I used to think normalcy was overrated. I had normal. I had a mother, a father, the requisite sibling both annoying and funny. The boyfriend I’d had forever who was on the verge of proposing.
I had normal. And I wanted more.
I wanted adventure. Excitement. Anything to prove I wasn’t ordinary. Because in my mind, in my ignorance--or innocence, which term is correct would be debatable--being normal meant I’d failed. That I meant nothing.
I wanted to mean something. Anything.
I think I can safely say I was a fool.
You don’t appreciate normal until it’s gone. The same breakfast, the same lunch, the same dinner. The phone call that comes in right as you’re closing the store down. The kiss good morning and the one goodnight. Complete and total normalcy.
You don’t appreciate it--don’t understand it--until it’s gone.
I died six years ago. Or six weeks. Depends on where you were, when it happened and after.
The after--that’s when life got interesting.
My name is Joanne. Joanne Watson. What I am--is Winged.
David stumped his toe on the dresser. No matter how many years I live, I'll never forget that. He stumped his toe on the dresser every morning at roughly 6:35.
The alarm went off at 6:15. It took him 20 minutes to get out of bed. The dresser was right outside the bathroom door. And every morning David missed the door by half an inch and stumped his toe.
He'd done it since we moved into the apartment six years ago. He'd probably do it until we moved out.
I'd try to rearrange the room before. The dresser wouldn't fit along any wall but the one next to the bathroom. And David refused to get rid of it, even though he couldn't remember which relative had given it to him. So the dresser stayed and every morning David stumped his toe.
I spent the next thirty minutes laying in bed, waiting for David to come out of the bathroom. I didn't have to be at work until 10 but there was no way to sleep through David in the morning. So I studied my nails, debated which color I'd get when I had my weekly manicure this afternoon. And I checked my phone for new e-mails, glanced at Facebook and Twitter. And I stared at the ceiling.
At exactly 7:05 the bathroom door opened and David ambled back in. “Time to wake up, Joey. Breakfast in fifteen.”
I didn’t remind him not to call me Joey. I’d stopped reminding him after the first year. David would pinch my chin and say Joey was so much cuter than Jo or Joanne. It wasn’t worth the argument.
I threw the covers off, scrunched my toes against the hardwood floor. I threw the sheet back into place, my only concession to making the bed. I shut the bathroom door on the first whiff of coffee.
The mirror was still fogged up so I cleared it with a swipe of my hand. I took a moment to study my face, the complexion my mother had always called peaches and cream still flushed from sleep. No wrinkles, no laugh lines or crow’s feet. I was a year away from thirty. Battling back time was starting to become a part-time job.
I popped my contacts in, blinked until they slid into place over dark blue eyes. I yanked the brush through my hair, thought again about cutting it. It was a good nine inches past my shoulders, a mass of dark blonde curls and waves. It was already unmanageable and took too much of my time. Every time I mentioned cutting it, David would sigh and shake his head and remind me how he loved long hair.
And when I went to the salon, I’d tell them to just trim the ends.
I pulled it all back into a ponytail, smoothed my eyebrows down. I spent another five minutes on makeup, liner, shadow, mascara, lipstick. By this time it was a polished routine, one I’d perfected over a decade before. I don’t think I’d gone a day without makeup since I turned sixteen. I brushed my teeth, did a quick swish of mouthwash.
I sat down at the table and David slid a bowl of oatmeal in front of me. I stifled a sigh, dumped brown sugar on it and stirred. Rain, shine, pestilence, birth, death—five mornings a week we ate oatmeal for breakfast. The other two we ate breakfast with either his parents or mine. David frowned at the brown sugar, sprinkled Splenda over his own bowl.
“You remember we have dinner tonight at The Shrimp Factory with our families?” He tucked away a tidy spoonful, took a small sip of coffee. No cream, no sugar. David liked to watch his weight. He said an overweight lawyer was a sloppy lawyer. “Your sister is supposed to bring her new boyfriend, what’s his name.”
“Craig. I think.” I took a small bite of oatmeal, pushed it around the bowl, glanced at the clock. Another five minutes before he left and I could actually eat. “What time again?”
“Seven. Really, Joey, what would you do if I wasn’t here to remind you of these things?” David ate a few more bites before standing up, smoothing his tie down. He dumped the last bit of oatmeal down the sink, hit the switch for the disposal. “I have to get going. They’ve been starting the construction early. Snarls everything up.”
He brushed a kiss over my cheek, squeezed my shoulder. “I’ll see you tonight, honey.” The door whispered shut behind him and I was alone in the apartment.
Just like I’d be for the next fifty or so years.
“Why if it isn’t Joanne Watson as I live and breath!” I pasted a smile on my face and turned around, the smell of magnolias swamping me. Mrs. Johnston moved in a perpetual fog of cloying scent, the smell wafting ahead of her and trailing behind. She’d worn the perfume for as long as I could remember. Possibly the reason I hated it.
“No matter how big Savannah gets, it’ll always be a small town at heart, won’t it, honey?” She patted my cheek, gave a little pinch. The other clerk at the library circulation gave a little smirk but stayed three feet away. No one would interfere with a Southern matron reacquainting herself with an old family friend.
“I swear I haven’t seen you in a month of Sundays. Your mama must be so excited, what with all the wedding planning she’s going to be doing.” Mrs. Johnston fanned herself, gave a laugh that attempted to tinkle like bells but instead sounded like a foghorn. Her bright red rouged cheeks creased a little with the effort, the little lines around her mouth deepening. “I didn’t give anything away, did I, sugar?”
“Not a thing, Mrs. Johnston.” I’d known about the ring, the proposal, the entire ordeal almost from the get-go. David had asked my parents for their permission to make me Mrs. David Roberts. After they said yes, they told my sister. My sister told at least half of Savannah. Everyone knew I was getting engaged tonight. “I’ll be sure to tell my parents I saw you.”
“Just think, you’ll be able to stop working at the library. Stay home, start a family.” She winked, fanned herself again. “You are getting up there in years. And nothing cements a relationship like the pitter patter of little feet.”
“You have a nice day, Mrs. Johnston.” I checked my watch, stifled a sigh. Only thirty minutes until lunch.
“So tell me you’re excited! You are excited, aren’t you?” Mary flung herself into the chair opposite mine, whipped a napkin open and spread it over her lap. Her hat was huge with a floppy picture brim. If I was dedicated to preserving my skin, Mary Whitney was fanatical. “I so have to be a bridesmaid. I can be a bridesmaid, can’t I?”
I nodded absently, tapped my fingers on the table. The street outside the Soho South Café was an odd combination of slow and bustling. September may have been drawing to a close but it was still almost brutally hot. Tourists found a place to hide until the sun went down. Locals went about their business.
“You have to send me a picture of the ring as soon as you get it on your finger.” Mary tapped a bright pink nail on the menu. “Maybe I’ll get something different today.”
She wouldn’t. She was as stuck in her routine as I was. She loved it. I wasn’t sure how I felt anymore.
“Joanne, where are you? You’re going to be late for your own engagement.” The line crackled for a moment before my mother’s voice rang in my ear. “Are you trying to be difficult?”
“Of course not, Mother.” I fiddled with the radio, glanced at traffic in my rearview mirror. The drive to the Savannah Wildlife Refuge had been impulsive and time-wasting and refreshing. And now I would pay for it. “I’ll be there in a little bit. I’m on the Talmadage right now.”
“The Talmadage! What on earth are you doing way out there! Joanne Marie Watson, I swear you’re a trial.” The line went dead and I tossed the phone in the passenger seat. Compared to my sister Julie who dated a stream of successful white collar professionals, played the piano like an angel and volunteered with the local school system, I was a trial. My attempts at anything outside the genteel life planned for me from birth were indulged briefly then quietly suppressed.
I checked my watch. I was going to be late. At least fifteen minutes. Maybe more. I’d ruined David’s big evening before it’d even started. Some part of me was happy about that, as immature as it was.
The sudden blare of a car horn jerked me out of complancy. I slammed on the brakes, managed to avoid ramming the car in front of me. I took a few shaky breaths, gripped the steering wheel tight for a moment before relaxing my hands. My cell phone was ringing from the floor where my sudden stop had flung it. I ignored it, shifted the car into park and opened the door.
A sudden gust of wind blew the hair around my face, destroyed the hurried bun I’d scraped it back into after I left the Refuge. Ahead of me the Talmadage was a sea of red lights, people popping out of their cars like moles. I walked a few feet forward, joined the edges of the crowd.
“What’s going on?”
A tall black man in a three piece suit answered me, his voice thick with the sound of Savannah. “Car crash. Doesn’t look good.”
“Anybody call for help?” I glanced around, saw people fiddle with their cell phones. “Well?”
“Maybe. Service is spotty.” A woman my mother’s age shrugged, her linen suit sliding easily over ruthlessly toned shoulders. “I’m sure someone did.”
I pushed further into the crowd, asked the same question again and again. I couldn’t say why I was so interested, why this mattered. Maybe it was the impending doom of my engagement, the finality of the rest of my life. I’d accepted long ago I couldn’t call for help or be saved. But I liked to think there was still hope for others.
When I finally reached the actual crash, I sucked in a deep breath. A car hung half on, half off the bridge, dangling some thousand odd feet over the Savannah River. Two men held back a woman younger than myself. The way she struggled made me think it would have been easier with one more.
“Her baby’s in the car.” The old woman next to me wiped tears from her face with a lace handkerchief. “The buckle on the safety harness jammed and now everyone is too scared to go back. Poor, poor woman.”
I studied the car for a moment. Then I kicked my shoes off, my pantyhose snagging on the asphalt. It was stupid. And reckless. And if I didn’t try, I’d never forgive myself.
I took a step forward then stopped, turned to face the old woman. “Joanne Watson. If anything goes wrong, my name is Joanne Watson.”
I turned back around before she could answer, darted the short distance to the car. I grabbed one of the men by his shirt, a big, brawny man, probably a dock worker. “Push down on the bumper.”
“What? Lady, you’re crazy.” He dabbed at his forehead with a bandana, stuffed it in his back pocket. His eyes slid from the car back to me. “You’re serious.”
“You, one or two other guys, you can hold it down long enough for me to get that baby out.” I put all my force into the statement. I had to make him believe it. I had to believe it. “We have to try.”
“I’ll help.” The man was almost shaking with fear and nerves, tugging at the tight collar of his shirt. He was hefty, either muscle or fat. “I’ll help.”
“Me, too.” I turned to see the black man I’d first spoken to shrug out of his jacket, drop it on the ground. “You’d have better traction without your hose, ma’am.”
I yanked them down and off even as the three of them leaned on the bumper. The small car creaked under their weight, the nose making an effort to tilt up. The bandana wearer grunted, sweat starting to pop out on his forehead. He jerked his chin towards the car. “Make a move, lady. This little thing is heavier than it looks.”
I hesitated, a lifetime of beliefs and standards screaming through my mind. And then I looked at the young woman.
I squeezed between the men, shimmied over the trunk. The metal burned my hands, the buttons on my dress scratching the dull paint job. I could hear the screaming of the baby over the roar of the wind.
I had to do this.
I leaned in through the busted back window, hissed at the slice and sting of glass cutting through my skin. If I twisted enough, I could reach the seatbelt buckle. I pushed my toes harder against the metal, scooted forward, held my breath when the car tilted a hair forward.
My fingers brushed the metal buckle, slipped off because of sweat. I strained, felt my arm start to rotate out of its socket. Grit my teeth against the edge of pain and pushed hard on the buckle.
The belt released, gave way, and I grabbed the edge of the car seat, grunting at the sudden weight. I pushed up on my other elbow, belly crawled closer, felt the car tip further forward. I needed both hands to wrestle the car seat through the back window.
I didn’t look at the baby. I could hear it, screaming it’s lungs out. If I looked at the baby I might lose my nerve. I started to scoot around, spinning like a lopsided bottle, pushing the car seat ahead of me. Glass cut into my feet, blood oozing over my toes.
“Take the seat.” My voice sounded remarkably calm or at least it seemed so to me. “Take it.”
“The car will tip.” The words came out through clenched teeth, veins on the black man’s forehead popping out. “We can’t hold it with just two of us.”
“I know.” Our eyes locked, understanding passing between us. “Take the seat.”
Bandana man braced his knee on the bumper, stretched his arms forward. “Just keep scooting, lady. We can work this out.”
“Take the seat.” I pushed it further forward even as the car tilted down towards the river. Glass cut deeper into my feet, made them slick with blood. “Remember my name.”
The car lurched forward and I shoved the seat one last time, Bandana man nabbing it as it slid over the edge of the trunk. The black man made a desperate lunge forward, his fingertips brushing mine for seconds before they slid away. One final screech of metal and the car tipped over the edge.
I think I prayed. I know every Sunday sermon I’d endured in my life screamed through my brain. God and death had always been abstract. In those last moments both hit me with a powerful finality. And so I think I prayed, either from genuine belief or genuine fear or entirely by rote.
I do remember thinking—At least I died for a reason.