Barreling down that two lane road at high speed at 7:30 a.m. in the thick of a morning fog– why adjust your speed when driving in fog as impenetrable as vanilla gelato? – she had the reflex to jerk her steering wheel sharply to her left. This, I later realized, is what saved my life. Without that spontaneous response to my car standing in her path, she would have slammed into the driver’s door of my little red Fiat, would have gone straight into me and no doubt pushed me out the other side of the car. Instead of crushing me, her car tore off the front of mine.
The collision was horrendously violent. When the cars finally came to a standstill, when everything settled around me, all I could think of was that I was still alive and apparently unhurt. I succeeded in getting out of the car and wobbling over to the side of the road where I sat down on the curb. Too shaken, too stunned to scream or cry, I just sat there, head in hands, mumbling incoherently to myself, not really knowing what to do. Debris was strewn across the road, the silence as heavy as the fog. Cars slipped by and zoomed off into the distance, off to work, leaving the scene, nary a witness bold enough to wait, until all was quiet and only our two cars and a kind soul or two remained. Eventually a young woman came over to me and asked me if there was anyone I needed to call as she handed me her cell phone. Kindness. I called my husband at work and explained briefly what happened then handed her back her phone.
I am to this day baffled by the mystery car, the grey ghost, disappearing into the brume as swiftly it had appeared in front of my eyes, swallowed up into the murky white, fluid, inexplicable. A figment of my imagination. I heard from a policewoman, a village acquaintance, that the day had seen one of the worst fogs in memory and she had been witness to enumerable car accidents, many so much worse than the one I was in.
I clearly remember being lifted into the ambulance, a brace locked around my neck. Lying on my back, staring up at the roof, the dazzling sun finally splitting through the clouds blinding me, I tried to come to terms with where I was, lying in an ambulance, something I had only seen on television. I chuckled one of those bitter chuckles, admitting to myself that I should have turned the car around and gone back to my friend’s house after all, the hell with whatever those drivers sitting in that string of cars piling up behind me thought of my maneuver.
I spent an interminable amount of time at the hospital waiting, just waiting, a sharp pain in my chest. After who knows how much time, I looked up to see lovely Ettore entering the waiting room. “I was driving into town and saw your car and found out you were here. I had to come and see how you were.” I went through a battery of x-rays and was told that all was in perfect order, no explanation as to why I was having such intense pains in my chest. Husband arrived and we drove home.
His hands on the steering wheel, eyes planted squarely on the road, out the windshield, his face was awash in a glaze of muted fury. “You almost left me a widower!” he hissed. “You almost left me to raise those two boys all alone! You can’t do that to me!” His anger was both palpable and shocking to me; this was something that had never crossed my mind. I knew that his anger grew from fear of losing me, of ending up alone, of not spending the rest of his life with the woman to whom he was connected heart and soul. Add guilt to shock and the package was complete, but I could only forgive him for his sentiments, his own shock and horror.
As we arrived at the village to pick up the boys from school, I noticed that the cars were gone, no trace of the accident remained, only the acrid taste of the memory lingered.
We picked up our sons, then aged maybe 7 and 9, and drove out of the village, all eyes upon us – who in that village by now did not know what had happened and to whom? I was already an object of curiosity and wonder, foreigner as I was, but now a layer had been added. We turned out onto the same road then turned onto the narrow, bumpy dirt lane that led to the group of houses where we lived. Each bump, every pothole that shook and jostled the car was like a stab to my chest, the pain was excruciating. My older son began making jokes, as was his way, about nothing in particular, or nothing that I can remember, and each time I laughed I clutched my chest in agony. Husband, seeing that something was wrong and seeing that son would not stop making me laugh, stopped the car and made our son get out and run the rest of the way home.
The bumping of the car, laughing, coughing, sneezing, lifting, even bending over forward, anything and everything was hell, physical torment, a piercing thrust of something sharp and jagged cutting through me. Something must be wrong, broken, something, so why did they find nothing? I eventually did what I always do… called my sister who informed me that the pain to my chest indicated deep bruising caused by the fact that I was wearing a seatbelt across my chest. The sudden, violent shock, my body being projected forward and jerked back by the belt caused the deep bruising under the sternum and it would take quite some time to heal.
And so, unable to wash dishes by hand, we began using the old dishwasher in the corner of the kitchen. What a godsend! We giddily wondered aloud why we had never used it before, waited more than a year before loading it and running it? Clean dishes, pots and pans, with the click of a button and life became that much easier, that much simpler. The days and then the weeks went by, the pain persisted. The village all chipped in, community spirit and just plain friendship, and various people, friends and even the boys’ teachers offered to take turns driving the boys to school in the morning and bringing them home in the afternoon, doing my shopping, whatever we needed, until I was up on my feet and had solved the problem of transportation.
A month or so later, JP showed up one evening with my Christmas gift, a bright lime green bicycle with a basket on the front. “This will do for now,” he told me. “You don’t need much more than a bike to get back and forth to the village. And the color can be seen for miles so maybe you’ll be safe!” And I began taking the boys to school and picking them up again on the bike: one backpack perched on the basket, the other hooked around the handlebars, Simon straddling the book rack behind my seat and Clem, well Clem jogging alongside happily. Season permitting, we could cut across the field that was squarely between the end of our dirt path and the school instead of walking along the edge of the road for those dozen meters or so, when the field was dirt, before the corn grew in. People got to know that bright green bike and loved spotting it around town, leaning against the wall in front of the greengrocer or the newsstand. I was the crazy American lady on the green bike. And they always knew where I was.
And the weeks went by peacefully; I was healing and things were getting back to normal. JP did get a bit nervous when he knew that Ettore had brought us to school in the morning; 85-year-old Ettore in his little, rattle-box of a car, but everything was okay. I slowly began to cook again, but boy that dishwasher just was too good of a thing to stop using. This was really our first experience using a dishwasher and maybe we just felt a bit guilty about using a machine when we were perfectly capable adults, but so be it. Although we often hesitated, there really was no turning back.
And then we noticed something had changed. We couldn’t quite put our finger on it but we felt more than saw a change. Sitting down for meals in that kitchen every single day, there was something eerie, something ghostly gathering. The room seemed oddly hazy as if looking through a Vaseline-coated lens. The deep red brick color of the wall was a hint lighter, a bit less defined.
And time went on. And then all of a sudden we realized what was happening. A very fine white fuzz was forming on the bricks. It was almost imperceptible at first, just a streak of faded white like down on a newborn duckling. As the days and then the weeks passed, we saw it growing, some kind of fungus, feathery fuzz growing on the brick of the kitchen. It formed a strip across three walls which then began spreading up and down to cover more and more of the brick. Touching the walls – if one dared – and there was the distinct impression of damp. Something behind the walls must have broken. Our thoughts fled to the upstairs toilet; we had long known that the plumbing in this house was iffy, we knew that the brothers living in the grouping of three homes on the one property had not quite followed the legal building codes, had pieced together the electricity and the phones, much like kids stringing together tin cans between bedroom windows.
Why did we ever think that running that dishwasher – a dishwasher that most likely had not been used in decades - would be without its consequences? But herein lies the problem: we had become dishwasher addicted. Yes, after entire lives of not doing anything other than hand washing dishes, we could no longer live without it. “Just one more load won’t make a difference” became our credo. “Ettore would have to redo the kitchen plumbing and the walls anyway, so what’s the harm?” Our addiction had made us evil, more concerned about out own ease and comfort than the risk that Ettore’s kitchen walls would one day crumble.
And the fuzz grew thicker and thicker and it was impossible to pretend that it just did not exist. By this time, I had healed and was back to normal. By this time we were planning our move back to France. We finally broke the news to Ettore who took our leaving much harder than the white fuzz on his kitchen walls. Our leaving and taking our two little sons, two boys who had grown to be like grandsons to this intelligent, generous, fragile old man and who loved him like a grandpa in return, these two little boys who had infused his life with new meaning, his days with activity, humor and vigor, was a mighty hard blow to him indeed. The plumbing of the house was a trifle in comparison, certainly something he could handle.
We eventually packed up and moved back to France with a heavy heart, indeed. Our last year was fraught with adventure, both the good and the bad. My poor red Fiat was towed away, never to be seen again. My husband refused to let me talk to the police and tell them about the mystery car that had caused the accident in the first place, only to disappear into the fog as silently and as invisibly as it had appeared. I learned about the generosity of others and the power – both physical and psychological – of a good, hearty laugh. I had dreaded leaving the city and moving out to the country, the middle of nowhere, but had come to be quite happy there, especially each day as I watched my boys romp in the great outdoors, through the fields, and spend time with Ettore.
We waved goodbye to Ettore, leaving him with an empty house and an empty yard and a kitchen with a thick white fuzz covering the walls. We did feel bad about that, but at least we left him with an upstairs toilet that flushed. And we did clean the owl skeletons out of the bread oven in the corner of the kitchen.