Thursday, January 03, 2013

You Should See the Other Guy (Pt. 1)

"Get over here, you sassy bitch."

The Irishman and I slopped our arms around each other. It wasn't very convincing. You'd be surprised how difficult it is to properly hug an Irishman in the backseat of a Georgian taxi without violating certain boundaries of platonic friendship. He slipped me his portion of the fare – I'd borrowed my half from The Irishman in the first place – then he leaned on the door and fell out into the street and began his eight kilometer stagger home.

The cabbie asked me for the fourth or fifth time if I was really sure I wanted to go to Jgali. I met the caves of his eyes in the rearview mirror, suspended as they were in the reflected light of the full moon. I told him that yes, I lived in Jgali and wanted very much to go there, and for a moment I wasn't sure if the beer breath swarming around the cabin was the cabbie's or my own – but given the sort of evening I'd had, I figured I could safely assume the latter. The cabbie grunted and cranked the ignition and after a few shuddering whinnies, the car lurched on down the road. Then I scooted to the far end of the backseat to avoid the gaze of those dark and disembodied eyes.

From that angle, in the rearview mirror, I was treated to a glimpse of my own wrecked visage: the nose gashed and scraped and slightly off-kilter, a Hitlerstache of dried blood basted into my beard, a black empty space where a front tooth used to be. Looking rough. But you should see the other guy. Then again, my assailant had been an inanimate object – a dilapidated flight of stairs – and aside from their dilapidation, I was quite sure that they were looking far better than I was at the time.

The night before, Halloween eve, my expat comrades and I had judiciously elected to get tipsy and go prowling around an abandoned tea factory well after midnight. There is no such joy in the tavern as on the road thereto, my friend David "Weird Beard" Lawrence had quoted to me earlier in the evening, and I can assure you that there is no more ominous way to kick off a night of revelry than to quote Blood Meridian. Nevertheless, that initial sense of foreboding faded as the night progressed, along with many another anxiety, along with many a rational thought, and by the time we were scoping out the teaworks for stray dogs, hoboes, and Soviet-era junkenirs, the lot of us were bellowing and yammering and ribbing each other the way all young men do when abroad from mind and country.

It would be tempting to blame this one on drinking – and the drink, along with its resultant drunks, certainly deserves a lot of blame for a lot of things – but anyone who knows me well would tell you that I am among the world's most uncoordinated oafs even in the best of mental states. I have always had a knack for injuring myself, more often when I'm sober than when I'm not. This past spring, I slipped on a soccer ball and snapped my wrist in half with my ass. And were you to dig further back in the archives, you could put together an impressively long blooper reel of me clonking myself in the head with doors of all sorts (screen doors, revolving doors, refrigerator doors, garage doors), tumbling headfirst into shrubs, falling backwards out first story windows, and generally "biting it" in any number of physically improbable ways. Sober though we were not, I can tell you that all of us were perfectly ambulatory, except for me, and that fact had little or nothing to do with beer.

As I tripped and fell up the stairs that night, in the split second before impact, I knew it would be especially bad: less towards the comical end and more towards the permanently disfiguring end of the injury spectrum. Swaggering up that dark and crooked and craggy stairwell, my toe clunking against one step and my foot failing to find the next one, the world panning and flipping, then rushing up to greet me, I had time to think to myself: this is going to fucking hurt.

But it didn't. Not at all, really. Nevertheless, it was not a graceful landing. My face slammed into a wall of stone and I seemed to slide diagonally across it. There was a chorus of horrified grunts from the gentlemen standing on either side of me. I lay for a moment at a truly weird angle, sprawled chest-down across no fewer than five stairs. Then I got to my feet and said – very calmly, I'm told – "I have destroyed my teeth."

The dudes recoiled from the man saying this. I was bleeding generously from the mouth and there was one very large gap in my teeth where once there had been several small and endearing ones. But as I tongued around assessing the damage, I was pleased to discover that I'd only knocked out one half of one of my front teeth. The good news was that I still had 27 1/2 left. The next step, I thought, was simple: track down the missing chunk, then have it glued back on. By a Georgian carpenter. Like my host dad.

We scoured the steps with our matching government-issued Nokia cellphone flashlights and after only a minute or two, managed to track down the amputated fang. I held it up to the light, turned it around in my fingers, grinning proudly and gorily all the while, then slipped it in the front pocket of my suitcoat, where it would remain for the next 24 hours.

The following evening – Halloween proper – the Irishman met me in Zugdidi, the closest thing we had to a city, and he shared with me a brief but cathartic sympathy drunk. Then, before things got too unreasonable, we caught a shared taxi back to our respective villages.

So that's how I wound up where I found myself. There in the backseat, I took the tooth out of my suitcoat pocket and held it up to the moonlight. It was such a small, strange, brittle little object. It had seemed so much bigger in my mouth. I noticed with some perplexity how clean it was on the front side, and how tar-streaked and secretly gross it was on the back. Must brush more thoroughly in the future, I thought. Must start flossing. Or quit smoking. Or all three. I opened my mouth and tried to fit the tooth into the space that it used to inhabit. Not too bad, I thought. Shouldn't be too much trouble, not even for a Georgian dentist. Hell, maybe I could even fix it myself. Georgian dentists, I assumed, were to be avoided at all costs. Or even at no cost at all. Then I reflected on what I was doing, and how truly insane it must appear to a Georgian cabbie who probably hadn't even seen a foreigner before, nevermind a toothless one trying to eat his own tooth, and I checked the rearview mirror to make sure he wasn't watching me, and remembered that I'd scooted over earlier to the opposite end of the backseat for exclusively that purpose, and in the mirror I once again saw my beat up old face looking back at me, holding one chipped half of a tooth up to meet its estranged other, and I swollenly grinned and was about to slip the tooth back into my suitcoat pocket when I glanced out the windshield and saw that we were headed – undeniably, unstoppably – and at fifty miles an hour – off the road and into a ravine.

The cabbie cranked the wheel. The car flipped over. We flew. I watched with mild fascination as the tooth – like an astronaut being sucked out into deep space – shot out of my fingers, and as all the crap in my pockets went drifting around the cabin in all sorts of gravitationally interesting ways.

What those fortunate survivors of near death tend to say about these sorts of things seems to hold true, at least in my very limited experience. Time slowed to a standstill. I realized, clearly and calmly, that I was about to die. And with measured relief, I knew that there were still a couple of seconds between me and that annihilating moment, and that the brain being the beautiful and weird thing that it is, I could stretch those seconds out as long as I wanted to, within reason. If I was about to be done living, I wasn't quite done thinking.

My thoughts came with the clarity of stillframes cycling through a slide projector. How sad, I thought, that this was the way I was going to go out. A car wreck in Georgia. One of thousands. A statistic, if they even keep those statistics in Georgia. I wondered if I'd make the Georgian news. I wondered if I'd make the American news. I wondered if I'd get a blurb in the local newspaper, and how big a blurb it would be. I wondered what they'd have to say about me, wondered what sort of feelgood gloss they'd slather over the desultory path of my third and final decade on earth. I wondered how my family would react, then I opted not to think about that. I realized with some surprise that I had no major regrets, realized that regret was, as I'd often suspected, pointless by its very nature because dead people don't regret anything. All and all, I knew, I hadn't done such a bad job with this life thing. Still, there was the thought that this wasn't the way I wanted to go out – that I deserved, if not something better, at least something more unique or more distinguished or more dignified, or at any rate something more appropriate. A car wreck in Georgia. How passé.

Who would come to the funeral, I wondered. And where would all my possessions go, or to whom? Or did I even possess any possessions? Anyhow, I figured, none of that really mattered anymore. I wouldn't be around to worry about it. I'd be gone, and I knew full well where people went when they got gone: they were just gone, gone the same way they were gone before they'd existed. These were thoughts that had never distressed me and they certainly didn't distress me then. That said, I wasn't exactly at peace, either – a fucking car wreck in Georgia. Shit, I thought – I could do so much better. And the timing wasn't quite ideal. There was still so much left to do. Death, I knew, was not to be feared. But that didn't mean it shouldn't be avoided.

I wondered about the cabbie and whether these sorts of thoughts were coursing through his mind same as my own, or whether the thoughts I was having were the product of a Western education and a reading list steeped in French existentialism, or whether the cabbie had already survived any number of near-fatal car wrecks and simply assumed he'd survive this one like he'd survived all the ones in the past. Maybe he would survive the wreck and I would die, or maybe I would survive and he would die, or maybe we both would die, or neither of us. I wondered whether I'd sacrifice his life to keep my own, and decided that I happily and remorselessly would, if only because I knew what I knew about myself and the people I cared about, and knew absolutely nothing about the cabbie, and to volunteer my own death and the suffering it would visit upon the people I loved in order to spare the life of a stranger who, in all likelihood, was just another mediocre Georgian taxi driver – this, I knew, was somehow existentially false. Whatever happened to the cabbie, I wanted to live.

I wondered about the possibility not of perfect survival or of perfect death, but of mortal injury, and wondered what the cabbie would do to save me, or what I would do to save him, and in any event what could possibly be done for either one of us in that black expanse of countryside, at that hour of night, that far removed from people and cities and hospitals. A sense of profound isolation swept over me. The whole known universe, in that moment, was trapped within the confines of my skull, or at best in the cabin of a 1997 Opel Corsa station wagon that was hurtling upside-down through space, and there was no way of sharing my thoughts with anyone, no way of transmitting them telepathically, no way of speaking them, no way of writing them down for posterity. No blogging about this one. You're on your own now, Petit.

The moment, as I said, stretched on forever. But having dabbled a bit in these sorts of states, I well knew that the term "forever" was only a loose one; that however long the mind seemed to shake the shackles of time, those shackles were inevitably clamped right back on. By what? By time itself, I suppose. I thought about how strange that was, that a moment should seem to stretch on forever, even as it is busy becoming the next moment; how strange that the thoughts that I was having then could arrive in a single flash of comprehension, like a simple and indivisible word completely and instantly and nakedly understood, and yet each realization stood alone and independent, clear and stark as the stars on the stillest night of Mingrelian winter. Weird.

Then the moment, as they all do, passed. The car tumbled into the ravine. The sound, I thought, was like a shoddily wrapped Christmas present rolling down a flight of stairs. My head slammed against the ceiling. Why, I thought, that knock must've given me a concussion. But in the rapidly cycling moments that followed, I realized that it hadn't. I was lucid. I was alive. I was extremely pissed off. I began cursing. Cursing the driver. Cursing my luck. Cursing the universe. Profanities abounded. The car tumbled. I raged. Raged against the dying of the light, if you will. The windshield exploded. A confetti of glass sprayed into my eyes. My head slammed against the ceiling and the ceiling against the earth, each percussion more terrifying than the last. The cabin of the car was being rapidly crushed, its corners closing in on me. I raged. The pinprick bright stars and the gaping full moon swirled past, framed by the busted window, the constellations in time lapse. I raged. Time was moving now. Gone was the moment – all that was left was whatever happened next, the inevitable. We tumbled down the hill. The world crashing all around. Then, a terrible silence, a rush of gravity, and a heartstopping crunch. I was sitting upside down, ass over head, legs to the ceiling. I was breathing. I breathed. Nothing mattered. Nothing hurt. An instant of living, silent as its opposite. The full moon watched me through the window.

So. That could have been the end. Now I suppose I'll take you back to the beginning.

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