It definitely smelled like autumn. It was cold enough that, after we parked the car, I glanced longingly at the warm interior and sighed. I pulled my hat down and my hood up, stuck my hands into equally thin jeans pockets, and crunched through the gutter to catch up. My breath blew out in those blue-grey color puffs of exhalation you get when you’re outside, backlit by streetlights, and it’s not quite winter. I slowed my trot to a walk when I caught up with my friends. Both tall guys, they moved quickly, motivated by excitement and chilly weather. I couldn’t see the point of rushing. We’ll get there when we get there and there’ll be a long line anyway. I yanked on the sweatshirt sleeve of the blond and we slowed down the pace a little. He put his arm around me since my sweatshirt was a girl’s sweatshirt, produced for looks and not utility. He was such a lovely boyfriend. I didn’t even have to ask.
The line was already long. Grungy boys clustered in groups, alternating in which hand they held the cigarette so they could warm the other in their post-punk jackets. Groups of girls hung about, somehow withstanding the cold in miniskirts and what they deemed to be suitable high-heels. We stood in a row, inconspicuous, a little ragged around the edges, but warm in the fashion of utility and eclectic spirits. I looked down, shuffled my feet, and noticed my big toe working its way through the top of my shoe. Impatient. The big toe was just like everyone else there. Restless. Every once in a while, someone glanced up at the billboard that projected “311” in angular letters—just numbers for the passersby who didn’t know.
Everyone in line did though; that’s why we were there.
Band and product promoters circled down the line, handing out flyers and shirts. Not everyone took the freebies. Only the girls regretting the length of their skirts and the poor college kids grabbed one of everything as it went down the line. The guys who pulled up in next year’s Mustang or BMW just passed them on by.
You can really get to know someone just by watching.
We were finally at the door. My toe was cold. We all got funneled roughly into two lines, tickets checked and then ripped, purses glanced at, a flashlight examining the contents. I had to throw away my granola bars. I get hungry often and I like to have food on me, but they were worried my two little granola bars were going to ruin the sales of their ridiculously over-priced snack and beverage bar. And no, I didn’t buy one of their five-dollar pretzels or eight-dollar mixed drinks.
The venue was dark, old. You couldn’t really see all the way up to the ceiling or into the corners, but you probably didn’t want to, really. What people saw of the venue mirrored their tunnel vision; they weren’t here to see anything but the people and didn’t want to hear anything except the band. But people were here to be seen.
I recently looked back on a picture from this night. Ghostly white skin, no makeup. Giant smile almost touching the knitted earflaps of the hat I pulled on over my gray bandana. Pale hair straggling out the bottom.
This was the girl standing next to the guy in black pants three times his size, admiring the metallic clinks of his chains as he swayed side to side. He had some of the most infected piercings I’d ever seen. The residue of all of the makeup he wore probably infected ‘em. I really didn’t care what the guy looked like, though, as long as he and his scraggly mohawk didn’t get in between me and the stage.
I’m not a short girl, but if there are individuals over, say, 6’ 1” or 2” in my vicinity, they will make their way right into my line of vision. It is inevitable.
More people watching. The concert began. It was everything I’d hoped for, but not outstanding. It fit the general description of any concert of any band you’ve been dying to see. The clapping, the screaming, the jumping up and down in what passes for dancing when all you’ve got to dance in is the tiny square foot or two around you that’s already littered with cigarette butts and spilled beers. The music was loud; my eardrums felt it, and so did the soles of my feet. Somewhere in the middle, I lost my heartbeat.
I regretted wearing a sweatshirt. The pounding music and the thumping crowd generated more heat than I preferred. Thank goodness for big purses. I stuffed it in my purse and now it was an awkward lump, hanging at my side, inhibiting my jumping.
The bass drum beat on, guitars shrilled, and amplified voices permeated my senses. I felt absorbed into the crowd, into the situation. The body heat, light, and noise created one huge, inescapable sensation. I swear some of the noise was created by the sheer energy of the screaming, singing mass. The energy was intense. The lights were intense. The heat was intense.
A little too intense. I stopped, took some deep breaths, ran my fingers through my hair. They were shaking. It was hot. There were too many people, too close. I needed my damn granola bars.
I needed to get out, now. In a state working its way toward panic, I threaded and squeezed my way through the undulating bodies, making my way to the edge of the crowd and, hopefully, a bathroom. My stomach turned. I imagined the worst.
I made it. There was a line.
I caught sight of myself in the mirror as I tried to calm down the churning of my midsection. I was even whiter than before, if possible. Cotton white, almost gray skin surrounded purplish lips and glossy eyes. Lack of food, too much heat, and mild claustrophobia made for an impressively bad reflection.
Finally, a stall vacated and I promptly found myself reacquainted with the remains of my lunch. The rest of the girls in the bathroom probably thought I was ridding myself of an excess of those dumb eight-dollar drinks.
The music continued throughout my brief intermission, pulsating sound waves cutting the lasers, lights, and ribbons of smoke. Final, funky, resounding notes were plucked on the bass after the expected cries of “Encore!” and the inevitable return of the band to the stage. Entirely excessive clapping commenced and then finally ended and we were all rushed and bumped and jostled back outside.
Outside, where the real world was. No more of that smoky, bass drum, electric haze. It felt a good ten degrees cooler and so much more still. Everything was crisp, clean around the edges, unlike the haze blur of faces, noises, sounds and colors inside the building. We felt smaller. More human. More individual now that we weren’t an appendage of the swirling, mutating crowd.
We were tiny, cold, with temporarily deafened eardrums and hoarse throats.
We didn’t really talk much, just hurried back to the car, vigorously crunching leaves, basking in our privately muted worlds and the afterglow.
You almost feel a little let down when it’s over. Like the climax didn’t happen. Or it did, but the music, the crowd, and your brain was so loud you couldn’t notice. We got into the car, didn’t turn any music on because it felt redundant, and pulled away.
The houses flashed by. Familiar houses in a strange city. The streets were always the same, neighborhoods fit into the same molds, and people walked around like a cast of characters.
We said a few words in the car, congratulating each other on the experience, reiterating some of the more incredible moments of the show. Pulling off the highway, we coasted into a fast food restaurant, grabbed some burritos, and pulled away. Or maybe it was fries and a drink. Or maybe we didn’t stop. I really can’t remember because it wasn’t the food that was important.
Fast-food America tends to fall into the shadows.
The digital green lights in the car said it was past midnight, and we had a couple hours’ driving to do. It was Sunday night. A textbook of mine slid around on the dashboard, an annoying and persistent reminder that I should have studied for Monday’s test. Well, too late now. It was dark, anyway.
Up the ramp onto the interstate. Only a few pairs of headlights and taillights were visible in either direction. It was after midnight on a Sunday; of course the highway wasn’t packed. The car sped along smoothly, cruising out of the city without another car in sight. The lights of the streets and buildings bounced off the rearview mirror the same way the stars did in the clear, cold sky.
Their little images burned sharply, just like we did. We felt alive and bright. Everything glittered and we rolled down the highway.
My boyfriend drove. I was tired, had that un-studied-for test early the next day, and my vision was pretty much worthless after dark. He secretly disliked driving my car, seeing as it’s rather compact, almost feminine in shape, and the top of his hair brushed the roof when he sat up straight. But he’d do anything for me. And besides, it was late at night; no one was going to see.
I got settled in and curled my knees up to my chest so I’d have something to rest my head on. Our friend in the backseat promptly fell asleep. I exchanged a few words with my boyfriend; sleepy nonsense words about the concert mixed in with “Are you awake and okay to drive?” He said, “Yes.”
My ecstatic sense of alive-ness faded as I fell into an inevitable, drowsy oblivion.
I opened my eyes several miles down the road. It was snowing, or sleeting, or that weird mixture in between that makes trying to see out of a windshield very irritating. Icy precipitation occurred. I said something insignificant to my boyfriend and he replied, equally insignificantly. My hearing was returning to normal, so I picked up the iPod and started browsing.
It’s been almost a year and my stomach still clenches at this part. It’ll be a year in November.
I selected my song and glanced back at the road.
The road wasn’t where it was supposed to be. The ditch was coming up quickly in front of us. What was happening? I screamed his name over and over because it was the only thing I knew how to say. Nothing was happening. The ditch was still coming, looking sickly brown-green in the headlights. I couldn’t make anything happen.
He woke up. His first instinct was to jerk the wheel back toward the road, so he did.
And we started spinning.
Probably about three or three-and-a-half times. I was coherent enough to count, but not coherent enough to tell which way the car was flying, which way was up, or how long it had been. The car kicked up clods of grass so between that and the snow, we couldn’t see a thing. All I could say was, “It’s going to be okay, it’s going to be okay.”
So I did.
Somehow, my brain was trying to prepare me for an extremely abrupt impact and lots of pain, but it didn’t seem real, nothing did. It felt like a dream, the kind when you wake up right before you’re going to die.
Then, the car stopped spinning. No crash, no impact, no pain. Heartbeats, lots of heartbeats. “Oh, my God, oh, my God, oh, my God.”
The dashboard of the car became my altar.
Dry heaving from the driver’s seat. More “Oh, my Gods” from the back.
“We’re okay, it’s okay. You did fine. Let’s go. You did fine, we’re okay.” That mess was all that I could communicate.
Looking out the windshield, the car was pointed in the right direction, towards the highway. There was an on ramp just a few yards away. The ditch was flat; there was no guardrail, no fence, nothing. My car started. It started. We drove back onto the asphalt, shaking, both us and my car.
We didn’t look back once.
The snow probably saved us. Otherwise, the tires would have caught the pavement, gained traction, and instead of spinning we would have flipped. There were dozens of other factors why we should have been sprawled, unconscious, underneath a growing layer of icy snow. But we weren’t.
“I love you. You did fine and it’s okay.”
Thank you. Thank you.
The snow glistened in the headlights and the stars glittered in the rearview mirror.
We made it back into town perfectly, the car creeping along like a little, shivering bug on the giant highway. Thankfully, we only had about thirty miles left. Getting out and shutting the car doors, we noticed all the muddy grass shoved up above the tires and peeking out of the hood of the car. There was a tiny dent on the left side, about the size of my fist, but that was all. The car really didn’t tell the story of what had happened.
Neither did we. We were just dazed. Mute. Not shocked and not laughing hysterically. Deflated, mechanical versions of the people we were three hours ago. Those people were alive.
We didn’t feel like we were.
We still talk about it today. We still can’t believe it. We know we should have died. We know it wasn’t his fault for driving. It could have been any of us. It was past midnight, snowing, and we had depleted all of our energy dancing like maniacs at the show.
But we should be dead. We feel singled out. Special. Undeserving.
It gives me shivers. I think about it more often than I should. I don’t know if it’s more often than they do. It probably is because underneath the sky spewing snow and ice, in a dirty, dented car, I decided I was going to be baptized.