I've smoked crack in a West Hollywood alley with a hermaphrodite. I've had unprotected sex with strangers in unorthodox locations. I've taken my clothes off, spread my legs, and been reproduced as a glossy centerfold. Bad decisions? Probably. But I've made them, learned from them, and lived to tell the tales. In retrospect, I concluded that no decision could really be all that bad. At least that's the philosophy I adopted until this one particular October afternoon some years ago, when I made, without a doubt, the worst decision of my life.
Our log cabin sits on the foothills of the White Mountains in the Eastern Sierras. It is our family's five acres of high desert, sage-bush, weekend-getaway grandeur. The nearby town of Big Bear is quintessential small-town America. Apart from a recent explosion of fast food joints and a Holiday Inn Express, Main Street's storefronts and facades may as well have been plucked from a John Wayne movie. Cedar and barbed wire signage promote the local businesses while a life-size replica of a stallion rears above the feed store at the entrance to town. Camouflaged fishermen clamber outside the tackle shop at trout season's opening, and cigarette clutching cowboys and their girl pals crowd the Double D Saloon. Just off Main Street the trailer parks and nearby casino overflow with the kind of folk we've fondly coined "the dirt people." Derogatory as the term is, it was our family gag, and none of us could use the phrase without the rest of us doubling over in snot-shooting laughter. The drive from the house to town is eight and a half miles, about a mile down a dusty paved road from the house to the highway, then exactly seven and a half miles beyond that to town. It's the marker mile I use to direct people to get to our property. "Turn right a half mile after the seven mile marker."
It was Halloween Eve; the boys were sixteen and fourteen. Sebastian was in eleventh grade. He had recently outgrown a bout of pubescent acne, just made the varsity basketball team, and was driving with a learner's permit. Jaxon was a fresh-faced ninth grader with an affinity for the fast and furious fused with the zeal of an inexperienced adolescent. The three of us had had the perfect weekend of mine exploration, rabbit trapping, and puzzling. One thousand-piece minimumthat was our thing. The rabbit trapping was Jaxon's gig. He'd set up a cardboard box in the orchard where the cottontails hung out, and with a rope attached to the box he'd wait at his upstairs bedroom window, rope in hand, for a rabbit to enter his bated cardboard cage. If one did, he'd yank on the rope to upright the box. Needless to say, he never caught a rabbit. And mine exploration, that's another story altogether.
The boys needed costumes for school the next day. We'd decided to stay one more night, to do the four-hour drive back to Los Angeles early the next morning. The sunsets were our favorite times in the mountains: When the sun sank behind the Sierras throwing shadows the size of monsters across the valley, when cloud formations changed from pink to purple to yellow like bruises after a rollerblading accident.
It was about four in the afternoon when we piled in the car, a Kia SUV I bought to replace the convertible Camaro I'd acquired during a mid-life quandary a few years earlier. Sebastian drove the eight and a half miles to Kmart where we hit the kid's Halloween aisle for ill-fitting, made-in-China outfits. After a lot of giggling and Ben Stiller, Zoolander-type modeling, we settled on a polyester ghost for him and a faux fur skunk for his younger brother. Sebastian was tall for his age, 6'2". He kept track of his growth on his bedroom's door frame and apparently boasted to his basketball coach that his grandfather had been 6'5". The Kmart costumes were designed to skim the ground on the five-to seven-year-olds they were built for; on the boys, they barely skimmed their thigh muscles.
Jaxon, or skunk-boy as Sebastian instantly dubbed him, had asked if he could drive back to the house.
"Absolutely not on the highway," I'd said.
His tiny black-and-white skunk costume was ridiculous. He wobbled his ass in the direction of his brother.
I laughed. "But sure, when we get back to our road, you can drive up to the house."
He'd never driven a car before.
I drove back to our turnoff, crossed over the steel cow grate at the entrance of the road, and pulled over next to the metal fence that ran the length of a DMV-maintained alfalfa field. After switching seats with Jaxon, I explained the accelerator, the brake, and demonstrated the ten-and-two steering wheel grip. He turned the key in the ignition. I rested my hand on his and we shifted from park to drive. Off we wentslowly at first, but immediately gaining momentum.
We were speeding. I remember saying, "You must keep control of the vehicle."
At which point Sebastian parroted from the back seat, "Yeah, Jax. You must keep control of the vehicle." And so, as a means to joke with his brother, and "keep control of the vehicle," Jaxon reached down to flick on the indicator, and in doing so, took his eyes off the road. We swerved left, then radically to the right, and that's where I checked out. The velocity of the swerve had slammed my right temple on the side of the door and knocked me out. I came to as we tumbled metal to dirt, metal to dirt, metal to dirt. A loud, hollow thumping.
I opened my eyes to a cloud of grit when the car came to sudden stop on its roof. I can't help but liken the feeling to a ride the boys and I took together at the Pomona Fair, strapped into a metal grated cage, left hanging upside down. I turned to check if Jaxon was all right; he was; then I twisted to the back seat. His brother was not there.
"Sebastian?" I wiped the back of my hand across my right cheek. I was bleeding.
The top of Bart Simpson's yellow screen-printed head peeked above the airbag at Jaxon's chest. Jaxon was also tall, and very thin. He wore an extra large men's T-shirt to disguise his skinniness. My own airbag was pressing uncomfortably against the metal snap of my Levis, or rather my husband's Levis; I wore them when he was away.
On the upholstered roof below our heads, swarms of last year's alfalfa had settled next to my flip-flops and my silver locket. The necklace had been in the cup holder, I'd taken it off earlier that day at the hot springs. The boys had given it to me for my birthday a few years earlier. We'd gone through the boxes of family photos to find pictures small enough to cut out their faces and place them inside the silver heart.
We were upside down in a field. Apparently, we'd tumbled over an irrigation pipe, which had burst and was trumpeting a soggy umbrella towards the sky. Everything smelled wet. And brown. The fields looked the same as they had earlier that day from the verandathe serrated mountain horizon, the cows in the distance, the thickets of Cottonwoods lining the irrigation canals. I felt like a dreidel spinning inside an Ansel Adams photograph. Where the fuck was he? Where the fuck is he? The car windows had blown out. The metal framing of one of the back doors had been peeled back like a sardine can. It appeared the back of the car had caved in on the front.
"I'm going to get help." Jaxon's voice was deeper than I was used to hearing.
We clicked ourselves out of our seat belts, rolled onto the ceiling and crawled out our individual windows onto the barbed ground. Jaxon sprinted to the road. I ran barefoot around the car in search of his brother.
It is hard to describe exactly how I felt at this point. I kicked into some kind of one-woman search-and-rescue show. My skin tingled and I felt no pain. I tasted metal in the back of my throat. It was 1976 again. I was Lindsey Wagner in my parent's basement. I was Popeye, post-spinach ingestion. I circumnavigated the car a few times. Overhead, magpies screeched from one telegraph pole to another. Desert twigs crunched under my feet. I scoured, pulling away severed sage bushes and punching at the car tires.
I was on my third time around the car when Jaxon shouted from the road. I turned and saw Sebastian lying in the middle of the asphalt, about sixty feet from where the car had broken through the fence. Jaxon didn't stop. He couldn't. He kept running up the road to our "dirt people," neighbors we'd never met, but had joked about.
I would have taken seventeen hermaphrodite crack heads fucking me in the ass over this situation. I'd sign up for a life of pornographic exploitation. I'd have done anything to wake up. I felt like I was in a nightmare within a nightmarethat my legs had gone out from under me, the plane was about to crash. We were going down, no control. My drunken father had fallen asleep at the yolk. Co-pilot ejected. There was an ant-infested hamster on a wheel, spinning, going nowhere in particular. I had to get to my son. The lights were out. My feet turned to jelly worms and wouldn't hold me up. I was fruit loops, fruit rollups, fruity pebbles. A Spiderman lunchbox.
"Where am I?" Sebastian opened his eyes about a minute after I settled by his side. The road was still warm from earlier. My shadow lay across his chest and melted onto the pavement in front of us.
His jeans had been torn apart from his skidding along the road. His T-shirt was up over his chest. Every inch of his skin was ridden with sticky blood infused gravel. His curly blonde head rested in a pool of his own blood.
Seven and a half miles.
"You're in Big Bear, baby. We had a car accident." I leaned down to kiss his torn up lips and a drop of my own blood fell onto his cheek.
"Am I going to be okay?"
"You are going to be fine, baby," I said.
"Don't lie to me," he said.
I prayed I wasn't lying.
As it turns out I did lie to Sebastian, but thankfully not about his survival. I also lied to the cops, the insurance company, his father, his stepfather and all our friends. The only people who knew the truth for the next four years were myself, Jaxon, and our horse-ranch neighbors (who, henceforth, would never be referred to as anything but friends). As far as the world was concerned, I was driving the car. There had been a rabbit, I had swerved to avoid it, and the rest is fuzzy cottontail history. Furthermore, miraculously, in our post accident blur, ambulance lights swirling, silhouetted police officers questioning, Jaxon caught on to my story and took it as his own. "A rabbit, there was a rabbit on the road. I think my mom swerved to avoid it, and then I don't really remember much else."
I was negligent in allowing my fourteen-year-old son to drive. I had been an irresponsible mother, a remiss parent. The most awful consequences ricocheted around my head. And so, I took the hit. Then somehow the angels aligned, and despite all three of us being asked separately who was driving on countless occasions by various uniformed officials, the answer was always me. The mother. I was driving.
I still don't really know why I kept it from Sebastian for so long. As the years passed it just got harder to tell him the truth. Or rather, to admit I'd lied. We'd spoken in the hospital a few days after the accident and he'd asked me what exactly had happened. He thought he'd remembered Jaxon driving, but I assured him it was me, and he'd accepted my word. Perhaps I was afraid of how he'd treat his brother. That he'd blame him, torture him. Never forgive him. There's nothing quite like the wrath of an older sibling. The disapproval from the person you look up to most. I knew that from experience.
Four years later, as part of Sebastian's application to transfer from College of Santa Fe to NYU, his essay topic was to take a real life situation and dramatize it. My heart just about jumped through my throat when he'd called one night to tell me. I knew it was time.
"So, are you going to write about the accident?"
My palm felt clammy against the phone's plastic casing. It was dark outside the loft, our downtown Los Angeles home. I was leaning on the window ledge, whirling in the tide of headlights streaming along the freeway toward the beach.
"Yep," he said.
I took a deep breath, dropped onto the pink damask armchair, and proceeded to explain the lie I'd been carrying around for the past four years.