I wait at a red light on the edge of an old New England town square. The light governs a tangle of streets, five arteries meeting at oblique angles, which time and custom rather than utility have drawn. My turn signal clicks in the otherwise silent car, indicating left. The radio’s out because the bike rack on the roof obstructs its antenna, and CD players didn’t come standard when my husband and I bought the car twelve years ago. When the light turns green, no one else is at the intersection. My hands cross one over the other to round the corner. But a coffee-colored sedan, swankier than our Civic, speeds into view and swerves to avoid striking my passenger’s side. For an instant, the driver eyes me through his windshield. His face crinkles with fury under a leather cap, and he yells, one hand, palm open, gesturing, the other hard on his horn as if I’ve done something wrong.
Of course I have. The backs of my hands prickle. My shoulders jerk as if yanked by a string. Then I feel nothing. My nerves are shot from a day trying to get places on time with a four-month-old, from months of disturbed sleep and nighttime nursing, from twelve- to fifteen-hour days alone with an infant I love but meant to raise with my husband, who hasn’t quite gotten a grip on work and the fact that life has changed. Everything I do is wrong.
Go ahead, hit me, I think.
An accident, an end.
Such thoughts come instinctively. They’ve comforted me since I was a girl. At six, I prayed for death. I sat cross-legged on the threshold of my bedroom, the dark, oak floors and baseboards around me, the double-panel door open but at my back. Things had gotten so awful in my house I knew someone had to go. But Thou shalt not kill was a commandment, and it only followed that you couldn’t pray for someone to die. Honor thy father and mother cast its shadow, too. So it had to be me. But I had heard or read that taking your own life was also a sin. Suicides couldn’t be buried in consecrated ground. I had no choice but to plead: Please, God, take me.
At sixteen and seventeen, when commandments worried me less, I practiced by burning my forearms, holding them to the grill in the kitchen where I worked to see how much pain I could bear. I drank copiously and quickly to avoid getting sick and slipped quietly—once, at an open-air concert, muddily—into unconsciousness. Finally, at a party, tired of feigning smiles, I finished a fifth of Bacardi and toyed with a bottle of pills I found near the phone in a dark bedroom. The one person who I thought would understand did not pick up at the other end; the baby-blue receiver lay in my lap ringing, ringing, while I made little piles. These tablets for now, those for later: cairns that led nowhere.
I have never expected to live. So when the sedan almost hit our car, I thought it offered another way out. I relinquished the fight and myself. But this time my son was with me. As my eyes followed the angry driver rushing off, I glimpsed over my shoulder the infant car seat. Installed on the passenger’s side in the back, it faced rearward for safety. My child would have borne the brunt of that accident. Barely ten pounds but able to lock his eyes with mine and find me in the darkest night, he could have been hurt or lost. Not me.
When you’re pregnant, people tell you all the time that life will never be the same. Some, with a knowing smile, will even announce, “Your life is over.” Mine, though I hadn’t realized it, was about to begin, not because my son would provide the meaning that had eluded me, but because the end that had consoled me would now always harm him. I could not hold my life lightly if I meant to hold him dear.
After our near miss, I pulled my eyes from his car seat, back to the road. It rose steeply, and the car downshifted in response. Ahead, bony-fingered trees reached into a dull February sky, seeking the light that was available, the warmth that would come.
Christine Cooper has always considered herself more of a reader than a writer. “When the Light Changes” is her first publication in creative nonfiction. She lives in New England with her husband, son, and the classroom gerbils, Cadillac and Corduroy, who chose to summer this year on her writing desk.