When I was seventeen years old, in between my senior year of high school and my freshman year of college, I attended the summer theatre program for the second time at the North Carolina School of the Arts. I was a resident adviser for my hall.
I borrowed my friend Molly’s car to go shopping at Goodwill with some friends. Goodwill was where I bought my clothes as a teenager before I was scared of bedbugs. I pulled back into campus and saw one of my girls walking on the sidewalk. Her name was Kate. She was a model gorgeous fifteen-year old with a shaved head, tattoos and piercings – an incredibly sweet girl hiding under a tough exterior that made her even more endearing.
I always wanted to impress her.
You want a ride? I asked.
Yeah, sure, I’m going to the dorms, she said.
So are we. Hop on.
What do you mean?
Hop on the hood. I’ll drive you down.
I was her resident adviser.
I was supposed to set an example.
But she was infinitely cooler than I was.
I was just a suburban geek hiding beneath a pair of Jncos.
I felt a surge of excitement when she looked happy with my suggestion, and a preview flashed before me of Kate, later telling everyone how cool it was that I drove her through campus on the hood, like the punk version of a Thanksgiving Day parade float.
She hopped on the car and slid to the middle, reaching behind her to hold onto the hood where it hinged at the windshield. She looked like one of those silhouettes on a trucker’s mudflap.
I began to drive, slowly winding down the curved road. My window was down. The breeze ruffled my hair. Kate’s laugh rang in my ears. I reached the expansive, flat parking lot, which was nearly empty.
I sped up.
Kate laughed harder.
I drove around in circles a few times, smiling a foolish grin. Adrenaline coursed through my body. I felt good but I wanted to feel better.
I pressed my foot hard on the gas pedal.
I heard Kate say whoa.
I slammed on the brakes.
I don’t know what caused me to react that way. Maybe at seventeen, my ability to think through cause and effect wasn’t fully developed. There was definitely no point in which I thought to myself, what will the consequence of this action be? The voice in my head was too busy cheering me on with yeah, this is awesome, you’re so dangerous.
Kate lost her grip on the hood as soon as I hit the brakes, and by the time the car came to a complete stop, she was sailing through the air. My heart stopped as I watched her land on the asphalt with grotesque force. Next came a pounding in my ears and a burning, intense need to rewind time.
All of these horrors piled on top of one another in my head and I ran to her as fast as I could but my legs felt like weights in molasses and I was moving in slow motion but also strangely everything was happening too fast at the same time.
Kate stood up.
She was still laughing.
I saw her jaw bone through blood and skin.
Her lip piercing was gone, along with some of her face.
She looked down at her hands.
She was a visual arts student, a sculptor.
Her fingers were bent in directions that they shouldn’t be.
She said in a very quiet voice, oh.
Of course you know what comes next if you’ve ever played a part in an emergency, or watched any primetime dramas. The ambulance came. I cried. She cried. The doctors treated her. The police questioned me. I went to court and swore that I was more stupid than malicious. Kate’s mother testified on my behalf that her daughter was prone to going along with whatever stunt was on the agenda. She publicly forgave me and released me of any responsibility.
I was issued a prayer for judgment, which, as I understand it, is similar to probation: basically a get out of jail free card that is revoked if you screw up at all during the next two years.
No punishment could be too harsh, in my opinion. I replayed and regretted that moment over and over, every day for months. I imagined the worst outcome: I could have killed her. I imagined the best outcome: I could have never told her to hop on. Ultimately, I had to accept it as part of the fabric of my life, release my desire to re-write history, and focus on what I could learn from it. The short version is to stay one step ahead of yourself and others whenever possible. And don’t ever forget how it feels to hurt someone.
Kate was released from the hospital after one week, and returned to the life of a fully functioning art student after taking a semester off. I lost touch with her and haven’t been able to find her for years. She never blamed me, never spoke an angry word to me about it, just repeated her forgiveness when I stuttered my apologies like a broken record and threw myself at her mercy. I would have completely understood if she had chosen to hate me. I’m lucky, I suppose, to have almost killed someone so gracious.