Just before I turned 21, I realized it was the last “milestone” birthday I would have until I turned 65 and could retire. At 15, you could get a learner’s permit, at 16 a driver’s license. At 18, you could vote, buy cigarettes, porn, and get into some clubs, and at 21, of course, you could finally drink (legally, anyway). But nothing awaits you between 21 and 65 except a few drops in your insurance premiums, a realization that I found to be rather depressing in the weeks before my twenty first.
Of course, I was no stranger to alcohol prior to my 21st birthday. (You might recall my tale of overindulging in Zima during high school). My parents had allowed me to have wine at home after I turned 18, and I had a few friends of age who were kind enough to share their libations. Looking back, I drank a lot less once I could legally do so–I suppose the thrill was over by then.
But my 21st birthday was memorable for uncommon reasons. A week or so before my big day, my roommates parents came for a visit. My roommate had been fighting a bad cold for most of the semester and decided to ride back to our hometown with her folks to see her regular physician. I was heading home the following week for a family wedding, so I’d be able to give her a ride back to school.
The day before I was to head home, I was sitting in traffic, in my roommate’s car, when I felt a pretty hard bump from behind. I looked in the rearview mirror–there were no other cars.
“What the hell?” I thought. Then I heard a moaning noise from beside the car and looked out the window. There, alongside the car, laid a very bloody man and his very smashed bike. I’d been rear-ended by a bicyclist. The poor guy’s nose was obviously broken, his front teeth had gone through his upper lip, and he had road rash on every inch of exposed skin. I wanted to call an ambulance, but he wouldn’t hear of it. I offered him a ride, and he insisted he’d been enough trouble already. He did take a rag I offered to press to his bleeding face, and he pushed his battered bike off down the street.
It wasn’t until the next day, when I was loading my suitcase into the car for the drive home that I noticed that one of my roommate’s taillights was cracked. I felt bad that I hadn’t filed a police report, figuring that a new taillight probably cost a few hundred bucks. But, there was nothing I could do to change it then, so I went on my way.
The drive home was about three hours. I had great weather, made great time, and just as I got close to home, a light rain started to fall. I was less than a half mile from my roommate’s parent’s home, coming into a double curve, when I saw a truck up ahead lose control as he rounded the first turn. I slammed on my brakes and came to a stop, he was crossing my lane several car lengths ahead and heading straight for a utility pole. Inches from hitting the pole, he corrected, popped back onto the pavement and was suddenly headed straight for me.
I was already stopped and had no time to do anything but brace myself. A loud and very solid crash followed, and suddenly the car was filled with smoke from the airbags that had deployed. I was disoriented, looking through the broken windshield I realized I had spun 180 degrees from where I started. All I could think was that I needed a cigarette and the pack I’d had laying in the console was nowhere to be seen.
“Are you alright!” a panicked voice said. I looked up and realized it must be the driver of the truck–a teenaged kid who was running from the direction of the smashed truck that now rested against a car that had been parked in someone’s driveway. I didn’t know, actually, if I was or not. My first thought was my teeth–did I still have them all? I ran my tongue over them, and satisfied that they were all there, suddenly felt the skin on my arms burning, and intense pain in my right arm.
“Fuck no, I’m not alright…” I said, noticing the blood on my white shirt, “I think my arm is broken.” I got out of the car and walked around to see fluids pouring out from under the buckled hood. The windshield was broken, the bumper was half gone, revealing a mass of hanging wires, bent metal, and styrofoam. One of the fenders was peeled back like a banana peel. The hyperactive driver was running around shouting “They’ll cancel my insurance now! Two wrecks in one year! Im cancelled!”
Other traffic started to back up, and someone was nice enough to call my roommate’s house. An ambulance arrived before my roommate and her mom got to the scene, and I refused a ride to the hospital–not wanting to worry my friends more than necessary. After a shower, I realized there was glass stuck all over the tops of my hands. The deploying airbags had blown my hands off the steering wheel and through the windshield–burning my forearms and breaking one of my elbows in the process.
After an 8 hour trip to the emergency room (an $1,100 visit that involved a nurse removing the glass by simply covering me with surgical tape and ripping it off as if she were waxing me), I went home with a neck brace, an arm sling, and a bottle of pain killers and muscle relaxers. Two days later, the soreness had really set in. I could barely turn my head, use my right arm, and the airbag burns had turned into wet, oozy scabs. And it was my 21st birthday.
Getting drunk and dancing the night away was out of the question. Booze and painkillers are a no-no combo, and I could barely move my groove thing, let alone shake it. But, a few friends and I nonetheless went out to celebrate with a nice dinner at the local hibachi steakhouse. Someone told the chef it was my birthday, so he singled me out during his cooking performance. When it came time to toss the shrimp, he gestured like he was going to pitch it toward me. I thought he was joking, but apparently he mistook my neck brace for a fashion statement and shot a shrimp my way. I moved with all the grace I could muster to catch the flying shrimp but I was stiff and drugged, and it was all for naught–the shrimp slapped me in the forehead before falling to the ground. The room erupted in laughter.
So while many people can recall their 21st birthday (if they have any memory of it at all) as a time of drunken partying, mine will forever be the night I was bruised, burned, and broken with a shrimp sliding down my face.