A novel excerpt by Kristin Ohlson
When I was eighteen, I flew from Ophiria. I went to Cleveland, where I was going to major in urban studies at Mather University, specialize in metropolitan water use, and, undoubtedly, have a seismic impact on the quality of the world’s freshwater resources. The plane shuddered in the winds off Lake Erie as it approached the airport, but I wasn’t afraid. I felt I was circling around my radiant future. Besides, I liked the looks of this middle-earth kind of land, so different from the golden bleakness of my part of northern California. I was fascinated by the neat geometry of the crops, the way all the little shapes divided one shade of green from another; I was even fascinated by the rows of housing developments stretching into the countryside—from way up high, they looked like cuneiform, ancient writing. I watched as the city itself came into view and was surprised to see how much the bright green persisted— even there—how the dense canopy of trees in some neighborhoods made it hard to even see the houses from the air.
Later, I would go to parties in those neighborhoods and slip out to drink my beer under one of those huge trees. "It’s so different here," I’d tell whoever came out to ask me why I kept gawking at the spread of branches. “There’s hardly any shade in Ophiria,” I’d tell them: the date palms cast a column of shadow with ragged fronds at the top, the valley oaks cough up an occasional patch of shade, but nothing blocks out that much of the hard, hot sky.
To my increasing pleasure, I found that I was an exotic transplant at Mather. People were supposed to leave Cleveland and go to California to study, not the other way around. Cleveland was a very ethnic city, my friends told me: more than 80 different nationalities speaking 80 different languages. When I first moved there, I was confused when people asked, "What are you?"
“A student,” I replied often. “A girl,” I added, picking at my shabbily androgynous jeans and t-shirt.
"No, I mean what are you?" an older girl with lots of k’s and z’s in her last name asked one day. "Puerto Rican? Lebanese? I know you’re something."
"German on my mother’s side," I said. "Maybe some Native American from my father, but I’m not exactly sure—he died and my mother doesn’t say much about him."
As I told this girl and the others about my life back in Ophiria, I became thrilling in their eyes. I knew real cowboys and attended an occasional rodeo! I knew rough, shadowy men who grew marijuana in the national forest! I knew an old man who was still prospecting for gold in the tributaries leading to the Feather River, who chased me with a pickaxe when I was a kid for sprinkling glitter into the stream he was panning! We had rattlesnakes under the steps of our back porch! My mother’s friends would drink sangria and shoot at them! For the few months that I was in Cleveland, I strode around campus holding my lacrosse stick—I was there on a lacrosse scholarship—and enjoyed the way people would look at me, the famous Bird Bannion, their eyes bright with the possibility that I might spill out some new part of a dream they were having about the west.
It all ended when I was driving a friend’s car to pick up a boy who was stranded at a family reunion near Toledo. He called me from a pay phone to tell me he was pining to spend the rest of the weekend in my company instead of his cousins’. I changed clothes a few times before I left, but in the end returned to my jeans and Ophiria Elks Club t-shirt; I didn’t want to give him the idea that I was excited about carrying him away in my friend’s battered blue Toyota, even though I was. The car had a stick shift with an orange smiley face painted on it, and my friend had given me fifteen minutes of stick-shift instruction in the parking lot of a mall; I went lunging and careening between the rows of parked cars until she decided I was ready to go. I took the thruway that ran past Lake Erie, singing along with the radio, dodging the high-flying spittle of the waves that crashed against the break wall. Even the lake seemed excited. I was careful to downshift when I made my exit, holding the black knob of the stick shift lightly between my fingers and slowing the car even though my light had just turned green.
But as I drove through the light, I saw a panel truck speeding toward the intersection on my right and realized it wasn’t going to stop. The truck and its cracked windshield and the square dark glasses of the driver kept coming, and then the truck hit the passenger side of the car. I heard the impact before I felt it. BOOM, the loudest noise I had ever heard in my life, and as the car started to spin I had the absurd thought that the word BOOM would suddenly appear in one of those cartoon word clouds. I could have this thought—even deliberate it—because the accident took so long to play itself out. My friend’s blue Toyota was spinning like a pinwheel, and I almost felt as if I were on a ride in an amusement park watching the people on the ground watch me. I almost waved at two people on the corner who were staring—a thin black woman with a yellow flowered scarf on her head and an older white man with a pipe, which he took out of his mouth so he could stare more effectively. Then I looked to my right and saw the telephone pole lunging toward me and BOOM again. The car groaned to a stop and I saw that a piece of the door had been pushed in and was cutting into my leg and I got sick all over my t-shirt, but I didn’t really hurt, not yet.
People started to run towards my car. A man with a moustache got to me first and I could tell that he thought something terrible had happened, since he looked in the window at my legs and then stepped back and put his hand over his eyes. I could hear sirens in the distance and shouting on the other side of the crowd of people, which parted in time for me to see the man who had been driving the truck open his door and fall on the ground. He got back up, though, and balled up his fists and started jumping around, almost as if he were trying to kill a mouse. He was shouting, "She hit me, she hit me."
"No, you stupid hillbilly," one of the people in the crowd finally said. "You hit her. You ran the light."
"I did?" The man stopped jumping and slumped against his truck. "Shit!"
I felt like laughing, but I thought that I shouldn’t because then the people standing around the car might think I wasn’t hurt badly enough to need their help. I was afraid of being left alone. I leaned my head back and closed my eyes. I was aware of a few more things that day: riding in the back of an ambulance with a young paramedic who kept her hand on my shoulder and swore every time the ambulance turned a corner, having people in the hospital push and pull me to get my clothes off and take x-rays of my leg, getting a shot of morphine which made me feel like throwing up again.
Then of course there were the days in the hospital after they reconstructed my leg, the visits from my friends and the boy and even my mother, who flew in from California and stayed for two weeks. She insisted upon smudging the area around my bed with a pine branch she’d brought from Ophiria and tried to make me drink healing herbs and told many amusing stories about me to the doctors and nurses, one of whom actually had a poster from one of my mother’s old exhibits in her bedroom—I believe the nurse said it was the Madonna of the Night Shift poster. I missed a lot of school and had to drop out of lacrosse and walked with a limp that still bothers me sometimes, usually during the hours before a thunderstorm.
I used to run so fast—so fast it felt like the leaves fluttered in the wind of my passing—but suddenly I wasn’t fast anymore. After a while, I couldn’t face this new, leaden version of myself, especially against the backdrop of who I had become in Cleveland. I boarded a plane and flew back to Sacramento, to my mother’s country, where she and a caravan of her friends were waiting to take me back to Ophiria.
One of my mother’s admirers was an attorney who had made a lot of money in the personal injury field and he went after the driver of the truck on my behalf. I wound up with $68,000 and change, which my mother gave me even though everyone in the world told her it was crazy to let an eighteen-year old have that much money. But I was wise about money, even then: I bought my little house on a hill above Ophiria and my little laundromat down on Prospectors Run, the street that follows the east bank of the Feather River. I returned to the pursuits of my other, earlier youth: poking around in the dirt for arrowheads and thunder stones, roaming the hills looking for signs of Ishi, and keeping an eye on my mother.
If any of you are having problems with metropolitan water management, blame it on the hillbilly in that panel truck.
Kristin Ohlson is the author of Stalking the Divine, an award-winning memoir. She is a freelance writer published in The New York Times, Salon, Utne, Discover, New Scientist, Ms, Oprah, Brain-Child, and more. Kristin lives in Cleveland, OH.
Boom is an excerpt from her as-yet-untitled novel.
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