joints buried in the planter by our bed—they do—or the Cosmo Magazine version of the Kama Sutra on our bookshelf—they don’t. 

“I’m going to go outside for a minute,” I tell them, stepping toward the front door. I need a minute alone and some fresh air.

I walk to the end of our street, to our neighborhood’s little beach on the Magothy River. We spent so many sunny afternoons and warm evenings here with our dog, Rocko. The Magothy is a slow-moving river and deepens gradually from the banks. Rocko can walk out far into the river without the water going over his shoulders. He doesn’t like to swim, but as long as he can walk, he’s happy to be in the water. He especially loves chasing the ducks, even though the ducks never pay him much attention.

I got Rocko before Laura and I started dating. Her house was broken into, and while she was on vacation, I decided to get her a dog to keep her safe. He was still a puppy and already over 70 pounds. He was sweet, but he looked tough and would scare off anyone who might hurt her. But then I realized on the way home from the shelter that I probably shouldn’t have gotten her a dog without asking her if she wanted one. I decided I would keep him but offer to let her borrow him whenever she wanted. I was at her house most of the time anyways. So Rocko went from being her dog to being my dog in a matter of minutes, and then became our dog about eight months later when we started dating. We rounded out our little family when we adopted Boots, a black kitten with white paws who loved to snuggle up with Rocko in his bed.

Staring at the river and knowing we’ll never sit there together again, watching the waves lap gently against the shore, I realize I can’t live in the house without her. I’ll see her in every corner, and I can’t be alone with the memories. As a practical matter, I totaled my car in the accident, and the house is far from my school and my job. I can’t afford the place without Laura’s income either. So that settles it. Rocko, Boots, and I will have to move out. I call the landlord and tell him I’m planning to break the lease. He already knows about the crash.

“I’ll keep paying the rent while you find a new tenant.”  It’s the least of my problems, but I hope it won’t take long because I don’t have the savings to pay the full rent by myself for more than a month or two.

“Thanks for letting me know, Mark,” he replies kindly. “Hang in there.”

I walk back inside to finish the macabre work of dividing Laura’s possessions. The experience is surreal, like a dream. It still doesn’t feel real that she’s gone. I keep expecting her her walk out of our bedroom or call to me from the front of the house. She should be helping pack up our things. We always split the housework 50-50. Then it hits me again. We’re doing this because she’s gone. She isn’t coming back. There’s no more Laura, and there’s no more Laura and Mark.

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