I’m a planner by necessity.
I’ve never had much love for speaking in front of people. In class presentations, my hands used to shake and my voice would swing. Eventually, I realized that presentations were much easier if I memorized a script instead of relying on notes. I internalized every word and inflection before making the powerpoints. I talked to myself, figuring out my natural cadence and timing. I rehearsed until there were no errors. Presenting became nothing more than a rehearsal.
In class, I tend to remain quiet for a few moments before answering questions. Usually, I’m working out the exact wording of my answer and replaying it a few times in my head before I raise my hand to respond. A few professors have told me that I have a “eureka!” face. In calculus, they can tell when I’ve figured out how to solve a problem. I apparently make the same face once I’ve worked out what to say.
I make multiple drafts of text messages, regardless of who I’m writing to and how comfortable I am with them. I rephrase jokes time and time again before settling on the ideal wording and delivery.
When I write essays or bits of fiction, I pace for hours, forming outlines and thinking up memorable phrases–quotable insights or potential inside jokes, depending on what I’m writing. At the end of my pacing, my shoes aren’t quite as thick, but I know exactly what to do.
I planned out the full schedule of my college classes within the first few weeks of my Freshman year. Not long after, I realized my plan sucked and I made a new one. It seems perfectly fine right now, but so did the first one.
At the beginning of each semester, I go through course syllabi and write due dates in a calendar. At the moment, I have the dates of all my physics and calculus tests, the days I need to have literature books read by, and the schedule for finals week. Workloads that seem insurmountable break down into a relatively stress-free plan. I know when I can go to the gym or take a night off everything. It seems like any amount of work is manageable if dealt with properly. A good plan is bulletproof; invincible.
Unfortunately, it’s boring when plans work. Time passes without me realizing that it’s gone because I’m always checking what’s coming next. Sometimes I hope for a metaphorical monkey wrench to obliterate the finely-tuned schedule I’ve made. A literal monkey wrench would also be fine. As practical as planning is, it’s much more fun having to buy new jeans because I’ve worn out my other pairs flying by the seat of my pants. The best learning experiences come from everything going horribly wrong, and the most satisfying come from making it through the swarm of metaphorical—or literal—monkey wrenches that are so determined to break me down.
When I got my driver’s license, I continued the youngest-brother tradition of receiving hand-me-downs. Like most hand-me-downs, my car was in good condition but didn’t fit quite right.
My car—once my mom’s—was a Volvo V70, cherry red and the opposite of a high school boy. I was a bit over six foot at the time, so the car was over a foot shorter than me. I learned that the most effective way to get in and out was to hook one hand around the indoor grip and swing myself into the driver’s seat. Otherwise, I had to squat down to half my height and awkwardly sidle backward into the car.
A few weeks after we had bought the car, one of our cats got into the garage. Being the little prick we knew him to be, he hopped through a rolled-down window and peed all over the new car’s interior. He received a good scolding, my parents took the car to a cleaner’s that didn’t quite get the smell out, and a week later the cat weaseled back into the garage and marked his territory with, I assume, sadistic glee. While the first cleaning had been somewhat successful, nothing could eradicate the odor left from the second round. OxiClean couldn’t solve every problem, no matter what Billy Mays claimed.
Still though, at fifty thousand miles my Volvo had no mechanical issues, drove smoothly despite the potholes of Pima County, and could slot into any open area that tenuously resembled a parking space. I might be biased, but I swear that no other car I’ve driven has been so comfortable to sit in. Assuming there was no passenger behind me, I could slide back far enough to accommodate for my long legs, and there was a shocking amount of headspace. In some SUVs my hair brushes the ceiling, but in that Volvo I had several inches to spare. Sitting inside felt safe, like armor that helped me get to that invincibility I strived for.
Naturally, there were problems, and, naturally, I planned around them. I was making myself invincible, so I could not tolerate any flaws.
The cat piss is a good place to start. As mentioned, it never went completely away. Luckily, the hand-me-down car came with hand-me-down air fresheners. I kept a honey-scented disk in one of the cup holders, which muted the cat’s gift well enough. I couldn’t smell the piss unless I intentionally tried to find it. I didn’t have much cause to try, so the smell became a memory.
My meticulousness increased. I kept track of oil changes, mileage, tire pressure, the amount of quarters in my cupholder, and the cheapest places to get gas—almost always Costco. I had a notebook for tracking all of my habits, and a tire pressure gauge to track low tires.
I realized that I might one day forget to bring a pen, so I kept one next to the gas book. Then, another thought, even worse: what if the pen ran out of ink? I added two more pens. And if they all ran out in an extraordinary stroke of bad luck? I tossed in two wooden pencils. And a mechanical pencil. And another pen.
The notebook and battalion of writing utensils filled up the console pretty well, but I also found room for a flashlight. It was small, but strong enough that I could send a distress signal to the International Space Station if I ever got myself in that much trouble. I didn’t keep any extra batteries with it. The pens seemed more important.
I threw in a Swiss Army Knife at some point. That one is self-explanatory.
My trunk held another set of tools to protect me from any disaster. I had a tire jack, a tire iron, a spare tire, extra towels for the car wash, a portable tire pressurizer, and, the most treasured of all, jumper cables. One of my friends had been having difficulty starting his car, an Oldsmobile that had more years on the road than we had alive. It inspired me to have cables on hand. My dad gave me a basic rundown of how to jump a car, but that, like most problems I prepared for, never came up.
I was protecting myself against everything, and boredom was no exception. I took advantage of all six radio presets, developing and tweaking a system for when to use them. Easy listening when Mom was with me, classic rock with Dad, Mexican polka with my friends, and rock when I was alone. Of course, none of the radio signals could reach everywhere. My oldest brother left one of his CDs in my car, which I held onto it in case I ever had to drive out of town. I never listened to it and don’t have an inkling of what the names of the album or band were.
My glovebox was unremarkable. It contained my insurance information and the owner’s manual for the car, which had the type of oil I used scrawled across the front cover. I only had occasion to get the insurance once, but I’m glad I knew where it was.
With my air freshener, jumper cables, spare change, flashlight, pens, and detailed history of gas prices, I felt prepared for anything. Why shouldn’t I have? I had exact change and extra towels, clearly enough to handle any problem that came my way. Yep, ready for anything. Nothing could break my armor.
Except for a jeep.
I had just left my house to go to the gym for an afternoon workout, probably squats. I’d forgotten to grab my lifting belt, which I was borrowing from my brother. Lifting belts are glorious, quarter-inch-thick back braces that make squats and deadlifts safer. Having a paranoia of back injuries, I used them frequently. I almost turned the car around, but figured I could use one of the gym’s belts.
I think every car accident comes with everyone involved thinking “If I’d done something different…” A difference of seconds is all it takes to cause or avoid accidents. The weight belt is my if.
I had set the radio to 107.5, Tucson’s classic hits, but I don’t remember the song. I remember being disappointed that the song wasn’t memorable as I pulled out of my neighborhood. Two minutes down the road from my suburb is a Circle K, the only gas station for a few miles. It’s across the street from a junior high, so the two-lane road spreads briefly into three, the middle being a turn lane for cars and busses to pull into the school. That almost saved me a good deal of trouble.
Travelling down the road, I noticed the white jeep nosed a bit too far out into the street, waiting to turn left, which would take it through my lane. The only cars coming from the opposite direction were at least a half mile away, so the jeep would be clear to turn if I weren’t there. A couple car lengths before being in line with the jeep, I saw it edge a little farther out. Subconsciously, I think I braced myself against the driver side door.
“Don’t you do it,” I muttered, knitting my brow.
The jeep did it.
I swerved into the middle lane as the jeep hit the gas, which saved me from slamming the nose of my car into the jeep. For a second, I thought that I had dodged it. I had not. Maybe I would have if I had dipped into the far-left lane, but I didn’t want any risk of oncoming traffic.
Here’s a rather surreal moment. The jeep crashed into the passenger side door of my car, rudely shattering the window inward and popping the bubble of the invincibility I had spent so long constructing. The jeep’s bumper was inside my car like a shark’s nose thrashing in a diving cage. Bits of rounded glass bounced off my right arm, stinging but not cutting. This is also the moment I learned that Volvo V70s have side air bags. Shortly thereafter, I learned that airbags smell like smoke when they deploy, and the smell of smoke did not mean that my engine was on fire. That was good to know, but I wish I had known beforehand.
I don’t remember the noise the collision made. I know that it was loud, but I don’t recall what type of loud. I also can’t recall the screech of tearing metal that was surely there.
Instead, I was preoccupied with what I was saying. I don’t swear, and in that moment, I was separated from myself. Not out of body, but I was wondering what my go-to exclamation was going to be at the same time my mouth was starting to form the words. I hoped that I wouldn’t be unnecessarily vulgar.
“Mother of God!” I shouted. That’s the sound I remember more than anything else. I can still hear my own voice and recreate the movement in my vocal cords. The first two words are incredulous, and the third has a harsh inflection, but I didn’t rush through it. I was somewhat pleased that I hadn’t sworn, though I wasn’t sure that mild blasphemy was better. I filed away that line for future use. I wasn’t sure how it could help me, but at a scientific level it was good to know what my instincts would make me shout.
The jeep’s nose separated from my passenger side, and I pulled off to the side of the road. I was surprised by how efficient I was and how easily the car steered. I was honestly proud of how calm I was, and the ride was as smooth as ever. Smelling smoke, I stopped the car stiffly, pulled the gearshift into park in a practiced motion, and yanked the keys out of the ignition. I hopped out of the car, swinging myself out with the overhead grip as I always did. I backed away from the car, checking for smoke coming from the engine. I saw none, since the smell came from the deployed airbags. I realized my left elbow was bleeding, a side effect of bracing against the door. My gym shorts had a bit of blood on them, apparently from a laceration I’d gotten from my left knee hitting the dashboard, which I have never remembered happening. I stretched my arms and legs, wiggled my fingers and toes, and bent over to make sure my back was alright. It was all fine. Somehow, there was glass in my shoes even though there weren’t any cuts in them. My right arm was equally confusing. I had felt glass hit it, but it had only a few uncomfortable bumps and no cuts. I felt like the wrong side of my body was bleeding.
I glanced down the road to find the jeep. It had pulled off on the other side of the road, and I could see the driver running in my direction. Since we had gone in opposite directions, I had a minute or two before he could get to me.
I called my dad. I’d just said to goodbye to him when I’d left home.
“Uh oh,” he said as he picked up. He knew that I wouldn’t be calling so soon if I had good news.
“Yeah…” I agreed. I told him I was alright, then explained what happened. I asked him if I should call the police. Then I asked if he could bring bandages. For all my planning, I couldn’t remember if I’d hidden a first aid kit somewhere in my car. Some Boy Scout I was.
The other driver ran up to me, out of breath but overcome by adrenaline. He seemed about my age, but he was shorter and had a thin beard. It turned out he was only a few months older than me.
“Oh my gosh! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” I responded. I still felt oddly unshaken. I wondered if I was in shock, but I felt lucid. Raising my bleeding elbow, I said, “I just have a few-”
“Oh,” he wailed when he saw the blood. “You’re not alright!”
“Really, I’m fine.” I had lowered my phone for the moment.
“I can call a tow truck for you. Do you want me to do that?” He seemed to be getting calmer, but he was miles away from relaxed. Physically, he was unharmed, but I might have gotten the lighter end of the deal.
“No, I’ll call the cops. Thanks, though.” I’ve always regretted that phrasing. It seemed too aggressive, and I didn’t want to panic the other driver even further. Oh well. I didn’t have the time to put that line through my revision process, so it had to be sufficient.
“I’m so sorry,” he told me again. “It was... it was an accident.”
Strangely, I never realized how accurate the term “car accident” was before. It’s infuriatingly literal. The other driver had certainly never meant to hit me, but there I was, standing with glass in my shoes next to my totaled car.
I called 911. I learned how to talk to 911 operators. I also learned that the Circle K, which has no buildings around it, has its own street sign for a road that goes nowhere, and that sign technically makes that strip of road an intersection. The street name was Rebecca.
The other driver called his dad. An inexplicably-shirtless man who had been inside the Circle K came over and made sure I was alright, which I appreciated. I walked around my car, checking the damage. The passenger door was crumpled inward, the metal torn across its width. Glass covered the floor and seats. The car looked fine from the driver side, but if someone had been riding shotgun…
I wondered why the other driver had been in such a hurry to get out of the Circle K. He must have slammed on the gas pedal to have hit me hard enough to cave in half my car.
My parents showed up just before a police officer did. My mom was holding more bandages and gauze than I knew we owned. Were we hiding a pharmacy in one of the bathrooms? She walked straight up to me, staring at me like she’d never be able to see me enough. She usually keeps her deep emotions to herself, so I honestly felt a bit flattered. She hugged me, and there was nothing on planet Earth that could’ve stopped her.
My dad, not misty-eyed like my mom, had one question: “Do you want to talk to the insurance company or should I?”
I realized that I’d never seen my dad cry. I’d never even seen him come close, and he usually doesn’t make much secret of his emotions. He was levelheaded when he told me that his mother had died, and much the same at her funeral. Whenever a pet died, he got a shovel and headed to the backyard. That’s not to say he didn’t care or didn’t mourn, I’ve just never seen anything cut him deep enough to bring tears.
I, meanwhile, cry… not frequently, but it’s not exactly uncommon, either. I cried the first time I listened to Hamilton. I also cried the fifth time I listened to Hamilton. I cried when I heard my grandpa broke his hip. I cried while watching Inside Out. I cried at my brothers’ weddings. I’ll probably cry at mine.
If something ever makes my dad cry in front of me, then I have no idea how I’ll be able to deal with it.
I learned how to give an accident report to police officers. I learned that there are, by my approximation, just under eight million different numbers and details that insurance companies want to know. I learned how annoying it is to talk over the phone while dripping sweat in one hundred-degree Arizona heat. I learned that the folder containing all my insurance information that I kept in the glovebox was the most useful item I kept in my car. I learned that I had a first aid kit underneath the driver’s seat the entire time, but I had forgotten about it. I learned that jeeps are the natural predators of Volvos.
I drove home in my dad’s Chevy Suburban with my mom while he waited for a tow truck to haul off my tiny, totaled car. The Volvo was dead.
“That car saved your life,” a friend told me a few days later.
I showered when I got home. The gashes on my elbow and knee had scabbed over, and the warm water cleaned away the dried blood, reopening the wounds. They left small scars behind.
The accident occupied my thoughts. If I hadn’t swerved into the middle lane, I would have T-boned the jeep, and I’d been going forty-five miles per hour, so it…wouldn’t have been great.
I had to find some lesson or put a neat little bow on my accident, something to make it all make sense and let me move on. How could I get around a crash next time? I considered every plan that I had made—every pen, every towel, every note in my gas book. None of them had helped. No. That wasn’t fair. They hadn’t prevented the accident, but they had done their jobs. How was I supposed to plan around something I couldn’t see coming? Should I have staked out my local Circle K and made graphs of its busiest hours? Should I have done that with every intersection I would ever go by? No. I didn’t know where the line between too little and too much planning was, but that was far past it.
I hadn’t been able to plan my way into invincibility, but I was still alright.
No matter how much I thought I put into a plan, it would never be bulletproof—at least not jeep-proof. I couldn’t be invincible, and that was alright, so long as I was alright at the end. I was vulnerable, but that wasn’t a reason to give up on everything I had built. I still had all my old plans—they were fine, and I could keep tweaking them if I ever did get a flat tire or need towels or anything else I was ready for.
I knew that there would be more accidents—more monkey wrenches and jeeps—and they’d be worse or come with even less warning. There’d be situations too horrible to plan for. Being invincible wasn’t attainable, but that was a piss-poor reason to stop striving for it. As long as I knew that I was never going to be untouchable, that hard work could fall apart, that oversights would happen, then I could stop myself from getting knocked flat for good. And, hey, I was still standing just as tall as before, and next time, even if I couldn’t plan for it, I’d try to crash a little more gracefully.