Visions in Two Cars
A two-lane country road somewhere in eastern Tennessee.
A sporty new car, going too fast, with a family inside, young children, in the age when seat belts were new and no one in the country used them.
Another car approaches.
It cannot be known, ever, what is in the head of the driver who comes toward you in the facing lane, as the two of you adhere to the white line separating eastbound from westbound, northbound from southbound, and all the in-betweens.
Generally, he is competent and clear-headed, and everyone is lucky, and the numbers tell us that mostly the cars pass one another, the drivers perhaps exchanging a glance in the instant of nearest proximity, and then both speed off in opposite directions, never again to come within 100 miles of one another. As asteroids floating in the space between Mars and Jupiter, and almost never colliding, their tiny size and that immense void calculating against the probability.
But rarely, it comes to pass. On this day, it did so.
What was in the other driver’s mind, this day? Was it the fog of alcohol, the emotional cloud of a breakup with a girlfriend, a moment of fatalism and recklessness, a drunk in a car racing along a strip of country road, attending to nothing but the distress in his heart and his desire to stop the pain?
He passes no other car for a full twenty minutes, and then, fatefully, as measured and determined by the physics of the universe from the beginning of time, comes the other car. The one containing a family, the husband and the wife, the two children, one a mere baby in the arms of the grandmother of the man, who is driving his young family home after a visit with other relatives.
The unknown driver collides with the car, in which I am a passenger, a boy of only a few years.
My mother’s arm reaches for me and stops my progress forward on impact, doubtless saving my life, at least preventing major injury. I am hurt, but slightly, a cut on the mouth from the seat, and scared half to death.
Miraculously. Alive, when I should probably have been dead. Alive.
I was too young to produce clear memories of the event, though some vague distillation of the experience has been with me as long as I can remember. All the crucial details I learned later from others. This distance does not diminish my sense that I was saved that day, caught at the cusp of the next world and pulled back into this one.
Twenty years or so later, I am in another car.
The driver, my friend, is 19 years old, I am all of 22 or so, and we are going to a party somewhere, with others like us. We have gotten a head start on the festivities, and both of us are more than a little drunk. In our part of the world as it was when we were that age, this was not at all an uncommon thing.
We speed along.
As the car hurtles forward, a premonition comes to me.
I see this car in wreckage, and I see the ruin of my friend strewn among the shards of metal that once moved so sleekly and swiftly.
I see his lifeblood run out and away in rivulets down the asphalt.
I hear the lamentations of his family, and especially I hear the weeping grief of his mother, who cherished this boy, loved him with all her aching heart, gave him everything he wanted because she loved him so, and who with the boy’s father paid for this car that he so avidly and eagerly drove to the rendezvous with his own death.
I see her bury that boy, her son, my friend, untimely, senseless. She is so lovely, and it is heart-rending to see her cry out her anguish at the loss of her beautiful child, now no more of this world.
Sobered, I get out of my friend’s car and close the door as we arrive at our destination. The alcohol buzz is gone, as if by some magical intervention that removed the chemicals stupefying my neurons in a flash.
I swear to myself never to be in that car with him at the wheel again.
Somewhere, just a few years later, the premonition came to pass. Just as I saw it that day. In every awful detail.
I still wonder why it has been given to me to escape this end not once, but twice. Perhaps all lives of more than a few years must inevitably be marked by such visitations. Their commonality does not make them less remarkable. For each person, when he realizes they have happened, they are as lightning strikes to the soul, marking him forever.
I read of a man in New York City who stayed up late watching Monday Night Football, his favorite team the Giants playing out west in Denver, and because the game ended in the early morning hours on the East Coast, he overslept the next morning. The morning of September 11, 2001. As he made his way late to his place of employment (the North Tower of the World Trade Center), a plane flew into the building and he realized that failing to hear his alarm clock had saved his life.
We cannot be assured of what comes next. Only that, eventually, our death is the thing that comes next. But perhaps something in the universe allies with us, on rare yet common occasions, to push back that inevitable meeting, through means we cannot fathom, according to a logic we will never know.
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Yes. In my twenties I toured a lot with a chamber music trio. We had spent the day in New Orleans, enjoying the town before driving up late that night to Alabama for a concert the next day. We weren't drunk but we probably weren't entirely sober either, having fun laughing, talking, hurtling up the interstate. Out of the blue, a car was headed full speed straight at us, evidently having entered the wrong way from an upcoming off-ramp. I still remember the terrifying shock of the headlights directly in our eyes. The pianist was driving, and swerved barely in time. I still think about that, and how if his reflexes had been even a 1/2 second slower, life would have been very different, if at all.