“Am I going to die?” asked the man pinned against his steering wheel.
Feeling guilty all over, Dee crouched into view. Instead of tending to the person in need as her emergency medical training had prepared her, she had been standing dumbly beside the busted driver’s side window and staring into the increasing dark. She had been fantasizing about Glenn—she couldn’t control herself any longer—and this man rightly had reprimanded her. To want anyone other than Ernie was wrong.
The man’s still-seeing eyes strained in their sockets to meet hers. He couldn’t turn his neck. It was fractured or broken. She leaned a bit further to make seeing easier for him and retrieved her hand from the warmth of its downy pocket to lay it gently on his shoulder.
Dee knew her face might be the last this man would ever look upon, but she still found herself slipping. She couldn’t focus. Slivers of glass marked his knocked-in nose and teeth, adding glimmers of light to the smudged and blotted-out features, and his wide-open pupils, flushed to their extremities with adrenaline, were like two stuck polished stones. She could almost see herself within them. Yes, you are going to die, she wanted to say. She and Glenn were off work. They had stumbled upon this accident. She had not set out to find him.
The soon-to-be-dead man’s face reddened, and he blinked back tears of pain or a thing hidden from her. “I should have never left Wyoming,” he said.
Not knowing what else to do, Dee patted him, and the words she had been taught finally came. “Hold still. Don’t move. You’re going to be all right.” She heard her voice catch, a warped and overplayed record. “We’re going to get you out of there.” She swallowed the empty prophecy down with a nod in the affirmative.
The man was voiceless now, but blood and fragments of bone rattled lowly in the compressed receptacle of his chest cavity as in thank you. He had needed to hear her say that he was going to live and everything would be all right in the end, but it never ceased to seem unfair how the ownership of staying alive fell upon the distressed—you hold still,you don’t move—as if life truly was in one’s hands and it was all a matter of trying a bit harder and practicing self-control in order to see another day. Even though belief had a way of pulling the dying through unfathomable pain and suffering, and Dee had witnessed battered, seemingly hopeless bodies come back to life more than once during her brief stint as a paramedic, she knew this would not be the case for him. Too much time had passed since the car, traveling at high speed, found black ice and careened into the guardrail and down the ravine to the bottom where it lodged against a boulder. Mind over matter only worked sometimes. His ominous pupils were already beginning to dim and fog. There was nothing to be done for him.
A low yawning like the slow breaking open of a metal canister emanated from the man’s open mouth seeming to come up from his intestines and stomach more than through his larynx—a final protest. She patted him again. This deep good feeling within her left her lost within herself and unable to do what was best for another. Sometimes, like the distressed, you couldn’t follow orders. You moved. You flinched. You cried out. You couldn’t fight instinct and do what was best for anyone in the long run—not even yourself.
Through the frosted tree limbs above them, headlights pierced forward and back, and in the distance, nearing, a familiar cry—an ambulance siren. It whirred round-and-round in the air surrounding Dee like a lasso. Then, a set of flashing lights—red-white, red-white—lit up the icy embankment as well as the low-hanging sky, coming to rest beside what she new was Glenn. He had waited for help to arrive while she leapt into the ravine toward the beacon of the car’s blinking left taillight. Glenn had offered to check the accident out instead, but she insisted having had an easier run that day. Glenn, his olive green and tan snakeskin boots and mismatched black leather jacket, the acne scars riddling his cheeks, that cockeyed walk of his, had a Boy Scout’s air that rested just below the surface. People saw through the coarseness and knew to like him. She liked him, too.
“They’ll be down there in a second,” Glenn shouted to her. “Just hold tight.”
OK, she said within herself. Dee looked at the man compressed between the crumpled seat and the steering wheel and reached out to check his pulse, as she should have done sooner.
“You all right?” Glenn called down. “I don’t hear anything.”
She wanted him to be with her again. “Yes. Standing by. See if they will hurry it up?”
Dee knew Glenn had feelings for her the first time he showed that she was worthy of attention and care. They had been on break eating chilidogs. She made a mess of herself and used up her napkins. He offered her one of his without her having to ask. The gesture was small, but it mattered. Then, many shared ambulance rides later, they were on a call that involved wedging an unwashed obese man, who had wedged himself stuck into his leather recliner, onto his landlord’s hand truck, so they could wheel him into the elevator like any broken Frigidaire. “Let me,” Glenn said as she strained to angle the cart’s platform under the man’s weight. After that, she had thrown Glenn a look as if to tell him that even though she was a woman, well, she held more than her own, could do pull-ups like nobody’s business and twenty-thirty-forty! pushups in a row, so she could certainly lift this sack of shit—that was what her look had said. “I know you can do it.” His face looked upon her with not smugness or superiority but kindness, a look that said he felt inclined to help her. “Let me?” he said, and she said, “OK.” Then, his hand touched hers still grasping the cart’s handle. The contact was barely a graze, but she had felt it deeply—the slight brush of skin followed by a trickle down her spine, a small sudden intake of breath, a warm melting over and through her head.
And just a few hours ago, Glenn had straightened up from his barstool and kissed her. “I have an eye for trouble hence the career. Maybe you do as well,” Glenn had said before they walked outside to settle into his car and share a drive to nowhere in particular.
But this had not been the plan that day. For the first time, she had permitted herself to listen fully to the distinct whoosh of the breath in and out of his lungs, to absorb the good smell and aura of his skin, and to give him the opportunity to feel the same in her. She had lingered at the station after her shift. She had bent to fix her shoelace, leaned forward at the water fountain, then pressed herself against the wall to read the bulletin board, going so far as to rip off a phone number for a house cleaner she had no intention of calling. Even the follicles of her hair had been tense and alert waiting for him to come out of the men’s locker room. She had known what was going to happen. Whether at the bar, his apartment, the backseat, a motel, or the back of the ambulance didn’t matter. You couldn’t ignore a force of nature forever.
Underneath the pressure of her fingertips, the dead man shuddered, and the blank black voids of his eyes locked onto her in final reprimand—you stupid bitch, his eyes seemed to say.
Dee shoved both hands into her pockets and ran her thumb along the cold metal ridge around her left ring finger. Her own heart still beat quickly. Her breath burst out in puffs. If Ernie found out, oh no, he would not be pleased with her, but all that fear swelling within her head for so long sunk beneath this new sensation. She was a grown woman but had never felt this thing that flitted just underneath her eyes and ears, nose and tongue, this thing that raced to her toes, zigzagged through her blood, and rushed over her, this thing that paused between her thighs and curled, pulsing, within her, never before, never to this degree.
The wind through the frosted trees picked up, whipping strands of hair across her face and causing her eyes to water. She felt the swirling in her core even now, but this thing wasn’t cold sorrow or regret. It was longing. It was desire. It was an innate knowledge that in just one-second Glenn would be riding that snow bank down to her, and she wouldn’t resist any longer. How could she have never known what this was?
Photo by Aubrey Janelle
Then, into the ravine bounded a state trooper, keys and handcuffs jangling at his waistband, followed by two unfamiliar city paramedics holding a stretcher, and in front of them, Glenn. His eyes met hers. Of course they did. She couldn’t help the things she felt and wanted to feel with him. There was no deciding, no resisting; it was a fact, a function of matter. She would continue down this road wherever it led her. This thing was passion.
The blood rushed to her numb toes, and she felt a white searing all over. She couldn’t think. She could hardly see. Before she knew it, her feet crunched out of their locked position beside the dead man’s car. Over the smashed car’s tire tracks and across that crust of frozen ground, her legs ran, her body flew hot, risking impact, ready for collision.