I may have seen the beginning of her end.
It was a typical night out, notable if at all for the timing and the venue. Later than usual, at a gay bar. More than one, in fact, strung together in one sweaty, sexy blur of post-midnight no-good-doing.
I almost always enjoy gay bars. Plenty of stories for another time and place. But last night, blame it on the cold I’ve been nursing this past week, I just couldn’t find my zone.
A couple of my friends had already disappeared, supposedly to the Majestic Diner on Ponce, so I followed their path. It was 2:30 AM and I felt inclined toward hashbrowns.
Ponce de Leon Ave near Murder Kroger is a scary drive any time of day, any BAC. It’s like the lanes were last paved 50 years ago and even then were intended for light traffic of the go-kart variety. I was in the right lane, with a black Pontiac G6 as my uncomfortably close neighbor in the other eastbound lane. I was heading, I hoped, to hashbrowns and then, to home.
I saw her on my side of the street, facing traffic, intending to cross where there was no crosswalk. She was with a friend, one obviously more hesitant to risk it. I took them in in that first instant, foot hovering over the brake instinctually, then pressing firmly as I saw she was going for it.
She cleared me, cleared the Pontiac, faced a tough decision: wait at the double-yellow, with cars screaming past on both sides, or bolt on ahead. I willed her to stop. I saw the two silver and blue taxis headed west. Almost upon her. Not yet aware.
Two and a half years ago, I’d been right there, within a few hundred feet of where she was crossing, having made the same poor judgment. I did stop on the double-yellow, cars screaming past in both directions, mere inches away. The sense of peril was palpable. The slightest deviation would have caused grievous harm, maybe ended me. Each hot draft of air and exhaust buffetted and reprimanded, till finally, the traffic seized up and allowed me to finish my crossing.
The taxi in the westbound lane nearest me slowed and she bolted ahead. The other taxi seemed not to slow at all. I felt something inside me surge, as if by wishing hard enough, the inevitable wouldn’t happen.
The next quarter-second took minutes to pass, or at least it seemed to, and seems to, in the hundreds of times it’s played back in my head since. Her shoes stayed behind on the asphalt. She tumbled over the front bumper, beginning a ragdoll flip but not quite completing it, instead rolling and lurching back to the pavement as the taxi’s brakes finally caught up to what was happening.
I winced and screamed a string of obscenities I’ve never before uttered, couldn’t write down now if I wanted to. Started looking immediately for a place to pull off, knowing already that I’d be no help, but knowing more strongly that it felt wrong not to try. Stopped at the Freedom Parkway onramp and flipped on the hazards.
By the time I’d jogged the 500 feet back to the scene, there was a cop there already, another arriving within two minutes. The girl’s friend was in hysterics, understandably. In fact, everything from this point has a cinematic quality in my memory, partly because I’d been thrown into mild shock just by witnessing the collision. I helped manhandle the friend out of the street at the behest of one of the cops. I hadn’t seen the aftermath myself, but I knew for certain she didn’t need to. And because I was already right there, I bowed my head and wished right along when four additional women formed a prayer huddle and offered their entreaties in Jesus’ name.
I saw a couple on the sidewalk nearby and asked if they’d seen it happen. “We were in the back of the cab that hit her,” the guy said, which left me without much to tell them. I offered them a ride instead, which they graciously refused. He did confirm, though, that the driver seemed not to slow before the collision.
The couple from the cab didn’t seem eager to speak to the authorities, so when someone asked if there was a witness among the bystanders (seemingly all of the patrons of Dugans had emerged onto the opposite sidewalk to gawk), I volunteered.
I was called over by the EMTs, who had just arrived in an ambulance and wheeled out a collapsible stretcher. I uttered a few sentences, telling as much as I could as succintly as I was able, how she ran, how he was going nearly full-speed, how she crumpled and rolled… A paramedic scribbled it all in a memo notebook, making my listless, inarticulate words official record. I couldn’t help but glance down.
She was right there, the shattered headlights forming a halo around her broken body. Her eyes staring infinite beyond the gray skies above. Importantly not closed, but catatonic, absent. With that unwanted image made forever, I walked back to my car, thanked some lucky stars I couldn’t see, and meandered home.