A couple weeks ago, my friend Gavin wrote a lovely piece about all of his near-death experiences. You should go read it, because it is one hell of a story. When he first mentioned it on Twitter, I jokingly told him that I could never write such a thing, because most of my near-death experiences are just stories about me walking blindly into traffic. But then I thought, that’s actually not a bad idea. So here it is.
Most people are born with healthy fears of things. You know: a healthy fear of heights, a healthy fear of spiders, etc.. I was not one of those people. When my parents talk about me as a child, the story invariably ends with me whole-heartedly throwing myself off a deck or the side of a pool, while one of them has to scramble to save me. To say that I was oblivious would be putting it mildly.
I gained sense as I got older. I learned lessons like, “gravity is not your friend” and “no, Morgan, ‘fish’ is just a nickname; it does not mean you can actually breathe under water.” But I never really stopped being oblivious when it came to the high-speed death traps we like to call cars. Fortunately for me, I lived in a tiny rural town where I was far more likely to have to cross a deer trail than a road, so it wasn’t really an issue.
The first time I almost got hit by a car was in Sydney, Australia, at the self-important age of ten. I had never been to a foreign country before (Canada doesn’t count), and what little road sense I’d developed was completely over-ridden by the fact that Australians drive on the wrong side. My dutiful looking-both-ways left me looking left instead of right at the critical moment, and I hopped right off the meridian and into the path of an oncoming truck. I probably should have been terrified, but the truth is I didn’t notice; my mom had two fingers down the back of my shirt collar and had yanked me out of the way before I even knew there was a truck. She had a lot of experience at saving me from myself, but it didn’t stop her from giving me the kind of shrill name-shouty chastisement that parents always sputter out when you’ve done something extra stupid.
“Be careful!” She shouted. “You could have been killed!”
“By what?” I wondered. My confusion was genuine.
See what I mean? Oblivious.
The second time I almost got hit by a car, I was participating in the quintessential UW college experience: attempting to jaywalk across 45th St. at 1 in the morning with a pack of drunk friends loudly shouting out the lyrics to whatever pop song was currently in vogue (it was probably Lady Gaga). My prize possession at the time was my digital camera–a clunky silver thing that I used to steal moments from everyone I knew at every opportunity, lest a single one be wasted. It was a couple years old and more than a little worse for the wear, but when I accidentally dropped it halfway across the busiest street in the U District, there was no way I was letting it get run over. Funny that my concern for what traffic might do to the camera didn’t carry over to what traffic might do to me.
Wobbly in my heels, I ran back to swipe the thing off the ground, and as I straightened up again I was suddenly very aware of the blinding glare of oncoming headlights attached to a car as oblivious to speed limits as I was to the concept of self-preservation. It was probably honking at me–I honestly can’t remember. What I do remember is my friend’s fingers closing around my wrist and the kiltering flail of a pirouette I performed as she jerked me out of the way. The car roared past, a couple of its passengers still managing to cat-call us as they sped off. I looked at my friend.
“I just saved your life, bitch,” she told me. “I think that means you owe me your first-born child.”
“Will a bottle of vodka suffice?”
The third, fourth, and fifth times I almost got hit by a car all happened in rapid succession. My roommate and I had decided to spend the day at Experience Music Project, and had hopped a bus downtown, intending to transfer to get to Seattle Center. Halfway there, we caught sight of the Space Needle out the bus window, and decided it was stupid to go all the way downtown when we could just walk straight there. We hopped off the bus at REI, locked our eyes on the needle, and started trekking.
And it was trekking. Along the way, we wove through alleys, slunk behind apartment buildings, scaled fences–even surreptitiously strolled our way through a construction site. With every obstacle, we became more pleased with ourselves, and more determined to see this adventure through. The needle was drawing ever nearer. The sun beat down, but our spirits did not flag. The end was in sight. We were making history.
And then, our biggest mistake: we’d forgotten about Aurora Avenue.
For those of you not from Seattle, let me explain. Aurora might be called an “avenue,” but it’s really more of a high-speed clusterfuck. It’s a six-lane, two-way extension of highway 99 complete with cement barrier stretching all along the middle, and nary a pedestrian skybridge or tunnel to be found. And it was in our way.
Circumventing it would have meant walking six extra blocks. We were hot, tired, determined, and, despite our college GPAs, more than a little bit stupid. After a brief consultation, we decided there was nothing for it.
We timed our run for a gap in traffic flow, but the street still wasn’t empty. The two of us dodged for our lives, vaulting over the meridian like–well, like we might die if we didn’t. Three semi-close calls later, we sprinted off the other side, laughing and unharmed, with the exception of ringing ears from one very loud car horn that sounded suspiciously like my mother’s “you just did something stupid” voice.
And it was stupid. It was incredibly stupid. But when you’re flying high on adrenaline, it’s hard to care.
The sixth time I was almost hit by a car was also in Australia. Brisbane this time–a city I had just relocated to without putting a whole lot of forethought into the matter. I was half a world away from everyone and everything I had ever known, returning to my hostel after yet another unpromising potential housing visit, and reality was hitting pretty damn hard. All I was thinking of as I crossed the street was crawling into my bottom bunk in my shared bedroom and going to sleep before the sun set.
I didn’t see the car so much as feel its wind on the back of my legs. There’s something astonishing about a car sneaking up on you so completely, and all I could do was gape as its driver screeched out the window, “What the hell do you think you’re doing, mate???”
My worst fears were confirmed. The jury was in. This new country hated me.
I was doomed.
I was also wrong.
Four months later found me lying in the middle of a normally busy road at one in the morning, drunk, next to three former strangers who I’d somehow fooled into being my friends. We’d log-rolled off the sidewalk to get there, right through the dust left by thousands of daily commuters. I was wearing a white skirt. It still has stains.
The lateness of the hour meant that the street was empty, and even if a car did come, we’d be able to see its headlights from a long ways off, but even so it felt like taking a risk. It went against instinct. But we were study abroad students; we didn’t think about things like consequences.
We lay there for a while, stretched out on our backs on the asphalt in the dark, staring through the eucalypts at now-familiar constellations none of us could see back home. It was warm–we were in the sub-tropics–but I still had a nagging feeling that I ought to be cold. My purse was several feet away. I wondered if I’d have time to grab it if a car did come.
“Isn’t there a movie where people do this?” one friend piped up.
“Yeah, the couple in the Notebook,” another answered.
“What does the guy say?”
“You have to ask me what happens if a car comes.”
“Are you going to ask?”
“Oh, right. What happens if a car comes?”
We didn’t die.
“Here lies somebody. Sometime – Sometime. He tried.” -Kurt Vonnegut