Wobble | Fall | Impact

A former colleague of mine was a formidable chatterbox.


former colleague of mine was a formidable chatterbox. A mutual fondness existed between the two of us that amounted to rare gestures of kindness that never went beyond the confines of our workplace. Once Derek brought a single piece of cherry cheesecake to work which he grandly presented to me. The lunchtime spectacle raised eyebrows and I could sense the insidious brewing of office gossip. Even so, I offered the dessert around, enthusiastically praising its quality far beyond what the cheesecake was worth. Everyone declined to try it. To a point, my coworkers refused to return to their cubicles, instead opting to watch in silence as I shoveled each spoonful into my mouth. Derek beamed with pride, babbling on at breakneck speed about how he had perfected the recipe. I scraped the gooey aluminum pan clean.

It was widely known in our department that Derek had survived a near death experience. A star athlete on the school’s hockey team, we were told that chartered planes sometimes ferried the boys to and from sold out games up and down the East Coast. In his sophomore year, the team and crew boarded a plane riddled with mechanical problems. Less than an hour into the flight, it went down like a ton of bricks.

For every new colleague who joined our department, part of the onboarding process was learning about Derek’s tailspin tall tale. The fire and ash. The fuselage and wings. The deafness and burns. The survivors and heroes. His dreams of playing in the big league were crushed. A lifelong personal investment of hard work and sacrifice imploding and exploding in one tragic instant. A horror show of human flesh and metal fireworks.

Incredibly, no one died.

Accidents can be milestones anchored in the soft ground of life. Given the flukey odds of so many accidents, I’ve come to the conclusion that they must be triggered-spring systems like bear traps and are installed well before any of us begin our residence here on earth. Looking ahead toward the future, we don’t see them. The slip of a bicycle wheel, the loss of power on a routine flight, the wind catching a musical frequency to strum a suspension bridge.

We may consider risk factors, using actuarial instincts and statistics to prevent a disastrous outcome, but ultimately, our vision of what life could be, what it should be, is constructed within the parameters of our finite knowledge. From the mundane, like commuting to work, to the extraordinary, like jet-setting into the stratosphere with friends and celebrities, we plan our lives with an unwavering optimistic trust in what we know. We cannot foresee the doom and gloom of what we don’t know.

Once when I admitted to a neighbour that I was a Spanish Armada history buff, he proposed a new pastime for me: the great pyramids of Giza. His tack was textbook logos. The galleon battle of the high seas was over. We all know who won. However, the mystery of the pyramids prevails. Why not invest my time solving a first-rate riddle? How did those giant limestone blocks Jenga their way into a perfect geometric form when the construction crew had only homespun rope and stone wheels at their disposal?

Mysteries, like those belonging to Sherlock, Poirot, Area 51, and Giza, are of less interest to me than the certainty of a known accident. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington, otherwise known as “Galloping Gertie,” has attracted the attention of engineering experts and novices alike for reasons that are the exact opposite to a hobbyist's interest in Egypt's World Wonder.

For well over 4000 years, the pyramids have stood overlooking the Sahara Desert, the pharaohs’ forever home in a garden of sand. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but the pyramids prove that empires father ingenuity. The human mind living in arid BCE conditions was genius. Are the best of our days behind us?

Fast forward to November 7, 1940. Just past its second birthday, the Tacoma Bridge proved to be nature’s trinket. The wind swatted and plucked at its deck and wires, its animated concrete and metal parts could easily be mistaken for plasticine. At first, the bridge swayed as if swinging its hips to the rhythm of Duke Ellington’s big band beats. Then, by some excitement of physics, the movement of the bridge flutters, self-propels, and eventually thrashes in long violent pulses. Quickly the thing rips apart, the sinews of its man-made guts laid bare. The bridge’s ruined ends hang limp and heaving, not at all unlike the decrescendo after a good roll in the hay.

So it follows that certain accidents happen in similar sequence. First, the wobble. Then, the fall. Finally, the impact. Some angry calculating force of nature slams its foot on a trigger and the jaws of misfortune clamp down. Whatever we trusted to help us live out the ambition of our boring lives falls suspect and leaden as a dead albatross. “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.” Mercifully, we don’t always die in their sport.

Months before my own fall, I told my therapist I wanted to have a new relationship with my anger. I noticed I was increasingly losing my temper in public. At the grocery store, at work, at a stop sign.

Once, I was crossing a busy street with my husband and I got a little tangled up with a cyclist. Neither of us were hurt. He apologized profusely and asked if I was OK. After I steadied myself, I took stock of my assailant. Medium height, brown hair shiny from pomade, a form-fitting business suit, the pant cuffs short enough to show off his pastel-colored graphic socks.

One look at him made my blood boil. I found his contrived sense of aesthetic offensive. Most of all, I thought his socks were a peculiar form of toxic positivity. After he apologized for the third time, I growled, “You should look where you’re going.” He stood helpless in front of me, his tone defeated, “I said I was sorry.” I turned and stalked away, only to spit over my shoulder, “SORRY ISN’T GOOD ENOUGH!” My husband and I had moved well past him, but heard his voice spring over the heads and shoulders of strangers to land right in my ear, “BITCH!”

My anger was finding ways to escape my body and live with glorious abandon. Entitled and deserving, it disposed of common sense, preferring to be righteous instead of happy.

My husband had to grab both of my arms to hold me back from chasing the poor sucker down. I was going to make him bite the curb and beat him into the ground. And for what? His flamingo socks? They were exactly the kind of socks I could easily gift either of my children.

My anger was finding ways to escape my body and live with glorious abandon. Entitled and deserving, it disposed of common sense, preferring to be righteous instead of happy. I found myself intimidating old ladies at the grocery store. One told me she’d complain to security. I didn’t care. I played a tug-of-war game at work. My supervisor said she wasn’t sure if somebody like me was suited for the department. That I cared about, but didn’t regret the shouting match we had. A mother in my daughter’s kindergarten class held me accountable for her son’s recurring bed-wetting. She said I had a tone that scared children. Please.

If I have to, I will admit I trusted my anger to help me get through the day. Like a nicotine patch feeding wildly random doses of epinephrine into my bloodstream, the pH level of my internal chemistry was full blown rage. To hell with my rivals and adversaries. To hell with building bridges when they could be burned. Children should be scared of me.

Anger was getting me into trouble. Pride was the problem.

My favourite account of what happened before the Titanic sank is written by the Canadian poet E. J. Pratt. His historical narrative, The Titanic, is factually precise and beautiful. Effortlessly composed in rhyming couplets, but not twee, the poem weighs in at a staggering 8000 words.

Years ago, I attended my only trivia pub night. Amongst other things like directions, singing, and reading aloud, I suck at trivia. Sure, I’ve amassed a certain amount of information over my lifetime, but it’s stored in a messy system of laterally connected metaphors and anecdotes. Accessing it with a single direct question usually results in a failed search. In a Jeopardy situation, I totally come off as an airhead.

Nevertheless, on that fateful trivia evening, in an Irish pub surrounded by my drunk colleagues, I answered a question that garnered me praise and respect for weeks afterward. What is the name of the ship that was closest in proximity to the Titanic when it sank? Well, E. J. Pratt knows the answer:

I say, old man, we’re stuck fast in this place,
More than an hour. Field ice for miles about.
Say, ‘Californian,’ shut up, keep out,
You’re jamming all my signals with Cape Race.

Pride told the Californian to fuck off. So she ghosted the Titanic. They were six miles apart when the Titanic hit the iceberg.

If we could only turn back the hands of time. 

Using hindsight as a reliably more objective lens for which to view our past experiences, including our mistakes, we can track the time leading up to any milestone. We can see clues and signs that foretell fate. They say destiny is written in the stars, but the sky is not always clear, we’re not always looking up, and constellations are never static. Sometimes we don’t get the message or we choke it off during its transmission. And like that story about the young princess pricking her finger on that voodooed spindle, no matter how big or often the warnings, no matter how hard we try, we will not be able to thwart catastrophe.

Do goddesses self-incinerate and still survive? If they do, who do they become? Who are they without their instinct to destroy?

My anger swelled, becoming enormous and self-consuming. I was blindsided when it turned on me. It did not care that I was the host, its protector, the Creator. I became a thing to devour and it ate me whole. My fury towards everything outside of me was matched tit for tat with feelings of dangerous self-loathing.

Do goddesses self-incinerate and still survive? If they do, who do they become? Who are they without their instinct to destroy?

I’d lock myself in the car and drive to an empty parking lot where I’d scream and cry and scream. I was on the verge.

The morning of my 43rd birthday, I was riding my bike to work. I was no more than a quarter mile away from my house when I changed gears and picked up speed. I was thinking about eating out that evening at The Wren, a local fried chicken place, when I steered my front wheel into the groove of a slick streetcar track. The bike jammed and came to halt. My body, on the other hand, was an object in motion. It stayed in motion until gravity slammed me head first into the hard asphalt road. My bike helmet was crushed, cracked, and bathed in blood.

There was a brief time between the accident and my trip to the hospital when I experienced a lapse in memory. Amnesia can act as a shock absorber. The mind powers down to an energy-saver mode, neurons barely firing. Knowing the full picture of a situation, the cold hard truth, could result in unnecessary panic or worse, full mental collapse.

When I came to, paramedics were pushing me on a gurney through the hospital’s emergency ward. They seemed slightly irritated, unable to take a liking to me. What happened? When helpless and stripped of reason, am I thus despised? One paramedic told me I kept repeating myself over and over again, but never revealed what I said. The other told me I had a big fall and hit my head. He told me I might have trouble thinking and remembering. I said, “If that’s the case, I wish all the bad memories would go away.” He rolled his eyes.

When the paramedics were about to leave, I begged them to stay. I thought if they spent more time with me, they would find me charming and we could be friends. They would learn just how grateful I was. Instead, they gave me one last hard look and backed away, “Lady, we got work to do.”

There were times I doubted my co-worker’s plane crash story. Some of the facts just didn’t add up. What school has the budget to hire private planes for their athletic teams? How could everyone on board survive? But like the Ancient Mariner who believes he had an intimate encounter with Death, Derek believes he did too. They both keep telling their stories over and over again and somewhere in that repetition, there exists emotional truth, and ultimately, transformation.

I asked Derek if he ever sensed his hockey career would be cut short, if he had doubts before boarding the plane. In his heart, he knew his purpose lay elsewhere. He talked about a gut feeling and sensing something was “off.” Unfortunately, to act upon these twinges of instinct would appear unreasonable, neurotic even. Worrying about being drawn away from a dream his parents and coaches imagined for him, or how fit an aircraft is before take-off, does not win playoff games. Raising concerns of this nature, those only based on a hunch, would get him benched.

The only fatalities in Galloping Gertie’s dance with the wind were a three-legged Cocker Spaniel named Tubby and a car, both owned by a reporter, Leonard Coatsworth. It seems coincidental that Barney Elliot, a camera shop owner, was on the scene ready and waiting to capture the bridge’s collapse with his home-movie making apparatus.

During construction, it was reported that in high winds the bridge would shake uncontrollably and see-saw several feet up in the air. It was a narrow, rigid thing designed more like a public pool diving board than a six million dollar overpass above the icy waters of the Puget Sound.

Even after it opened, studies to reduce the bridge’s erratic movements were commissioned and completed. Some improvements were made; some suggestions rejected. Resoundingly, experts and bystanders knew the Tacoma Narrows Bridge was unstable, its structural integrity: zilch.

In fiction, foreshadowing works as a device that will set a tone, point to the direction of misfortune, but not prematurely spill the beans. No spoilers. The turning point of a story often hinges on a mistake, a poor decision that shows a regrettable character flaw. We are the captains of our own ships, and yet we are made to flounder, blunder, and fail. Having ourselves and fate to blame, we exist in a paradox.

Now I think about my life in dichotomous terms: BF versus AF. Before the fall and after the fall. The concussion I suffered as a result of my bicycle accident changed me. The left side of my brain took years to heal. I can still feel the sensations of being hit, the itchiness of thick scar tissue, the freeze of my mind.

The sudden and urgent gratitude I felt for the paramedics who helped me has lingered. This feeling has quietly expanded to include everything else in my world:

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart
And I blessed them unaware

Once the Ancient Mariner utters words of compassion for other living beings, his curse is lifted. He is released. The albatross falls from his neck.

The one wish I made, to let go of all the bad memories, came true. I am able to recall suffering, shame, betrayal, and rejection, but the powerful emotions attached to my past experiences have dampened, some of them dissolved completely. Something like an emotional root canal transpired along with the concussion. 

With my bruised brain, it is easier for me to be patient, to be kind, to express love. Falling and hitting rock bottom turned out to be the greatest blessing in my life thus far.

As for my anger, it is less likely to come so quickly, its force less tenacious. She is no longer a welcome guest. With my bruised brain, it is easier for me to be patient, to be kind, to express love. Falling and hitting rock bottom turned out to be the greatest blessing in my life thus far.

For as long as I’ve known him, Derek will perennially come up with a new plan for his future: writing poetry, adopting a blind dog, going to Bangkok over a long weekend. He throws himself into changing important aspects of his life with an easy and enviable certainty. Maybe this is despite the plane crash or because of it. Derek recently quit his full-time job and the city’s pressure-cooker hustle and bustle for the beauty and charm of a rural waterfront property. He’s making cheesecakes, enjoying sunsets, and living his best life.

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge was rebuilt in 1950 and still stands with a new, but less popular nickname: “Sturdy Gertie.” Due to increased traffic, a second bridge was erected and opened in 2007. Now, two bridges straddle the Puget Sound, reliably bearing the weight of over 90,000 cars a day.

The Titanic’s inaugural and only journey did not begin with a champagne christening or a christening of any kind. The safe passage of the vessel was never ensured through ritual or humility. Even so, we can be guaranteed the Titanic’s legend will be resurrected and relaunched many times over from now until eternity—or for as long as the pyramids are standing.

About the author

Joylyn Chai's writing has appeared in This Magazine, The Fiddlehead, Herstry, The Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. Published in The Under Review, “Gridiron and The High Seas,” her essay about the NFL, the Spanish Armada, and motherhood, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Joylyn is Chinese-Jamaican Canadian and teaches English to adult learners and newcomers in Toronto.