Cigarette smoke and the smell of urine pervade the air. Up ahead, a sea of midriffs, man-buns, and retching comes into focus.
I’m making my way home and, not for the first time, I curse the fact that a nightclub stands between my apartment and local supermarket.
“Bro, of course I can drive!” I catch an indignant bellow. “I’ve only had four pegs!”
A tall 20-something staggers beside two friends. Yellow from a streetlight catches on his Armani belt and the small diamond stud on his left ear. His friends shrug and hand him his car keys.
The exchange makes my blood boil.
I march up to them. “You’re taking a cab.” I thumb open my taxi app.
“What cab?” he demands, whiskey breath slapping my face. “I live only five minutes away!”
The words hit a nerve.
Back at sixteen, I was a strange kind of rebellious. Bookish, quiet, defiant. Enough that my class-teacher cornered me in the hallway one morning and demanded that I “stop being such a loner.”
Just tell people you don’t want attention, I mused wryly as Debbie joined me at our “secret” corner after school one afternoon.
“Hey,” she rasped through a puff of smoke, “Don’t be such a loser, dude. Come to the party!”
“Oh my god!” Rohan wailed. “It’s Sagar’s birthday!”
Did I really care about letting down someone I had nothing in common with? A boy who harassed non-native students and used his family’s political status to intimidate school staff?
Of course not. But then, peer pressure’s a bitch.
“Of course,” I nodded sheepishly. “I’ll be there.”
House music and microscopic pizzas greeted us as we sashayed into the city’s most expensive club that night. We drank, danced, and shouted incoherently at each other.
I wasn’t one for curfews, but I’d been getting along so well with my Dad lately.
“I’m heading home!” I yelled over the music at 10:30.
“Take a rickshaw!” the birthday boy commanded between shots.
“It’s only five minutes, I can walk.”
“You can’t walk alone at night!”
Sensing my predicament, a senior offered to take me home. I scrambled onto his bike, knowing he didn’t drink. But before he could kick-start it, Sagar ran outside and pushed him out of the way.
“I’m gonna drop her home!” he slurred loudly.
Alarm bells hammered through my heart.
It’s only five minutes, I told myself, still astride the motorcycle.
What could possibly go wrong?
Blood. It’s the first thing I remember. Hot, sticky, ferrous blood. It blurred my vision, stifled my throat, coursed down my legs, arms, face.
I tried to speak. The exertion was excruciating. My jaw felt unhinged. My right eye was forced shut.
“Hold her still!” an alien voice instructed.
Calloused hands held me down, pushing the left side of my face against a cold, metal table. I wanted to shriek, but only managed a whimper.
Pressing a coarse gauze bandage on my right eye, the stranger spoke again: “This may sting a bit.”
A primal scream tore through my lips as he poured an acidic substance on my face.
I froze. My father’s voice cut through the raw agony.
A single word stilled all pain. Flashbacks began hurtling at me like a CD skipping out of order.
I remembered the frightened sound of my own voice. “Sagar, slow down! Please!”
An impact. Asphalt meeting my hands. A thud. Darkness.
“Be careful!” A frantic female voice.
“She’s getting blood all over my laptop bag!” A man I didn’t recognise.
“We have to get her to the hospital!”
Who are these people? What are they talking about?
My mouth full of jelly… No, something else… I know the taste. What’s that taste?
I had most definitely missed curfew. Boy, would my dad be mad.
I spoke to the strangers.
“Please, take me home. Dad won’t even notice if I just sneak in.”
I tried to lift my leg, but failed.
“The sprain will be better by tomorrow,” I mumbled.
“What sprain?” the woman turned around to face me, her brown eyes brimming.
“I… fell off a bike,” I spoke slowly. The impact; the rubbery jaw. It had to be a fall.
I tried to flex my ankle. It wouldn’t budge. Why?
“I can’t... feel my leg,” I said. Why can’t I feel my leg?
“She’s getting blood all over my laptop bag!”
The world blurred.
“It’s a blood clot,” an authoritative voice said. “We need to drain it before it reaches her heart.”
My right eye was bandaged shut. Painfully bright lights assaulted the other.
A slender figure appeared by my side. She smelled like flowers and printer ink. The woman from the road, I think.
The woman who saved my life.
“I called your father,” she spoke softly in my ear. “He’s here.”
If I didn’t die, my parents were probably going to kill me.
“My cigarettes,” I whispered desperately. “Please, you have to hide my smokes!”
As I lay bleeding, partially clothed on an operating table, all I could worry about were cigarettes and curfews.
“Stay safe,” she said, planting a quick kiss on my cheek. “I’ll come and visit soon.”
I would never see her again.
I moved to sit upright, but it was like staring hopelessly at an engine that wouldn’t start – except, in this case, it was my body.
The doctor would later explain that I was suffering from spinal paralysis.
I also had scorched flesh on the back of my left hand; abrasions across both arms; agony in my ribs when I coughed or inhaled; gashes everywhere, and clumps of dried blood on my scalp.
Hospital staff shouted incomprehensible words to me in guttural Marathi as an abrasive specialist pushed an ultrasound wand to test internal bruising.
Someone asked if I was feeling nauseated. Did I know my name? Could I breathe?
I wondered just how awfully my head had been split open.
“Dad?” I called weakly. “I’m sorry.”
Doctors prodded me with needles, wheeled me from ICU to CCU wards, and said things like, “She may not make it,” to my father.
The best orthopaedic surgeon in the country said there was nothing he could do – my body was so battered that it was impossible for him operate on my leg. I would have to remain in intensive care until the internal injuries and haematoma were taken care of.
My father’s eyes shined with unshed tears as we both tacitly accepted that I may not live through the night.
Soon, Mum would fly in, only to stare, horrorstruck, at her broken child. Shame and grief enveloped my chest, and I gasped for air.
Five minutes, I wanted to tell them. It was five minutes away.
I was sixteen years old, and I had made a colossal mistake.
Later, I wondered what had happened to Sagar. Was he as broken as I was?
“You needn’t worry about your boyfriend,” my doctor scoffed when I asked.
“He’s not my—”
“He’s only sprained his little toe.”
It wasn’t as if I wanted Sagar as badly injured as I was. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy. But, the injustice–
“Your generation is the worst,” doc prattled on, interrupting my thoughts.“Underage drinking, and to top that off drivi—”
During surgery, I learned of every type of pain –– needles in my spine, watching doctors draw circles where they would slice me open, hearing alien sounds of drilling and sawing and the revelation that they were coming from my own leg.
And then I spent 20 days recovering in a hospital bed. 20 days. 480 hours of hellish pain.
I began to wish I had died on Sagar’s birthday. It would’ve been easier on my family, who had now resumed their bickering, pretending I couldn’t hear what a financial burden I’d become.
Tobacco-scented policemen came to make obligatory inquiries.
And I was finally told what happened while I was under clinical shock.
The bike had collided with an SUV, causing me to be hurled a few feet into the air. I had fallen on the road opposite my house, the impact dislocating my jaw, splitting open my head, burning through my skin, and nearly taking out an eye.
A large, red Tavera then ran over me, ripping through my femur and crushing my spine.
Everyone tells me how lucky I was to have blacked out.
Twenty days later, when I was finally permitted to go home, I asked my doctor if I would ever walk again.
“With physiotherapy,” he said slowly, weighing his choice of words, “Eventually.”
After two months of bed-rest and torturous physical therapy, I returned to school on crutches.
My friend Sam drew little skulls on them.
Soon, I found myself eclipsed by vicious jeers.
“Bed-rest is boring,” Rohan would sneer.
“Sorry,” Debbie would toss her ponytail flippantly.
I focused on the clickclick-clickclick of my crutches, letting them drown out the ‘boo’s and ‘ew’s as the resident cripple fumbled her way to class.
It’ll be over soon, I told myself.
Years later, I am still plagued by phantom pains.
At the beach, my scars attract stares. When I first meet someone, I’m asked about the burn marks on my hand. Sometimes, I’m awoken by leg spasms.
I’m learning to live with it.
My fiancé accepts the scars. My dad and I have become best friends. This accident cost me physical, mental and emotional agony that I can never fully describe in words.
I will never run as fast as I once could, but I can ride my bike.
I sometimes walk with a noticeable limp, but I can still dance.
I can no longer sing as I once did, but at least it’s getting easier to laugh.
“Cab’s almost here,” I tell my new friend now, his arm looped around my shoulder as I lower him onto a bench. I sit beside him, instinctively stretching out my healed leg.
His friend glares at me. “We don’t need a taxi! I can drive us home! What’s your problem, anyway?”
I grin unabashedly and ask, “Got time for a story?”
“Story?! Priya, are you hearing this?” he scoffs. “She wants to tell us a story now!”
Standing meekly behind him, Priya catches my eye.
I lock gazes with her and smile.
“Five minutes. That’s all it’ll take.”
Contact Tina Mohandas at Arundhati.Dahiyafirstname.lastname@example.org.
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