Driving north on the freeway from San Antonio to Austin in the evening darkness, I sat back comfortably in the bucket seat of my vibrating Volkswagen beetle expecting an uneventful ride to my University of Texas dorm. I was returning from the Los Angeles funeral of my mother and brother, killed in a car accident on their way to exchange cars with me in Lordsburg, New Mexico. My parents had a sportier gas-guzzler and thought my Volkswagen would be better for them.
The lights of cars on the freeway formed two strands, a two lane double red line of taillights traveling north ahead of me, and to their left two lanes of bright white headlights headed south on the other side of the freeway. The double lanes on each side were separated by a wide median of dirt and scrub bordered by a tall chain link fence on each side so that cars could not enter the median.
One light ahead in the oncoming traffic diverged from the others. From my lane next to the chain link fence, alongside the cab of an 18-wheeler to my right, the diverging light failed to follow expectations. My inquisitiveness turned suddenly to fear as I realized the diverging light meant an oncoming car in my lane.
Fear boosted adrenaline. I had to choose quickly between two desperate alternatives since the chain link fence and the 18-wheeler had me trapped. I could brake and hope I was able to fall behind the length of the 18-wheeler to switch lanes before the oncoming car arrived, provided the 18-wheeler didn't slow and trap me. Or I could accelerate ahead of the 18-wheeler cab and switch lanes, in a Volkswagen beetle that lacked any great capacity for acceleration.
I chose to floor the accelerator, to attack, in hopes of making just the few feet necessary to get ahead of the truck cab and swerve in front of it. Muscle tremors rose quickly as the Volkswagen slowly gained velocity while the white lights in the darkness ahead hurtled at me.
In retrospect, I don't think I would have made it, except that the trucker must have slowed, as I had feared, allowing me to swerve into his lane just before the oncoming car sped by. A swerve avoiding that oncoming car crushing me in a fiery explosion of steel, glass and blood.
I knew very well what would have happened. Only months before my girlfriend had died in a head-on collision with a wrong-way driver on another freeway. My mind had repeatedly dwelt at length on the terror she must have felt in recognizing the oncoming unthinkable, then her agonizing pain of being crushed and torn within crumpling steel.
My own terror still gripped my mind. It was a matter of only a few seconds from recognizing the anomaly of the lights to the desperate swerve out of the way as death passed by. Not quite the same as watching in real time as a car collides with you head on. Still, in the aftermath, my muscles trembled on my bones. The eruption of fear that had mushroomed inside of me only slowly subsided despite being completely unscathed.
I had lived, she had died. I had loved her and a shroud had come over my life when she died. A part of me died with her. I hadn't known what to do when she was gone. I became emotionally dead. I felt aimless, hopeless, almost a zombie. Every moment I tried to go on felt like a betrayal of her. Everything I had anticipated about the future revolved around her.
Suddenly, tomorrow no longer existed.
My mother and brother died a few months later and much of my past died as well. I submerged in dark depression. The pain made me question going on. My abject lack of a future trapped me emotionally. She was to be my future and maybe I needed to go to her.
Now death had come for me. I had my chance to join her and had chosen to live. In those fleeting seconds I realized I had already been dead too long and life beckoned me to say good-bye to death. I continued to drive in the stark loneliness of absurd survival but my destination was no longer Austin.
I drove all night to Beaumont, following the freeway through Houston past where she had died and on to where she had lived. When I turned off the engine in the dark florist's parking lot the silence collapsed around me. As the headlights went dark, the night became a shroud. I leaned against the window to wait for the florist to open. My body sagged into the seat.
I remembered how it started when she was late to class and had sat quickly just inside the door. I had walked from the other side of the room to sit next to her smile and dancing eyes. I remembered that time when I blossomed brushing my lips against hers.
I remembered her sultry low voice; her friends called her "the frog." She played clarinet in the marching band. Her evenings were spent with the band, practicing to fill the world with music and motion. She told me we would have more time together when football season ended. She died driving to the season ending Bluebonnet Bowl, ending what could have been.
Emotionally I had counted on her to escape an already gaping emotional abyss. Deep in that abyss a failed marriage moldered. I had divorced her because of adultery that caught me by surprise. I had lost at love but I hadn't lost hope, despite anticipating betrayal before even beginning; once bitten, twice shy. My hopes revived with the frog.
The frog seemed a different woman, offering an emerging romance and anticipation of better times. They call it the rebound effect. Anticipation after a dark event is unfairly brightened by the emerging hope of a brighter tomorrow. Expecting the brighter future almost to compensate for the dark past, I got ahead of reality. I didn't expect the light to go out again.
When it did, I finally lost hope. I became one of T.S. Eliot's hollow men, except my world ended with both a bang and a whimper. Anticipation went dark. Expectation went dark. Reality went dark. Emotion went cold. For a long time, I fell back into that emotional abyss until I ended up here in a cold car on a dark morning with darkness dripping out of my consciousness.
I had swerved. I had chosen to live. I had surfaced from the depths of despair. Here I was, aching in her home town, a few hours past midnight, preparing to say good bye, while the morning opened like a flower. Slowly petals of daylight tinged the blackness far off in the distance and then little wraiths of nearby reality began to appear as unseen things in the darkness become visible in the emerging light.
The flower of morning was still a bud when the florist arrived. I nodded to her as she passed in front of my car. She seemed mildly concerned at my presence. It was still dim enough for her to turn on the light as she entered. I stayed in my car, giving her time to open her shop. The sign in the window still read 'closed.'
My mind wafted alert like some fragrance stimulated by the growing light. An incipient chatter of unseen birds broke the stillness. Rays of light, and rays of hope, both pushed back at darkness. In the deep recesses of my mind I remembered the warm caterpillar days of that emerging romance, but I had come to understand that what could have been, never really existed.
The florist adjusted the curtains of her shop and turned the small sign to 'open.' It beckoned the obvious and my mind stirred muscles into action. It had to be done.
"Good morning!" she said through the jingling of small bells attached to the door. She was older than I but still young enough to have dancing eyes and a happy smile. I imagined that flowers were embedded in her view of the world and that she arose in the early morning from a shared bed in life filled with love and tender moments.
"I want to buy a dozen roses." The shop had a dusty aroma about it from the dampness and pollen of flowers. There were numerous arrangements on display of various kinds of flowers but roses were the necessary symbol.
"Did you want long stem roses?"
I should have been more clear.
"Yes. A dozen long stemmed red roses."
"Ah," the florist smiled, rattling out a green sheet of bundling paper for the roses, "the traditional gift of love. I presume they are for a young lady?"
I startled a little and looked at the florist. I felt a growing emptiness in my chest.
"Yes," I replied.
"She's a very lucky girl," said the florist drawing flowers from some hidden bucket in a cooler behind the counter. Her words stabbed me, but she didn't know the pain. She silently counted out the even dozen, primping the stems and leaves of each long-stemmed tea rose.
"She will be so excited to get these beautiful roses." continued the florist wrapping opposite wings of paper across the stems to form the cornucopia shape that roses are traditionally bundled into. She snapped a strip of tape over the paper and placed the bundle on the counter, signaling the sale. With welling tears and a jagged throat, I said nothing.
The closing door snuffed the jingling of the bells behind me. I slid into the silent cold of my car and placed the roses on the seat beside me. I started the car and joined other cars on the road following my memory.
Turning the engine off I picked up the bundle of roses and stepped out onto the street. The fragrance of the roses mixed with the cold air roiling into my lungs. I walked into the park-like expanse of greenery. The world extended about me for miles. Birds called one another from every direction. Metal somewhere clattered against metal.
There was a time, before metal crashed against metal, when I took what might have been for granted. Before tomorrow disappeared and darkness invaded my mind.
Moments separated us into the living and dead, and though I had felt dead, I knew now I was alive.
I have no way of knowing the terror she felt at the recognition of the unthinkable occurring. No way of knowing the agonizing pain of being crushed and torn within crumpling steel. No way of knowing how long she lingered. No way of knowing when birds had stopped singing.
All I knew was about me, about my horror, about my pain when she disappeared, and how long she lingered in me. Denial. Despair. Flickering memories on the wall of my mind. In that darkness were all the things I had hoped would be, and the darkness made them seem all too real. I lived, if you can call it that, in the darkness for too long.
Maybe it should have been easier to recognize that what could have been was never really there. Maybe there was stubbornness in my grief, wanting desperately what could have been. But I understood now the world we live in only gives us roses that fade in a few days to new realities.
Feet and legs stepped across the grass carrying the empty shell of my body while I watched behind the tears. She wasn't difficult to find. The sod was still mounded in a field of otherwise flat graves. I proceeded by touch to unwrap the bundle and place the roses into the receptacle, saying good-bye to that which could have been. I wasn't thinking. I wasn't capable of thinking. I was, in a way, preoccupied with emerging like a butterfly from a dark dreadful pupa, allowing wings of hope to extend into the morning sun, extracting a new future, a new tomorrow, from the abyss of the past.