I was driving down Route 128 just west of Boston one morning when a car some distance ahead of mine pulled into the breakdown lane. A man bailed out of the driver’s side, and, while running around to the back of his car—presumably to reach the wooded area nearby—vomited. What I saw of this was partial, because I was traveling 65 miles-per-hour in the slow lane, and so I wasn’t yet up to that point in the road where he’d pulled over and bailed out. Another motorist, perhaps five or six cars ahead of me, would’ve seen him abandon his car’s progress toward Dedham and points south. If that other motorist had been driving directly behind him, it’s possible he or she would’ve seen whatever distress had led to the man pulling over to be sick. Each motorist driving in sequence would’ve only seen a half-second sliver of what was a continuous and fluid event: the car pulling over, the door opening and the man emerging from the driver’s side, the panicked flight on foot alongside the car and toward its rear. What moved me, though, and what I cherished about it, was my position within that sequence, for it was I and not the car ahead of me nor the car behind who happened to pass at just the exact moment for me to witness the choicest slice in that sequence, namely the split-second in which the man, still half-hanging out of his car, dread apparent in his eyes, his long brown hair wild in the wind stirred up by the traffic, his body lurching by instinct toward the back of the car, opened his mouth, not by choice but because an increased pressure inside compelled him to do it, and then with a kind of “yurp” sound that I couldn’t actually hear but could imagine, gales of pale, beige—whatever word best evokes an oatmeal tonality for you—vomit burst forth at a liquid slant that, by the time I’d passed my prime witnessing spot on to the driver behind me, still had not yet slammed hotly into the ground.
I felt lucky in a way, and as I continued south toward the Mass Pike, I mulled it further. Seeing the man vomit had caught me unawares. Obviously, I wasn’t looking for it to happen—I wasn’t scanning the sides of the highway on the hopeful suspicion that a car might suddenly peel off from the main traffic stream and a person would jump out and bark his guts at the road. I’d been thinking about whatever, just driving along, my brain an ant, then I’d glanced to my right as part of my periodic safety check, and there it was. I say “it” and not “he” because what registered wasn’t a person so much as a event, one that lacked context and refused to fit into the logic of the day. It was over before it had even really happened.
I thought about the man’s day leading up to this. Had he been feeling ill when he’d left his house—or his girlfriend’s house, or his place of work, or Nashua, New Hampshire, etc.—and if so, why did he still attempt to drive? If he was that sick, you know. Seems you’d just stay put. Was he hungover, or was it food poisoning? What had been going through his mind in the seconds before he evacuated his car (and stomach)? The logistics of getting to the breakdown lane in time, the option of simply throwing up while driving (and this option weighed against the impact that vomiting on himself would have on the rest of his day—was it possible to turn around and change his clothes, or was his destination the sort that arriving there covered in vomit would somehow not matter)?
Steering onto the Mass Pike, paying my toll to a woman wearing latex glasses and cussing someone out on her cell phone, I found myself feeling sorry for the man back on 128, and I wondered what he was doing right now. Maybe sitting back inside his parked car, wiping the vomit from his shirt with some rough brown napkins from an Arby’s bag. On the phone with his dad, or his shift supervisor: Shit, man, I just fuckin’ threw up! I can’t believe this shit, man! Cars whipping by. What’s on the radio? Nothing, if he’d managed to turn the car off in time—but we doubt that, right? No time to fiddle with the ignition. So the car’s still on, and the radio’s playing “Time (Clock of the Heart)” by Culture Club, and the man’s name is Phil Carter and he’s thirty-five and lives with a chick named Babe in Methuen, and he’s telling his boss at Pioneer Electronics: I gotta go… just… I gotta go!