There are certain moments that you remember even years later with a terrible clarity, reliving every second of what happened as if it were happening again around you. The details are like needles poking your mind and sharpening your memory. You remember the slant of the sunlight that fell on his forehead. You remember the words of the song she was singing. You remember the sound of the wind rushing outside. You remember the sound of breaking glass. And you even remember in excruciating detail the moment that seemed to last forever as it hung before your eyes like a question for which no one had an answer.
We were traveling for the weekend. We were on our way to Freiburg. From there our plan was to head on into the Black Forest. It was winter, just after Christmas. We planned to go where the snow would be thick. I wanted to be surrounded by a blinding whiteness to wipe everything from my mind while my friends wanted to ski. It was a perfect arrangement. I could wander the whole day through the forest and photograph the snow covered landscape and trees to my heart’s content while my friends would practice their skiing skills on the slopes of Seebuck. We would be staying in a quaint little hostel in the nearby village of Feldberg.
The friends I was traveling with were German. I had met them both while couch surfing through Hamburg back in November. Frederica was 31 years old and was just starting out as an architect. Her boyfriend Klaus worked as a consultant for the state environment ministry. He was 30 years old. Unlike the popular stereotype of Germans they were anything but reserved. We had connected instantly and my stay in Hamburg was a particularly memorable one. We ate, drank and talked late into the night about everything in the world. It was during one of those endless conversations when time seems to fly by so fast that the idea to travel together was conceived. They were not big on Christmas and I as usual would be on my own doing nothing. Since they were big ski enthusiasts and I wanted to be surrounded by snow we decided to travel to the south of Germany. We arranged to meet in Frankfurt as it was a convenient place for them to pick me up as they drove down south. The day I met them again in Frankfurt was one of those rare winter days with a very bright sun, although the sun did nothing to dispel the cold. But we were warm in the car and the conversation flowed again on the long drive as if it had never stopped.
The meandering conversations helped me forget the many issues I was dealing with. It was a particularly trying time for me on the personal front. I had recently gotten out of a relationship that was going nowhere but the whole break up had turned very bitter. They were problems on the home front too. My sister had fallen in love with a Muslim boy and my conservative parents were not happy about it at all. So twice a day I had to listen to my parents rant about how my sister had shamed them in front of society. As a result of all these happenings my work got affected and I had already been subjected to two performance reviews. On more such review, I was politely but firmly told, I’d be on my way out. Naturally, I felt like running away to some far off place, away from all the seemingly silly troubles that I was unable to deal with. The trip, the warmth of my friends and the solitude of snow would give me some time to recover and recharge I thought.
I also sensed that Klaus and Frederica were having some problems of their own on the relationship front. Although they never talked about their troubles and seemed to be perfectly happy they would frequently start arguing for no reason. The arguments, on the surface, were about superficial things but I could sense that something deeper lay behind them. From the little hints that Frederica dropped from time to time I guessed that it had something to do with the question of starting a family. It seemed as if Klaus was against the idea for economic reasons while Frederica like many women of her age thought that biological time was running out for her.
But in that car our conversations cut through our troubled thoughts. We enjoyed the changing landscape around us as we passed into the scenic state of Baden-Württemberg. The sky peppered us with a light snow from time to time which immediately froze as soon as it touched the cold ground. We caught up on gossip about film stars we did not like. We argued about the US foreign policy. Frederica and I debated whether Calatrava was better than Foster. Klaus criticized our skepticism about climate change. Later, Frederica and I started singing Klaus’s favorite songs intentionally off key to irritate him. To make us stop he tried to scare us by attempting to drive erratically on the slightly slippery road. It was during that moment that it happened.
We were just outside Karlsruhe when the car in front of us suddenly jerked and rolled to a stop. Klaus distracted by our singing reacted a second too late. When you are driving at 210 kmph that one second can make all the difference. This is the moment I remember like a favorite slow motion shot from some film. Frederica was still singing but as she realized what was happening the song in her mouth changed into a low moan that slowly began to rise in volume and turned into a scream. The evening sunlight fell on Klaus’s furrowed forehead as he desperately tried to break in time and avoid hitting the stalled car in front. There was a car behind us too which was also on a collision course with us. Klaus’s breaking did not work but his desperate twisting of the steering wheel worked partially. We clipped the car in front on the side and would perhaps have skidded to a halt off the road when the car behind us whose driver had tried to do the same thing as Klaus gave us a glancing blow. The laws of physics took over and I watched in awe as our car tires failed to hold on to the slippery road. I remember the sudden dropping away of my stomach as we launched into the air. In mid air we flipped once and landed on our roof with a loud crunch and the sickening sound of twisting metal was all around us. The airbags popped into place in the front and I could see the heads of Klaus and Frederica recoil as they got hit by them. In the next instant the windscreen cracked and shattered. The airbags protected them from most of the glass but in the back I could feel the shower of glass all around me. That was when I did something inexplicable. In the instant the glass shattered, as I was hanging out of my seat kept in place by the seat belt, I held my neck out with my hands kept firmly by my side. The natural instinct would have been to raise my hands and protect my face and eyes from the flying glass. But I did not. For some reason I was offering my bare, unprotected neck to them as if I somehow wanted a big chunk of glass to decapitate me.
It did not happen. The moment never came. Sparks flew all around us as the car slid on its roof for a few yards and stopped. Miraculously, we were all safe. The technology had worked. Frederica had cuts on her cheeks and hands from the glass while Klaus had a sore nose after slamming into the airbag. I, on the other hand, apart from hanging upside down like a bat was completely clean. No bruises. No cuts. No soreness either anywhere. It was as if I was in some protective bubble that could not be breached. We were pulled out soon after by people from other cars on the road that had stopped. The occupants of the car in front of us which had apparently stalled suddenly due to an engine failure were fine as were the occupants of the car behind us which had struck us the glancing blow. All three cars were seriously damaged with our car obviously looking the worst. The ambulances and the police arrived soon after but the former had little to do except to administer first aid to Klaus and Frederica. The police collected everyone’s statements, took photographs of everything and then left, after arranging to drop us off in Karlsruhe. From there, after all the formalities associated with the towing away of our car were taken care of, we continued on to Freiburg. The rest of the trip was blissful and completely uneventful.
Time passed. The days grew brighter and the light stayed longer at the end of the day. But I could not forget that image. Why had I done that? Did I not have enough time to react? Was I paralyzed with fear? Or was I grasping a perfect opportunity provided by chance to find lasting peace? Question after question preyed upon my mind as I went through the motions of leading a normal life. On the exterior I was this cheerful but lazy human being who seemed perfectly happy. But on the inside I was a raging torment of doubt, guilt and fear. I could not confide in anyone. What would I say? That I tried to make it easier for myself to die in an auto accident? Who would believe me? And that is why I’ve to live with that terrible clarity of having done something that I cannot understand. I take long walks by the river in the evening. The cheerful people around me basking in the spring sunshine irritate me with their laughter. I withdraw into myself more and more with each passing day as spring makes steady inroads into the cold.
I do not know whether the inward journey will reveal any satisfactory answers. I do not know if ‘the incident’ was a warning that I need to take seriously. I do not know if I need to seek professional help. I simply do not know what came over me on that fateful day. So I pay the penalty of patience for now in the hope that answers will make an appearance soon.