On Rubbernecking by Karalynn Moran
The car, the four of us, barreling down I-95 two days after she walked across the stage in orange Crocs—we didn’t want to leave the small college where classrooms fifty years ago were once chicken coops. We clung to the rocks that dismantled Acadia’s shores, slipped on wet, green moss and just sat there, inhaling the damp, the salt. Driving back to the campsite, Eve in the passenger seat, stripped down to a red bra and gray leggings because she’s losing at Padiddle, Clayton and I slamming our fists into the roof of the car every time we pass another with one headlight, Kelly refusing to play at the risk of baring her body. Eve damn near cried when we crossed the state border, the road signs no longer including distance measured in kilometers, but nonetheless, it still felt like we were fleeing back to Pennsylvania, the further south, the more erratic the driving.
Eve, steadily speeding, braking late when approaching the back of someone else’s car. Red taillights, lurching forward, changing of the lanes. I am pressing the imaginary pedal beneath my feet in the back seat, grabbing the door handle. The back of her car is loaded with dorm room refuse and bottles of untaxed liquor from New Hampshire, a comforter bluing out the rear window. She’s in the fast lane through Connecticut, going 70, not fast enough, people on the right flashing their lights and flying by us, swerving in front of our car to make their point known. We move over, someone honks, I throw my middle finger out the window even though I know we’re the ones creating mistakes since we left northern Maine.
We pass over the Tappan Zee Bridge. I haven’t slept. Clayton takes the wheel. Now, it really is an Oh shit! moment because he doesn’t shut up, and when he talks he has to make eye contact with you, eyes off the road, to our faces, and back. Lanes are merging. We have the right-a-way, dammit, it doesn’t matter if the other guy isn’t yielding, we’re in the right.
In the back, I tell Kelly, I hope you enjoy that Honey Bun. It’s gonna be your last meal. I eat a gas station sub, the bread soggy and tasteless.
I should know by now, to not speak of such things.
Try to focus on something else. We love each other; we ask questions.
Kelly: Smirnoff or Absolut?
Clayton: Are you afraid of death?
Me, in response, I fear that none of it matters.
Eve: If you were paralyzed enough so that you couldn’t touch your partner, would you let them seek physical intimacy elsewhere, so long as they were loyal emotionally to you?
Eve: How would you prefer to die?
Traffic is slowing, congesting like sick lungs halfway through New Jersey. Clayton’s girlfriend calls, tells us there’s a terrible accident further west on I-78, we’re an hour from the chaos, that we should try to find another way home. Eastbound and westbound closed for over four hours, fire and smoke, three people died, two burned to death in their vehicle. An hour away and traffic is already showing signs. Westbound opens up shortly after the call. We catch the tail end of the traffic snag. Under the bridge, the only other way home, Old Route 22, is at a standstill from all the diverted traffic. We creep by, and then we smell it. The air is heavy, the stench of burnt engine and car interior.
I’m reminded of the summer before college where my first Jeep, a 1989 junker I called Edna, burst into flames while camping at a KOA near Kinzua Dam. It started as thin wisps of black smoke, something that only my sister and I noticed from the back seat while my father drove up one of the sloping mountains of the Alleghenies. We pulled into the campsite, and the engine shut off mid-drive. When my father restarted the ignition, thick black plumes poured from the edges of the hood. Rolling to a stop, the parking gear not working anymore, my father yanking the emergency brake. I jumped out, peered under the Jeep’s belly while my sister, my father, my stepmother escaped. Seconds later, the fire rose, spreading from the engine to the interior, burning up all our clothes and all our gear. My father, screaming at us to get back, me running to the camp office shouting for a fire extinguisher, the stupid look on the old woman’s face behind the counter as I grabbed it from the wall and ran. Letting the red canister drop to the gravel once my father opened the trunk to salvage some of our materials, the air fueling the burning. The Jeep, that miserable bitch, choking over, Ohmyfuckinggod she’s turning on! before finally giving up, tires exploding, a thin pine tree catching on fire as well and burning with my first car.
What survived: a small suitcase of my clothes, most of the shirts burned at the edges, and giving testimony that God has a wicked sense of humor, a copy of Fahrenheit 451, the cover blackened but the pages otherwise intact.The people here kept their distance from the burning for fear of the full tank of gas exploding. But still they watched as we watched, waited until the fire trucks came twenty minutes later.
In response to Eve’s question: not by fire. Please god, not by burning.
“We should roll the windows up,” I say as we near the mile marker where it all happened. They don’t and I see Clayton and Eve craning their necks to get a look over the blackened concrete divider.
“Have some respect,” I say.
“It’s interesting,” they reply. Kelly remains quiet.
Up on the hill above the highway, at the edges of a cornfield, a woman on a four-wheeler is racing toward the accident, and she is standing, neck and head bent over the handles to get a closer look. A man in a pickup truck is rumbling down the other side of the field, also trying to see. I feel false; that I, too, have a strange desire to look and see. My eyes flicker to the left, and right up against the divider is a charred truck, the epicenter of ambulances and fire trucks.
It just had to be a pickup truck. A sudden flash, I’m sixteen and hiding my head in my hands and sobbing, as the school bus passes the spot where my boyfriend died, in his pickup truck, three months earlier. Some things can’t be unseen.
I turn my head from the window. A day later, we learn what caused the carnage. A tractor-trailer tried to pass a slowing car on the right. All that metal and all that weight hit the rear of another car driven by a man who shares the same name as my grandfather, Robert. His car, bursting into flames, was pushed into other cars, also catching them on fire along the center median. A husband and wife couldn’t escape their car, couldn’t get out. Twelve other people were taken to hospitals. The driver who caused all of it lived.
Take it in. Feast on the sudden nothingness, the reality that fire and blood can happen off-screen. Look because you’re happy it isn’t you. Look because you’ve never seen so many stopped cars on the interstate. Look because you want to see a body, to remind yourself of your own fragility, your dark imaginations. But can’t you ever unsee this thing again.
That truck. The metal is bubbled, ash-colored.
Traffic quickens, as if none of it, as if all of it, ever happened.
Karalynn Moran is a graduate of University of Maine’s Stonecoast MFA Creative Writing Program. Previous work has appeared in Weal and Stone House: A Literary Anthology. She is a lyrical essayist fascinated with the interim and language.