This Is My Body Given For You
I might have seen a woman die once.
I sat on a rooftop in Wisconsin and watched her car swerve—we’d heard the squeal of her wheels before we saw her jeep. The sound had broken the silence of this nowhere college town, echoing across the still September night. All the homes were dark. Adam, Jenna, and I leaned far over Adam’s roof and saw the jeep swerve towards my parked car.
I remember sitting up, my toenails painted a pink-orange color called Jewel that, out of the bottle, looked more like the sickly skin of a fish, and I whispered the word “fuck.” I said it all the way through, as if it had several syllables. Away at college I could say whatever I wanted. The steeples of my hometown would still point up.
I wasn’t alone when this woman may have died. Jenna was putting out our weed while I called 911. Adam moved faster than both of us, already in the next-door neighbor’s yard before I made it out the door. The woman had hit a tree. The bark scraped off, a hole gouged in its center, but still the tree in the next-door neighbor’s yard hadn’t bent. No light came on from the neighbor’s house.
Adam pulled the woman from her jeep. He reached in and, before the heave of her body, I remember the little click of her seatbelt. A simple sound, too normal. I heard it even over the smoking of the woman’s engine and the car alarm that wouldn’t stop blaring. It grew more deflated, shifted to a minor note, but never let up.
The woman moaned, middle-aged in Mom jeans, with a strip of fat pouring out from under her T-shirt. I don’t remember where we put her, what we did with her body. Three high nineteen year olds. The operator asked me questions and I answered, carefully inching my bare feet around the glass on the sidewalk. Jenna knelt beside the woman, her feet already cut. I wondered if Jenna even knew.
Across the street, the porch light of a sorority house flicked on, girls gathering to watch, some to cry, because none of this was pretty and it was a nice September night and we were in the middle of nowhere Wisconsin and nothing ever happened here.
A guy ran across the street from the sorority house—an athlete with a familiar face whose name I didn’t know—and when I told him we had to wrap the woman’s bloody head, he took off his shirt. The shirt was white I think, or maybe it’s more dramatic to remember red seeping into white cotton. The next moment is the part I’ve never put into words. The thing I did that I’d like to forget most—even after the woman’s sister and ex-husband showed up and saw the body on the stretcher. The sister screamed and fell to the asphalt. The ex-husband clawed at cops until there was the thud of his body against the police car. They handcuffed him, put him in the cruiser, his grief too loud for this delicate town.
An hour later, it was all over. Adam, Jenna and I were back on his roof, smoking weed again. I held my feet and pretended my cold hands were keeping them warm. I wondered why, in a night this clear, I couldn’t find the Big Dipper. Adam drank long gulps from a handle of whiskey. The things we said to one another were short and clipped because Jenna still had some of the woman’s blood in her hair but she was too afraid to be alone and shower it away. She handed me the joint and I looked down at the cops when I inhaled.
I made sure the end lit up bright in the darkness. The cops looked up at us occasionally, pointed and said, “Yeah that’s them.” Their voices just soft hums in the empty street, supervising while the tow-truck guy cleaned up leftover metal and glass. The cops pretended they couldn’t smell the weed, maybe as a reward because we’d done a good thing, maybe because they understood the need to un-see something.
Adam passed me the whiskey in exchange for the joint and I drank it even though I hated it because a part of me believed if I burned my throat long enough, maybe it could take away the soft planes of my feet, the hole in the tree, the gleam of my unharmed car sitting below us, these things which only reminded me, not of what I’d seen, but of what I’d done.
In the moment I hated most, the athlete took off his shirt, gave this bit of himself without question. A woman’s body spilled onto a white T-shirt, a woman lying on the grass with tequila on her breath, dying—that’s what was probably happening, I knew that—but what I was focusing on was the ripple of this man’s hard muscle unveiled next to me, so close I could smell his woody cologne over the burning rubber and metal.
I didn’t stare at the woman, whose symptoms I should’ve been relaying back to the operator. I stared at the athlete’s chest—an expanse of skin, solid and unlike everything around me, gleaming in the soft orange streetlamp. There was the voice of the operator in my ear, the fuzzy borders of my mind, and the commotion of voices yelling, but there was this, too—this male chest that looked like I could run my tongue across it, its warm skin cooling rapidly against the night.
I knew there was Adam and Jenna, the athlete too, all kneeling beside the woman, and I knew they were speaking to me, asking me what to do—all of us just a bunch of kids, really—because I was the one with the phone, the portal to the only adult around. All I had to do was repeat information, be a parrot for the operator, for the dying woman who could do nothing but moan in front of us and clutch her stomach—which was not bleeding and I didn’t think that was a good sign. But I was nineteen and high and the only thing I knew how to do was feel.
What I knew was that the rush this naked chest gave me was primal and good and I was pretty sure I’d never needed anything more than this chest on top of me. I told myself the weight of the athlete’s chest would smother me, erase the way I’d whispered “fuck” on the roof and the flash of relief I felt when the woman’s jeep smashed into the tree instead of my parked car.
Back on the roof, Jenna sighed next to me and the cops waved goodbye, but still the three of us said nothing. I knew, even as I scraped my bare feet against the rough shingles, that it wouldn’t have worked. The athlete’s chest, the weed, the whiskey, none of it would ever be enough to make me forget that in the midst of broken metal and blood and dying bodies, what I’d felt was desire.
The wind picked up, like the God I’d once believed in telling us all to shhh, and I couldn’t decide if that was comforting or cruel. I held out my hand for the whiskey but what I needed was to know if Jenna and Adam had connected the dots yet. If they understood that I wasn’t like them anymore. The woman’s blood never touched my skin, my bare feet were still jewel-colored and perfect and the fear of cutting them had kept me from holding the woman’s hand the way Jenna and Adam had. My friends, who were just as high as me, Jenna who was just as nineteen and female and eager for a man’s chest to crush out all of her flaws. Jenna and Adam hadn’t been the ones to hesitate, to waste five seconds that might have made a difference.
I took a hard sip, letting my teeth clank against the glass, praying for the alcohol to burn away what was left. Only when I found the Big Dipper in the sky, hanging right above my head the whole time, did I let myself ask, “Do you think she’s going to be okay?”
My words dangled off the roof like Jenna’s cracked feet. Adam lay back against the shingles, out of sight from the neighbor’s tree which would forever bear evidence to this night, even when the accident failed to appear in the local paper, when my calls to the hospital and hours of Google-searching turned up nothing, and I’d start to wonder if I’d made the whole thing up.
“Guess we’ll find out,” Adam finally said.
I nodded because there was nothing else to do. Jenna’s mess of blonde hair leaned against my shoulder and I let my cheek rest against her head. Together we inhaled, exhaled, and stared out at the distant flat land.
As of 2014: Hayley Notter is a graduate of Chatham University’s MFA program, where she specialized in fiction and travel writing. As a graduate of Beloit College, where she double majored in creative writing and sociology, she was awarded the David and Marion Stocking Prize for Best Nonfiction. In 2012, her essay “A Wish to Be Irish” was also broadcast on Milwaukee Public Radio. A native of “Chicagoland,” Hayley’s writing often features the Midwest as well as themes of love and family. Hayley currently resides in Pittsburgh and is working on her first novel. This is her first publication.