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An Accident



The guy from Grindr, a CrossFit instructor who kept calling me bro and looked older than he’d said he was, lived in a mostly empty condo on the other side of campus from my apartment. I was walking home across a dorm-lined quad I’d never lived on when the bike hit me. I didn’t know what it was at first, just that a clattering impact sent me falling over my feet, and then I was on my hands and knees on the pavement.

“Oh my god,” a girl said. There was another clatter. Someone crouched next to me. We were between streetlamps, so all I could see were pale knees, an aura of bleached hair, hands held to a mouth, a bike on the ground nearby. “Oh my god. I’m so sorry. Are you okay?”

The pebbles in the sidewalk had sliced through my jeans and dug grooves into the skin of my knees. I couldn’t move my right thumb. “I’m good,” I said.

“I am so, so sorry. I wasn’t—I just spaced out. Fuck. You’re bleeding a ton. Did you hit your head?” The light caught her profile. It wasn’t quite unfamiliar. Was she in one of my classes? She could have been. Most of them were hundred-person lectures. Most of them I skipped.

“It’s fine,” I said. “I didn’t.” I tried to push myself up to standing but winced when I put weight on my hand. Putting weight on my ankle turned out to be worse. The girl saw me struggling and reached for my elbow. After a second, I let her help me up.

I could see her better now, but I still couldn’t place her. Big glasses, dark roots at her scalp. She could be any of a thousand girls in College Park. There was no reason to feel afraid of her, which I did, for an inexplicable second.

“Jesus,” she said, “is your hand okay?”

“Yeah.”

She looked down. “Can you walk on that?”

“Yeah.”

She ignored me. “Shit,” she said. “You—okay. I am so sorry. Let me just—I live right here. We have Band-Aids and stuff.”

“It’s all good,” I said.

“Where do you live?”

If I said one of these dorms, she’d know as soon as I headed in the other direction that I’d been lying. “Seven Springs,” I told her, which was the truth.

“That’s like a half-hour walk,” she said. “Seriously, just let me do this. I feel so bad.”

There was a lot of blood. I would have to walk past campus public safety like this to get home, and they always had cops hovering outside, asking you how you were. I didn’t want to be asked how I was right now. If I washed my knees off first, I’d probably be able to get by without them asking. “Okay,” I said finally. “Thanks.”

She chained her bike to the rack in front of one of the brick buildings and led me through the automatic doors, pausing every few steps to let me catch up. I didn’t place her until we were in the elevator. It was something about the fluorescent lights, or the way she was chewing her lip, or maybe how her tank top fit. This was Maddie Fisher.

I didn’t have much time to panic. The elevator dinged its arrival at her floor, and I had to limp behind her into the hall.

“By the way,” she said, “I’m Madison. Sorry, what’s your name?”


We had never actually met. My family left Towson when I was twelve; Maddie’s family came when Jackson and I were in the tenth grade and she was in the ninth. She was from California, which gave her some cosmopolitan appeal that Maryland-bred girls lacked. Jackson told me this over Halo a few days into the school year. At that point, we still talked every week.  “She’s kind of emo,” he said. “But not fat depressed emo. Hot. Though I think she cuts herself.”

I looked her up on Facebook after we hung up. She was skinny, with purplish hair and heavy eyeliner. She looked basically like every girl Jackson had ever been into, all of whom he had described as some variation on “kind of emo, but not fat depressed emo, [...] cuts herself.” I was helpless to my need to chart this pattern. I told myself that it was useful as a model for what girls to like. But the consistency also gave me—not hope, exactly, but a feeling that I knew where I stood, and where I stood wasn’t the absolute worst place it could be. These girls were unlike me in that they were girls, but in other ways—how they were kind of weird and kind of tall and usually liked music—we weren’t so different. That didn’t mean Jackson would ever stop going for those girls or start going for me. But it was something. Something stupid, but it offset the sick disappointed feeling I had every time he started liking someone new.

Maddie’s wall was covered in notes from people at her school in Fresno. One post from the year before read, “HACKED BY JENNA o_0 :3 rawr.” There was a short video of her playing ukulele. I watched the whole thing, then closed the window and went back to the tab I’d been learning. Jackson wasn’t as into guitar now as he was in middle school, but for the week I’d spent at his house that summer, we still played together every day. My parents wanted me to join my high school’s jazz band, and I didn’t have any way to explain to them that it wasn’t the same.

I spent that Thanksgiving in Richmond, where my grandma had lung cancer. My dad and uncles got drunk and pretended not to know what was going on while my mom and aunts made a turkey to strap into the backseat of the car and bring to the hospice. Some of my cousins ran around in the yard, and some of them looked at their phones. I looked at my phone.

After dinner, everyone else stayed in the common area to watch football or the kitchen to clean up. I was alone in the room with my grandma, who was either watching Murder, She Wrote or sleeping. Jackson texted me, yo, then, guess what.

What?

maddie sent me pics.

Nice

u want to see?

If I said no, there would have to be a reason why. Even though he probably knew, since our moms were friends, I didn’t want to talk to Jackson about my grandma. I didn’t have any other good excuse, and I didn’t want to make him wonder. I glanced at my grandma. She was asleep. sure, I told Jackson.

He sent me a picture. I went to the bathroom to open it, shutting the door behind me as quietly as I could. It was a photo of a girl in underwear, taken in a mirror. I hit my home button in a panic before I could really notice any details, and then they were gone, the photo timed out. That was just as well—you probably weren’t supposed to say something about the color of her hair or bra or whatever in this situation. I looked at the bottles of antiseptic soap and painkillers and wipes and other things you used in the bathroom if you were dying for a second, and then I made myself open our chat again. she’s hot, I said. I thought that would be the last time I had to see Maddie Fisher in her underwear.


Madison’s apartment was small and crowded. There were boxes of popcorn and Franzia stacked precariously on top of the microwave and a bong with devil horns on the coffee table. A girl with bangs and an Odd Future hoodie sat on the couch, hunched over a laptop, while something with a lot of swords and yelling played on a small flatscreen TV in front of her. She looked up at Madison, then at me. “Woah, what happened to you?”

“I hit him with my bike,” Madison said. “Fuck. I’m so sorry. Give me a second.” She turned down a short hallway. I sat on the wobbly bar stool by the counter. The girl kept typing.

Madison reappeared. “So we have rubbing alcohol and Neosporin and Band-Aids. Do you know where Emma’s sports wrap is?” she asked the other girl, who shrugged. “Okay,” Madison told me, “I’ll look for the sports wrap.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“I hit you with my bike. I’m gonna worry about it.”

“Okay,” I said. “Well. Thanks.” I headed for the bathroom on autopilot. There were bottles of hair stuff and skin stuff covering every surface. The CrossFit instructor had just had a gigantic vat of Axe 3-in-1 in his bathroom, which had been noticeably dirty. I realized when I splashed rubbing alcohol onto the floor instead of my knees that my hands were shaking. I tried to steady them on my thighs.

Madison seemed okay. At least, she didn’t seem miserable. Not too skinny or too quiet or too spacey, nothing to indicate she was killing herself in some particular way. I could hear her conversation with the other girl in the living room. They were talking about the show that was playing. A girl whose life had been ruined probably wouldn’t be calmly discussing medieval fantasy television. She probably wouldn’t be at UMD, either. She was fine. She was fine, but my hands were still shaking.

I could get out of here fast. I could call an Uber, and I could stay here until it arrived, and then I could leave. In the three years I’d been at this school, I’d never seen her before. I’d probably never see her again.

There was a light knock at the door. “I found the sports wrap, if you want it.”

“Thanks,” I said. “One second.” I scrubbed at my knees and the heels of my hands and stuck a few too-small bandages over each wound, doing the best I could to make the adhesive stick to my scraped skin. When I stood, pain lit up my ankle.

I opened the door. Madison was holding out a roll of bright pink bandage. “Sorry about the color,” she said. I shrugged. “You can wrap it out here if you want. I mean, no pressure if that’s weird. The bathroom’s just kind of tiny. And I found my Advil. We have some ice too.”

I could go back to the bathroom, call the Uber, leave. Instead, I said, “okay,” and followed her into the living room, where the other girl was still typing.


They started dating for real right after winter break. This was all Jackson talked about for a while, on the decreasingly frequent occasions when he talked to me at all. Links to songs were replaced by news items: Maddie was really into some show about vampires, Maddie’s parents had let her paint the walls of her bedroom purple, Maddie said something funny about their Spanish teacher, whom I’d never met. He was going to the movies with Maddie, he was going to a concert with Maddie, he was fucking Maddie.

Jackson’s last girlfriend had been Becca Kaplan in the eighth grade, and he’d never gotten to second base with her. I’d never had a girlfriend at all. I’d thought about finding one now a few times, but it didn’t seem worth the humiliation of trying. If I tried, I would probably do it wrong, and it would be the wrong kind of failure, not the normal pathetic kind but the kind that meant you didn’t want it enough in the first place. It was better not to try.

Around April, Jackson started texting me again. He wanted to play Halo, he wanted to play Counter-Strike, he was drunk and wanted to complain. Maddie was being crazy, or she was ignoring him, or she was laughing too much at what some senior said to her in the hallway. She was wearing something really slutty to school and got mad at Jackson when he told her so. She had been whispering to her friends, who were all giggling, and stopped when he walked up to them.

At first I was just happy he was talking to me. Eventually that wore off a little, and the litanies of Maddie’s transgressions started to annoy me. Jackson had stopped wanting to talk about anything else—music, school, even people we both knew, which I didn’t particularly like talking about anyway, but which I preferred to hearing this much about someone I didn’t. “She’s being fucking psycho,” he would mutter, over and over. “Yeah,” I would tell him, or “shit,” or “sucks.” There wasn’t anything else I could say, nothing he would want to hear.

Our families had been going to Ocean City together for Memorial Day since we were in the second grade, and they did that year too. We met at the hotel. Jackson’s younger brother Tyler was whining about how his DS was broken. Jackson called him a retard. Jackson’s dad tried to talk to my dad about the Orioles, and my dad, who’d been acting weird since my grandma died, kept staring into space instead of answering. Our moms hugged and laughed.

Jackson was tan from lacrosse, which he still played, even though he claimed to hate it, because it made his parents more lenient about his grades. He’d grown his hair out to almost shoulder-length. He nodded at me, barely. He didn’t have his guitar case. I instinctively angled my body in front of mine, but of course it was too big for that to hide it. Jackson didn’t seem to care either way. He was staring into space like my dad.

He didn’t really look at me until we’d put our stuff in our and Tyler’s room. Jackson dumped his backpack on the bed he and I were supposed to share. “Want to go to the beach?” he said.

“Sure.”

He reached into his backpack for a zip-locked sandwich bag of crumbly weed and his sticky metal pipe, which he stuck in one pocket of his cargo shorts. He shoved a handful of Fireball nips in the other, then stood and jerked his head at the door.

We’d just left the lobby when he said, without looking at me, “Me and Maddie are over.”

I tried not to move my face at all. “Sorry.”

He shrugged jerkily. “Want to smoke?”

We found a sheltered corner of a strip mall parking lot near a Ruby Tuesday. Jackson pulled out the bag. It had been a long time since I’d smoked, embarrassingly long. There had been once early that spring, in the woods by my house. I was in the clearing where I sometimes went after school to listen to music and zone out, and a bunch of college students showed up—it must have been their smoke spot—and offered to share. I got so high I couldn’t move until long after they’d left, almost midnight, and my mom yelled at me more than she ever had in my life when I got home. Mostly I had nowhere to get weed and no one to smoke it with.

 Jackson packed the bowl and took a hit. He held it long, then exhaled with a groan. When he passed it to me, the mouthpiece was wet with his spit. My teeth hurt when I inhaled. I barely managed not to cough.

He put the pipe away, and we walked to the beach. The sky looked like a glowing gray screen, and the water was dark like it was going to rain. We cut across the boardwalk and sat in the sand. It was too cold and too late in the day for people to be out. Jackson pulled out one of the nips, took a swig, and handed it to me. I did the same. This made me feel a lot higher, and not pleasantly so. When I got too high, I always felt like I was going to say something without even knowing I was saying it, like the membrane between me and the world would dissolve and my thoughts would come out of me without my bidding. I looked at the waves and made sure not to talk.

“Guess what?” Jackson said after a while. He was silent for so long that I started to wonder if he actually wanted me to guess. Finally, he said, “She fucked Ethan.”

When I’d moved, Ethan, who used to be my neighbor, had looked about seven. Now, at least on Facebook, he still looked about seven, but was also six feet tall. For some reason, this struck me as hilarious, and I started laughing without meaning to.

Jackson wheeled on me, glaring. “You think it’s funny?”

“No. Sorry.” He was looking at me like he really hated me. I stopped laughing. “She sucks anyway.”

He turned away from me again. “She’s a fucking bitch,” he said, and then he didn’t say anything for a long time.

Our families went to a crab house for dinner. We’d smoked again beforehand, but Jackson was barely eating, or even pretending to. He stared at the red shell in front of him like he didn’t see it. His mom asked me if I had started thinking about colleges, and I told her I hadn’t.

Back at the hotel, Jackson produced yet more nips from his bag. “If you say something, I will fuck you up,” he told Tyler, whose DS was working again.

Jackson and I sat on our bed. I turned on the TV and found King of the Hill reruns, but he didn’t seem to notice. He was drinking with single minded purpose, picking up a new bottle as soon as he finished one. “Fucking bitch,” he muttered occasionally. I watched the reruns and stuck carefully to my side of the bed. Tyler went to sleep. I should have, too, but I wasn’t tired. Part of me thought that if I kept a vigil, Jackson would put his phone down and laugh and say he was being a dumbass, and he was over it, and tomorrow we could hang out like normal, and he’d let me choose the music next time we got high as thanks for dealing with his bullshit. So I stayed awake, listening to bottles clinking and Jackson breathing and the rain, which had started while we were at dinner, on the windows.

It was close to midnight when Jackson scooted over to my side of the bed. “Look,” he said, slow and wobbly. He held his phone up to me, his hand inches from my face, and his face close behind. I couldn’t look away with Jackson at such close range.

It wasn’t the photo Jackson had sent me before. It also wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen before, on screens, the TV in Jackson’s basement and the desktop in his dad’s study before we got laptops and phones, and then our laptops and phones. But this was different, because I had so much background for it. I knew that Maddie went to Warped Tour in 2012 and that her mom was an RN. I knew that her best friend was named Daniela and her worst subject was bio. I knew that Jackson had called her an idiot once when they were arguing and she’d started crying. Now I had this too.

“Yeah?” I said stupidly. A diagonal crack in his screen bisected her torso.

Slightly delayed, he pulled it away again. “Gonna post it,” he said.

My stomach dropped. “What?”

“Gonna post it.”

I tried to keep my voice low so I wouldn’t wake Tyler. “Are you serious?”

“Yeah, man.” His speech was slurred. “She’s a fucking bitch.”

My heart was pounding. I swallowed. “I don’t know,” I said. “Just. Like. Isn’t that kind of…”

“The fuck is your problem?” Jackson asked. “Ethan fuck you too?”

It didn’t make any sense, but blood still rushed to my face so fast it made me sweat, even in the chill of the AC. Jackson looked at me for a second longer, then shoved me off the bed. I hit the carpet on my side. For a second I didn’t move, but then I thought about how pathetic that would look, and I got up and back on the bed, folding my arms to hide the rugburn on my hands. Over Jackson’s shoulder, I saw him opening Facebook, uploading the photo.

He looked over at me, the whites of his eyes shiny in the dark. “Should I?”

It was a test, and I didn’t know what the punishment would be if I didn’t pass. “I guess,” I said.

I turned away from him, facing the wall, the AC unit and drawn curtains, without bothering to get under the covers. Sleep was suddenly irresistible. It was like how I could wake myself up from a bad dream, sometimes, if I figured out it was happening. There was no other way out.


“Where are you from?” Madison asked me from the wobbly barstool. She’d told me to sit on the couch and elevate my foot on the coffee table. I’d obliged, awkwardly. The typing girl sat next to me, still looking at her computer.

“St. Mary’s.”

“Cool. I’m from Baltimore County. Actually I’m from California, but I moved here in high school.”

The typing girl smirked. “I’m Madison,” she said. “I’m from California. Did you know that weed’s legal in California? Have you heard of the Smiths? Not that they’re from California. I forgive the Smiths for not being from California.”

Madison was smiling. “Fuck off,” she said.

I remembered that she liked the Smiths. Jackson had told me that once, as evidence that I was the only guy who did. What else did she like now? I didn’t know. There were library books about the collapse of the Soviet Union on the coffee table. Madison was watching the show on the TV out of the corner of her eye. I watched it, too, so I wouldn’t stare at her.

Part of me had thought that staying would unlock some hidden reserve of knowing what to do and doing it. That wasn’t going to happen. The ice numbed my ankle. Madison asked me what I studied. She and the girl with the computer talked about the show. A character they liked had been tortured. Another character they liked had been forced to marry an asshole. Someone died with a sword through her stomach.


Jackson didn’t go to juvie. We had stopped talking by then, so I didn’t hear that, or any of it, from him. It was my mom who informed me, somberly, across the kitchen table, that Jackson had not respected the privacy of a girl he’d dated and was dealing with the consequences. She said she knew I hadn’t known about this and it might come as a shock. There was no reason for her to think I hadn’t known about it unless Jackson had said I didn’t. He didn’t have to do that. Actually, he could’ve pretended I’d done it, that I’d posted the pictures while he was sleeping or something. He hadn’t, for reasons I would never know. I was really mad, suddenly, like I would break something if I didn’t leave. I went to my room and locked the door and punched my thigh until it bruised.

My parents didn’t bring it up with me again, but the house in St. Mary’s had thin walls, and they were always talking about it after they’d gone to bed. Jackson was doing some wilderness program for troubled teenagers. He was doing online school. My parents were split on whether his life was ruined or just bad. My mom said once that it scared her that I’d spent so much time with him, all those years. My dad told her not to worry about it.

All I heard about Maddie was what you could read in the news, which never had names attached. The ACLU of Maryland said a 15-year-old shouldn’t have to be on the sex offender registry for the rest of her life just because she’d expressed her sexuality to someone she trusted. I couldn’t figure out from any of the coverage whether she did end up getting put on a registry, or whether she was still in school, or even whether she was still in Maryland. She’d deleted her Facebook. Eventually, I stopped searching.


Madison insisted on helping me outside. “I’m so, so sorry,” she said again.

“Don’t be,” I said. “Seriously.”

“If you want to go to urgent care or anything tomorrow, I can pay the copay.”

“It’s cool. Thanks for the ice.”

“I feel so bad. I don’t know what I was doing. I just totally spaced out. I should’ve braked.”

You should’ve hit me harder, I wanted to tell her. You should’ve broken something. Get back on your bike. I’ll stand right here. Hit me as many times as you want to. I don’t have the excuse of having been angry or stupid or duly punished. I’m your enemy. You didn’t even know I existed, but here I am. I’m sorry. Don’t forgive me. Make me pay for it.

But what could I say? I didn’t know if having a new enemy would make her feel better or worse. There was no way to find out without asking, and you couldn’t ask somebody that.

That wasn’t the main reason I didn’t say anything, though. I knew that. The main reason was that I couldn’t get the words out. If you spend enough time learning not to say anything, you forget how.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I should’ve been paying attention. It’s not your fault.”

“What? I was the one on the bike. You’re the one who got hurt. You don’t have anything to be sorry for.” She reached out her hand. “Let me put my number in your phone. Please? Just in case.”

When I got home, I took off the pink sports wrap and all the Band-Aids she’d given me and threw them away. I sat on my couch with my joints swelling and my skin raw and opened her contact: first name Madison, last name Girl Who Hit You With Bike Outside Talbot Hall :( Text Me If You Need Me To Pay A Copay!!

I deleted the contact. I was never going to call her anyway.

“What? I was the one on the bike. You’re the one who got hurt. You don’t have anything to be sorry for.” She reached out her hand. “Let me put my number in your phone. Please? Just in case.”

I checked her contact on the walk home: first name Madison, last name Girl Who Hit You With Bike Outside Talbot Hall :( Text Me If You Need Me To Pay A Copay!!

When I got to my apartment, I took off the pink sports wrap and all the Band-Aids she’d given me and threw them away. I sat on the couch with my joints swelling and my skin raw. 


 

Cal Turner is a writer living in Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in Jacobin, The Los Angeles Review of BooksBookforum, and The Nation.

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