I didn’t feel any pain as the knife slid first through the bagel and then through the tip of my thumb. Severing it almost clean, just a small hinge of skin held it in place. A cry of shock, not of pain. No swearing. The rush to the closet, supplies flung everywhere. I grabbed gauze and a washcloth, wrapped the bleeding thumb securely in the bandage, then the cloth, and rubber-banded it into place. I yelled for TK to run next door to the neighbor’s, to ask her to drive us to the Emergency Room.
N____ can be counted on to be prepared for every eventuality. She pulled up to the house, her cooler-sized first aid kit balanced between the two seats in the back. We hopped in. Me, still not feeling any pain but waiting for it to kick in, breathing hard; TK calmly reaching over and patting my knee with her small hand. It wasn’t the first time she’d witnessed a parent-sized injury.
I am a skilled and practical driver. I’ve driven the route to the hospital through the narrow, traffic-laden geography of city many times. Some of those trips required both speed and strategy: while in labor with TK, and based solely on physical sensations of the roadway under the car, I called out shortcuts to my husband as he raced us through the dark streets, arriving mere minutes before TK was born.
I know my way up there.
N____, however, is a very cautious driver. She would probably prefer not to drive at all if she could avoid it. She is a person who drives at, or slightly below, the posted speed limits. She will not be hurried and, knowing this, she tries to distract me by brightly making small talk.
N____ pulls slowly into the empty street, comes to a complete stop at the stop sign, and drives north through the neighborhood.
I would have turned south.
She continues on, sure to stop at each of the next two corners, finally turning west onto a major arterial which has, as I well know, three long, congested traffic stops between it and the highway.
I would have cut south through back roads and turned towards the interstate at least two miles closer to the hospital.
In the time it takes N____ to reach the first intersection, the one with the longest light, I would have been at highway, gauging its traffic to plan my next move.
We are a quarter mile in the wrong direction. I would have been long gone.
I want to ask where the hell she’s going, but it is getting more difficult to keep pressure on my thumb. I know as well as anybody the first rule of first aid: apply pressure to a bleeding wound. I’m lightheaded and a little freaked out, but I am also aware that N____ is doing me a kindness on a sunny, summer afternoon in Seattle when no one else can. She is doing her best and I just need to keep my mouth shut, press my thumb into the roof of the car because it’s too tiring to keep the pressure on it any other way, and breathe.
Grinding minutes later and we’re still at that first light. The car is inching forward. A long line of traffic waits for the light to change, and when the occasional car turns right, we move haltingly forward just enough. My thumb has started throbbing and pain is searing its way into my consciousness. I listen to but can’t hear N____ and TK talking. Occasionally I’m asked, “Are you doing okay?” Her concerned eyes inspect me from the rearview mirror. I make sure to focus on her question, “Uh, huh.”
The light finally changes. Cars in front of us start forward, then pause as they turn to let pedestrians make their excruciating way across the six-lane street. We are three car-lengths from the intersection when the light turns red again.
He is on the corner as he is every day. Awkward cardboard sign, something scrawled upon it in Sharpie. It’s hot. He has no hat, thin white hair and scalp exposed to the glare. He leans towards the window of the first car, says something, backs away. The next car and the next car; he makes his way along the sidewalk. He sees the open window and me watching him. He perks up and walks towards us. “No, no, no,” I plead to myself. “Not today…” And there he is at the window, bending down to look at us, to ask.
His face is unexpectedly smooth behind the gray stubble of a beard just starting, his skin the shiny pink of a burn victim’s, though he has not been burned except by the sun. Watery blue eyes, small and alert, take us in. His sign droops as he leans on the car.
Before he speaks, N____tries to head him off. “We’re headed to the ER!”
“You’re going to the hospital?” he asks.
“Yes! She’s hurt.”
He moves closer. To me, “Are you hurt?”
“I sliced my thumb. I can’t give you any money. See? I have a bandage.” I’m nauseous now; I don’t want to explain. It doesn’t occur to me that I don’t have to.
“Is this your mom?” he says to TK. She nods.
“That’s terrible. That’s terrible you got hurt.”
“Yes. But I’m going to get taken care of.”
He looks at me with concern. He steps back, adjusting his sign.
“I’ll pray for you,” he says. “I’ll pray for you.”
The light turns green.
The day passed as expected. It took us a long time to get to the hospital: we hit every red light; we had to take alternate routes to avoid congestion caused by the annual Sea Fair celebrations; we stopped so N___ could wisely rewrap my tight bandage. While my thumb was stitched back together by the doctor, N____ and TK went for lunch, bringing back a bagel sandwich for me. (Bagel? “You’ve got to get right back on the horse,” says N____) Home, then movies, then dinner kindly brought over by our Good Samaritan.
The next day I turn north as TK and I drive to the store, stopping at the corners, turning west on the major arterial that I almost always avoid traveling. TK says, “Why are we going this way?”
“Oh, I’ve got something I want to do.”
We slow for the wait at the light, inching forward in the line of cars. He is on the corner as he is every day. Awkward cardboard sign drooping when he stoops at car windows. I hand TK a couple of bills.
“Give those to him when he comes to the window,” I tell TK.
“Why?” she asks.
“Because he did me a favor yesterday.”
“He did?” She’s puzzled. “Okay.”
The man approaches the window. TK gives him the money, and he looks at us both without recognition. We are just two more of the hundreds of people he sees every day. There is no reason for him to remember us.
I wave my bandaged hand at him and say what I wished I’d said the day before.
And the light turns green.