Discover more from Ghost From The Past
#10 How to get run over by a truck
Would you believe me if I told you that this was a love story?
It's two weeks after my twentieth birthday and I'm parked at a preacher curl bench at The Body Barn. No matter how hard I try to will the cold dumbbell in my hand to move, it won't budge. So I try again, clench my whole body this time until the veins and tendons in my neck bulge and my face burns. The weight—miraculously—curls up then down before I lose control and it thuds to the ground.
Garry, the owner, stands up from behind the sign-in desk and points to one of the many NO DROPPING WEIGHTS signs around the gym. His mouth is moving but I can't make out the words. On Saturday mornings he likes to blast a hip-hop radio station from Seattle. Shaggy's It Wasn't Me is so loud that it's making the gym speakers crackle.
I like Garry but I’m not sure how much he likes me. Standing there with his massive arms crossed and his curly give-no-fucks mullet, I get the sense that, to him, I’m just another person who doesn’t quite fit in at his gym. A few days ago I saw him running shirtless through town, even though it's the middle of January. He's a constant reminder that no matter how hard I think I'm pushing myself, I still have a long way to go.
When I first started going to The Body Barn eight months ago, I could count my ribs in the bathroom mirror. I was all sharp angles with nothing to hold on to and tried to hide my body under oversized t-shirts and sweatpants—so scrawny and gaunt after a failed gap year in Australia that I felt like my fourteen-year-old self again, as invisible in the weight room as I was in high school.
I'd see them—the regulars, the ones who Garry knew by name and lifted weights like they were made of air—and felt a deep, aching envy. I watched the other men who worked out here in the gym mirrors with fascination. They were older and bigger than I was and they moved through the world with an ease that was both enviable and maddening. They also had something I wanted but hadn't managed to find yet: confidence. It was like they’d been born knowing how to love their bodies, while I was still struggling to figure out how to put mine together.
Hauling the dumbbells back to the rack, I can see that I'm no longer the wide-eyed 19-year-old who was afraid to walk into Garry's small gym last year. My face is fuller. I've cut my hair short and swapped the t-shirts and sweatpants out for basketball shorts and a tank top. Months of hard work are making me sit taller and stand up straight. I like this new version of me and I think someone else does too.
A friend of mine had started coming to the gym with me a few weeks ago, but something changed one evening when we were alone in the men’s change room. He was shirtless, sitting on a wooden bench across from me, with his back pressed against the wall. This time there was none of the quick-fire jokes or stupid banter that usually fill the dead space in change rooms after a workout, just a growing silence between us and the fluorescent lights flickering overhead.
No one had ever looked at me like that before. The teenage me would've turned around and continued changing, burning with shame, but this time I stared back, sweat prickling in my hair and down my back until he stood up and the moment passed. He put his shirt back on, saying he going to be late meeting his girlfriend, and we went back to joking around as if nothing had happened.
When Garry shouts my name, I don't know how long I've been daydreaming about the stationary bike. Garry's holding the phone at the front desk. "Your car's ready," he yells over a Nelly song. "Do you need to talk to them?"
I shake my head, but I feel a twinge of excitement. Garry knows my name. Does that mean I'm a regular now too?
The Body Barn is on the industrial outskirts of Sidney, a small tourist town on the southwestern tip of Vancouver Island, about thirty minutes drive from Victoria, and ten minutes away from a ferry terminal that connects the island to Vancouver and the rest of mainland Canada.
My car is on the other side of a busy four-lane highway down a winding series of side roads that run next to the airport. After I change into a pair of baggy cords and a wool sweater, I wave goodbye to Garry and walk out the front door. I have a long walk ahead of me, but it's a sunny day in January and all I can think about is what to do about my friend—more than a friend?
I would never have met him if I didn't take this year off from university to work full-time in Sidney. There had been a lot of bad things that happened since I came back from Australia, but this and Garry's gym were something good. And for the first time in my life, I had money and a real group of friends instead of just neverending family problems at home.
There's a pedestrian crossing where Beacon Avenue intersects the highway and when I reach the intersection, I've missed the crossing signal. This is bad news because a ferry from Vancouver has just let out and there is a traffic jam in the two southbound lanes of the highway, bumper-to-bumper vehicles as far as I can see.
There's a feeling you get standing beside a busy highway that's hard to put into words. The high-pitched buzz of the cars racing towards you. The low rumble as they pass by. The changing air pressure. Swirling wind eddies that fill your jacket and steal your breath. And no matter how hard I try to fight it, a kind of vulnerability that comes with knowing any of these vehicles could lose control and take me out in an instant. It’s a feeling that’s hard to shake, one that I know won’t go away because there are no sidewalks on the other side of this pedestrian crossing, where there will be nothing to separate me from the cars and trucks rushing by.
I breathe deeply and put my head down. There really should be a pedestrian overpass here. Instead, it's a kilometer down the highway towards the ferry terminal. I can see the green railings from where I'm waiting for the traffic light to turn. There's a walking trail on my side of the highway and I decide to take it. Even though further and I'll have to double back to get to the repair shop, it's not raining and I've got nothing but time. I begin to walk, but have a flashback to Garry running through town, and decide to jog instead.
I'm halfway to the pedestrian overpass when I realize I've made a miscalculation. The overpass wasn't a kilometer away from the traffic lights. It's at least two kilometers, possibly even three. I stop running to catch my breath. If I can get over to the other side of the highway, the repair shop is right there, just beyond a fenced-off parking lot full of RVs.
My mind flashes to all the times I've seen people jaywalk here over the years. Too many times to count and I think fuck it. I just want to get my car, turn on the heater, and go home.
I'm not sure how you're supposed to run across a busy highway, but I feel my legs moving and before I know it, I'm sprinting across the two empty lanes closest to me. There's no turning back now. When I reach the meridian, my heart's pounding inside my chest. I put a hand down against the concrete for balance and leap over it.
Stranded in the standstill ferry traffic, a wave of exhilaration rushes over me, followed by embarrassment. All these drivers are watching me do something incredibly stupid. How many of them are looking at me right now?
Sunlight glints off the windshield of the car in front of me. Inside, a young woman has her head cocked, peering at me through a rosary dangling from her rearview mirror. I smile at her and she smiles back. I wave and she waves back. I walk past her bumper and look down in between the traffic towards the intersection. The lights are still red and no cars are moving. I pass between the final two bumpers and step out onto the shoulder.
There's a dirt path over the highway ditch directly ahead that will take me to the repair shop. I start walking towards it...
...and then nothing. Worse than nothing. Because the absence of something is not nothing. I still don’t know what exactly happens next. I have my memories from before. I have the things people told me after. And I have questions. Lots of them.
Like: How fast was the pickup truck travelling down the highway shoulder when it hit me? Did it run over me like roadkill?
Or did I fly up over the hood, airborne for a brief moment, backlit by sunlight like a small black cloud, before careening back to earth? Did I bounce when I hit the pavement? Did I roll and tumble from the force of it all?
Or did I land in the ditch? Was I face up or face down in the ice-cold water below the bullrushes, floating there in the litter and cigarette butts and all the other garbage people throw out their windows while racing down the highway? Did someone have to flip me over so I didn’t drown? Was the bone sticking out of my leg? Did I scream? Did I shit myself?
Was I awake or unconscious? For some of this? For all of this? For none of this?
What was it like for the driver? The police officer? The people who witnessed this from their cars? Are they still alive? Will I be able to find any of them?
So now you finally have my side of the story. Last week you saw the police photos and the news article about the accident. Now it’s time to find out what everyone else knows.
Until then, I have to stick with what I know. A highway on the island in winter. The rough concrete of the meridian against my fingers. A woman waving. The white line of the highway shoulder. Exhaust fumes rising upward into cold air.
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