“Empathy means realizing no trauma has discrete edges. Trauma bleeds. Out of wounds and across boundaries.” – Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams
This afternoon it’s raining as I am driving home from the dealership where my car was under repair. I leave the music off, listen for the ticking and whirring of the motor to tell me that the heart of my vehicle is running smoothly. This is the second time I have picked it up in a month.
My left eyebrow is still twitching. It has been since Friday, four days ago. I press things to it — my fingertips, the back of a spoon, the rounded bottom of a cold water bottle — to make it stop. It does not stop.
My left eyebrow is twitching as I walk through the front door of my friend’s house around lunchtime.
“This is the ghost house,” he says, gesturing to the left half of the home. It looks like a model home someone forgot about: a round wooden dining table laden with purposefully stacked plates; empty mugs atop wooden coasters carved from segments of tree branch; two sofas on either side of a silent fireplace; no appliances in the kitchen. “No one goes over here,” he says. The only bedroom I see other than his is empty, a mattress on a bedframe with no sheets.
Something about this small moment haunts me, the way things have the past few days. He calls for the cat that lives outside but it does not come. I stand in the doorway. His mattress is on the floor.
I am haunted by other images, too. The headlights of cars blurred into softness by the haze of fog and snow, casting round beams through the barrier on the northbound highway. It’s Sunday night and my brother is driving me south, back to normal life. It’s so dark, all I can see is the snow in the headlights and a small stretch of road, and the fuzzy glow of lights on the opposite side of the freeway.
On his drive to pick me up on Friday evening, rolling along the same stretch of road, he detoured around a traffic jam causing a half-hour delay in southbound traffic. The collision blocking the road, we learned later, was fatal, killing one of the drivers. I found these clinical, broad details from reading the news report. My brother knew, from driving past, that one of the cars was blue. In some way, he said, knowing that detail felt wrong — too intimate — like carrying a piece of someone’s trauma without ever having earned a place in it.
So there is the theme of vehicles, road noise, softness, damage. Also things seen in passing, emptiness, and ghosts. I keep hearing the song in my head: “Heartbreak, you know, drives a big black car. I was in the backseat, just minding my own.”
On Thursday night we left the concert and walked to a diner two blocks away. The air was frigid. As soon as we sat down, I ordered hot tea and forgot to brew it, leaving the mug to grow cold before I remembered to put the tea bag in.
On Friday morning I sat backstage in our school auditorium and cried every time the lights went down, knowing that was when my students, seated on risers onstage, would not see or hear me. It felt like the end of the world then.
Now it feels like a dull ache, like a deep vase full of black ink inserted neatly into my ribcage. I think I’m all right, but my eyebrow won’t stop twitching.
On Thursday night we walked back to the parking garage in almost silence. We hugged in the doorway to the elevator and said goodbye. I regret that now — saying goodbye. As if anyone has a right to leave someone else for good. To get away without a scratch.
On Sunday, I walk with him around the memorials in the park in front of the capitol building in Phoenix. I hold his hand and I look at all the scars. The air is chilly, cuts past my sweater. My flight back to Denver is in three hours. I can feel the twitch in my left eyebrow. I look for it in the mirror when we get back to his house.
On Sunday night I pull the poster down off my wall. I’m not sure what to keep, what to get rid of, and what to hide. I ask a friend to get my records back.
There is nowhere to go, nothing to do but feel it living inside me, radiating out of me, like an insidious parasite — a black mantis shrimp buried behind my collarbone. The dark is so absolute, all that is left are headlights and the lines of bright snow against the windshield. I imagine I will not spin out from this collision, but I am not too sure. I am not sure at all.