Brakes don't work when a car is airborne.
It's a simple lesson in physics. It's the clearest memory of the crash. My foot on the brake pedal. That dependable, sturdy chunk of steel mashed all the way to the floor. The car gliding through the damp December air. The stereo playing 311 at an eardrum-rattling volume. Seventeen-year-old blood pumping through my veins.
The speedometer needle pointed somewhere north of 75 miles per hour before the car went Pegasus. My friend's Camaro, much to my delight, was a distant set of darting headlights in my rear-view mirror. Gene, my best friend and copilot, had queued up the track. We were immortal.
A small rise catapulted us through the air, sending my Honda across the center line on a diagonal. It was a 1999 Accord coupe with an all-leather interior and a V6 under the hood that churned out 200 horsepower. The dual overhead cams sang an intoxicating siren song when the forest-green dart bounded above 100 miles per hour. With slight hesitation, the automatic transmission would lurch into a lower gear when you stomped the accelerator. That pause was the car saying, in its own mechanized language, "OK, you want it? You've got it, asshole."
The Accord nosedived through a telephone pole at speed. Nearly all of the glass surfaces shattered on impact. The stereo cut out and left us gasping for the air that had been knocked out of our lungs in the silence. When I could breathe again, I asked Gene if he was OK. He said yes, and got out of the passenger door. To this day -- I don't know why -- I crawled through the safety glass, which littered the leather interior like a fresh snowfall, and out the passenger door.
The pole I had plowed down carried a transformer. I didn't know it then, but a quarter of the town had just lost power. Months later, Gene would point out that there were live wires draped across my car door, and a lake of flammable transformer fluid had fanned out below the car. Had I exited through the driver's side, I would have been electrocuted or burned alive.
Instead, I was fine. But Gene's sternum was broken -- an injury that plagues him to this day. A few days went by before I learned the severity of his injury and his pain. There was no justice to it. I was the one who deserved to be broken. And what if I had killed him, I asked myself then, and nearly every time I start a car to this day. What if I had killed my best friend?
Before I wrote this, I texted Gene to ask if he'd be comfortable with me sharing this experience. He wrote, "Of course you know my POV is that I was just as guilty; either of us would have been stupid enough to do exactly the same thing in the driver's seat at that point in time."
It's true, though it does little to assuage my guilt and remorse. I recall our car crash often. I remember my eyes darting from Gene, and back to the twisted steel, from Gene, and back to the splintered telephone pole, from Gene, and back to the snowfall of auto glass.
I remember that we are more like glass than steel.