I’m driving on the highway, arguing with Lou on the phone when I notice the car in front of me starting to swerve left and right. It’s a gold Honda, heavy and new looking, and I can barely see the driver’s head.
It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and Lou is yelling at me because he doesn’t want to spend another holiday alone. “What is wrong with you, Jonathan? Why can’t you just do it?”
Lou and I have been fighting like this for a long time. He’s tired of being a secret. He wants me to tell my wife Julie about us, that I’m gay—I hate the word—that I don’t love her anymore. I keep saying I’m going to, any day, but every time I sit across from her at the kitchen table, I lose the words.
The Honda in front of me swerves onto the shoulder and stops as it nears the guardrail. “I have to call you back,” I say to Lou, then throw the phone on the passenger seat and pull over to see what’s going on with the car. Somebody fell asleep at the wheel, I’ll tell him later. I had to stop and help.
When I walk toward the Honda, I see that the driver is slumped to one side. She’s a middle-aged woman with short brown hair, no jacket, purple shirt.
I knock on her window. “Ma’am?” That term always sounds weird in my mouth, like I should be addressing someone in a pale blue dress and bonnet. But the woman doesn’t turn toward me. Her eyes are half-open and fluttery; her body shudders. I don’t know if she’s conscious. I pull at the door handle, but it’s locked. I go to the back doors, the passenger side, the trunk. There’s no way inside. I bang on her window as hard as I can, my fingers stinging, but her eyelids are still fluttering back and forth.
I watch her for a moment, and everything seems to pause. Then her eyelids slow down and stop moving, and the skin around her lips begins to turn blue.
She’s going to die, I whisper to myself. And then think quietly, She’s already dead.
I bang once again to see if she’ll turn to look at me, but her body has gone completely limp, so I run back to my car, hoping I have something in the trunk to break her window. But there’s nothing—a car-charging kit and a bag of clothes Julie wants me to drop off at Goodwill.
In the passenger seat, I grab my cell phone to call 911. When the ambulance gets here, they can give the woman CPR or use a defibrillator or something. It can’t really be possible that she would die alone on the side of the road, with no one around to bring her back to life.
Dozens of cars speed by as the phone rings, their motors sounding like waves off the ocean.
Finally someone picks up. “911 Dispatch,” the man says on the staticky line.
“Hey,” I say, wondering how to begin. “I’m on the side of the road. I pulled over because this woman was swerving. Now it seems like she had a seizure in her car. I can’t get in, the door’s locked.”
I hear a beep on the line, and it sounds like the man is typing. “Is she breathing?” He asks. His voice is relaxed, as though we have plenty of time. I walk closer to the Honda, stand at the driver’s side window. Now her eyelids are open instead of flickering, empty, as though she’s gazing at a world beyond the dashboard.
“I don’t think so. I can’t really tell.” What I mean to say is, I think she’s already dead. But I can’t say it.
“Can you break open the window with something?” he asks. “Find a way to get inside?”
I shake my head, even though he can’t see. “You need to send somebody,” I say. “I’ve already tried everything.”
“They’re on the way,” the man says. “Hold tight. See if you can find anything to break the window.”
On the ground, I see a few scattered leaves, some broken glass from a beer bottle. I bang on the car window again, hoping she’ll jump out of her fog, look up at me, wonder who the crazy man is trying to get inside her car. The skin around her pinched lips turns a deeper blue.
I look back at the highway, standing as close to the white line as I can, hoping to spot an ambulance’s lights flashing, even the sound of sirens. But all I see are cars passing, sedans, pick-up trucks, tractor-trailers, minivans.
“When will they be here?” I ask the man on the line. “No one seems to be coming.”
More typing. “They’re on their way,” the man says confidently, even though I still can’t hear any sirens.
I imagine what I’ll tell Julie, how she’ll react when she finds out I pulled over. It’s something I wouldn’t normally do. She’s the good one, the one who signs up for fundraisers, who volunteered for a while at a homeless shelter, who knits blankets for newborn babies at the local hospital. And all that is just part of the reason I can’t bear to tell her I’m leaving her for Lou. I’d rather just walk out one day, never come back, let her assume I’ve gone missing.
Inside the car, the woman’s purple shirt is tight against her stomach, her belly pushing against the button of her pants. Her dashboard is lit up, showing the call numbers of the local news station. Her purse rests brown and large on the passenger seat, like a silent pet. One manicured hand is on the gearshift, in neutral, and the other rests between her legs next to an old flip phone. She must have tried to call someone. She must have known something bad was starting to happen and tried to contact whoever was expecting her at home.
“They’re not going to make it in time,” I say to the dispatcher. I’ve seen TV shows where an ambulance arrives, or a doctor, and they pull the person out of the wreckage and give mouth-to-mouth. Everyone on the sidelines holds their breath and waits, not knowing whether to keep hoping or give up. And then the person eventually sputters, coughs, opens her eyes.
“Just stay by the car,” the man says.
I’ve only seen a few dead bodies, my grandfather when I was twelve, and an aunt who died while I was in college. They were laid out in nice clothes and make-up so we could all pretend they were just resting in the silky casket. But the woman in front of me already seems vacant somehow, like a shell that would turn to goo in the hot sun. If there’s another place she’s passing into, I have no way of seeing it.
Finally, I hear a siren. I look around and can make out red lights flashing in the distance on the other side of the highway. The ambulance will have to make its way through traffic, find a spot to turn around to get on my side of the road. It might still be another ten minutes before they get to her. Even these people, the ones who deal with death all the time, can’t figure out how to fix it.
I hear the dispatcher’s breath on the line. “Just stay with me until the ambulance arrives,” he says.
I want to call Julie and tell her that whatever happens, I love her. And I want to call Lou. But I have no idea if I could say that to him.
I see the ambulance coming toward me, its lights flashing as it weaves around cars. The driver speeds up and pulls onto the shoulder, his back fender reaching past the white line. Quickly the men open the doors and rush out, one of them holding a metal bar to pry open the car window. Next, a police car pulls up.
My lips stretch open to speak—I’m so grateful not to be alone with the woman’s body anymore.
The driver, bald, uses the bar to unlock the window, and the other guy pulls her out, holding her under the arms. She’s so heavy she starts to fall toward the ground. “Get a stretcher, Jim!” the bald man yells, and Jim runs frantically to the back of the ambulance and comes back with it. It’s as though I’m not even here, like I’m a ghost and they don’t see me.
When Jim rolls the stretcher, the other EMT says, “On the count of three. One,” Jim takes her feet and they swing her back and forth. “Two.” They lift her higher. Her shirt rides up, and I can see her stomach, loose skin popping out. I want to push them out of the way and cover her, ensure her dignity. Everybody deserves dignity, even in death. Especially in death. “Three!” They wheel her toward the ambulance, the thick white skin under her shirt pale and swollen. Tears burn at the corners of my eyes.
A fire truck pulls up. I imagine telling Lou about this later, lying next to him in bed, drawing semicircles on the soft skin below his ribs. A fire truck. What did they think they were coming to do? Pull a cat out of a tree? Now the space on the road that had been so quiet, so solitary and calm, is filled with lights and noises like a crime scene.
One of the firefighters rushes toward me and leans into the car. His face is young like a teenager’s; his gloves must be double the size of his hands. He reaches across to the passenger seat and pulls the woman’s brown purse toward him. Things fall onto the ground: a tube of lipstick, a wallet, a small silver mirror. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so angry at someone I didn’t know, someone who seemed so dumb and thoughtless. I rush over and pick up as many items as I can— her eyeshadow case, a date book, a plastic package full of tissues—stuffing everything back inside the purse as the kid holds it open for me.
“You the one who called 911?” A cop says, walking toward me and writing something down on his clipboard.
“What’s going to happen to her?” I ask and feel like I’m watching myself, no longer inside my body. I move closer to the ambulance window and see the bald man’s arms pumping up and down, his face red, yelling something every couple of seconds. I can’t see her body or her head.
“They’re going to see what they can do,” the cop says, and I hear sadness in his voice.
“But she’s gone,” I say, still staring, hoping I’m wrong. I want to be in the movie where she pops up from her gurney and laughs, says she feels fine, this was all just a fluke.
The cop waves me away from the ambulance window, back towards the open door of the car. He’s old, probably close to retirement, with small curls of gray hair popping out under his hat. He looks like a fisherman, or a hunter who lives in an isolated cabin by a lake. “Tell me what you saw, why you pulled over. I need a statement.”
“She could have hit another car, you know. This could have been a huge accident.”
He nods and looks up, waiting for me to continue. I feel breathless as I think of her last minutes, when she realized something bad was happening to her and jerked the steering wheel, forcing the gearshift into neutral, trying desperately to stop and call someone.
“About what time did you pull over to the side of the road?”
I shrug. His questions are pointless. This is what people do in horrible situations—try to write down facts, make everything seem less chaotic than it is. Pretend we have some measure of control. “Ten minutes ago. Twenty maybe.”
The cop moves his pen along the clipboard, the silver hair around his knuckles blowing in the cold.
“What will happen to her car?” I ask. “Her things?”
He gives me a pinched smile. “We’ll take care of everything.” He pauses. “So you saw her on the side of the road and pulled over? Did she appear to be breathing?”
I tell him everything he wants to know, answering each question slowly, hearing my voice as though it’s coming from someone else’s mouth.
Behind us, the engine of the ambulance starts to rev, and I turn to see its red lights flash against the newly dark sky. The bald driver eases into traffic without looking back. No wave, no acknowledgement, no news. Nothing.
“It was good that you stopped,” the cop says, relaxing his shoulders, putting his pen behind his ear. “You’d be surprised. Not too many people do that nowadays.”
I shake my head, looking inside the car, the woman’s cell phone resting on the floor. The firefighter kid must have knocked it over when he grabbed her purse. “I didn’t do anything. All her doors were locked. I just watched her die.”
The cop takes a deep breath through his mouth, holding the air in his throat for a moment and puffing up his chest. I assume he’s going to try to comfort me, say something like It was just her time. There was nothing you could do. But he just breathes out the air. “Get some rest. Eat dinner. Go home to your family.”
My feet feel glued to tarmac, all the little pieces of glass now glimmering in the cars’ headlights. The cop turns back toward his car.
“Wait,” I say, my chest starting to pound, arms hanging uselessly at my sides. “This feels wrong. There has to be more I can do. Contact her husband or something. Won’t they want to know what I saw?”
He stops walking and turns. “We’ll handle all that. You can just go home.”
But where is home? I want to say. When I’m in the house I bought with Julie, I feel like an actor, a stranger, pretending to be the same clueless guy she met in high school. When I’m with Lou, I feel like myself—somebody new and old at the same time. I feel relief, even joy. But it’s not safe. The pull I feel toward him is scarier than anything I ever imagined. There were men before him, but none of them mattered this much.
I can’t help thinking of my own death—of who will be there, how it will happen, what I’ll regret in the moments before I go. Julie and I have talked for years about having kids. Lou wants to move with me somewhere romantic, he says, Italy or San Francisco.
I walk back to my car. The noises of the highway speed past as I ease my way into traffic. I want to start over, for Lou to call me again, yell at me and tell me to come over for Thanksgiving. Ignore the swerving car, the woman on the side of the road. Let someone else deal with her. This time I’ll listen to him, tomorrow meet eyes and grin over a plate full of turkey and mashed potatoes. But then I get a vision of Julie’s face, her brown hair soft around her ears, amber earrings catching the light from our kitchen window. A broken look in her eyes that can never be unbroken.
So I decide to go home to her, hold her pulsing body in my arms. I’ll make love to her in our bed, convince myself this is the way my life was meant to be.
Jana Llewellyn is a writer, editor, and yoga teacher living outside Philadelphia with her three children. She founded the literary magazine The First Day (firstdaypress.org) in 2013 and is at work on a novel.