Part 85: Car Crash
We moved to Porterville, a town in the middle of California, away from beaches, away from Riley's friends, away from the world it seemed–– in the summer of 1979. School started in the Fall, and by October we'd moved for the third time. Something went haywire with each house we moved into, misunderstandings with the landlords, lost checks in the mail, arguments and panic about money. The last move we ended up out in East Porterville, too far away to walk anywhere. My mother's friend gave her a beige Toyota Corolla four door, my father kept his shitty Oldsmobile.
In November of 1979 when I was fourteen, my mother asked me if I wanted to go to the store with her. I don't remember all of what happened after that, my memories come back in glimmers, flashes, jolts that make me freeze and brace myself, even after four decades. There was a stop sign Jan didn't see. She ran through it. Was it covered by a tree? Was I playing with the car radio, trying to find a station I liked? Did we argue about that before it happened? A station wagon hit our little car going full speed, and pushed us into a house. The car was crushed, and so was the right side of my face. There were no seat belts. Very few people actually used them back in 1979, hard to believe it now. It just wasn't a thing.
An ambulance came, I only remember flashes of being in the ambulance with a young woman who seemed terrified, she was talking to someone about my injuries. Where was Jan? I found out later she had severe head injuries and a crushed leg. It would take her years to recover, her brain damage changing her entirely. She stayed in the ICU for months.
Riley worked at a restaurant that had a stage for comedy and musical acts, the club was called "Giggles." He managed the kitchen and the talent there. He told me later that he followed the ambulance all the way to the larger hospital in Visalia, about 40 minutes away. I was there for over two weeks, but he had to work, so I rarely saw him. Once, I woke up and he was sitting on my hospital bed, his big hand covering his face, his shoulders shaking. I'd never seen my father cry. I knew my face was swollen, no one would give me a mirror but I could feel it. I couldn't speak, the surgeons did a tracheotomy. I remember putting up my fingers in two peace signs like Nixon did on TV. I knew it would make him laugh.
I rarely saw anyone except hospital staff. We didn't know anyone. A girl from school named Rita came to visit me, she'd read about the accident in the town paper, or heard it at school. She didn't know me, but she and her mother brought perfume and flowers. And then there was Julia.
In December, 2020, my high school friend Julia died. She had cancer. We'd kept in touch all these years, having met in high school after my accident. Julia had been a burn survivor, it makes sense to me now that parents and teachers thought she might help me and encouraged us to get together. She did help me, in so many ways. After Julia died, her mother asked me to write something in memory of Julia for "Angle Faces" a non-profit organization that serves to empower girls and young women who have experienced disfiguring traumatic injuries. Here's what I wrote:
My Friend Julia
By Stacya Shepard Silverman
I first met Julia at Monache High School after I’d been in a serious car accident during our freshman year in November of 1979. I don’t remember who brought us together, but it was probably like Julia to seek me out after hearing about the crash. After over two weeks at a hospital in Visalia, I was finally released with a wired-shut jaw, another large wire holding my right temple together, stitches, a crushed nose, bruising, swelling, and a gash where my tracheotomy had been.
Julia took me under her wing, helping me face my fears about the scheduled surgeries to repair damage to my face–– to correct the thick, three-inch scar that slashed below my nose to my right cheek, causing nerve damage and impairing movement.
By the time we were fourteen, Julia had been through multiple surgeries over a six-year period to reduce tension in her scars. Burned as a toddler, the scars that covered her body didn’t move as our skin normally does as we grow, the thick scars even webbing her fingers. By the time of my accident, she was a veteran of plastic surgery, and a good listener.
One day, fresh from my first corrective surgery, we were walking downtown on Main Street in Porterville. My face was swollen, and I had black stitches across my face, as well as bruising from the surgery, but I wanted to hang out with Julia, regardless of how I looked. I knew she didn’t care about things like that. The two of us were deep in conversation, when a woman came running up to us from a block away, click click click went her high heels on the sidewalk, mouth open, eyes wide, as if she was going to cry and scream all at once. She clamped her manicured hand over her mouth, her eyes frantically scanning me.
“Oh honey! What happened to your face?” She asked. The woman came close, bending down to examine my puffy, bruised right side. The smell of her perfume and Dentyne gum washed over me.
“I…I was in an accident,” I stammered, flushed with shame.
“You poor thing! Look at all those stitches! You’re just a baby,” she said, holding my chin up with her hand.
Finally, the woman collected herself and went on her way.
Julia rolled her eyes. “Oh boy. I’m just glad it was you and not me,” she said.
Julia’s humor was as dry as expensive Champagne. She cracked a few more jokes, and I went from being mortified to laughing so hard my face hurt. Julia said she liked hanging out with me the most, because finally someone else had to deal with the freak outs, questions about scars and what happened. Julia went unnoticed for once, and it was a relief for her.
“With your body and my face, we’d be the perfect girl,” Julia mused, laughing at her own dark joke. We were, after all, just teenagers, but her comic timing and wry comments only got better with age.
Around 1983, we traveled to Europe with the Monache school choir, where Julia and I stayed with the same family in Sweden for several days. The Swedish family took us sailing and taught us how to eat crayfish at “kräftskiva” ––a crayfish party, with drinks, songs and special hats.
We kept in touch, mostly by phone, but several years ago I flew to San Diego, and we went to Julia’s favorite spa, got massages, pedicures, and mud baths. Until she died in December 2020, Julia was a huge part of my life–– there was no one like her. She is dearly missed, and I will never forget how kind she was to me in high school.