Essays > Fishtailing


Thanks to the Drexel Online Journal, where this essay first appeared.

                                                                                    “Control is an illusion.”
                                                                                    -- numerous wise gurus

All I wanted, right before it happened, was a different Steve Winwood cut on the CD player.  I wanted to skip “Freedom Overspill” and go straight to “Back in the High Life Again.” I love this old collection.  I thought it was the right thing to play on my way to Ohio, land of my birth, for what was likely to be an emotional four-day visit with my brother, who was flying in from California, and my sister, who lives in Barberton, Ohio, the Chicken Capital of the World.

This was the CD I’d listened to every Tuesday morning for a year while driving to see my therapist, the therapist who’d pulled me out of the tar pits during my divorce.   That year I conditioned myself with Steve Winwood:  as soon as I heard the opening bars of “Higher Love,” while my red Honda, one of the spoils of the settlement, tooled out onto the wide, gray stretch of Interstate 69, I’d start thinking about my life and what I had lost and what I had to change and how I was going to do it, and then what I had left and what I’d gained. It took me an hour to get there, an hour I appreciated both coming and going, having to go some distance to see this therapist I chose partly because of the effort it took to reach her.  By the fourth cut, “Back in the High Life Again,” I’d be sixteen minutes out of town and into the rural stretches where I often saw red-tailed hawks in skinny birch trees on the fence rows, even with the cruise control set at a cool 85.  In the lachrymose state that embarrassingly defined me most of those therapy weeks, I’d weep at some of the lyrics and then, when the sentiment of the songs shifted to exuberance, I’d bellow along with them in my speeding car, working up the nerve for my fifty minutes of vulnerability.  I’d be back in the high life again.  Those were months without irony.

By the time of this trip to Ohio – a sharp north-south voyage, not the comfortingly lateral east-west trip to my therapist – I’d played the CD so much that the third cut was botched and would get stuck like an old 45, stuttering on the most depressing lines. By this time I had said goodbye to my therapist, with emotional hugs (we even said we loved each other, transference and counter-transference be damned, which felt life-changing) and I hadn’t listened to the CD for a couple of months. I figured I’d gotten back some of my edge.  But even after her 52 weeks of solace and skillful influence, going to Ohio unnerved me.  Every trip to the problematic cradle of my heart seemed to throw me off balance.  Through our 18 years together, my husband came to expect what would happen before Ohio:  I’d get depressed, premenstrual, and morose with dread, like before going to the dentist. All those years with him, making those difficult trips, first to introduce him to my “mother” – both my actual mother and the “mother” yeast of that provocative place – and then to try to care for my actual mother and father as they got old and sick and finally died. They all weighed heavily on me.  I could hardly think about Ohio, now, without thinking about my husband, and it was difficult to go there without him.  I got in the car expecting the troublesome nettles of memory, and guilt, and sorrow, and regret. 

Still, I was feeling pretty good.  I had finished a grueling year of teaching but held up okay;  I was going to spend the summer in California with my new man.  That felt good.  He and I were going to buy a house together, and that felt good.  Things were getting better.  I was recouping, getting back some of what I had lost.  I was even thinking, all this suffering and loneliness has made me a better person.  So maybe it was a good time to be going to Ohio, if there ever was a good time to go to Ohio, and maybe this time I could handle it on my own.  Maybe I was finally enough of a grownup to be there, in the primal soup where all of me, good and bad, began.

And so, on a rainy stretch of Route 23, the bumpy and familiar freeway south out of Flint, my default hometown of 20 years, barely sixteen minutes into a trip that I both dreaded and thought might further my self-improvement, I reached down to change the cut, and took my eye off the road, unconsciously sliding out of the right hand lane into the left, just as a black SUV began to pass me. I think it was black, or maybe dark green.  Something dark and formidable.  The memory is imperfectly burned into my brain, but burned nonetheless. In the proverbial split second I looked up from the CD player to see that I was about to hit it, the SUV seemed enormous, a monster.  In the next ten seconds, or maybe only five, I swerved wildly to the right to avoid him, which I did and he slipped by, probably having his own panic attack.  On the wet pavement, I overcorrected and almost went off the road to the left.  Overcorrecting for that, I swerved back to the right, at which point my car and the rain and the slick pavement took over, and the car and I fishtailed out of control to the left, right, left, right, left, into the fast lane, my desperate foot on the brake screeching sickeningly but otherwise making absolutely no difference, the car spinning unbelievably in a deadly rotation, 90, then 180 degrees, as I shouted, “SHIT  SHIT SHIT.” The car went into the grassy, muddy berm between the north and south lanes, and kept going, moving horribly on its own momentum toward the oncoming northbound traffic and then blessedly curling back into the deep berm at the last possible second, finally coming to rest facing west toward the southbound lanes, up to its hubcaps in tall grass and mud. 

Damn.  The engine was still running, Steve Winwood still singing “Freedom Overspill.”  I sat there, my breath like the screech of brakes, my eyes buzzing red at the corners.   I thought I was stuck down there, and started calculating how I was going to get help to get out, but then I decided to try to drive out first. To my amazement, the car took the gas I shakily applied and came right up and out and after I waited nervously for a long enough break in traffic, glided into the southbound lanes, where I cautiously steered to the opposite shoulder and pulled over.  I sat there sobbing. I couldn’t believe I had lost control of the car.  I couldn’t believe how close I had come to being hit. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t been hit. I couldn’t believe the car wouldn’t stop and wouldn’t stop and wouldn’t stop.   I twisted off the top of the water I’d been drinking before it happened and took a gulp. Then I turned off the CD player and the car itself and got out, letting the rain pelt me.  I had to feel my body move, feel myself walking.  I walked around the car, which was coated with mud up to the sun roof on the right side, but otherwise I couldn’t see signs of damage.    I looked at the fields to the west, sprouts of corn no taller than a grasshopper, and forced myself to breathe.  It was May, and everything was exploding and exuberant, full of life:  it didn’t matter until just that moment.  I kicked a clod of mud and sticks and stones out of the front left wheel.  I stood there a while longer, and said, “You have to get back into the car.  You have to get on the road again and start driving.” 

It occurred to me that I could turn back.  Then it occurred to me that maybe I couldn’t, in fact, get back into that car and keep driving.  But I had to pick my brother up at the airport in Ohio in five hours.  I had to do what I had to do.  I was part of a family, and I had responsibilities.  I had to get to Ohio.  So I got back in the car and turned on the engine and pulled back onto the highway. 

It occurred to me that I should have a cell phone, like everybody else. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Why didn’t I have a cell phone? It was a lonely moment, and if I had a cell phone, I could call somebody and not be so alone. They would tell me what to do or sympathize. Until then, I had ambivalently loved the loneliness of the road to Ohio. Loved and complained about it every time.  This, I suppose, was the real downside. 

On the other hand, I was still alive and I had gotten myself out of the muddy berm.  I had put my hands on the wheel and pressed my foot to the gas, and I had driven right out of trouble.

I was relieved by the unbroken stretches of the Ohio Turnpike, once I’d finally gotten off 23.  I stopped only once at one of the vaguely eerie circular rest stops they’ve erected down there, dished onto the landscape like a UFO.  I was bound to see everything as surreal, even the shelves of little shot glasses and Cleveland Browns playing cards and five dollar mugs that said, “Ohio, the Heart of It All.”  I remembered that great old Twilight Zone where a young woman has been killed on the road but doesn’t know it and just keeps going.  Was I actually alive?  In the glare of the fluorescent lights in the ladies’ room, I saw myself in the mirror:  a bit pale, maybe, but the reflection I recognized.  My stream of urine seemed hearty and quite real.  I tried putting food in my body, a cheeseburger, and I felt myself chew, felt my throat open and accept the swallow, felt the meat and bun and cheese go down.  I got back onto the turnpike, glided out into traffic amidst the immense galloping trucks, took my place in the center lane, set my cruise control for a demure 70 and drove until I got there.

What I remember from Ohio was that, when I picked my brother up at the airport, he had a new leather coat, and when I hugged him it felt incredibly buttery and wonderful. The miracle of that texture, that I could feel it.  He took the car to the carwash for me later and paid extra to get the mud out of the wheel wells. We sat in the hotel room together and poured straight gin, Bombay Sapphire to be exact, and talked about loss and survival – he had had his own trouble. We’d both found solace, and we talked about that.  My therapist, his therapist.  Here’s to the both of them, our paid friends, how we love them, we said, and poured another round.

We went to a minor league baseball game, the Akron Aeros, and standing outside the sweet little brick stadium with my brother and sister waiting to get in, I felt, for the first time, free of the grief of my divorce. We took pictures of each other, me and these two people I’ve known longer than anyone else in the world, these two people who came from the same mother as me, the mother we knew had loved us all. And in the pictures, when I look at them now, we are smiling in a way that suggests we had not smiled for a long time – I see creases of sadness there, loss and terror being chased away in the ardor of our hugs, right there in front of the hot dog stand.

We looked for the place we used to live, in an old parsonage where our family, our mother and father especially, had experienced two years of ferocious turmoil. And I felt it again, that fishtailing of history right out from under me. The parsonage was gone, even the church beside it, gone – even the street, gone, a street with the same name as one of our uncles, at the corner of another street named for one of our great-great-great grandfathers, who homesteaded the place 150 years ago. Everything was gone, and we were disoriented and drove back to the hotel along a bland and boring freeway and had another round of gin.

We went to my brother and sister’s old high school, a beautiful Greek revival edifice in downtown Canton, and found that half of it was a daycare center and another half a nursing home. In the gracious classical courtyard in the middle of it, kids played and wrecked old men passively watched. We felt strange about how it had changed and how my brother and sister couldn’t even find the ghosts of their teenage years in the oddly reordered building peopled with humans at the end and the beginning, as if there was nothing in between.

We made our ritual journey to our parents’ graves, in a crowded little cemetery by a church where we’d all been little kids together – a church whose steeple and smells and blue stained glass gave birth to my sensual awareness of the world.  That at least was still there, and I felt grateful for that and for the reassurance of a marble stone over our parents’ bodies, something to touch as we remembered and were thankful.

Then, after two chicken dinners in Barberton, Chicken Capital of the World (and just about the grimmest city I have ever seen) I packed up what was left of the gin and my few clothes and the book I’d brought along but never read, and I drove home to Michigan without a single incident. 

It was only after I arrived back in Flint that I told my boyfriend, on the phone, what had happened, and he yelled at me for keeping it secret – but I deeply, deeply, didn’t want him to know about it until I was home again and out of harm’s way. I understood why he was angry:  he wanted me to need him.  Which I did.  Do. He wants to know everything about me:  to share all my pain and fear.  I love him for this, yet I am afraid of him seeing so much. And when I told my ex-husband about it, eventually, at the place we both work, he hugged me like he had before I left him, as if he didn’t want to let go, and when I realized it meant he cared deeply that I had survived, I started to cry and pushed it down and rushed into my office and closed the door until I regained control. 


Well, I fishtailed almost to death and survived because of physics – momentum, inertia, velocity, force and rain - all the things I didn’t study enough in school, in Ohio. I was going to say it was all capricious, but maybe it really wasn’t. It just felt that way.  I think if I knew enough it could all be explained, how I survived.  Not that that matters.

What I notice most now is that I somehow got out of that ditch and kept driving.  And I will never forget how, in the transcendent moments that followed, as I now remember it, all outside my control, the green overgrowth just beyond the shoulder was the most beautiful green. The water I was drinking tasted good, and there was still music, and the road back to Ohio, with all its wide familiarity and perils, took me where I had to go.