Nonfiction by Sarah Crowder
All the Men I Ever Loved That Were Killed by Cars
This is a list of men I’ve loved that have been killed by cars. I’m no Maggie O’Connell by a long stretch, but it has become somewhat of a recurring theme in my life.
Mark. Age 14.
You were 38 when I met you; I was 26, and we were working on the same tour together around Europe. You were doing monitors for Social Distortion and I was doing merch for my buddy Frank. It was in Hamburg that I first noticed you; you weren’t an especially handsome man, 5ft 7 with a long pointed nose, a weak excuse of a jawline and facial hair so patchy and uneven that I referred to you as “Shitbeard” before (and after) I learned your name, but I was inexplicably drawn to you. The members of Social D’s crew and band that weren’t in AA met up at a bar with our guys one night in Hamburg; you bought me a cider and told me it was “basically over” between you and your girlfriend Kim and that it had been for ages. I recognized that you were spinning a yarn as old as time itself but I fell for it anyway. We ended up back in your hotel room that night tracing constellations on each other’s skin and telling ghost stories.
It is the only time in my life I can pin point the exact moment I started that heady descent into being in love with someone. You told me about the time your cat went missing and how it turned up with it’s blood “all drained out”. “It was aliens”, you said completely seriously. “It had to be”. There was no other explanation apparently because of how high your garden fence was. I don’t know if it was your endearingly strong belief in something otherworldly and absurd, or because you told the story so beautifully.
Every person has a different way of telling you the story of themselves. Some will make you work for it, prising it out of them so you have to earn little pieces to put together. Some will vomit the whole thing out in the first hour of meeting them. In the 21st century most of us (myself included) are telling our stories with somewhat clumsy blog posts, “#tbt’s” on Instagram and overshares on Facebook at 3am. You were a really gifted storyteller; I realized later that if anyone else had told me that cat abduction story I might have found it endearing or hilarious but I wouldn’t have wondered what kind of cake we might have at our wedding. I fell for the storytelling, the ability to make every moment in your life sound like a short story I wished I had written. You had perfected the art of self-mythologizing and it was a beautiful thing to witness no matter how much of it was true.
You were 14 years old and living in a Californian town called Ramona when you were run over and killed. I think I remember you saying you were on your way out of school. You were dead for one minute, or two? I was excited to hear a first person account of what it’s like to be dead and what is waiting for us on the other side. I craved reassurance; I needed to hear something that could comfort me and assuage my great anxieties about dying. I pleaded with you to tell me if you remembered anything when you were gone, what I got was “Trust me, you don’t want to know.”
Dad. Age 44.
I knew you were going to die that year. Mum did too. I said it out loud; “He’ll never make it to the end of the year” after that time you turned up on our doorstep unexpectedly. I was 17 and it was the first time I had seen you in 3 years. The previous time was when I bumped into you at a local dealer’s house. I had come over after school with my friend so she could pick up a speedball and you were stood behind Juanita in the doorway. You kept telling me how I would become an addict or an alcoholic one day and that it was in my genes so I couldn’t escape it.
You looked awful the last time I saw you. Your cheekbones were still high only the skin was clinging tighter, your eyes were still a grey shade of green but sunken and the light behind them was dimming; nearly extinguished completely. You told us about the rehab programme you’d been accepted in to and how amazing it was. You were going to sort your life out completely; get off the heroin, do anger management, get happy and everything would be okay. Except it wouldn’t; you were too far gone for fixing and things would never be okay. You were doomed from the age of 7 when your mum died and left you and your sister living with your dad. You had to deal with the young men he bought home and paid to fuck; his excessive drinking, not bothering to feed you, beating you and neglecting you. You’d go to school skinny and sad looking, stinking of piss from wetting the bed the night before and you’d get beat up there too.
It was the obviously aggressive knock of policemen at the door. Mum was still a stoner back then and she was convinced that we were being raided; a 3 am raid on a council house in the middle of the Surrey countryside for less than an eighth of hash seemed rational to her at the time. When they told us the news I said to Mum “It’s funny isn’t it?” She said it really wasn’t. “I just mean, you’d have thought it would be the heroin that got him, not a hit and run”. I claimed to have gone through all the stages of grief and I was sure I was still fine to go to WOMAD festival that afternoon so I caught the train there convinced that the pain wouldn’t catch up with me.
I got back from the festival a few days later and Mum said she had to tell me that I could visit your body. She pleaded with me not to, but I went against her wishes. I had been wrong about finishing up with the grieving process and in less than a day the pain had hit hard. I figured if I went into the pain and ran hard as a motherfucker into the flames of grief then I could get through it faster. I’d feel awful for a week and that would be my allotted amount of pain. I wouldn’t have to endure months of grief dragging itself out and interfering with my life.
I remember you were on a cold metal slab in the hospital. I think it might have been a big industrial size chest of drawers full of bodies. Usually the body is drained of blood and filled with some kind of preservative. They apply make-up and put their best clothes are put on, but you had hepatitis and they didn’t want to go near your blood. You were three or four days dead when I saw you. Your skin was jaundice yellow and your pores were as big as saucers. Your head was slightly twisted to the side so I could see where they’d sewn your neck up, your mouth was hanging open and one eye was too. You looked like a fucking monster. Did I scream? Did I run out of the room for before returning? I think I did but it’s all a blur. The air was so cold and thick in that room and it stunk of sterilized death. There wasn’t an ounce of you left inside that body, it was so clearly a shell and you had left it. I got a lock of your soft hair (it smelled like baby hair) and we left. Mum was playing Norah Jones in the car and now I can’t listen to that album without thinking of the heavy stench of death.
Your yellow faced dead head attached itself to your living body every time I recalled an old memory of you. Us cycling down the old railway tracks (your dead head nearly falling off your body), teaching me how to use chopsticks in Chinatown (ghoulish mouth hanging open), taking us with you when you were selling drugs (just the white of one eye freakishly exposed) and claiming you were a soap salesman (“I’m keeping people clean”). I made lists of the memories and I kept trying to recall them until finally sat atop your neck was your real-life head with wet alive eyes and a mouth that could speak and normal sized pores. We were picking mushrooms in the woods, building rocket ships out of cardboard boxes, playing with you in the Samba band, sitting in the back of your Volkswagen camper van, you telling me the name of your ska/reggae band (“Bud Dub, but do you get why it’s funny Sarah?”) and you were fully alive. Except of course, you weren’t and couldn’t ever be again. I suddenly had this finite amount of experiences with you and there was no way of accumulating more, if anything, as memories fade, they would diminish over time.
It wasn’t just that there were no more experiences to be had; it was also that there was no time for you to come good as a dad; yours is a story with no redemption. There were two choices, be bitter or forgive. Forgive you for years of breaking promises and being absent, forgive you for the legacy of violence you left us with, forgive you for racking up so much debt that people wanted to murder you and we lived in fear of them coming to our house, forgive you for the ways you wronged others, forgive you for ending up in jail the day I was May Queen. Forgiveness meant trying to understand. Forgiveness meant recognizing the parts of me that are like the worst parts of you. Forgiveness for me meant forgiving everyone like you, and that’s not always the healthiest thing. But holding on to the resentment would have been worse.
You were 23 when you met Mum in the pub and she was 20. She said she needed somewhere to live and your relationship started by you offering to let her move in with you. You lived in a caravan in a commune and then in a shed in your brother in law’s back garden. Mum was 21 when she got pregnant with me and you beat her up so bad that she had blood clots coming out of her nose. You moved into a halfway house when I was born and then a council flat, until eventually we all lived in a council house with a front garden, back garden and a fireplace. My first of three brothers had arrived by then. I don’t remember those days, they’re all buried somewhere deep in the recesses of my mind. I will deal with them when they inevitably resurface. I know, from talking to Mum that there was a lot of violence.
You had been a heroin addict before you met Mum but cleaned up in hospital after contracting hepatitis from sharing needles, and then relapsed a year or two after you left us. You were dealing drugs, you were making okay money, you lived in a nice house with an astrologer and you drove a black Saab. You were smuggling too and you gave away one of your cars because you were convinced the police were following you and you couldn’t find the 9 bar you had hidden inside one of the door panels. Lots of money, lots of pain and easy access to drugs isn’t a great cocktail; though I guess it felt like it at the time. You ended up in lots of debt to the dealers above you, or above them; 25 grand or 2 grand or 10 grand. I never got a definitive answer on the amount but it was enough for them to pistol whip and beat you up with a pole in some pub toilets, it was enough for them to offer money (apparently to one of my schoolmates) for your address, it was enough for them to threaten to murder you and for us to have to leave the house in the middle of the night before my tenth birthday because you thought they were coming over.
They kept your body for two months after you died whilst they did the murder investigation. A people carrier had run you over; you’d been knocked 20 feet into the air and the driver had got out and confirmed you were dead before driving off. The police suspected foul play, and the men you owed money to weren’t the only suspects. Your dad went on the news to offer a money reward to anybody with information on the driver of that people carrier. He offered thousands of pounds that he didn’t have. I didn’t care if they found your killer or killers; I had no interest in avenging your death in any way or in anyone wasting their time in prison. I felt nothing towards whoever killed you and I still don’t; no anger and no forgiveness. I didn’t want it to be an accident; not only was that too random but it also meant that maybe I would have to feel something about the driver; some pity for your impact on their life and some anger about their cowardice.
We made arrangements for the funeral at the pub; it was me, Mum, your girlfriend and her friend with the long red hair. Your girlfriend had black and blue lumps all up her skinny arms from shooting up. The woman with the long red hair told me about your last birthday; how you and her boyfriend had gone up a tree to get high where she couldn’t see you and he fell out and died. It wasn’t the high that killed him, it was the crashing down to the ground, and I had to hold in laughter while she recounted the tragic tale; what a fucking ridiculous life you lived.
I sat in the front row and watched your coffin, waiting for you to jump out and exclaim that the whole thing had been a joke. I felt like a grief imposter every time somebody expressed their condolences, they didn’t know you were the expendable parent, you weren’t the one I was worried about losing because I had already lost you. We followed the pallbearers out while Bob Marley played on the stereo and I fought the urge to dance. Your dad was late, but boy did he make an entrance. That fat stinking bespectacled alcoholic dropped on his knees so close to the hole they’d dug for you that we all thought he would fall into the pit. “My son” he screamed like he was in a cheap telenovela, his zip was undone and he had no underpants on underneath.
J. Age 29.
I was at Stockholm’s Arlanda airport when I got the news, sitting on a bar stool at the counter of an airport deli and souvenir shop that was serving as a wine bar. I get to airports pathologically early now, we only flew together once and you wouldn’t have stood for that, and my plane was delayed by three hours so I had time to kill. I washed my pre-flight Diazepam down with a glass of red wine and connected to the free airport Wi-Fi. Waiting for me in my Facebook inbox was a message from a good friend of yours and an old friend of mine; a boy we lived with way back when. He said you’d been run over and killed, he asked how I was and said he wanted to let me know before it started spreading on social media. There was an invisible assailant punching me in the gut.
I was alone at the airport amid hundreds of people. I’d been to Sweden visit one of my best friends in the world and I’d ending up acquiring a new boyfriend whilst I was in the country. My cheeks were sore from smiling that whole week.
The valium kicked in but it didn’t calm my sobbing. The barman didn’t know what to do or say. He’d already given me a packet of reindeer meat for free and I felt guilty for making him feel awkward with all my exposed feelings so I moved to an uninhabited corner of the airport and cried into my phone. On board the plane I was sniffling, trying my hardest to stop the flow of confused tears I took another valium. The woman in the seat next to mine turned to me and said “Do you have a cold?” She had such a sweet smile on her face until she actually looked at me. “Oh shit, you’re crying”, and with that she turned away from me for the rest of the flight.
I woke up the next morning with my face swollen and looking like a monster. You’ll remember well that it does that sometimes if I cry too much the night before but this was something else. I called in sick to work and lay in the bath for a couple of hours. I calculated what the time we spent together was as a percentage of your life. I was an awful girlfriend, I made you unhappy and I figured I had stolen 7% of your short life. You were dead, so I absolved you of any responsibility and I was bathing in self-pity, feeling sorry for myself and then hating myself for feeling that way. I felt like I didn’t have a right to be mourning you. I hadn’t seen you in 5 years and I wasn’t your girlfriend anymore. In my head it seemed like there was a limited amount of grief to go around and I was selfish to be using any of it up, to be laying any claim on what wasn’t rightfully mine.
I was 23 years old when I first met you. I was drunk and ran towards you, then jumped up, wrapped my legs around your waist and wouldn’t let go. My mental health was in a really bad place back then; I’d wake up in the middle of the night and find I was crawling across the floor and it felt like it was shaking so hard I might fall off and I had days upon days that I couldn’t leave the house because it felt like everything was out to get me. You were a wonderful distraction from my own mind. You asked me for my number and I told you I didn’t have a phone (I’d lost it going round a corner too fast on the back of a drunk Swiss man’s motorbike) so I took yours. I bought a new phone and I drank a carton of rose petal juice from the Turkish shop at the end of the road before calling you. I told you that the world was going to end on Thursday so we’d need to go out on Wednesday. After hours of walking around London you escorted me back to my doorstep in Homerton at 2 am on Thursday morning and kissed me before getting the night bus all the way back to Essex. I was smitten.
We were great for eight months; you gave me half your clothes when mine all burnt in a house fire, you took polaroid’s of every bit of New York you visited and wrote in silver pen on the back how you wished I was there, you got me to read your favorite book (The People of Paper). In return I sent you long love letters in the post, made you a beautiful snow globe for Christmas, fattened you up with risotto balls and hid how mental I was from you. Then we got the bad news and everything got so much harder. You sent me yellow roses the day I found out with a card I wish I’d kept because it made me stop feeling sorry for myself for a minute and laugh. It felt like we were swimming through tar so much of the time after that though, shit just wasn’t easy and I stopped bothering to hide from you how mental I was. I made you phone me up every day to confirm you’d made it to work without getting killed, I questioned your love for me on a daily basis, I acted like a mad conspiracy theorist trying to pick holes in what you vowed was the truth, and I became completely obsessed with death and the idea that I was going to hell.
I got out of the bath and found the book you gave me with a list of reasons why you loved me written inside. I found the t-shirt of yours I kept and the Michael Jackson one you asked for back after we broke up. I found the Polaroid pictures from New York, the decant of perfume you bought me in Barcelona that I wore when we were together (even though it smelled too sweet) and the appointment card from when you got my initials tattooed underneath a picture of my favorite bird on the side of your chest. I cried more. I had spent so much time grieving the loss of you in my life when our relationship had ended that it was surprising to find there was any left in me. But I did grieve for your loss in the world and couldn’t help but feel ashamed of myself that I wanted to talk to your friend on the phone. I felt ashamed that I couldn’t grieve in private and silently. I felt that in doing so, I was in some way making it about myself.
Sarah Crowder is an English writer, PI, fortune teller, and goat whisperer. She runs an online magazine, specializing in personal essays and travel writing, called Gut Feelings with her best friend.