from the Korean Army to being published

the blog of an "ex-patriot" writer in Korea

Random #39: My Life for a Slurpee

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People often say that in the moment before a near-death experience, your whole life flashes before your eyes. Others say that it’s not your whole life but images of your loved ones. I’ve been in several bad spills involving an array of vehicles—cars, motorcycles, a skateboard, a snowboard used as a sled, my two feet—but only one took me to heaven’s doorstep. The sad thing is that it was all because of a Slurpee.

I’ve always been reckless. I was born with a very undeveloped sense of self-preservation. For me, my body is nothing but a tool for me to have fun (and I exercise that benefit several times a day). I believe I’m invincible. If I hadn’t broken my fifth metacarpal in my right hand (also known as a “boxer’s fracture”) when I was in college, I would probably still believe that I’m unbreakable.

Not that I don’t get hurt. Deep cuts and bruises, bad scrapes and burns, black eyes and cauliflower ears, the skin is too sensitive for my liking. I’ve been stitched up like Frankenstein’s monster; I’ve lost track but definitely over 60 and none from any sort of surgery.

The second of three boys, the only memories I have of my brothers getting hurt is when my older brother Charles almost drowned in elementary school and my younger brother Jason’s arm popping out of its socket when he was little. If they were ever reckless, they both must have grown out of it at an early age; mine only gets worse over time. I’m the son you never want to have.

The one near-death experience happened in the summer after my sophomore year in college. I’d given up on my experiment of independent living and was staying with my mom and younger brother in our two-bedroom apartment in Factoria. I had a car, an old ’86 Subaru GL, I got for $500 from a Buddhist who was leaving the country.

I loved the car because it was my first. There’s just something about your firsts—the pure, naïve attachment and the mystical wonder of the experience. The Subaru also had power steering and power windows, something my next three cars did not. I had it since my senior year in high school and it got me where I needed to go. When I moved in college, it was always waiting there for me when I came home for the weekends.

That day, I’m home alone, sitting out on our tiny balcony and getting some sun. I have the television tilted toward the balcony and the screen door open so I can watch from my seat. It’s a good day.

As I watch after-school cartoons, I think about the one thing that could make the day even better: a Slurpee. The nearest 7-11 is a twenty-minute walk away, which seems counterproductive, so I jump in the Subaru and pull out of our apartment complex. I fasten my seatbelt, as is my custom, but as I’m heading down Richard’s Road, I unfasten it because it’s pushing the shirt down on my chest so I can’t get a breeze flowing through my shirt.

It’s a straight shot to the 7-11, less than five minutes. I don’t bother “rolling” up the windows because I’m in for a Slurpee, layers of Super Sour Apple and Kiwi Strawberry, and out in a little over a minute.

At the time, there were no concrete dividers on Factoria Boulevard and so I come directly out of 7-11 into the lane heading home. Again, I don’t fasten my seatbelt and, driving down Richard’s Road with the breeze and a Slurpee in hand, I’m in heaven. Paradise is found in the little things.

The light at the last intersection is green and I take a left up the hill towards Surrey Downs. Once I turn, I’m blinded by the sun setting above the trees at the top of the hill and so I take it slow, carefully making the immediate left into the apartment complex when CRASH, I’m slammed into with the full force of an old, gray full-size van in a near-head-on collision.

The hill curves up and to the left and the motherfucker came speeding around the bend, 5,000 pounds of American manufacturing bearing down on me and my little Subaru meant Newtonian catastrophe.

When I come to, I’m sprawled across my seat and the passenger seat, the Subaru rolling into the ditch that had previously been on my right. The rearview mirror and shifter are broken off, there is an elliptical hole in my windshield, and my Slurpee is nowhere in sight. I sit up and open the door, my head in a daze. I stand up and look around. A horrified bystander runs over and tells me to lie back down. I look down and my pants and see that blood is spurting out of my elbow and dying my pants a bloody red. “Okay,” I say and sit back down until the paramedics come.

The paramedics load me into the back of the ambulance and they’re strapping me in when a cop walks up. “Can you hear me?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m going to give you a ticket for reckless driving.”

“Huh?”

The paramedic strapping me in pleads my case because I’m still in the daze. “C’mon man. Give the guy a break.”

“Sorry,” the cop says and tears off the ticket and hands it to me. He doesn’t look sorry in the least.

I’m in the emergency room for the next three hours, the ER doctors picking out pieces of glass from my arm and stitching me back up. I think around 30 of my stitches are from that time, mostly my arm and head from punching through the windshield. For the next two weeks, I would get red spots on my arm. I would squeeze them and little bloody shards of glass would pop out.

I should have died that day. I wished I had. Having to pay for the traffic ticket (something like $500), the ER bills (I had no medical insurance so it was around $1600), and repairs for the van ($2000) meant taking the bus three hours every day from home to school to work to home just to eke out a pauper’s existence making minimal payouts. The cop had decided that I was the one at fault without asking my side of the story. The driver of the van had been a high school classmate (fucking asshole) out with his mother. I can’t say if it was a factor but he was white, I wasn’t, and Bellevue is the kind of area where it matters.

I should have died that day but I didn’t. Maybe it was because I wrestled until the end of my sophomore year and my neck was strengthened enough to absorb the shock. Maybe the fact that it wasn’t a complete head-on collision or the fact that I was going uphill and he was going downhill caused me to fly up into the windshield instead of into the steering wheel, crushing my chest. Maybe it was a miracle, but if so, it was only a half-miracle because I was alive but in pretty bad shape.

What I remember from that moment of the collision wasn’t my life flashing before my eyes. It wasn’t all the people I love. I do remember what I saw. It was white. That’s it. Just pure, blank whiteness. If what they say is true, what does my experience say about me?

After a couple of days and I had regained slight movement in my neck, my younger brother went with me to retrieve my personal effects from my car before they scrapped it. The guy opened up the storage space and what I saw was half the car it used to be. The front end of the car was literally compacted to half its original length. The first thought that crossed my mind was “Damn, how did I survive?” I opened up the door and looked inside. The hole in the windshield stared back at me. I looked around the car for anything of value. There wasn’t much. A few cassette tapes, an air freshener, some pens maybe. There was a newspaper clipping I kept in the passenger visor of a highway patrol car that was completely smashed but the officer survived because he was wearing a seatbelt. I used it to convince my passengers to put on their damn seatbelts. I left it behind. I scavenged what I could, said goodbye to the Subaru, and left the place with one thought in my mind… “Where the fuck did my Slurpee go?”

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