June 13th, 2009 began as an ordinary day. There was perhaps a little extra excitement as I drove to a Giants game, expecting an evening of baseball and beer.
Then everything changed.
That day, my world was turned upside down. My life—everything that I had created for myself, all of my future aspirations—began to fall apart. And, at the center of it all, was the Napa River Bridge—an unremarkable slab of concrete, a causeway for commuters, and for me, a looming epicenter that would haunt me for years.
Those who have read my memoir, When Force Meets Fate, know the Napa River Bridge as the setting of the book’s first chapter, the place where my life took an unexpected and tragic detour.
In the book, I wrote:
I was driving, or what felt like floating, across the Carquinez Strait, through Vallejo, and up to Highway 37 with what seemed like a fun evening ahead. A fun evening was not ahead. But the Napa River Bridge was.
The incline of the bridge created a dangerous illusion, leaving a blind spot a few car lengths in front of me. It was, on this day, more dangerous than trying to connect my phone to an auxiliary cord while driving.
I drove up the arching bridge, expecting to make it to the other side like any other driver, but at the top—a spot of which I hadn’t seen—a car had stopped in my lane. Never in my life has so much happened in so few seconds. There was the throttle, the brake, the crash, the flames, the explosion, then, the sizzling sound. It’s a familiar sound—you could spend your entire life hearing it—an overcooked piece of meat in the oven, a flaming marshmallow in a campfire—but once you associate it with burning human flesh, it changes you.
It did change me. It changed the way I lived my life. For years, I was so traumatized by the car crash that I avoided driving over the Napa River Bridge at all costs. If I was driving, I would take long detours just to avoid that stretch of highway. If someone else was driving, I asked them to take a different route. In fact, many of my good friends and family members knew that I wanted to avoid the bridge, and they often took detours without being asked, as if they merely wanted to have a more scenic drive.
These lovely people were my saviors, my protectors. They spared me a lot of additional trauma. I needed to cope with the trauma in my own time. I needed to avoid driving over a bridge where I had seen someone die, a bridge where I had nearly died.
Even so, I knew there would come a time when I was ready to return to the scene of the accident and cross the bridge once again. I even wrote about it in my memoir:
I will get in my car, fill up with gas just off Highway 4 in Martinez, drive up Cummings Skyway and descend, or more like float, down to Highway 37 and on to the Napa River Bridge. I will drive up the incline, holding my breath as I approach the part of the bridge where my life changed forever, where my force met fate. I will pull over to the shoulder, put my hazard lights on, and step out of the car onto the blemished concrete. I will walk to the edge of the bridge, grip the railing, and stare down at the placid water. Then I will look up at the calm sky. There will be no clouds, no wind hitting my face like thumbtacks. I will take a deep breath and inspect the concrete shoulder. There will be no flames, no thick plume of black smoke wafting through the sky, no deluge of gasoline running down the bridge. Behind me there will be no line of cars backed up on the highway, no firefighters or paramedics, and best of all, there will be no loss of life—quite the opposite, in fact.
For the better part of a decade, I hoped that my return to the Napa River Bridge would be like that scene in my book—symbolic and transcendent. But eventually I realized that it wasn’t realistic. When I wrote it, I imagined an idyllic moment of closure—just me and the bridge, no one else around. But that was never going to happen, not on a bridge on a busy highway. There was no way I could pull over on the bridge with cars speeding by every few seconds. It would be unsafe, even if I hadn’t been in an accident on that same bridge.
It’s this realization that is perhaps most indicative of the odd nature of the accident. I don’t know why the other car was stopped on the bridge—whether the driver had car trouble or chose to stop voluntarily—but I do know that stopping on that bridge for any reason, even a symbolic memorial, is incredibly dangerous.
The other problem with returning to the scene of the accident was that, after getting sick with MECFS, my hopes of driving myself across the bridge were shattered. I was so sick at times that I couldn’t even have someone else drive me.
But recently my health improved enough that I was able to tolerate car rides again. I also became well enough to move back to the Bay Area, landing in Vallejo, of all places—only a few miles from the Napa River Bridge.
The bridge is so close, I can practically see it out my bedroom window. Since moving to Vallejo last spring, I began to wonder whether it was fate that brought me to live so close to the bridge or perhaps, on some unconscious or semi-conscious level, I manifested the whole thing. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t orchestrate an entire move, uprooting my life, just so I could experience some sort of twisted immersion therapy wherein I live next to the scene of a traumatic accident.
But maybe it was fate, or manifestation, or coincidence, or a combination of the three. Whatever propelled me here, I’m grateful for it because, well, it brought me closer to crossing the bridge again.
After we moved, I began taking car rides around the city, getting acquainted with a part of The Bay that I had never explored. It was fun seeing the different neighborhoods of Vallejo—the old Victorians perched atop steep streets rivaling San Francisco, the mid-century homes in our neighborhood, and the old military and industrial buildings on Mare Island.
On one such trip to Mare Island, I asked my mom to drive to the north end of the island, where the Napa River Bridge connected it to the mainland. And then there it was. For the first time in years, the Napa River Bridge was right in front of me.
It looked like . . . a bridge. It didn’t have the history and mystique of the Golden Gate Bridge or the modernity of the new Bay Bridge or even the length of the Richmond Bridge. There was very little, if anything, that stood out about the Napa River Bridge, except for the significance it held in my mind.
I asked my mom to pull over a hundred yards away from the bridge. I waited for a few minutes, taking photos of the arching causeway, contemplating whether I was ready to do the thing I had been waiting a decade to do. I’m not sure if my mom knew what I was thinking, but she at least must have been aware of the bridge—we were nearly at the foot of it.
I took a few more photos, and then I went for it. I asked my mom to drive across the bridge. The only problem was that we were facing the wrong direction. If I truly wanted to come full-circle and finish what I had started that fateful day in 2009, I had to cross the bridge going westbound—from the mainland, not from Mare Island. This meant I would have to cross it twice.
My mom merged onto the highway and drove up the bridge going eastbound, as I craned my neck for glimpses across the median. We made it to the top of the bridge, and my phone lit up. I could see the spot where the accident had happened. There were cars whizzing by, and we were still moving, which made it difficult to let the gravity of the moment sink in. But I figure that would happen when we got off and turned around for the real thing—the proper crossing of the bridge.
We descended the bridge and got off at the next exit. Then we crossed the highway and drove up the bridge from the other side, retracing the same route I had taken on June 13th, 2009.
It was surreal, but not in the way one might imagine. It was surreal because of how ordinary, how anticlimactic it was. When we drove by the spot where I had crashed into another car a decade earlier, there was nothing there but concrete.
I stared at the gray pavement as we drove past, expecting to see something, anything, even one of the flashbacks I used to have after the accident. But I didn’t. All I saw was empty infrastructure—a bridge with no flames, no thick black smoke, no deluge of gasoline, no line of cars backed up on the highway, no firefighters or paramedics, and best of all, no loss of life—quite the opposite, in fact.
Perhaps that scene in my book did come true, after all. I crossed the bridge, and it wasn’t a traumatic or even difficult thing. It was just an ordinary day, the kind of day June 13th, 2009 was supposed to be, the way it had all began.
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