My wife lay on the road, her motorcycle in pieces beside her.
A taxi driver stood nearby smoking a cigarette, oblivious to how a sound had saved his life.
Elizabeth might have been pregnant, but we did not know.
I was scared.
Earlier that day, Elizabeth and I had set out for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. It was a sunny October day, and each of us was riding our own motorcycle as we moved through the streets of Berkeley on our way to the city. She rolled fluidly on the bike, skirting traffic like she had ridden for years. I snickered thinking about the day she had walked up to me and proudly announced, “I’m getting my own bike.”
“Really,” I had replied. “Why?”
“I don’t like your back seat,” she said.
“But you’ve ridden on it for years. Why’s it suddenly no good?”
“It’s too thin.”
“I’ll get a thicker one.”
“The seat’s not comfortable.”
“Then I’ll get one with armrests and a cup holder,” I said sarcastically.
“I don’t want to be on your bike anymore.”
There it was, the truth. Frankly, I was amazed Elizabeth had ever allowed herself to be relegated to the back of a motorcycle in the first place. Bikes ran deep in her family, as far back as Grandma Ann who had ridden the family Knucklehead around town. Elizabeth was simply following a long line of independent women.
“Fine,” I said. “Get your own bike.”
And she did. A week later Elizabeth brought home a Harley-Davidson 1200 Sportster, which she rode with authority. Women on motorcycles are dead sexy, and I was now purposefully falling behind her so I could watch her ride.
Traffic imploded around us as we crossed the Bay Bridge. Folks were slamming on brakes and changing lanes frantically. Three events were happening in the city that day and each drew huge crowds. The first was the bluegrass festival, which filled the better part of Golden Gate Park. Then there was The Love Fest, a gathering that had started in West Berlin in the late 80s as a dance music festival, but had degraded in San Francisco into a half-naked debauchery of drugs and alcohol. Had my wife not insisted on banjos and straw hats, it was something I would have enjoyed. And finally there was Oktoberfest at Pier 48, a draw for lovers of all things meat and beer.
We exited at 9th street and were immersed in craziness. People wearing flamboyant pink getups and German garb walked the streets drunk, stoned, or quickly getting there. Cars horns blared. Ignoring traffic signals, hipsters on fixies with no brakes whizzed between cars. Parties with music pounding raged from the porches of houses lining the streets. The city had become one huge party, and the deeper we moved into the city, the greater the idiocy became.
Elizabeth and I finally made Golden Gate Park and turned onto Stanyan Street. One last turn onto Fulton Street and we would be at the show.
But fate had different plans.
Each direction on Stanyan has two lanes. We were going up the hill. Elizabeth was in the left lane and I was in the right as we headed towards a green light at the first intersection. The oncoming traffic was stacked up in the left lane next to the double yellow line, but open on the right. The cars in the left lane had left a small gap in the intersection, which at the time seemed to me refreshing given that thoughtful driving is not common these days. Just then a yellow taxi cab crested the hill and came flying down the hill in the outer most lane. It slowed at the intersection and began turning left from the far right lane. The cab moved into the gap in traffic, coming to a halt with its bumper poking out just a few inches.
“No you don’t!” I yelled.
Time slowed as the cab popped out in front of my wife. She slammed on both brakes, but there was no avoiding the inevitable. Her motorcycle slammed into the front quarter panel, and she was thrown onto the hood before recoiling onto her bike and toppling to the ground. She lay by the wheels as the cab continued through the intersection and out of sight. He never stopped.
I threw my bike to the ground while it was still rolling and vaulted the handlebars. The sliding motorcycle caught my foot and almost knocked me down as I ran to my wife. When I got to her, she lay motionless.
“Are you OK?” I said, trying to appear calm.
“Are you OK!” I was now failing in every aspect to feign calmness.
“I think so,” she said frightened.
“Good. Stay still.”
She barely nodded, taking deep, measured breaths.
After a minute, she spoke again. “I think I’m alright. I’m gonna get up.” She started to move, then screamed. “Agghh! I’m not alright! I’m not alright!” Tears began streaming down her cheeks, and her mouth crumpled in pain.
Fear exploded in me. “What hurts?” I asked.
“Elizabeth. What hurts?”
“My back! It burns!”
I slipped a hand under her jacked, but felt nothing out of place. No blood.
People had begun to congregate. Some did nothing more than stare inappropriately, but others tried to help. A lady kneeled down and took Elizabeth’s head between her hands. “I’m a nurse,” she said. “Keep still and don’t move your head. We need to keep your helmet on until the ambulance comes.” She began comforting my wife, slipping in questions to assess her state.
“She may be pregnant,” I blurted out to the nurse.
She nodded solemnly. “Good to know.”
As the nurse returned to caring for Elizabeth, a pair of feet appeared in my peripheral vision. I looked up to find a man standing above us aloofly smoking a cigarette. He looked unconcerned. “She hurt?” he asked through a thick accent.
I was about to tell the man to “Fuck off” when I saw his shirt. There was something important about it, but at the time my brain was too preoccupied to tell me why. I changed focal length and there behind him, half way down the block, was a yellow car. On its side was a white and black logo. It was the same logo as the one on the man’s shirt. The car was the cab. And he was the driver.
Rage came. My muscles tensed. Cognitive reason ceased, and my vision was bathed in a pale pink. I was seeing red.
It was something I had experienced only once before.
Years earlier, my kitten Elwood escaped from our house in Virginia after the front door open had been left open. As I was looking for her in the yard, I spotted her sitting two feet into the street, happily watching cars go by. Before I could move to get her, a white, convertible Cadillac with the top down came barreling down the street towards the kitten. I yelled for the guy to stop. He looked at me, and I yelled again, pointing to the kitten. The man frowned, gave me the finger, then steered towards the cat. The front wheel missed her by inches as she recoiled in fear. I saw red and began running after the car at speeds unachievable to me before that moment. For blocks I chased the car, even after it was long gone, with no other desire than to hurt the man.
Once again, unbridled anger took me as I went for the cab driver.
But just then a most peculiar thing happened. Elizabeth wailed. Her voice was distant through my rage, but nonetheless clear. It echoed in my ear before my anger vaporized. My wife had done something Elwood did not, quenching my rage by verbalizing her fear and pain. With the man forgotten, I returned to Elizabeth.
Sirens could be heard in the distance. Help was coming.
A hand squeezed my shoulder, and I turned to find a man in a blue boiler suit. “I got your bikes up and on their stands. They’re over on the sidewalk.” Both bikes were neatly parked along the wall of a building.
“Thanks,” I mumbled then turned back to my wife. I should have said more to the stranger, a man nice enough to stop and help, but at the time it was all I could manage.
A fire truck arrived, soon followed by an ambulance. EMTs poured out and surrounded Elizabeth. Even under great duress, I noticed how good looking these men and women were. It was as if the Barbie and Ken emergency services collection came to life by my wife’s side. Long legs and chiseled jaws moving in sync as they asked Elizabeth questions and checked her vital signs.
Two police officers appeared. Unlike the EMTs, they were both paunchy and soft looking, like a pair of blueberry Jell-O bookends. Both men moved from person to person asking questions about the accident.
“When are we going to the hospital?” I asked one of the EMTs.
“Soon,” he said. “We just need to put a neck brace on your wife and get her onto a board.”
“Are we going there?” I asked. As luck would have it, Saint Mary’s Medical Center was at the intersection of the accident.
“No,” he said. “There’s a hospital just a bit farther that’s better suited for this.” The EMT walked off towards the ambulance.
Alone, I stood tortured myself by guessing what “better suited for this” might mean.
Elizabeth was finally loaded into the ambulance. A man and woman monitored her in the back as I sat up front next to the driver. Before we left, one of the cops waddled over and gave me our jackets and helmets. “I’ll get your statement later,” he said before closing the door and letting us be on our way.
From the back EMTs bantered in medical jargon. I asked the driver, “Do you think she’ll be alright?”
“I do. Her signs are good.” After a pause he continued, “But sometimes there’re things we can’t see, like internal bleeding. She’ll need x-rays for that.”
“I don’t think she can have x-rays,” I said. “She may be pregnant.”
Pastel Victorian houses move by the window as we drove to the hospital. I sat watching, wondering why we had come into the city that day on motorcycles. Wondering why the hell I had ever agreed to let Elizabeth ride her own bike, especially after we started trying to have a child. Angry, frustrated, and sad, my brain filled with visions of burning our bikes and never riding again.
A woman rode by us on a café racer. She was smiling through her open-face helmet. It was the same look Elizabeth had worn the first day she rode her own bike.
We arrived at the hospital and folks in scrubs wheeled Elizabeth through the sliding doors and in the back. I tried to follow, but a nurse stopped me and said to remain in the waiting room. Someone handed me paperwork, and I tossed it on a seat and began pacing.
An hour later, the same nurse came out. “You can go in now.”
I found Elizabeth laying on a hospital gurney in a sterile-looking room.
“Hey there,” I said softly. “How you doing?”
“Oh, alright,” she said with a weak smile.
“Where is everyone?”
“They checked me out until they felt I was OK. Then they left.”
Taking her hand, my emotions broke and the tears I had held back for hours came freely.
“It’s OK, honey,” she said. “I’m not dead.”
I laughed, sending tears and snot shooting from my nose.
“Besides,” she continued, “did you see those Firemen and EMTs? Man, they were hot! The men and the women.”
“Well, this is San Francisco.”
“Yeah, but still. Wow!”
“I gotta get in more accidents.”
“Enough,” I said squeezing her hand.
A doctor walked in holding a clipboard. It must have been modeling day for the professional services because this guy was hot too. He looked like the type of guy with grand hobbies like mountaineering and saving wounded lion cubs.
“Our first check showed nothing serious,” he said. “But since we can’t use an x-ray to be certain there’s no internal trauma, we’ll have to hold you a bit longer and watch your vital signs.”
“Without an x-ray can you be sure there’s nothing wrong?” I asked.
“An x-ray is our best way to tell, but with the possibility of pregnancy we want to avoid radiation to her midsection.”
“Yes,” Elizabeth said. “If I am pregnant, I think a motorcycle accident is enough for the baby for one day. No need to irradiate him too.”
I noticed she said “him,” but passed it off as coincidence.
In time, we found that Elizabeth had not been pregnant. She had, however, torn her left erectus muscle. It made most all motions painful, including sex, so for the months following the accident we relaxed our efforts to make a baby. It was time I used to convince Elizabeth to stay off motorcycles while there was a baby in our lives. And she did. Whether that was because I told her to or because she allowed me to think I told her to is open for debate; all good marriages are based on some fantasy.
“Now to the bad news,” the doctor continued. “I have to check your entire body before I leave and to do that you need to get naked.”
Elizabeth smirked. “We can make it interesting and you get naked too.”
The doctor laughed and lowered his clipboard.
I exhaled and leaned back in the plastic hospital chair, comfortable with the knowledge that my wife was safe in the hands of a man much better looking than me.