With friends just before the bus accident.
The last thing I remember is stepping into the street. The next thing I knew, something hard was pressing against my face and my entire body was numb. After a moment, I realized that the hard surface had to be the road. I was lying face down.
How the hell did that happen? I wondered hazily. I opened my eyes, but couldn’t get them to focus.
It was a spring day in the early 2000s, and I was 18 years old, a couple months away from finishing my first year of college in northern California. Five minutes before, I’d been hungry and bored, sitting in the back row of a literature class. Half the class was asleep; my professor, a gentle, perpetually stoned old hippie with a frizzy ponytail and lush hair pouring out of his ears, had been trying to get the projector to work for at least 10 minutes. I made sure the TA wasn’t looking, then slipped out the back door.
That first year of school hadn’t been easy. I lived in a cramped campus apartment with six other girls and no bathroom door; the toilets were in side-by-side stalls, like a bus station. Everything in that apartment constantly reeked of shit and hairspray. I hated being stranded on campus with no car, surrounded by thousands of drunk, stoned college kids. I wore clunky black Doc Martens and fishnet tights every day, and spent a lot of my free time sulkily dyeing my hair stupid colors in our enormous smelly bathroom.
Back in New Mexico, I’d been part of Santa Fe’s tight-knit, artsy punk scene. I’d gone to an uptight prep school, which I hated, but every second I hadn’t spent at school was bliss. I missed driving with my friends, going to thrift stores, eating burritos in the middle of the night, and the dingy warehouse show space where we’d spent every weekend.
I’d chosen UC Santa Cruz because my parents insisted I go to college, and I thought California might be fun. But I was sick of being surrounded by inebriated 18-year-olds. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gotten to hang out with kids or families, or petted a dog, or gone to a museum, or eaten something other than shitty, starchy dining hall food. My classes were shockingly easy, and I had way too much free time. The few punk rock kids I’d met were angry, humorless vegans, and their bands all sucked. I’d made some friends, but I wasn’t sure if they really liked me. I wasn’t much fun at the time.
In the midst of all that, I felt an itchy anxiety and depression starting to seep in. I started to fixate on my body, and suddenly hated everything about it. I couldn’t find anything to wear. I couldn’t get comfortable. I had trouble sleeping, and would wake up restless by 6 a.m., dreading the day. I hid out in the library reading novels for hours. I got quiet and withdrawn, and barely spoke in class. I did my schoolwork mechanically and slept too much. I started to feel some essential piece of myself slipping away. I couldn’t even muster up enough energy to worry about how bad I felt.
After ditching class, I started to cross the road at the bus stop just outside the lecture hall, the same place I’d jaywalked many times before. A big blue-and-white city bus sat idling to my left. I stepped into the road, and everything went black.
As I lay in the street trying to piece together what had gone wrong, I felt someone gently trying to roll me over.
“What the hell happened?” I demanded. My eyes still wouldn’t focus, and the trees above me looked like a fuzzy greenish mass.
“You were hit by a bus,” a male voice told me. “You’re going to be fine.”
“A bus?” I replied, indignantly. “That’s ridiculous.”
“Can you tell me your name?” the voice asked.
What a stupid fucking question. Of course I knew my name, and what day it was, and where we were. Did he think I was an idiot?
It turned out that the voice belonged to a former Army medic named Mike, who’d just returned to school after five years overseas. He’d been on the bus, and had watched as I stepped into the street without looking. The bus wasn’t moving very fast, but the force of its impact with my head still shattered the windshield. My nose snapped to the right. I flew a few feet, and lay unconscious about five minutes.
Mike held my head, talking to me cheerily, keeping me conscious.
“Am I going to die?” I asked, my bitchiness subsiding as panic started to take hold.
He laughed. “No. You’re definitely not going to die. Just try to stay still.”
The ambulance arrived, and a new mass of blurry faces appeared over my head.
“I can’t see,” I complained.
“She’s losing her vision!” one of the EMTS shouted.
“Oh my god, I am going to die,” I said. I started to cry.
“No, you’re not,” Mike said again, somewhere to my right. “Everything’s fine.”
The EMTs took a big pair of scissors and started to cut off my favorite jeans and my black tank top. They cut through the laces on my heavy boots, pulling them off my feet. I was in my underwear in the middle of the street, surrounded by a crowd of people.
“You have to cover me up,” I protested. “I’m fucking naked.”
“It’s okay, sweetheart,” someone said, more kindly than I deserved. They put a scratchy blanket over me and lifted me into the ambulance. One of the EMTs asked me what radio station I wanted to listen to. I told him I didn’t know, and noticed, through my still-blurry vision, that his arm was tattooed.
“I have tattoos!” I told him. I had one tattoo at the time, but I was trying to impress him. I thought he might be hot. I really couldn’t tell. He laughed.
My nose was starting to throb. “How bad is my face?” I asked.
“It’s pretty bad,” he said, with the same calm, even tone Mike had used. They turned the music up as we sped along.
As they wheeled me into the emergency room, my vision started to return. I could see the fluorescent lights clearly, and a man in a white coat looming over me.
“We’re very busy,” the ER doctor told me, snappishly. “You’re lucky that we’re taking you.”
“What?” I said. He was already gone.
A nurse cleaned the blood off my face, then helped me into a pair of soft blue scrubs. They took some X-rays and hooked me up to an IV. After the bitchy ER doctor realized I wasn’t in any immediate danger, he left me alone in a room for hours. It was getting dark outside. I didn’t dare look in a mirror.
Finally, three of my friends arrived. They walked through the door, took one look at me, and all burst into tears. I did too. They hugged me very gently, and I realized, suddenly, that I’d managed to meet the kind of people who’d race to the hospital in the middle of the night for me.
“We were so worried,” my friend Rachel told me. Another of our friends had walked by the accident scene and seen a body covered partially with a blanket; someone standing nearby had told her that someone had been hit a bus and died.
The girls brought me some Chex Mix out of a vending machine and talked to me about anything else. Rachel called my parents and explained what had happened. They flipped through the channels on the TV and went with me to take more X-rays, holding my earrings so I wouldn’t lose them (miraculously, my earrings and the fishnets I’d had on under my jeans had survived without a scratch).
Finally, all the IV liquids caught up with me and I badly needed to pee. Feeling a little braver with my friends waiting, I creaked down the hall to the bathroom, wheeling the IV pole behind me. I took a deep breath, flicked the light on, and looked in the mirror.
It was really bad. My face was still caked in dried blood, my eyes were bloodshot, and my nose had swung completely sideways, like a door on a hinge. It was flat against my right cheek. I looked like a horrible Picasso painting come to life. I looked for as long as I could stand, turned the light out, and peed in the dark.
It’ll be fine, I told myself. I felt surprisingly calm (probably because I was in shock and heavily concussed). Just don’t freak out.
The next time the bitchy ER doctor poked his head into the room, I stopped him.
“I’m in a lot of pain,” I told him, as firmly as I could, through my concussion. “I need you to fix my nose, right now.”
The doctor looked at me and rolled his eyes. “We’ll get to it in a few days,” he said, and started to leave.
“Days?” I said. My voice got louder. I sounded like someone I’d been a long time ago, before I came to California. “That’s not acceptable. You need to fix it now.”
The doctor stared at me. “You seem very concerned about this,” he said in a flat tone.
“Yes, I’m very concerned about my nose being in the right place on my face,” I snapped. We stared each other down, and then the doctor called for the nurse. They wheeled me into another building, where a second doctor asked for my driver’s license.
“I need to see what you looked like before,” he explained, snapping a pair of gloves on. He looked at the license photo, then took my nose in both of his hands and snapped it back into place. It made a sickening, grinding crunching noise, which reverberated into my skull. It was the most painful thing I’d ever experienced. I nearly collapsed into tears. Somewhere nearby, I could hear my male nurse bantering with another guy, calling me a “good-lookin’ girl.” They both laughed.
I staggered back to the wheelchair and let the nurse take me back to my room. My friends stayed, never showing any sign they’d rather be somewhere else. An administrator from UC Santa Cruz came in, gently asked how I was feeling, and left us alone. I later found out that he stood outside my room for hours, knowing that someone from the bus company would probably show up. They did. Worried that I was going to sue, a couple suits raced down to the hospital and tried to get into my room to make me sign some forms. The administrator had them thrown out.
Mike the medic came by too. “Oh wow,” he said, when he saw me. “You look a lot better with your nose where it’s supposed to go.” I got teary and tried to thank him. He blushed, and left after a few minutes, telling me to rest. I never saw him again.
After about eight hours, I was cleared to go. My RA showed up to take me home, and I limped out to his truck barefoot, still dressed in scrubs and holding my boots in my hands.
When I got home, my apartment was filled with worried friends; they’d taped a dozen get-well cards to the bathroom mirror. Someone had brought flowers. Because of my concussion, it wasn’t safe for me to sleep for too long; my friends made sure I woke up regularly, and that I stayed sitting up, so I wouldn’t re-break my still-fragile nose.
The next day, the guy I’d been dating came by. He hovered at the door of my room, told me I “didn’t look any different,” and left as quickly as he’d arrived. Two black eyes started to form on my face.
I felt exhausted and achy, but strangely exhilarated. Late the next afternoon, I eased my way down to the campus food co-op, where I bought some soup and a bagel. I ate them quietly, sitting outside, marveling at the trees and the way the air felt on my face.
I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason. I don’t believe that illnesses or accidents are gifts, or “blessings”, or some kind of sign from the universe. But that bus rearranged my priorities as swiftly as it had fractured my nose. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was, to not be paralyzed. Instead, I got to sit outside, eat soup, and hear the birds sing. How had I forgotten how incredible it was, just to be alive and whole?
The next few months were still hard. The bus company kept harassing me, calling me at all hours and telling me that if I didn’t come give a statement, they’d make sure I was barred from riding the bus ever again. I told them to get the police report from the cops and hung up on them. I also started displaying some PTSD symptoms, mostly anxiety around the time of day the accident had happened. I finally got some counseling, which I’d probably badly needed anyway. I finished the semester, and washed my face very carefully as my nose healed. The guy I’d been dating turned out to be an asshole, of course. I broke up with him and started dating someone twice as bad.
But that feeling of blind, incredible luck and gratitude stayed with me. A few weeks after my accident, another kid on campus was hit by a bus, too. I heard both his legs were fractured and he needed pins in his hip. And yet somehow, I’d escaped virtually unscathed. My black eyes went away, and my nose healed. I wasn’t sure why I’d been so lucky, or what it meant. But since I was alive, I figured, I might as well try to enjoy it, to be a better friend, a better daughter, and kinder to myself.
And to this day, I also make sure to look both ways.