As told to the author by Shawn E.
It’s 4:00 a.m. My friends are screaming. We’re all screaming. Four of us are in Jeff’s Toyota, speeding too fast down a steep hill. Ahead there’s a sharp turn and a stop sign that Jeff notices too late. We’re going to overshoot the turn and we’re going to crash. This is too late to avoid. My neck, thighs, and back tighten. I freeze. I’m going to die. Oh my god, I’m going to die. The stop sign streaks past my peripheral vision as we fly by. Our headlights illuminate a jagged, rocky embankment, moving impossibly fast toward our windshield. This is it.
I don’t hear the screeching of the brakes or feel the skidding of the car. I see everyone screaming, but I can’t hear them. It’s one of those slow motion moments you see in action movies, one expelled from time, when what really takes just a second slows down to a minute. An hour. A day. The last thing I see are rocks. They encompass my entire field of vision. Then, a brilliant impact.
I wake up to fluorescent lighting and stunning pain. I’m on a gurney in a hospital corridor. I look down at my body. My clothes are soaked in blood. The roof of my mouth feels like crushed potato chips.
Before I can process anything I’m under a dozen doctors and see a woman’s eyebrows. She tells me to count down from ten and puts a mask over my face. She’s pretty. Her eyebrows are, anyway. They blur. I relax. I drift away.
I wake up several hours later and it’s daylight outside. I’m on a stiff mattress in a disturbingly cheerful hospital room. My face is hot. I realize bandages cover my head, every inch of it, except for slits for my eyes, mouth, and nose. I can’t move. I fill with anxiety. Sheets of pain rake over my body, like someone’s showering me in scalding hot water and razor blades. I hear a beeping noise. Beep. Beep. The noise picks up speed. It’s a heart monitor. My heart monitor.
I can’t get enough air. I want to take a deep breath but can’t open my mouth. I can’t breathe. They wired my mouth shut.
Maybe I did die.
Maybe I’m in hell.
Over the next several weeks I’m in a morphine-laced unreality. I can do nothing for myself. Nurses take care of my most embarrassing needs. I live off liquids. I’m always in pain, and I can hardly move.
I want to cry so bad I can’t stand it. I want to scream. I want out of this goddamn bed. I want to rip these bandages off of my face. I want to open my mouth. I want to eat real food. I want to go home. I feel so helpless I want to die. I’m trapped in a cage and I can’t stand up.
I prepare myself for the worst by remembering the best. When I’m conscious, I close my eyes and feel the rush of catching a football. I feel a boy’s lips touch mine. I fantasize about lovemaking. I taste ice cream and smell rain. And fresh air, I feel it on my face– until my heart monitor interrupts me and the illusion disappears, replaced with my sweaty, blood-soaked and bandaged face.
My life is over. I’m an Invisible Man, an invisible monster, and I wish they had left me to die.
I think this way for weeks, endlessly torturing myself, moving between fantasy and reality, until the day my doctors remove the bandages that’ve hidden what’s surely my haphazard, disfigured face.
“Are you ready?” my doctor asks, as if he really needs to.
Every bandage removed brings a hint of cool air, and with every breeze, a sense of newness, a blurry picture slowly refocusing. Air, yes—it’s something you don’t think to appreciate, that you take for granted, until it’s gone. Trust me when I say that when you can no longer feel air on your face, you miss it like you wouldn’t believe.
A breath of fresh air, literally, and the first time I feel alive. The first domino to fall on my road to recovery.
Today, years later, screws, plates, and wires hold my face together. My short term memory is gone. I can’t play sports.
But I can hold a boy’s hand and feel his lips touch mine. I’m closer to my family and see more of my friends. I see little things that other people don’t. I’m braver than before.
More daring. More alive. And the air–I can feel it on my face.
They say that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. This is true. I lost the boy I was to become the man I am today.
Shawn E. lives in California.