“The Happy Accident”
A little over a year ago, Gary Hartland was walking along a downtown sidewalk with his friend, Shawn Sizemore, looking in shop windows for a place to grab some pizza, when he heard a terrible grinding crunch to his left. A blast of wind swept over him, nearly knocking him into the nearest windowpane and throwing Shawn to the ground. Out of reflex, Gary swung his hands in front of his body to control his forward motion, then spread them to his side when his momentum stopped and he found himself pressed against the brick wall beside the window. In the seconds before the terrifying sound of metal-chewing carnage assaulted his ears, the street had maintained a peaceful ambience of birds, light traffic, and the hiss of a large vehicle trying to stop. Prior to the ruckus, he and Shawn had been talking about how hungry they were.
When he recovered from the initial shock wave, he glanced to his side to see the results of what he had heard. Three empty cars were smashed against each other and a city bus with a damaged front end was parked diagonally against the back of the last car.
The bus had stopped half in the street, half on the sidewalk, and several downed parking meters were spilling coins around its wheels. The bicycle that was strapped to the front bumper had come within inches of hitting Gary in the back. He felt himself clawing for the bricks in the shop’s wall, even though he hadn’t told his body to do that. Shawn, who had gotten up as soon as he fell on the sidewalk, ran into the building.
Unlike the three cars, which had been mashed together into a junk sculpture, the bus had suffered minimal structural damage. But the passengers nevertheless billowed out with their hands rubbing various banged-up parts of their bodies. It seemed that most of them were feeling pain in their necks and shoulders; though, some complained about their backs and foreheads while others complained about their chests and clavicles. One man complained about his groin.
Gary stepped away from the wall and allowed himself a moment to digest the scene before him. The bus had come so close to hitting him that he was lucky to be standing right now. Even though his heart was slowing, he still felt the adrenaline raging through his system. If there were ever a time to take advantage of life and its freedoms, it was now. He began jogging in place to get in some of that exercise he had been neglecting for so long, and to steady his thoughts. He couldn’t ignore the fact that he had nearly been killed just seconds ago.
When Shawn returned to the street, his breathing now more controlled and his eyes less widened, he caught up to Gary, gave the bus a once-over, and then slapped him on the shoulder.
“One thing about nearly getting killed while minding our own business,” he said, “is that it makes you hungry for life. And when I say ‘life,’ what I really mean is ‘pizza.’”
“Pizza is life,” Gary said.
Without missing a beat, Shawn started walking down the sidewalk toward the next shop, but Gary stopped him.
“Hey, shouldn’t we stick around?” he asked.
“Why?” asked Shawn.
“Well, you know. We’re witnesses to a bus wreck. Someone might want our statement.”
Shawn thought about it for a moment. Then he shrugged it off.
“That’s ridiculous. Come on, I’m hungry.”
“No, seriously, the police might insist.”
“Insist what? We didn’t cause it. We weren’t in it. Relax. I’m sure there are plenty of store cameras around here that caught it on tape. They don’t need us. Come on, let’s eat. We only live once.”
Shawn started walking again.
“How do we know unless we wait and find out?”
Shawn stopped and turned to face him.
“Gary, look. The thing about the police is that—”
Suddenly, something to his left caught Shawn’s attention. Then he hopped to Gary’s side and nudged him in the elbow.
“Dude, hottie at ten o’clock.”
Gary followed Shawn’s gaze and noticed a petite brunette in a blue flowered dress stooped over her book bag. She was massaging the nape of her neck while scanning her cellphone for information.
“She’s your type, man,” Shawn said. “Go talk to her.”
Even though a loud, metallic wave of destruction had cluttered the soundscape just moments ago, the birds were back, and they were singing. In spite of the eight-story buildings around him, Gary was beginning to notice how blue the sky was today. And for some reason, a stupid little force beyond his control was spreading that tingling feeling throughout his body. Maybe it was adrenaline. But he was near certain it was something else.
Gary found himself staring at the woman. His center of desire was suddenly at war with his center of logic. But he tried to let logic win.
“Seriously? She was just in a bus accident.”
“Perfect. Then you know she won’t be leaving any time soon.”
Gary looked at his friend as if he’d also been in a bus accident, maybe even hit by the bus, but Shawn was awash with sincerity on his face. It seemed he actually believed this was the right time and place to meet a beautiful woman, and if Gary knew Shawn well, then he knew what he was also thinking: any time was the right time to meet a beautiful woman if she was there and alone. When Shawn glanced back at him, he smiled.
“Dude,” he said, “it’s either you or me. I figured after what Victoria did to you, you need this more than I do.”
Gary wanted to respond, but as he processed the lovely creature he was staring at, he noticed his jaw was already hanging open. The woman with the injured neck was among the most beautiful he had seen in recent memory.
Shawn was dead right about her being his type. There weren’t many who were more his type. It was true that this was the worst place and the worst time to meet a girl like her. But it was a time, and it was a place, and she was the type of girl he needed to meet. Against all sense, against all reason, he knew Shawn was right.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll go talk to her.”
It had been two months since Victoria gave him the boot, and he wasn’t sure if he was ready to move on. Maybe it was typical young adult drama—he loved Victoria, she was getting bored of him, he pursued her with flowers and candy, she complained he was trying to make her fat, he told her he loved her, she told him he was crowding her, and so on—but he had invested far more of his heart into her than she had in return, and she had known what she was doing to him when she allowed him to carry on in the loveless vacuum he had somehow gotten sucked into anyway. She’d complain when he bought her gifts, and she’d complain when he didn’t, and he was often confused about what it was she wanted out of the relationship. But he was so in love with her that he’d put up with the madness. He had seen it as a badge of honor, a requirement, even, for proving his love for her was real. He had certainly made it feel real. So when the time had come that she finally shut him down, he was devastated, and he knew that destruction to his heart was real. He had learned that day that love was a sword that could swing back at the wrong moment and stab him in the balls if he wasn’t paying attention to its trajectory.
The first thing Gary realized when he zigzagged through the crush of passengers to reach the lady of his dreams was that he was making a huge mistake. His walk was wrong for starters. It had begun as a stride, but somehow morphed into a drunken waver. The more he thought about talking to her, the more he worried he’d mess things up. What was he supposed to say? Hi, I saw you from afar nursing your injuries and thought I must have you right here right now? No, that was absurd. As he dipped and dove around each disenfranchised body on that sidewalk, carving his path with the grace of a rhinoceros, he realized he had no starter line, and thus, no game.
When he got within eight feet of her, he turned around to face Shawn. Shawn had not one but both thumbs pointed up at him. And the smile on his face was beaming. He could already imagine what he was thinking. That’s my boy.
Yep, Shawn’s “boy” was about to disappoint him.
Gary turned back and tiptoed the remaining eight feet to the injured girl of his dreams. By now, she had put her phone away and was biding her time massaging the back of her neck. Gary stuffed his hands in his pockets as he thought about how to head this conversation. Then he closed his eyes, shook his head, and told himself that this whole endeavor was ridiculous. The girl had just been in a bus accident. The last thing she’d want was to be hit on by a strange guy on the street. But he was already there, just inches behind her. And it was too late to turn back. He could’ve just kept on walking, brushing his hair back like he didn’t notice her, like he had somewhere else to be past her position, like vanity or an itchy scalp was the only thing on his mind, like a sane person would do at a time like this. But he didn’t. He reached out and touched his fingers to the back of her neck.
She flinched at first—of course she did—but then she reached back, gripped his wrist, and pressed his palms tighter to her skin.
“Yeah, right there,” she said. “That’s where it’s sorest. Thanks.”
Gary had no idea what was happening. Was he making a move on her, or was he acting as an onsite therapist? The way she tilted her head back, letting her hair fall over his knuckles, brushing his hand with every rhythm of her bobbing chin, seemed like an invitation to make a move. But the way her shoulders tightened, and the way she sighed with relief, was most likely an invitation for something else, something that screamed, “Help! I’m in pain,” but in a soft-spoken, almost ecstatic kind of way.
He dared to believe the latter, which was less risky than the former. It would also yield a shallower reward, but he was content with baby steps if it meant taking bigger steps down the road. He put his other hand next to the first and began to dig his fingers into the muscles connecting the back of her neck to her shoulders. Then he let his palms float down to either edge of her wingspan and back again toward her neck, digging hard into the muscle with the gentlest touch he could muster. She whined softly as she rotated her head in complete circles.
About a minute into the massage session, Gary glanced back through the crowd to see Shawn standing alone by the shop entrance. He mouthed the words “help me” at him. Shawn turned both thumbs upward and widened his smile. That was the best advice he would give.
Gary shrugged. He was basically on his own now. He knew nothing about this girl, including her name or why she was on the bus, but he did know she was absurdly attractive and, though he couldn’t place his finger on it initially, he had breathed her in long enough to pinpoint the fragrance, so now he knew; she smelled like coconuts. Not enough information to glean the future of their relationship, but certainly enough to know that he wanted to explore the possibility of starting one with her, assuming she was single. And the only way to unlock that possibility was to start a conversation, so he started with the most appropriate icebreaker he could think of, the one that would teach him whether this adventure was even worth packing his bags for:
“So, you dating anyone?” he asked.
The girl was taken aback by his question. In fact, she turned toward him, breaking free of the grip he had on her shoulders, for a better view of him. The look on her face was quizzical. Either she was confused or upset, but she was definitely not happy. Gary stuffed his hands in his pockets, raised his eyebrows, and smiled. Last thing he wanted to do was to appear threatening.
“Pardon?” she said.
Gary glanced up toward the sky as he began bouncing on the balls of his feet.
“Just making conversation,” he said. “I always ask people I meet for the first time that question.”
“You ask them if they’re dating anyone?”
“Yep. All the time.”
She turned her back to him.
“I don’t believe you. You have some nerve asking me that under the circumstance.”
Gary felt his neck tingle. He didn’t know much about how to salvage a troubled situation, but he was certainly going to try. So, he walked past her, approached the older gentleman standing a few feet away. He angled himself so that he was certain she’d see him. Then he tapped the man on his shoulder, outstretched his hand for a shake, and asked the man the exact same question.
“I am,” the man said. “But even if I weren’t, you’re not really my type. Sorry.”
The man went back to reading his cellphone screen.
Gary noticed the girl smirking at him, so he took that as an invitation to return to her side.
“See?” he said. “It’s nothing personal.”
She nodded and gave him something like a smile, though it was clearly controlled, not too friendly, but not icy, either.
“You’re clearly insane,” she said. “But I haven’t laughed so hard in a while, so I’m game. To answer your question, yes, I am.”
Gary felt his chest sinking again. But he fought hard not to show it. He smiled at her, like this was good news. He even nodded to emphasize his false sincerity.
“That’s awesome,” he said through his teeth. “It serious?”
“Like a stubbed toe.”
Gary shook his head and frowned.
“Is that a…yes? I think the expression is ‘serious like a heart attack.’”
“I know what I said, and I stand by it.” She put her hands on her hips. “Are you questioning my metaphor?”
“No, no, of course not. I just—”
“Because if you were, I’d be very upset.”
“No, I’m not questioning—”
“Because I know what I mean, and I mean what I say.”
“Yeah, of course. I just—”
The girl faced away from him again.
“Honestly, I don’t want to talk right now. Just go back to massaging the pain out of my neck please.”
Gary did as he was told. And he stayed there for the next ten minutes while the scene changed from a gaggle of meandering accident victims to a cluster of interviewees for the police inquiries. When the police came to interview him, he didn’t have much to say. But when they interviewed the girl, Gary learned the most important part about her.
“Name?” the police officer asked.
“Nikki Rose,” said the girl.
And that was how Gary met the next love of his life, Nikki Rose.