There’s a stretch of mountains in the Western Cape called Sleeping Beauty that I could see from my hospital window the morning after the car accident. On a clear day, when the light is good and the air is sharp, you can see a woman’s face, neck, and chest facing up towards the sky in repose. But that morning, clouds obscured all of the rock-faced princess except the base. I looked out the window of my room then tried to find my socks that were lost in the tangle of sheets, then looked out again when I forgot what I was supposed to be searching for. I passed my morning that way.
Right after the accident, while waiting for the ambulance, I was cracking jokes. They were awful and no was really laughing but me, but in my defense, it was objectively funny–me sitting in a cow field holding my roommate’s boxers to the weeping cut on the back of my head. Then again, I always find a way to laugh at the wrong times. In the ambulance, I asked for music so I could dance when the silence got to be too much. I was alive–of course I’d dance. Hopefully, the paramedics got a kick out of the crazy American girl. In the chaos of the fresh wreck, my giggling was more acceptable because of shock but the next morning in the hospital things was a little different. Mad laughter didn’t help the image I gave off of a newly lobotomized patient fresh from an escape from an asylum–the look complete with head bandage and barely focused eyes.
Strange things from my bad sleep in the men’s ward keep coming back to me–the sound of my next door neighbor vomiting, a janitor watching me as he mopped next to my bed, the nurses laughing loudly in the middle of the night, and at an almost reasonable hour the doctor who had removed the glass from my elbow the evening before standing at the foot of my bed with three or four other doctors all of them watching me quietly. The only response I could summon for the interruptions was to roll over as best I could (not particularly well) and sleep again.
Not soon enough to avoid the craziness, my friend arrived to break me out. And we would have gotten away in under ten minutes (a record for a hospital discharge), except we were told we’d have to pay in cash. Silly us. So, she had to find an ATM while I sat in the lobby wearing my roommate’s bloody shirt for warmth and trying to look friendly rather than crazed. All the while, Jacob Zuma’s presidential portrait grinned down at me from across the hall.
Our other American friends came to collect us soon after, taking us to Witsand where the promise of a clean bathtub awaited me. It wasn’t until I was by myself in the bathroom of our AirBnB I was able to assess the full extent of the damage across my body for the first time: stitches on my elbow and back of the head, a swollen lip and cuts to the face and neck, bruises on my upper arm, slashes from the seatbelt had turned my chest red and something had pierced my left breast. There was a pain in my lower back and splinters in my hands, but it was all me, all mine. Nothing was lost for good–though I may have some extra glass in my elbow for the next few years.
I stepped into the claw-footed bathtub and the bandages on my wrist had to be soaked away in the barely warm water–I learned later the heater was broken. I couldn’t tell if my shaking was from cold or continuing shock.
It became very clear that I wouldn’t even be able to wash my own hair and so I called a friend through the open door and sat in the tub, hugging knees to sore chest as shesat on a stool and poured coffee mug after coffee mug of bath water over my hair as though I were a child again. She gently picked out burrs and twigs, pieces of bush that clung to my curls. I’d slept on these thorns in the night but had been too tired to do more than move my tangled ponytail aside. With each cupful, the water became redder–turning like rust– as the blood that had been matted into my hair and upper back washed away. A clump of my hair fell out into her hand, too. I guess this makes me the Girl with One Less Curl.
That night, clean and well-fed, I slept for twelve hours and could have kept on for much longer, though I wasn’t much of a Sleeping Beauty, more of a Sleeping Crash Dummy.
I don’t know what to feel or how to feel it. I’ve started saying I don’t know so much lately, it’s become a mantra of sorts. I don’t know how we both got away with so few injuries. I don’t know how to handle all of the adult things like insurance and bills. I don’t know how to stop talking about this, but I’m also trying not to make it a part of my identity. I don’t know so much. I’ve told the story so much at this point, it’s hardly real anymore. From the moment the paramedics asked me what happened, it was already mythologized and calcified and edited into something that’s different than exactly what happened. It’s more than a thing that happened to me once–it’s a saga, and by telling it like a story I’m creating distance. I don’t know how to respond so I watch others respond for me. It’s too much for me on my own.
But, hey, as least I’ll have an awesome scar for a souvenir to freak my students out with when school starts again.