We are on Massachusetts Ave, crossing the bridge from Boston into Cambridge. We are talking about Ariana Grande and trying to decide whether we love or hate her. Everything is perfect on this clear summer night, and the reflection of the city lights on the Charles and the sound of laughter in the car only makes everything better. It was a moment I knew I would be nostalgic for later in life, even though I still don’t have a word for that. I register consecutive green lights, chalking it up to my luck, since those lights at the end of the bridge were rarely ever green at the right time.
Suddenly, I sense headlights out of my left peripheral view. My foot, already on the gas pedal, slams down reflexively. I hear a deafening crash of grinding metal and the car begins to spin. I smash my head into the driver side window, cushioned by the side airbags of the Zipcar. We come to a stop, 180 degrees from our original orientation. I register swirls of smoke, a toxic scent, warning lights from my dashboard, and three coherent voices around me talking to emergency response before I put my head down on the steering wheel, wondering if I had misjudged somewhere, wondering if this was all my fault. I suddenly hear concerned voices and feel a hand on my shoulder, snapping me back to the reality of the situation. There was a new sound now, though. An angry sound.
This is accompanied by pounding on the window and door, although we can’t see anything because the ejected airbags obstruct the windows. Someone out there tries to pull open my door before I am able to pull it shut and lock it, my left arm trembling uncontrollably with the exertion. I register how terrified I feel and how apocalyptic this scene is. Cars stop and people stare, probably mostly at the woman yelling obscenities at me and beating on the window. It is only now that I recognize a radio voice in the car. The Zipcar representative has been trying to talk to me, but I let my friend in the passenger seat handle it as I hold onto my door and my consciousness.
A few long minutes later, police arrive at the scene, demanding that I open my door to get out of the car. Still trembling, I muster up the strength to stand up, wondering what I would be facing outside the “safety” of this vehicle. The officer looks at the screaming young woman and back to me. Her friends are holding her back now, telling her that she’s just in shock. She stares at me with murder in her eyes, but I can’t look away.
“Sit on the curb,” commands the police officer. My head hurts and I’m disoriented, but I wonder at his tone. I look down and consider the scene as a drag myself towards the curb. I was the driver of a rental car full of 21 year olds, dressed nicely after a night out, and there was a woman who was wailing with conviction that I was in the wrong. It doesn’t look great. I explain to him, surprising myself with my calmness and coherency, that I had the green light and she had driven straight in a right turn only lane. I pointed at the intersection I had crossed hundreds of times in my last three years at MIT. She may have had a green light, but the green light was for the right turn. Under no traffic condition do cars cross straight across the bridge. He understands the situation better now, and tells me he’s going to talk to the other party. I ask him if someone could stay with me, my voice straining with fear as her screaming continues to echo in my throbbing head.
He says not to worry, and leaves me there on the side of the bridge. Cars pass by slowly, drivers’s heads swiveling like owls to stare at the wreckage. I shake uncontrollably. My friends are pulled out of the car and directed to join me on the side. The friend sitting directly behind me suffered some whiplash, but we’re remarkably calm. I stare at the pieces of metal beneath my feet and my brain bounces between how lucky yet unlucky we were. I seek out warmth in the arms of my roommate, but my trembling doesn’t stop. The flashing police lights make my brain pulse. As we sit, we hear the police explaining to the other driver that she had been at fault. There were 5 signs indicating that only right turns were permitted from that lane. She finally quiets down. Passing drivers and pedestrians are still staring.
The ambulance had apparently been called at the time of the accident, but it takes three follow-up calls before it finally arrives. My whiplashed friend and I are guided into the ambulance by two nonchalant young men. One of them takes my vitals and examines my eyes. He asks me whether I want to go to the hospital, but I don’t know what to say. I think, aren’t you supposed to know what would be helpful? He shrugs a few times. I say I will go, mostly because there is no way I trust this guy to tell if there is anything seriously wrong with me. We drive to Cambridge Hospital, the driver seemingly incognizant of the fact that he has a whiplashed and a potentially concussed patient in the back of his vehicle. It takes a great deal of effort to hold down the nausea, but I send a few calm texts to my brother and boyfriend, not sure what to say about the situation other than that we’re all mostly unscathed.
We are checked into the hospital and assigned a large double room. A nice nurse comes to talk to us eventually, noting our symptoms and condition. Time passes in a swirl. I have no idea what time it is. I’m still shaking, and my roommate has to manage panicked texts from various people for me. The doctor comes to examine us, and decides that we’ll need to get our head and neck checked out to make sure there isn’t serious damage. Another nurse comes back to wheelchair me out to get a CAT scan. The bed is uncomfortable, the back half of my head is pounding, and my tremors are so severe I wonder if they’ll be able to see anything in the scan at all. He does the scan twice—once for my head, once for neck. Once I’m wheeled back into the bright double room, I wrap myself in blankets and wait. I’m incredibly grateful that two of my friends are completely fine. We talk about other ER experiences and laugh. Apparently, our spirits cannot be dampened by this event, and that warms me greatly.
The doctor comes back twice after. Once to tell us that they have to send the scans out to get read off-site, and again to tell us that everything is normal and that we will be fine. He tells us to take 800mg of ibuprofen three times a day and to get plenty of rest. That seems like a lot of medicine to me, but I just want to go home, although the thought of getting in another car isn’t too appealing. We answer a few questions for the nurse. I’m deeply comforted as I remember and recite my social security number, home address and zip code, and my mom’s phone number, although my head throbs at the effort.
We ask the Uber driver to drive carefully, and he does a great job. I zone out during the ride, flashbacks of the incoming car lights and screaming woman still pounding in my head. The next thing I know, I’m inside of my apartment. It’s about 3am. My roommate tells me this is the best birthday she’s ever had. I shouldn’t be surprised by her endless stream of positivity anymore, but I still am. For a second, I think about other outcomes that could’ve resulted from this scenario, and I shiver.
I want nothing more than to be clean, so I take a slow shower, brush my teeth, wash my face, and dry my hair. I realize how hungry I am. We had eaten dinner more than eight hours ago. I eat some yogurt before I realize I already brushed my teeth. I wonder if this has anything to do with the accident, but I’m too tired to give it more thought. I brush my teeth again.
I climb into bed but cannot find a comfortable position for my throbbing head. I’m told the next days would be significantly worse, but for now, I can only be grateful. I still can’t decide whether I’m lucky or unlucky, but I think I’ll go with lucky.