Friday, February 8, 2008

Little Drop of Crimson

I’m staring at the single drop of blood on my lapel. It is a scarlet thing that won’t seem to come out no matter how much I rub at it. My hand shakes a little. I apply a little more club soda and salt and the lapel finally comes clean. I take a breath and turn back to nursing my beer, now with both hands.

Three hours ago I’m walking down one of the main drags in Montpellier. Its one of those beautiful Mediterranean afternoons where the sun distributes its life giving rays sparingly. I’ve just finished some quick grocery shopping and I’m looking for a café where I can tuck into my paperback and maybe have an espresso. A man just ahead of me, in full motorcycle regalia guns the engine of his 250cc Yamaha and peals into the narrow street. He doesn’t see the car and the car doesn’t seem him. They collide with a sickening thud sending the rider flying down the road as the bike slides into the curb. In the moment he is airborne, it is a if time has stopped. I stand open mouthed, seeing the inevitable. Grim determinism rears its head. Some primal instinct tells the man to tuck. Brace for impact. He tries to coil up, but not quickly enough. He hits the ground with a wet smack, bouncing and skidding before coming to a stop.

Me and a shopkeeper - out for a smoke - are on him in seconds. The legs sit at right angles, splayed apart in ways they shouldn’t be. He’s still conscious but in shock, hasn’t realized what has happened yet. He has searing blue eyes buried in the recesses of his helmet. They look at us pleadingly. I am going to see those in my dreams for months I can’t help but think. Finally he moves an arm, but barely, meekly. He is starting to feel the gravity of what happened. I tell him not to try to move, but now he is struggling to pull off his backpack, which has been twisted onto his front and the straps of which seem to be cutting into his side. We try to hold him down, but he is fighting at it, and we are worried that we are only going to hurt him more by restraining him. His legs don’t move. The shopkeeper and I look at each other then try to help him get the pack off. I reach for a plastic clasp and undo it, while the shopkeeper whips out a knife and cuts one of the straps. We very slowly and carefully remove the thing. A crowd has surrounded us now; a sea of cellular phones and French voices floods my periphery. The driver is out of the car too, panicking, crying, crying, and shouting at everyone. Grief and shock spilling from him in a flood of emotion. Someone from the crowd tries to calm him down, keep him away. Some semblance of sanity and control seems to have been restored. Then the blood begins to bubble up. Christ, there is a lot of it. It has its own smell, salty and sanguine. The shopkeeper, who I later learn is named Francois, rips off his belt and a woman from the crowd hands me a scarf. We pull it tight around where the blood is bubbling from, hoping that the paramedics will be here soon and that we haven’t made things worse. The blood flow seems to slow. Still the legs don’t flinch. Now he is clawing at himself again, looking for something. He is incoherent, sputtering requests, commands, prayers, while the blue eyes continue to cut into me. He continues to search himself with broken hands as we continue to push down to keep pressure on the wound. Finally he pulls loose, with twisted fingers, a cellular phone from a pocket and half says something about needing to call his wife. I help him manipulate the buttons, and then help him hold the thing up against the helmet. He coughs into the phone for a bit, half formed words fueled by adrenaline and delirium, and then the hand suddenly loosens its grip on the phone. He closes his eyes for the first time. This worries me and I try to talk to him. His eyes flutter open again. He emits a low grown that sounds like nothing I have ever head before.

Finally, after what feels like hours, I hear the wail of sirens and we are bathed in flashes of red light. The crowd parts ways like the Red Sea before Moses and the emergency technicians followed by the police step through. One of the three EMT techs looks at us, then the tourniquet, gives us a nod of approval, a pat on the shoulder and takes over for me holding the wound. The other two unroll a gold foil blanket. They manage to move the downed rider into the ambulance in a matter of minutes, and are gone, careening down the boulevard. I never did get the rider’s name. The next twenty minutes are a daze. It is as though I am watching myself. I am talking to the police in my broken French, hoping for semi-coherence. The driver is finally calm, he gets the name of the hospital where the man is being taken and gives his statement to the police. The crowd begins to disperse. I look at my hands for the first time. They are stained crimson, but there is none on my clothes except for the drop on my coat. Once things have dispersed, the shopkeeper shows me into his shop and we clean up in the sink in the back, saying nothing to each other. After this we step outside again. The shopkeeper and I shake hands and exchange names. “Bonne chance.” He says to me. He is one of those tall, thin stoic types, but I notice his hands shake, just a little, as he lights a cigarette. “Bonne chance.” I reply as we part ways. It seems to be the only thing appropriate to say. And we both mean it.

It is the randomness of violence that seems to be the most striking thing about it. Violence is dehumanizing. It reduces to pulp and artifice what was once living breathing organism – reducing life to little more than a waste product. Violence comes suddenly and horribly, doing its damage. It is that randomness; that chaos of action that gives it much of its power. I remember reading accounts of Beirut during the civil war in which regular violence - bombings, gunfights and destruction - became so commonplace that people began to fail to react to it. It becomes unreal, or simply part of the scenery. Here though, violence remains very real. It is the suddenness of it that shakes you more than anything. The things that pass through ones mind, in those moments of horror as the damage in done, and in the immediate aftermath, that are telling. Violence hammers home ones values. Violence is the great equalizer; which makes it all the more terrifying.

I take a pull from my beer, exhale, and think: I’m glad to be alive.


Jennifer said...

holy shit!

JL said...

wow, that is a moment that will stick with you forever. it must feel good to know you helped save somebody's life. good for you :) (this is jessica)