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What by Stephen Dunn

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In those few precious seconds before impact I am certain time didn’t stop. Instead it staggered and stuttered and skipped a circle around me: I blink, and the cab driver is honking at someone on the road. I blink, and suddenly a 4×4 vehicle has slammed to my side. I blink, and both of my hands are on the dashboard. I blink, and we are in the middle of everything on a Friday afternoon.

I force myself to check for broken bones. HOW DO I KNOW IF ANYTHING IS BROKEN, a voice shouts inside my head. IT’S CHARACTERISED BY INTENSE PAIN, somebody else answered. I THINK YOU’RE IN SHOCK SO YOU WON’T FEEL ANYTHING, says another voice. YOUR WHOLE SOUL IS BROKEN TO BE HONEST, says a wound. Shut up, I whisper. I blink, and I look at my sisters outside the window, their mouths open, their hands flapping in the wind like small birds. I blink, and I recognise that I’m the only one left inside the cab. I try to push the door open, but it wouldn’t budge.

If we have stopped to buy bread, we would’ve missed this by a few seconds. If I have lingered any longer at the sparse poetry section at the bookstore, we would’ve taken another cab. If I haven’t called my father, we would’ve taken another route. I blink, and it’s a steady beat inside my head: if, if, if, if, if. I blink, and I realise that something is throbbing. I blink, and I look at my knee, wedged in an abnormal angle between the passenger seat and the door.

The average person blinks fifteen to twenty times a minute, according to the Smithsonian. My eye takes snapshots and in sixty seconds I’ve got fifteen to twenty images of an air freshener, a little tree swaying in the wind. The driver has left his door open. I blink, and there’s a man gesturing with his palms open. His lips moving, fifteen or twenty pieces falling into place. I blink, and the words register: there’s no driver in the other car.

I blink, and noise returns: the traffic is starting to build up behind us. Ah, I thought. That’s the weight that was missing. I never knew that sound could be so heavy. I blink, and I start to move my toes. I blink, and the engine of the other car started. I could hear the metal breathing a little, and yes, maybe that’s just my imagination. They pry the door open. I blink, and I’m stepping out. I blink, and suddenly I’m afraid that my legs have forgotten themselves. I blink, and I’m standing outside.

I try not to feel fragile. It’s just a swollen knee, after all.

I try not to think about the things I didn’t think about. They have all fallen into the cracks between the moment that my eyes opened and closed, opened and closed, opened and closed, opened and closed, opened and closed. That is the only place where time stopping to accommodate a flashback of your life is a miniscule possibility, after all.

In those few precious seconds before impact I am certain time didn’t stop. I am certain because the world doesn’t slow down, ever, for anyone. But wouldn’t it be nice if it did. Just for a second. Long enough to think, there are no words for this. Long enough to think, there is a word: your name, maybe. Long enough to think, will they remember me? Long enough to think, it is done. Long enough to think, is this all there is, after all? I blink, and the universe goes on. I blink, and the moment has passed me by.

Stephen Dunn

What starts things

are the accidents behind the eyes
touched off by, say, the missing cheekbone
of a woman who might have been beautiful

it is thinking about
your transplanted life-line going places
in someone else’s palm, or the suicidal games
your mind plays with the edge
of old wounds, or something
you couldn’t share with your lover

there are no endings

people die between birthdays and go on for years;
what stops things for a moment
are the words you’ve found for the last bit of light
you think there is

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