Crash

As the car started to roll over, we slowly grasped hands and watched the windshield crash before our eyes. In the middle of the Mojave Desert, half way between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, nothing but cactus patches and blue sky stretched before us. Our tiny rental car had been carried by high-speed winds and swerved off the highway. Paul, my Australian boyfriend, sitting in the passenger seat asked me quietly, “You okay?” I whispered, “Yeah” and put my hand on top of his as I let go of the wheel. Flying off the highway, our car pushed hard past the shoulder into a rocky ditch. The balance of the car shifted from four wheels to two. The whole passenger side rose off the earth like a wave in the sea and carried us with it.

I had failed my driver's test in Philadelphia just two weeks earlier. Pennsylvania must have one of the easiest driver's test anywhere. Prospective drivers are required to drive around a parking lot set up like city streets with mini traffic lights, cross walks, and slots to parallel park. It looks like a kiddie fun park and the test lasts no more than twenty minutes. I was 25 years old and felt completely under pressure. In two days my boyfriend would be arriving from Amsterdam where we had both been living until recently. Paul was coming to visit me in my hometown, which I’d moved back to, for the first time. Our long-distance relationship remained undefined and the visit was our chance to be close again.

 Photography by Calen Bennett

Photography by Calen Bennett

The plan was to travel together to the West Coast: San Francisco, Highway 1 to Los Angeles, then on to Las Vegas. The key to this plan was driving the open road, carrying with it discovery and second chances. The center of my Amsterdam life with Paul was the Egg Cream, a vegetarian restaurant in the Red Light District where he and I worked. Everyone there was a foreigner, a traveler, and wanderer of some kind. After work, we would sit around for hours talking and drinking and smoking. I loved to listen to the others tell stories about their travels and adventures. Often we would go out afterwards, talking and drinking until late in the night.

The previous year, Paul and I had spent some time traveling in India and nearly broke up. In India, we had met up with his friends from London and traveled together for a while. One night I found out the friends were using heroin. I already had bad experiences with heroin addicts in Amsterdam and didn't want to travel with them anymore. Paul was torn between his old friends and me, but finally decided to part ways with his friends though the strain had taken its toll on our relationship. I told myself a road trip in the U.S.A. would move our relationship forward. The only snag was that neither of us knew how to drive so it was up to me to get my driver's license before our flight to L.A.

I had traveled to Amsterdam after college to attend a summer intensive in an experimental dance school and six weeks turned into three years. The city'sunconventional atmosphere drew me in and relaxed my spirit. Days and nights took on a slower pace pedaling from place to place along the winding canals. The stress and constant struggle from life in New York melted away in my new laid back surroundings. I hoped to recreate those easy rhythms in my new life in the U.S.A.

So when I moved back to Philadelphia, I rented a one-room apartment near the Italian Market and bought a bike, like the one I had in Amsterdam. I started taking Joan White's Iyengar yoga classes at her home studio in Powelton Village. Joan challenged me to observe myself and my actions, my movements and reactions. Once in Utthita Parsvakonasana, Joan said the brain of the pose should be in my straight leg heel and to use that heel like an anchor. The fact that I could use my own heel as an anchor planted needed ground under my feet. While growing up, I frequently dreamed of flying using my arms to lift up and soar above the ground. In Joan's classes, I didn't feel the familiar need to fly away; instead I wanted to stay on the ground, soak up every minute, and return to practice as soon as possible.

My motivation to leave Amsterdam had been to take my restlessness and wanderlust and channel this energy. In Amsterdam, my life had been at a cross roads where I could continue floating along waitressing and doing the occasional dance project or return to the U.S.A. and shift the direction of my life. Traveling with Paul again seemed like the way to fuse our distant lives. He had never asked me to stay so I shifted directions with only a vague idea of where I was going and even less idea of how to get there.

 Photography by Calen Bennett

Photography by Calen Bennett

After failing my driver's test, I wondered how I would tell Paul that there would be no Pacific Coast Highway, burritos in the Mission District, or camping in Joshua Tree… Not knowing what to do, I cried to my brother Doug, about my failures and ruined plans. He listened silently and after I finished, he looked at me and said, “You do yoga, now relax, and take the test tomorrow.” In that instant, my brother got me to realize that my fears were not about the driving test or disappointing Paul. What really terrified me was Paul coming to visit and the uncertainty about our relationship and my doubts about the direction of my life. Was Paul going to move to the U.S.A. to be with me or were we breaking up? Did I still love him or was I afraid to be alone? Neither of us had the courage to make decisions so we continued as if nothing had changed. Guruji famously said, “To get freedom from fear, you must face pain.” He went on to say, “Fear and fatigue block the mind. Confront both squarely, and then courage and confidence will flow through you.”

After the car flipped, we landed upside down, hanging suspended by our seat belts.
I don't remember who spoke first, only that we both asked if the other was alright and at the same time we knew to get out of the car. Paul climbed out first and the next thing I knew I was sliding on my belly in the red dirt. I looked to see if Paul was really alright and heard people yelling at me. People? Yelling? How were there people here? We were in the middle of the desert and could it be that they sounded Australian? Australians in the Mojave Desert? Had Paul multiplied? What was going on? Was I seeing double? I pulled myself up to standing before I heard them scream, “Don't stand up!” I stood up, shaking, covered in dirt and blood, and said, “Paul, they're Australian.”

How we both walked away from the accident, I will never know. Amazingly, the visible injuries were just minor bruises and scrapes. That evening in a casino bar in Las Vegas, Paul laughed and joked about the accident. He didn't acknowledge that I sat with my hair matted from the days's dirt and stared into my drink. I had nearly killed the two of us hours before and here we sat surrounded by blinking machines and excited gamblers. Paul enjoyed the surreal quality of our adventure but I felt miserable, replaying in my head the car spinning of control. I was a million miles away as Paul told me about the photos he'd taken of the crash and the ideas he had for paintings. As we sat together, my sinuses began blocking up and my face flushed. Every part of my body ached as I began to shiver from fever. My body was staging a revolt and I couldn't ignore it. I knew in the moment the windshield shattered, that I'd let go of Paul. My desire for him and our relationship had splintered with the shards of glass from the windshield. I'd let go of fear and doubt about my future and I knew that I would return to Philadelphia alone. Tomorrow I would get back behind the wheel and drive us back to L.A. Our trip would soon be over and I would return to Philadelphia and move on with my life.

 Photography by Calen Bennett

Photography by Calen Bennett


Crash

By

Elizabeth Smullens Brass


Cover Photography by Calen Bennett