Driving Home

On the evening of my last working day for the year I was driving home from my office in Germany. This time I had managed to close all open files and I was comforted by the thought that I wouldn't come back until mid-January.

The drive from the office in Walldorf to Zurich takes about three hours: Two hours smooth and straight southbound on the German Autobahn before crossing the border and snailing along the narrow slow-motion highways of Switzerland. Except that today I would make a little detour through Freiburg to pick up my mother, who would join us for the holidays.

As usual, I had left the office later than planned, and the gray winter sky was gradually darkening. I was gliding along at a steady pace and listened to some radio feature I don't remember.

Sometimes when I drive long straight roads I can make myself feel the earth.

What to I mean? We have all learned in school that "up" and "down" are an illusion. In truth we are glued to the surface of a ball in space. From all directions we point with our feet to the center of that ball called Earth, like pins in a round cushion. We know this. Schoolbooks have it. Sometimes I sense it.

Gliding down the highway I creep along the side of this ball. "Up" is slightly below the horizon. Just as good as any other direction. I am held in place not by uppity-downity, but by mere indifferent gravity, as science has it. I can feel it. And then - at will - I change my perception and sense that the cosmic "up" of the ball points in a different direction.

I was relieved that traffic was lighter than expected on this last day before the holidays, the road was dry and the weather was calm. I was driving on the left lane, slowly - inch by inch - passing another car going at almost the same 100mph.

Then there was this car standing on the left lane.

No, it didn't move slowly. It stood there.

When I try to remember, I can see the vehicle's hazard flasher switching on and off, very slowly - at most once - before I reached it. It was parked far on the left side of the lane, touching the guardrail separating the carriageways and preventing the driver from getting out. To the right of me was this other car, driving as fast as I, and I had to squeeze through.

Would the other driver notice and give way? I tore the steering to the right, just in time. I made it. However, I got very close to this car on my right; too close, so I steered back to the left. I had to correct again, this time to the right.

Then there was something happening that wasn't supposed to be. It felt badly wrong. Each time I corrected the steering, the car broke out stronger. More, not less, as would have been in order. I very strongly felt that this absolutely must not happen. Yet it did.

I smash into this other car. So this is how it feels. Strangely soft. Like in a bumper car on a funfair of my youth. It was more exciting then.

I must exactly pay attention now to every sensation, because this experience I will only have once and then no other. This is it. And while the world outside the car windows dissolves into stripes and the bounces come from different directions, and my hands on the steering wheel have no effect on the further course of events, I am stunned that dying feels so comfortable. Here I am sitting inside this cabin of steel, softly glued by a seat belt to a well cushioned ergonomic seat. Again I can't help thinking that this really feels comfortable. Some bumper car, some roundabout, some flying. Should it really be that death is so unexciting? How disappointing.

I have no orientation. For a long time my body spins in circles, backwards even down, a direction that makes no sense on an even road, or does it? All the time I have this feeling that this is not really about me.

Then all is quiet.

I am somewhere.

Maybe I should call the police. Or an ambulance. Or tell my mother that I'll be late. But right now I don't remember the number.

I open the door and notice that my car is standing at the bottom of a wide ditch, at right angles to the road, tail ahead, a hand away from the trees.

The road above is all yellow flashlights. All traffic has stopped. Somebody shouts. "Are you okay?"

I shout back, "I'm alright."

Then I walked up to the road. The car I had taken with me to a crazy pirouette - a pas de deux along the guardrail - was standing on the shoulder. The body hung all in tatters. All around. A man stood next to the car. He asked, "You okay?" I said, "Yeah. How 'bout you?" He said, "I'm okay." We exchanged business cards.

Traffic slowly started to move again. Soon several police cars arrived. The usual procedure, which took about an hour. A tow-away truck pulled my car out of the ditch. A mechanic controlled the mechanism and said, "You can drive on now."

With cross-eyed headlights, but otherwise looking untouched, my car was ready to go. I called my mother and told her I'd be delayed because of some accident on the Autobahn, and in this moment I noticed that in my first attempt to call whoever, immediately after the accident, I had torn the headset into pieces.

Half an hour later I arrived at my mother's place. "Horrible, all these accidents these days," she said, and then I drove her home to our place for Christmas.

© Hajo v. Kracht, 17. Sept 2008