The construction truck in the opposing lane, exceeding the speed limit, careers into my lane and right at me. I am immobile, staring, my hand not getting the signal to blast the horn. I might manage to dive onto the shoulder but the truck’s driver stops doing whatever distracted him and sees me and, with two car lengths between us, slides back into the correct lane. We pass each other and continue as we were.
This was a country road long before my lifetime and it is now a two-lane route number winding through suburb after suburb with too many vehicles, too many traffic lights, and too many vehicles making left turns where there are no traffic lights. I find that I am oddly tranquil. Everything moves as if it’s all choreographed, anticipated, unfolding in accordance with some plan. Only the careering construction truck felt real. Nothing since.
It strikes me that perhaps nothing since the construction truck has been real. The human brain is capable of breathtaking deceptions. Immanuel Kant wrote that our experience of the world is created entirely in our minds. What if none of this is real? Did the truck driver remain distracted? Was there a head-on collision back there? Am I now smashed and contorted between my dashboard and the seat, the steering wheel in my chest, the air bag smashed flat, left in unimaginable, unendurable pain? If so, my mind has shut my senses down and has chosen as a frantic grasp at endurance to put up a world around me in which I am driving home on this two-lane route number with too many suburbs and too many traffic lights and left-turning vehicles, and all of it choreographed and anticipated and tranquil.
Am I in shock, deluding myself in an extreme form of anaesthetic?
I think forward. My next turn is coming up. I will take my place behind a half-dozen or so others waiting for the light to change. The light will change and a few of the cars ahead will wait to turn left after the oncoming traffic has passed. The rest of us will snake around them and I will turn right. I will accelerate to forty-five miles per hour unless the cars before and after me want to go faster in which case I will oblige them. A concealed police car will not pull the middle car over for speeding. I will chuckle at the monumental pillars on my left flanking the entrance to a driveway leading to a modest house.
I take my place behind one two three four five six seven eight others and we wait for the light to change. The light changes. The first, third and fourth cars have their left turn signals on waiting for oncoming traffic to pass. The rest of us snake around them. The sixth car turns right and I follow. No one follows me. The sixth car accelerates to fifty at least but with no one behind me I could be the one pulled over and so I accelerate only to forty-five and am soon traveling alone. I chuckle condescendingly at the monumental pillars and the modest house.
I arrive at home. Everything is familiar and unsurprising and I enter the house as if in a recurring dream. Appropriately, and as usual, Amina’s sleepwalking aria from La Somnambula drifts into the background of my mind. I remember it’s Thursday and one of Laura’s gym evenings, which means she will be home around seven with takeout Thai food. I deposit the mail on the front hall table and hang my blazer in the closet where I also leave my shoes. I can’t remember why we all started leaving our shoes in the front hall closet many years ago, but it’s what we do. I wonder when, if, I’m going to return to reality, and how great the pain will be when, if, I do, and Amina is interrupted by that Radiohead song with the persistent lyric to the effect that what we experience isn’t necessarily true. I wonder again if the front man for Radiohead, whose name I can never remember but always try to, ever read Kant. I wonder if help has yet arrived.
I find the morning newspaper in the living room on the coffee table where Laura always leaves it and where I never have time to look at it in the morning. Settling onto the couch, I notice the sideboard across the room and consider fixing myself a whiskey and as I always do, having already sat down, decide against it. Radiohead is interrupted by the unsurprising sound of gunshots from upstairs. Alexander is lying on his bed, having been home from work for the past hour, binge-watching a true-crime program. Twenty-six years old and this is his life: works menially and without interest, arrives at his parents’ home by five-fifteen, goes to his room, and binge-watches true-crime programs on television. Laura will come home around seven and she will have green curry chicken because it’s Thursday and she brought home vegetable pad Thai the last time. Alexander will pause the television and then the three of us will sit at the dining table and repeat the usual predictable banalities between silences and then Alexander will return to his room and unpause the television until bed time. (At his age, I will silently note as I always do, I was cramming for the bar exam and dating my future wife.) And then my wife and I will unpack our laptops and sit on opposing sides of the living room listening to public radio and catching up on our work email without urgency or conversation until bed time.
I must still be trapped in my car. I suppose that if I continue to, as I do, once again, without plan or motive, sit on this couch in stocking feet perusing the newspaper without interest listening to gunshots upstairs, followed by sirens—or are they the sirens rushing to my crushed M5?—and it all does not just stop, I suppose that means I haven’t died. It means as well that living remains unendurable.
As always I pause to consider getting up to get a whiskey, or to set the table for dinner, or to climb upstairs to talk sense to Alexander, but I don’t. Because that’s never what happens. None of this is happening. I am waiting for someone to pull me from the wreckage.
Bill Hemmig spent the first 25 years of his life in Pennsylvania and recently moved back after 23 years living in New Jersey. He has twice been named a finalist in the New Millennium Writing Awards (43rd and 47th). He has been published in the online journal Children, Churches & Daddies and in The World Takes, an anthology of writings about New Jersey. He is also the Dean of Learning Resources at Bucks County Community College in Pennsylvania.