“Okay, Aaron, here’s your car,” the rental car representative said to me as he gestured toward a maroon sedan in the garage.
I wrinkled my nose a bit as I gave it a quick once-over.
“A Kia? That’s all you’ve got?”
I didn’t know much about cars when I was twenty-four (although, honestly, not much has changed in the ten years since). My knowledge could basically be summed up as, “If it works, great; if it doesn’t, find someone to fix it.”1 The one thing I did know, though, was what I had heard about brand reputations. I knew that foreign-made cars, particularly from Japan or Germany were the “best,” and that American-made cars were generally fine, though not quite as good. I couldn’t have told you exactly what the differences were between the brands or what made one “better” than the other, but I knew what I had heard.
The other thing I had heard was that Kia was a cheap car that you only bought if you couldn’t afford anything else.
The salesman laughed a bit and reassured me that Kias were much better than the public had been led to believe. “Plus,” he added, “I can’t give you any other cars because you’re still under twenty-five.”
I grimaced slightly but I was familiar with the company’s policy about renting certain cars to people under twenty-five. I’d rented cars a number of times through the foster care agency where I worked to visit my clients at Westchester and Rockland County hospitals, bring them to interviews at more distant school placements and, in the most unpleasant situations, to move them and their belongings from one foster home to another. My age meant that my cars were never flashy; a Ford Focus, a Chevy Malibu and, on one occasion, a full-size white van with the rental company’s logo on the side. On that particular day, I was traveling to an inpatient psychiatric hospital in Ossining with my coworker so that we could visit a young man who was hoping to get some good news on his fourteenth birthday. On that particular day, I was getting a Kia.
My coworker and I got in and I pulled out of the garage. I weaved through New York City traffic to the West Side Highway and began driving north along the Hudson River. It was a clear September day and the river shimmered brilliantly under the perfect blue sky. It was the kind of day that foster care workers cherish; the days when we could work with a team to make someone smile, ease someone’s worries and feel, for once, like we were making a difference.
It was a day of promise.
The trip went smoothly. There wasn’t much traffic and I enjoyed being able to actually drive, navigating the hills and curves of Route 9A and getting a feel for the handle of the car. I watched the scenery shift from the drab concrete of the urban jungle to the healthy green of trees whose leaves had only just begun to turn. My already good mood seemed to improve even more as my colleague and I shared stories about our families and our experiences in child welfare, as well as plans for our upcoming meeting.
Then, in a flash, all of my senses went blank.
I remember being vaguely aware of our car moving, sliding backwards down a slight hill until it came to a stop with a lurch. I was confused; I couldn’t piece together why I was no longer driving toward the hospital. My vision began to return slowly, colors starting to peek back in through the blanket of white that had covered my eyes. A faint smoky odor reached my nostrils and I thought I could hear voices, though they sounded like they were miles away. My forearm was stinging, though I wasn’t sure why. My addled brain kept trying to fight through the haze to figure out what had happened.
Finally, it clicked: we had crashed.
I’d been making a left turn off of 9A onto the quiet street where the hospital was and I never saw the other car coming. It slammed into us as I turned, sending us spinning around until we were facing the opposite direction from where I had been trying to go. The other car had caromed off ours into the guardrail while we spun and stopped in the middle of the road. Our car had ended up facing the median before sliding down the sloped side of the road, coming to a stop when we reached the same rail. The white blanket had been a combination of my brain turning off to avoid additional trauma and the airbag deploying. The airbag had also been the source of the smoke and the burn on my arm.
I began to panic once I realized the situation. My mind, which had previously been moving at a snail’s pace as it recovered from the impact, suddenly began racing. I needed to make sure my coworker and the other driver were all right, to call 911, my girlfriend, my parents, my supervisor, the hospital to let them know we couldn’t make it and I had to do all of it immediately. I asked my coworker if she was hurt (she wasn’t) and used the adrenaline that had begun coursing through me to push through the dizziness and get out of the car.
I could see the other vehicle, a black sports car, a short distance away. The driver had also come out of the car and there were some people standing with him as he stood leaning on the driver side door. I called out to ask if he was okay, noticing that my voice also sounded far away, and felt relief wash over me when the group gestured that he was fine.
I pulled out my cell phone to begin making phone calls and stopped when I felt my knees start to buckle. The world tilted around me and I was just barely able to grab the car door to steady myself. I blinked hard, took a few deep breaths and walked gingerly toward the guardrail so I could sit down. I planted my hand on the rail as I lowered myself to the ground and took another deep breath as I started making phone calls.
It was early evening by the time the other supervisor from my foster care unit and our director arrived at Westchester Medical Center to pick us up. Ambulances had brought us and the other driver to the hospital as a precaution but we were fine. We were all quite shaken up, to be sure, but none of us sustained significant physical injuries beyond some bumps and bruises.
My coworker and I were speaking with our director and supervisor about the accident while we waited for our discharge papers when I realized my work bag had been left in the car. I don’t remember what I had in it that made me want it back; certainly, no one would have faulted me for leaving without it. But I said I needed it, so we stopped at the auto body shop where it had been towed before driving home. The employee showed me where the car was and said I could get whatever I needed.
I stepped into the garage and inched my way between a weathered turquoise coupe and a black sedan to get to the car I had rented that morning. The bag was easy to reach – it was sitting on the backseat, waiting patiently to be picked up. I was about to return to my colleagues when my curiosity got the best of me; I turned to check out the damage before going back outside.
The car had been totaled. The front corner on the passenger side had been completely inverted and the hood was folded almost in half. The case that should have housed the headlight was missing and the lower part of the windshield on that side had a long, snaking crack in it. I looked down at the hole in the front tire and the bent wheel rim and I found myself wondering how my coworker’s legs had not been crushed. My thoughts began racing again as I pictured the tragic outcomes that had somehow been relegated to alternate universes instead of my current reality. I whispered silent thanks to the powers of spirituality and physics that had spared us and gave the car a symbolic pat on the trunk.
I stepped out of the garage into the cool evening air. The clouds on the horizon were splashed with watercolor hues of pinks and oranges as the sun retired for the night. I took one last glance back at the car, now reduced to a jumble of metal plates and screws, and swore never to make fun of a Kia again.