In the latest installment of “Love, Recorded,” a car named Kiki gets in an accident. But what really hurts is the crash between the present and the past.
Houston is a city of automobiles. One of the first things I noticed when I visited on my recruiting trip was the dearth of pedestrians, sometimes even of sidewalks. I remember thinking it would take forever to cross one of the enormous, inertial roads on foot. A friend of mine in Boston, who is from Houston, said everyone has trucks, not for hauling things but because they are Texan. (I’m paraphrasing.) Then there are the seven-lane highways. My wife says there is one spot where I always say the same thing about us traveling into the future. There is another spot we like where you climb sharply above all of the other roads and for a moment, it looks like you are driving into the sky. That is my daughter’s favorite, though it also scares her.
When we moved down here and bought the first car either my wife or I have ever owned, that was when we noticed the little things: that people don’t use their signal lights, that there are more accidents in a week than in my entire childhood, that the roads everywhere are sinking into the swampland . . .
The car we bought we named Kiki, after the witch who goes off on her own in the Miyazaki film. After our car crash, my daughter will repeat, “Kiki is hurt. Kiki needs a doctor,” for a week. Then, as the delays with the mechanic keep Kiki away longer and longer, she will say: “I miss Kiki. This car is not our car,” which my wife and I will take to saying, too.
What happens is, I am driving around a roundabout to the zoo, and a truck lets me pass. As I take the opening, though, I don’t see a van on the far side of the truck. I don’t see it until it is impossible not to get hit. I crush the brakes and wait for it to happen, time–as they say–slowing down. Grace is asleep in the back. I am already thinking, this is going to suck.
The van seems to glide into my bumper, and I press the emergency lights and get out to settle the insurance. My daughter is still asleep. The impact barely shook us, but the bumper has crumpled like paper. Like someone made a fist around a bad test grade, then opened it up again. The van escaped with only a scratch. Inside the van is a family of five. The driver, the wife, has an expired license. The three kids are restless. The husband is late to work.
I keep checking to see whether Grace will stay asleep. I call the police. As soon as the initial anger wears off, I realize that this is going to be my fault, since I had a yield sign. The truck that stopped for me has long taken off. Resentment grows. We wait 15 minutes, a half hour, nearly an hour. The husband gets anxious and offers to send me to a friend’s body shop, but the way he says it makes me suspicious. It is going to be fine for him, insurance-wise. “You don’t have to be anywhere?” he asks.
I do have be somewhere. The zoo, with my daughter.
Grace is still asleep when the police come, at last. They look scornful and bored. They write up the report so that there can be no ambiguity who had to yield. As I wait for the report, I think I can hear cries far off, as if underwater.
Through Kiki’s window, I see my daughter, awake. Then I see the tears, not fresh tears but the tears of giving up. I am choking on something. The nearness of the past. If I had looked in a few minutes earlier, she would be fine. She looks so sad and little and abandoned. When I get her out of her car seat, I don’t know what to say. I say I was just outside, but this seems like nothing. I say, “You thought I was gone.” Yes, she says, Daddy was gone. It occurs to me how terrible it is to commit a version of what most hurt you. The trauma we pass down. To her, for those five minutes or so, she woke up and she was completely on her own. It feels like I have introduced my daughter to my ghosts. For a tiny moment, I am my birth mother. And for maybe a week after the accident, my daughter will act coldly toward me, cling harder to her mom, as if–an adoptee’s exaggeration–I have given her up.
“Kiki got hurt,” I say. “Kiki had an accident.” I show her the bumper, as if I need proof. The policeman ignores her. The wife offers her candy and looks at me, now, with pity and sympathy.
“Why?” Grace asks. “Why Kiki hurt?”
The thing to do seems to be to take responsibility. I have noticed she projects her emotions onto her objects. A budding fiction writer. “Daddy was driving,” I say.
I pat her back and rock her like a newborn and have a terrible time returning her to her seat. I don’t care about the car anymore. I would go through a thousand accidents not to have made the accident my daughter’s emotions. The collateral damage of a too careless heart.
I call the insurance company from the car and give them the information, wanting to take my past out on them, somehow, wanting to scream. I wonder what insurance we have as parents, what assurances we have to give our children, and ourselves. What our children can expect from us, really, the promises we make implicitly that they will hold us to, the promises we break without even acknowledging, the way we get blindsided by our own guilt. “Kiki is hurt,” I say again. “Kiki has to go to the doctor.” Grace asks where her mom is. She wants to find her mom and tell her that Kiki is hurt. She wants to report that trauma, see the appropriate reaction, figure out why she still feels wronged.
“Another car hit Kiki,” I say. “I didn’t see it. But it is Daddy’s fault.”
—photo Flickr/The Tire Zoo