Fiction by Tim Wasem
According to the plan, I’d buy Natalie frozen yogurt after I finally worked up the courage to break her heart. The way I’d tell her would be sensible and thoughtful, though I’d never be so naïve to think she’d be happy about it. In my mind, she’d stand beside me in line and a few inches behind. She’d pull the zipper of her pink fleece jacket up to her jugular, her head down and her eyes on the shoes of the little leaguers who flooded the stand after the last out. I’d order for her, and pay of course, and we’d take five minutes to enjoy our blends of candy bar bits and frozen yogurt, and we’d let the reality of what I’d so gently said settle in. I’d ask how she felt. She’d tell me, and I would just listen, without trying to temper every one of her concerns and anxieties as I’d done so often before. The Jeff that broke her heart would be the boy she wished I’d been in our worst moments.
We’d been together for almost a year and a half, and I’d been planning to break it off for two months. Depending on how you look at it, I was either lucky that we were both busy with work and graduation, or I was an asshole for playing the role of good boyfriend for two months without the important part of my heart in it.
School had let out a little over a week before, and the night was windy and cool after a day that had felt like walking inside a hairdryer. She showed up with the pink North Face jacket I’d bought her as an anniversary gift over the winter, which she’d worn most nights since. I knew that every part of her became cold easily; the pale skin of her legs would shade blue, even through the darkness of her room in winter.
She stepped out of her little car and smiled. Her face was proportional, but each part was large in isolation. The first time I’d lazily sketched her face at a booth in the grocery store’s break room, I’d learned that the size of a person’s mouth affects the intensity of emotions. Her wide mouth made her laughs stronger, her smiles impossible to miss, her crying contagious.
“Sorry if my hands are still wrinkly,” she said as she wrapped her arms around my waist. “I did a million dishes after work.”
“I don’t mind wrinkles,” I said.
“Good to know.”
I took her hand and walked us out of the drive-through lane, and we sat at a hexagonal bench that surrounded the sad remnants of strawberry bushes, pillaged by small animals and smothered by car exhaust. Her hands felt pickled, and she held me tightly and leaned her head into my shoulder. It wasn’t part of the plan, but we sat and watched cars pass for a few minutes without talking. I found my hand resting on the small of her back, and she let out an almost inaudible moan of contentment. I’d always felt closest to her in the quiet moments, the moments when words couldn’t plunge us into the overanalysis of the over-familiar. I decided I’d miss the feel of her.
“How was work?” I asked.
“I managed to stretch out the floor sweep to 30 minutes. Had to clean the deli mats, though. Sorry if I stink.”
“Normal day, then,” I conceded. “And you never stink.” I took a deep breath, licked my lips, and added, “I need to talk to you about something.”
I felt her stiffen as she looked up at me. She let go of my arm, and her mouth shrunk. Her hazel eyes were somewhere between worried and caring, preparing to respond to either my pain or hers.
“I’ve had some … thoughts lately about what it is we’re doing here. Us.” I paused and tried to look happy.
She turned her head and looked coy. “Are you proposing to me?” she asked with a mock fluttering of her eyelids and her hands over her heart. Then she smiled with her mouth closed, which always made her cheeks seem to hang over her face.
“Part of me feels like I’m not ready to be needed like you need me,” I said. “Does that make sense?”
She immediately looked hurt, and I swallowed hard. I’d followed the script on that line. But, unlike when I said it to myself on the drive over, I had to see her face as I said it. I heard my words as selfish and petty.
Her eyes shifted side to side as she bit her lip. “I might be pregnant,” she said too loudly.
I dipped my head as if ducking a dodgeball and looked around. “That’s actually impossible,” I said, the pages of a calendar flapping in my imagination and sadness filling my heart. For reasons biological and temporal, it just couldn’t have been true, and her defeated eyes showed that she knew it, too.
“Well, I just don’t feel right, okay?” she said.
“Do you feel sick now? Maybe we should skip the ice cream.”
The constant noise of light traffic was interrupted by a screech, and our heads snapped back toward the sound. Through the twilight, a boat of a car sat perpendicular to traffic, and with a hectic crunch, two bodies rose and sailed over the top of the car. For a split second they looked as if they’d bounced too close to the edge of a trampoline, mannerisms switching from wonder to panic and on to self-defense. A collective gasp rose from the crowd at the yogurt stand as the bodies hit the pavement. Both wore helmets, but I could tell it was a man and a woman. In a shower of shattered glass, the man tumbled shoulder first and rolled until he stopped on his stomach, and the woman skidded to a stop on her lower back and butt. Her hands buttressed her slender body, angled behind her as her screams pummeled the inside of her matte black helmet.
People ran in the direction of the accident, and when I moved my hand to touch Natalie, she wasn’t there. I stood up and ran to catch up to her. When I did, she grabbed my arm.
“Go turn the bike off,” she told me.
The woman’s screams were softening to sad moans.
Natalie knelt in front of her and asked in a loud, calm voice, “Can you breathe?”
The woman gave a tiny nod, and Natalie explained that she was going to open the window on the woman’s helmet but not take it off. She lifted the window. “I need to leave this on until the ambulance gets here, sweetie,” she said. “You sure you can breathe?”
“Yes,” the woman said in a husky voice.
I ran around the car and searched for the key on the motorcycle. The bike grumbled softly, and I felt bits of glass and plastic below my knee as I knelt and turned the key. The engine died, and a sound rang out like a rug being snapped clean on a porch. I could feel the day’s lingering heat trapped by the pavement against my face. The airbag was bulbous and gray, and I watched without moving as it slowly began to deflate itself.
A pair of hands helped me up to a sitting position, and I waved them off. Above me, I could see a small face looking through the car’s window, a little girl with wide and tearless eyes. I mouthed that I was okay and stood up. My head wobbled, as if the airbag had loosened my screws. I leaned against the back of the car and regained my bearings with my hands on the trunk lid. One hand left a gasoline handprint.
The woman from the bike was screaming again on the other side of the car, and an elderly man knelt in front of her and was asking her questions. She shouted answers. Her hands were still splayed behind her and clearly raw from dragging across the pavement. Her back arched awkwardly as she tried to sit up straight. As carefully as I could, I sat down behind her and scooted backward until our butts touched and then I slowly sat up. When our backs met, I could feel her shaking, and her arms let go of the road. Shallow pools of blood remained in the spots she’d used to anchor herself. She took off the unscathed helmet and threw it to the curb and rested her head on my shoulder. Her hair was blond with natural highlights and smelled like chamomile and sweat. I felt her take a deep breath and mumble something over and over. My back was already strained from the yogic position I was in, but the pain felt distant, as if it were someone else’s, until the adrenaline wore down.
The passenger door of the car in front of me opened, and an old woman scooted out from the driver’s side. She was large and spoke in rapid Spanish as her eyes took in the scene. I could see the other child, a boy slightly older than the girl I’d seen on the other side, and tears welled in his eyes as his grandmother fainted. Her body rolled back into the car onto the seat, too lucky to be accidental. I decided she was fine, only suffering from bad luck, worse driving, and a tendency for the dramatic. When she fell, her grandkids began to make noise.
Natalie was still with the man who had rolled onto his back. She spoke to him through his helmet, and they both looked calm. Her smile was easy and wide. This girl wasn’t the needy, NASCAR-obsessed, co-worker I’d been falling out of love with for months, but a young woman who’d paid close enough attention in her MedTech classes to take charge of a horrible situation. As she did what needed to be done, her usual over-awareness of how every part, crease, and angle of her body was perceived evaporated, and her focus pointed outward. With admiration, I watched her chest hang down inside her shirt as she stood on all fours. She pinched the tip of the man’s finger, watching to see if the color came back quickly as he was losing blood from his leg — a trick she’d practiced on me. Her coat was already wrapped around the man’s leg, which bled from where a milky white piece of his femur had pushed through his thigh. She sat back on her folded legs.
“Natalie!” I said.
She turned her head toward me, and I saw her confidence wither slightly as our eyes met.
“Two kids in the car. The driver just passed out. Young kids. They look okay, but no one checked.”
She nodded and said something to the man on the ground and went to the car, pulled the door handle slowly, and waved pleasantly through the window.
The woman leaning against my back twitched, so I straightened up. People swirled around us now, and a woman in running clothes helped the children from the car and sat them on the curb beside the helmet.
“Is this okay?” I asked.
I heard sirens far off toward the old part of town where I lived.
“That’s fine,” she said. Her voice was hushed and full of pain.
I adjusted my seat and felt the vibrations of her groan.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Where all are you hurt?”
“My ass. And I can’t bend my back.”
I arched my head without shifting my back and saw one of her feet, bare of whatever shoe she’d worn, and it was scraped and swollen. As I turned back, the ambulance’s lights swung through the crowded intersection down the road and moved toward us.
The old man who had been asking the questions was now directing traffic away from the accident. “Oh, thank God,” he said, as they stopped the truck. He walked away from the scene wiping sweat from his bald head.
“What’s your name?” I asked the woman.
“Anna,” she replied pitifully.
“Help’s here, Anna. You’ll be out of here soon.”
I felt her head nod as she tucked it into the crook of my neck. “Is my brother okay?”
“Looks like he hurt his leg pretty bad, but he’s going to be okay, I think. We’ll see.” I reached my gasoline-free hand back to grab hers but patted her thigh instead. “You’ll be okay, too. All right?”
She grabbed my hand, squeezed, and dropped it. I pulled my hand back and saw the blood from her raw palm and from the puddles they’d left behind, and that I’d placed my hands in to keep her stable. I imagined my own bloody handprint on her jeans and tilted my head toward hers. It was as close to a hug I could offer without causing more pain, and I thought her next moan sounded a little different.
Two sets of hands got between our backs, and Natalie pulled me up as two paramedics laid Anna on her back. She yelled until she was flat. Her eyes darted around, and she met mine for a fraction of a second. She called for her brother, but he was being lifted onto a stretcher by a second set of paramedics who had cut Natalie’s jacket loose. They threw the bloodstained gift aside and replaced it with quick bandages.
“Anna, he’s okay. They’re putting him in the truck,” I said.
She looked at me and then away once again. On her thigh there was a messy butterfly of blood from the few pats of my hand. I wiped both hands on my jeans and lifted them up in the darkness. The smell of gasoline was strong, and my palms were filthy with sticky blood and bits of glass and concrete.
The paramedics lifted Anna onto a stretcher. I stepped out of the way and sat on the curb by the children until a police officer put his hand out and asked me to move away from the accident. Natalie was nowhere to be found, so I made a circle around the scene. The first people to run to the wreck were trickling away, and a police officer in plastic gloves was checking on the old woman in the car, who hadn’t moved since she’d rolled back into it. The officer was barking into his shoulder radio.
I decided to head back to the yogurt stand to my car to see if Natalie had made it back. For the first several steps, I walked backward with my eyes on Anna’s truck. The paramedic inside was rifling through drawers and tending to her surface wounds. His mouth never stopped moving. I turned away and picked up the pace. And as the sound of sirens got further away, the pain in my own back and face welled up, and the gritty, wet feeling in my hands began to repulse me. I blinked hard to better focus my eyes. They seemed out of sync from the airbag, and I wondered if I could go back and talk to a medic, to see if they could let me know if I was okay. Instead, I shook my head and told myself I’d be fine, that I’d see how it felt in the morning.
There was a coiled-up hose on the back side of the yogurt stand, and I turned the nozzle for a moment to rinse Anna’s blood and the motorcycle’s gasoline from my hands. But it was dark, and I couldn’t see if I’d gotten it all. I walked around front, and heard more sirens as a fire truck and collision crew raced toward the accident. Natalie’s car was gone, and I wasn’t surprised. Walking back from the accident, I’d begun to form a new plan, one that would reverse the damage I’d already done. If she’d been there, or if I’d ever seen her again, I would have insisted that what I’d said was meant to bring us closer and give us clarity. That I was ready for her to need me but maybe I didn’t know how to react to that, how to fulfill the expectations and voids that I seemed to manufacture between us.
The crowds trickled back to the yogurt stand and filled in the space around the bench Natalie and I had sat on, where I now sat alone rubbing my neck and temple. They glanced at me, some with smiles and nods, and moved on to their cars, dropping plastic cups in the trashcan next to me.
“Are you okay?” a small, nasally voice asked.
I picked up my head and saw a boy about the age of the girl in the car, who’d been driven off with her brother and grandmother in the third ambulance. “Yeah,” I said and returned my eyes to the cleanup crew.
The boy handed me a wet wipe from the yogurt stand, and I tore the packet open and wiped off my hands.
“Where are your cuts?” he asked.
“It’s actually not my blood.”
The kid made a grossed-out face and leaned back a few degrees. He was wearing his uniform still, and his yellow stockinged feet were crammed into a pair of thong sandals. The socks had a copper tint from the ankle up, and his yellow shirt was torn up the side.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Just a strawberry,” he said and showed me the wound through the hole in his shirt, smiling proudly.
“Were you safe?” I asked.
He shook his head and said, “More like he was out.” His head popped up, and he followed the sound of his name to an SUV that had pulled around the back of the frozen yogurt stand. He’d left me a few more wipes, and I continued to scrub my hands and forearms.
People resumed laughing and talking as they ate their desserts of congratulation or consolation. The ambulances were gone, but I watched as the collision crew swept up the bits of wreckage from the road. Traffic steadily rounded the operation, and cars kept getting stuck in the middle of the intersection as drivers paused to guess at what had happened. The car was towed off, the driver’s side door dented as if it had been punched by a giant, and the motorcycle was strapped on its side to the back of a flatbed truck. A bearded worker tossed black plastic bags of debris into the back of the collision crew’s truck with the nonchalance of cleaning up after a homemade dinner.
I watched them sweep until the job was finished and then went home to shower, to banish the smell of gasoline from my hands and think briefly about calling Natalie, to see if she was okay.
TIM WASEM is a middle school English teacher and writer who lives with his wife, son, and dog in the mountains of East Tennessee, although he was raised in the suburbs of Chicago. In his spare time, he reads widely and works on his first novel, tentatively titled A Part of Us Remains. Tim is also a host of The Erasable Podcast, a show made for and by people who love writing and wooden pencils. He’s working toward being considered a master storyteller and the next Greg Maddux. He’d be cool with just one of those, though.
Originally published on The Spark on 5/31/15.