The Accident

I once had a sweet little motorcycle.

It was a gift from my friend Anders, who was an avid rider. I’d been depressed and was having a hard time making connections after my move from Michigan to Monterey, California. Anders called me up one day with a solution.

“I think you need a motorcycle,” he said. “So I’m going to sell one of mine and get you this sexy little bike I found. You need to get out and meet people. This will help.”

On the day the shipping truck arrived, I walked outside, blinking in the California sunshine that I still wasn’t quite used to. I watched the bulky driver slowly roll my new wheels down a ramp and then kick out its stand so it rested in front of my house. It was a Kawasaki Eliminator 650 – much bigger than I’d been expecting. Yellow, purple flames on the tank. I smiled.

I’d passed my motorcycle classes with flying colors, and had done all of the necessary preparation, except for insurance. I couldn’t afford fancy riding clothes or accessories, so made do with a brown leather jacket and a secondhand helmet.

I started riding my new bike to work, often in the rain. This was during El Niño, 1997 – 1998, and the rain would come pounding down over an otherwise sunny day with little warning. My car was unpredictable – there was a leak in the plastic covers of it’s headlights which the rain would get into and shatter the bulbs inside, forcing me to drive on the central coast freeway in the pouring rain with no lights. Riding a motorcycle in the rain seemed comparatively safer.

Anders came to visit from Seattle, and we planned a ride to Big Sur. I still didn’t have insurance, I couldn’t manage to find it in my budget, but I andydidn’t tell him that. He was very serious about safety and following protocol. His bike was a beautiful black BMW and naturally he had all of the best riding gear. His jacket was fitted and made him look like a blond, bespectacled batman. I wanted to show off for him a little – to somehow make up for my shoddy jacket and mismatched helmet, to somehow thank him for his generous gift – so I opened the throttle on an abandoned road in Fort Ord and raced ahead of him, bringing the bike up to 90mph, which was about 25mph above my comfort level. When he caught up to me, he grinned and said “you’re a daredevil!” Then a gentle warning, “be careful.” I hid my fear behind the visor of my used helmet.

Before we got beyond Big Sur, a black storm in the distance turned us around – Anders sped in front of me, making a circle with his right arm in the air; we raced the looming darkness home and made it back just before the sky opened up above us. I was learning to ride during a major rainy season and Anders lived in the notoriously wet Seattle, but I was grateful for his caution.

On the night of my accident, I’d ridden to work during a drizzle, and left during a downpour. During that time one could call in ‘flooded’ to work, which never failed to amuse me. Given my midwestern upbringing, I never called in anything to work. I went to work, period. Sick, bereaved, flooded – I went to work.

After my shift I left the gates of Spanish Bay, waving to the room service waiter I had a crush on as he passed by me in his little car. I got distracted as I wound my way up onto the little twisty two-lane shortcut that would take me to Highway 1, thinking about how the room service waiter didn’t like me back, about his girlfriend and how she was tall and classy and worked the bar at weddings, about how they were on the outs but he was so obviously still in love with her. When I rounded a tight corner a large tree branch had fallen into the road – a normal occurrence – and I could have quickly zipped around it had there not been an oncoming car in the other lane.

Instead, I had to lay my bike down.

It sounds so gentle: I had to lay my bike down. Like I do now with my daughter at bedtime, with a story, a blessing, a song. But this was not gentle – it was a snail-paced rush of zipping moonlight, rain and road. I leaned to my left and steered toward the wet grass, where the Eliminator slid sideways to eliminate a small tree but I stayed on the gravel, sliding forward, my leather jacket protecting my elbows, my leather gloves protecting my palms but my inner wrists scraping on the roadside rubble, my inadequate jeans shredding as I bent my left knee into the rocks and mud below to stop myself.

When it all stopped, I reacted as any Midwestern girl would – I got up. I brushed myself off, ignoring the pain, and walked over to my bike with the full intention of simply lifting it up and continuing to ride it home.

I couldn’t lift that bike even under the kindest of circumstances. This dark, wet evening was no exception.

The first car to pass by seemed not to notice me. The second only touched their brakes before moving on, although I was by that point standing on the side of the road, unsure of what to do while the rain pelted down and the motorcycle’s headlight shone on the wet trees behind me. Finally a man in a red convertible so small even I, at 5’2″, had to fold into it, stopped to help me. While en route to first the Pebble Beach guard station and then to my home, his wife called his cell phone and he tried to explain why he wasn’t home. He handed the phone to me, “can you please tell her what’s going on?” he asked. “She thinks I’m fooling around.”

I took the phone. “I crashed,” I explained. “Uh huh,” said the female, sultry, lonely, tired voice on the other end. “I crashed. I was riding home after work, I crashed. I’m so sorry…” and I began to cry quietly into the phone. The man driving the car took it back, looking uncomfortable. I wonder what ever happened to their marriage?

I had the best doctor. Dr. Michels in Carmel was very old, gentle, and listened respectfully when I said I didn’t like to take medication or painkillers. After a fitful night spent wrestling with band aids in the bathtub, I dragged my leg into Dr. Michels’ office without an appointment, where his receptionist took one look at me and, gracefully, let me in. Doctor pushed up my long skirt, peeled off my pathetic band aids and saw the damage. He let out a low whistle. Then he looked up at me with his wild, white eyebrows, and asked if I was sure I didn’t want a little something for the pain. I told him no, I could handle it.

With the first touch of the wire brush, I changed my mind. And so he would dribble some topical painkiller onto my wound, which had gone raw and slightly green in the night, then scrub it with the wire brush, trying to get the gravel out. Each time, I clutched the arms of the chair below me and twisted every part of my body except for the knee he held on his lap, while he clucked sadly and said “ooohhh, that smarts, I know. That smarts.”

“I wish you’d gone to the emergency room,” he said.

“Dr. Michels you’re killing her!” his darling, motherly office manager said every few minutes when she came in to check on our progress, hearing my attempts at muting my shouts of pain. To their credit, neither of them mentioned all of the patients with regularly scheduled appointments who were piling up in the waiting room. I only saw them as I dragged myself and my leg out, eyes red and face worn from the pressure of trying to not show my pain. Thank you, I thought to all of them, for not being mad at me.

In the last 18 hours I’d gotten into a motorcycle accident, managed to get said motorcycle towed home, been scrubbed with a wire brush by a kind old doctor who said “smarts” a lot, and developed not one, or two, but three cold sores from the shock. And after all of this, I found myself getting ready for work.

Did I mention that I was a hostess in a world-class resort restaurant? I broke my own rule and tried calling in that night. To my manager I explained “I’m a hobbling, hideous-faced monster right now, I’m not sure you want me taking people to their tables like this.” He said they could really use me that night. And so I went, because that is what I do.

I drove my car there, crying out as I shifted from one gear to the next, cursing when the light bulbs blew out from the rain. I worked my shift – the whole thing – fielding looks ranging from sympathy to disgust, dodging comments and questions from my coworkers and concierges, confirming with the security guards on my way in and out that yes, I was indeed “the girl who crashed her bike last night” that they’d all been hearing about. My severe limping tipped them off.

I stored the motorcycle in my garage, then in the garage of a friend when I traveled in Australia. Then in the street in front of a friend’s house in Oakland. Then moved it to the street in front of a rental I shared with my boyfriend. Then another. Then to Sonoma County. I carried it around like a necklace from an old love, until I knew I had to let it go. I’d never gotten it fixed because I’d never gotten insurance, and couldn’t afford to do so on my own. I was too embarrassed to tell Anders, and I lost touch with him because my pride kept me fearful when it came to admitting mistakes.

When we did touch base again after many years, we joyfully caught up on the years we’d missed, and he eventually asked if I still had the bike. “I don’t,” I told him.

“That’s too bad,” he said. “That was a sweet little ride, wasn’t it?”

I smiled, then agreed. “It really was.”

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