His eyes haunt me. The wide, uncomprehending shock of them. They ambush me during the day, startle me awake at night.
Had I lifted (or depressed) my foot ever so slightly (or aggressively) from (or on) the gas (or brake) during the climb up the Nes Harim road, it never would have happened.
But it happened. On that winding route, through a landscape so perfect that tragedy never seemed an option, it happened.
The footage replays itself over and over again:
The sky was powder blue, as pure as it was deep. An early morning sky, it brightened the Judean foothills after the sun’s rays pierced and scattered the grayness of dawn.
The clouds were layered, snowy white. They flaunted their size and shape against the sky, a perfect backdrop.
In the play of light and shadow, the trees, shrubs, vines and undergrowth alternated between green glowing with the secret of life and dark-almost-black green.
The music of Brahms, Beethoven and Mahler wafted from my open car windows as I climbed and descended the hills. The notes settled on every molecule of daylight, blending soft sweet melodies and raging cymbal-crashing crescendos with the landscape’s blues, whites and greens.
The road cut with snakelike dexterity through the hills, slicing them into two. Metal railings, sometimes double where the turns were particularly sharp, the shoulders too narrow or the hills too rocky and precipitous, were mangled where they had done their job. I should’ve known that railings don’t lie. The sun doesn’t burn them, the rain doesn’t rust them. They are battered only by human error.
But I was oblivious. I was totally at the mercy of peace. Even the sprawling city of Beit Shemesh, that blight on nature that threatens to overtake the lowlands, failed to faze me. I experienced peace as if it were a tangible presence. It snuggled inside me. I embraced it.
I wasn’t alone. Bikers outfitted in hot pink, fluorescent blue and neon green pedaled their way through the scenery. They flock to this road every Saturday morning. It challenges their daring and stamina. That Saturday, as always, they zoomed around curves and puffed with steady resolve up steep inclines.
I’m a biker. I know what such a landscape does to you: it infuses calm. It’s a calm so pervasive that it inflates your sense of well-being and ultimately, your feeling of invincibility. When the downhills come, the calm inside you gives you the power to pedal faster. Bent low over the handlebars, you fight the wind until the clamps are all that keep your feet from flying off the pedals. The calm you know strengthens your resolve to keep going on the uphills even though your muscles tell you to stop.
I passed biker after biker, sometimes alone but most often in couples or members of a group. I slowed down as I passed two more bikers, a man and woman, pedaling hard up the hill on the road’s edge. I nodded admiration and encouragement.
Now it happens:
A biker races downhill around a blind curve I see him only when he crosses the white line between us I break he doesn’t he can’t complete the turn it’s as if his front wheel is locked he’s coming straight at me fast so fast much too fast I brake harder I try to swerve away from him he smashes into my fender BRAKES flies head first into my windshield BRAKES! shatters my side window as he shoots over my roof WHAT’S HAPPENING? glass OH MY GOD! splinters HELP! everywhere.
I stop. A whispered oh my god! keeps spilling out of my mouth. I see blood. I touch my fingertip to the bridge of my nose. It turns red. I touch it again. More blood.
Am I hurt bad?
Is he alive?
I open the passenger door, crunching glass as I inch out of the car. I see him crumpled on the far shoulder. His bike is crippled, one wheel, no pedals, contorted into a mass of metal.
IS HE ALIVE? I scream-cry, scream-cry, scream-cry.
People come toward me. It’s the bikers I’ve just passed.
Are you hurt?
I show them my finger, touch my nose.
It’s just a scratch, she says. Here, drink some water.
I drink. I swallow.
Is he alive?
Why don’t you sit down and get out of the sun. Maybe you should get back into your car and put on the air conditioner.
Did someone call an ambulance?
Yes, we’ve called an ambulance and the police. Just relax. Everything will be okay.
Is he alive?
Stay here. Don’t go there. Just relax. He’ll be okay. Can you call someone to be with you?
I reach for my phone inside the car. I cut my finger on shards of glass inside my bag. I lick it. I call my son. He lives nearby. He’s expecting me.
When I hear his voice I begin to scream-cry scream-cry scream-cry.
I HAD A TERRIBLE ACCIDENT! A BIKER CRASHED INTO ME!
Are you okay? Where are you?
Where are you? he repeats.
Before Ma’Arat Ha’Nitifim, I finally manage to say.
They’ve blocked it off. The police and ambulance are here.
I’ll find you.
Okay, I whisper.
I hang up. I sit on the metal fence. I see the biker’s terrified, unblinking stare a split second before he hurtled into my windshield. I keep seeing it.
It’s okay. You couldn’t have done anything to prevent the accident, the male biker says.
More bikers take the sharp, downhill turn. They go slowly. They dismount. A few of them crouch around the crumpled biker.
An ambulance arrives and then another one. Police cars wail onto the scene. Police swarm the site. They close the road, talk on their phones, take pictures. A police woman walks toward me.
Are you okay? Can you talk?
She asks me my name and ID number. She takes my driver’s license.
I remember it all.
Then she walks away. I see her talking to the bikers who gave me water. She keeps talking to them.
Where is my son? Why is it taking him so long?
When I see his car I run toward it. He pulls over to the side and hugs me. The scream-cry gives way to sobbing until, exhausted, I lapse into silence. He releases me gently. He guides me toward his car.
Sit here, okay? Are you okay?
I nod. He talks to the police. He takes pictures of my car, of the windshield (thank God it didn’t shatter) that has a dent the size of the biker’s helmet, of the hole where my window used to be, of the cable where the mirror used to be, of the road, of the biker who still hasn’t moved.
My son gets phone numbers and enters them into his phone. I see him do everything. I sit very still waiting to become myself again. But the biker’s terrified eyes refuse to release me. They have no color. They have only fear.
Almost four weeks have passed.
* * *
The first week, I remain his prisoner. His head keeps hurtling into my windshield, his eyes keep getting closer and closer until they are no more. I call the bike group’s leader for updates. He tells me the biker’s name.
He is 36.
He was to have been married four days after the accident.
He is an orphan.
He is hooked up to machines.
He is unconscious.
I report to the police as instructed. I tell them what happened. I ply them for information about the biker. They tell me about the machines, about how his head and chest are stitched up, about how his fiancée collapsed when they returned his bike.
The witnesses say I am blameless. The police return my license and release me.
But the biker refuses to let me go. His eyes materialize everywhere. They don’t accuse me. They don’t know me. They simply are.
If I could just talk to him. If I could just apologize for being part of it. If I could blot out that day. But it happened and it keeps happening.
* * *
The second week, no change. The doctors are trying unsuccessfully to wake him. The group’s leader promises to call if there is any change. He tells me, unbidden, how he held the biker’s tongue between his fingers so he wouldn’t choke on it. How he’s known the biker for years and that he’s experienced. Yom Kippur comes and goes. I’m not religious. I pray for the biker and put out a request to others to do the same.
My car is a total loss. I drive a rental car from my insurance company to visit my son and his family. I purposely take the same route, determined not to let fear take hold. When a motorcyclist careens around a turn at a 30-degree angle, I steel myself for the crash. I grasp the steering wheel tight, hug the shoulder and fixate on the greenery beyond the fence. The motorcyclist roars past and vanishes. The biker’s eyes float in the void above.
* * *
The third week, I can’t make the call to the group’s leader. I keep retelling what happened to anyone who will listen, hoping to neutralize the images. Instead, I hear about other horrifying biking accidents.
* * *
Four weeks later, I send a text message to the group’s leader:
It’s me, from the biking accident.
He’s still unconscious.
There’s more, but it blurs.
At least he’s alive. But I go numb with the realization that nothing good can come of it.