By Cat Jones
I punched an angel once.
It was right after Sid died, and I was out of my mind with grief. And one manifestation of that grief was winding up in Mexico with a bunch of weed and a coconut full of rum in the middle of a drug war… That’s its own story, which I will tell another time.
But this happened on the way back from there, back up to Cascadia, the place I’d called home before the world ended. I’d been sleeping on lonely Mexican beaches for something like 9 days before I got sucked accidentally back across the US border for no reason I could name. My hair was dreading up and had leaves stuck in it. I was still wearing the same clothes I’d been wearing since Sid’s service, which had been the night before I left for Mexico. I was as scary and dreadful as I was broken.
I was creeping slowly up the pacific coast highway. I’d been sleeping here and there along the road as I could, following instinct more than purpose. One morning, I woke up a little disoriented, and I got turned around and started heading the wrong way back down the coast, back toward Mexico. … I didn’t notice that part until everything was over, but none of this would have happened otherwise. So a wrong turn can sometimes be instructive, if nothing else.
I was so sick with grief and despair that everything was slower. Even my foot didn’t really have the energy to press all the way down on the gas pedal. So I was driving really, really, slowly…without realizing it. I was listening to really loud Apocalyptica, and somewhere in the haze, I realized I was hearing something else besides just angsty heavy metal cello music from Finland. There was this wailing sound…. I looked around and finally noticed headlights in my rear view mirror, thus finally discovering a giant SUV glued onto my back bumper. Honking. A LOT.
I mustered up the strength to press a little harder on the gas pedal. I sped up, but the person was SUCH a DICK. He wouldn’t stop vibing me, aggressively following a hair’s breadth behind, honking like an air raid siren. I pictured a big trucker in a flannel shirt with hairs poking out through the button holes. He was mad that I’d had the nerve to go slow on HIS highway.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been on the Pacific coast highway, but it’s a thousand miles of gorgeous, treacherous, winding road, sandwiched between a rock wall on one side and a terrifying cliff down to the ocean on the other. Not a lot of places to pass or pull over. Even after I’d sped up, this freaking asshole just KEPT going, like an inch behind me, leaning on the horn. I could not escape it.
There comes a point where the 101 is not navigable beyond a certain speed, and I had reached it. Still, the ass hat behind me was not satisfied, and was determined that his horn would wring penance from me for my earlier transgression. Somehow, through the numb haze… I started getting angry. After awhile the incessant noise and presumptuousness pissed me off so much that I slowed way down and yelled out the window – something about how, if he honked that horn even ONE more time, I would stop my car, climb out, and yank him through his window and beat him to death. And I meant that.
Really. I was in no mood.
The sound of my shouting echoed off the rocks and back to me, harsh and unrelenting, and I knew that he had heard it. I stepped on the gas pedal again. Just leave me the fuck alone.
The transgressor unloaded again and again and again, heedless of the very clear warning.
That was stupid. Suicidal even, I was sure. I stopped the car right there in the middle of the 101, on the coast of California, and I climbed out of my car with my unwashed, disheveled clothes, leaves and sticks poking outta my dreaded hair, a knife strapped to my boot, and a patina of just-don’t-give-a-shit all over my body. I marched back to yank that fucking trucker dude out and make him pay for every last thing that had happened to me that year.
I got up to the drivers side door … And it’s… it’s not what I was expecting. It turns out to be this compact, powder-scented, fruffed-up, little blonde lady on her way to work at, like, a bank or a tech start-up or something.
And, there we are. I stare at her, she stares defiantly at me – and I just kinda breakdown and tell her, look, I’ve been through fucking hell, my lover just died, I’m almost too depressed to even draw a breath, just fucking leave me alone, all right? And I turn to walk back to my car. And… and it is here that she made a decision that still baffles me to this day, and that I considered to be very unwise, even at the time. Well, all right, maybe she gets some cred for courage at least: She actually jumped out of the cab at me. I mean, after SEEING me. So that’s bravery at least, right? I’m at least a foot taller than she is, combat boots to her clicky little heels, and I’m very obviously not someone to provoke right then. But she DOES!
That little shit actually started screeching at my back that my lover, Sid although she did not know his name, had “prolly died just to get away from you, you bitch!”
And oh, oh my god, it was on. I turned back around, and just lost my mind. I’d been so numb and half dead with grieving. I’d gone all the way through Mexico with hash under my seat (again, story for another time), not even giving a shit that people with MACHINE GUNS kept searching my car. I mean, I’d just been feeling nothing. Nothing but an empty hole, an unquenchable thirst. And suddenly, here’s this pert little hooligan, blasting me with her horn for 300 miles and then having the NERVE to speak to me of Sid, to disrespect everything he was to me and everything his death had done to me, in that screechy little voice… presuming to have anything at all to say to me right then other than silence or an apology… it just broke through this enormous, rock dam that had settled in my chest. Everything cracked open. I went from some faraway, detached, numbness to searing rage. Suddenly, everything in the universe that was fucked up and wrong, everything that was hurting me so much…everything… it all became focused in this nasty little department-store face right in front of me. Tangible. Concrete. Real enough to smack. And I did. I punched her. Yep. I punched her so hard, right in the face, that even I saw stars.
It was like time stopped there, on that California highway, and some cosmic accounting was taking place. My fist hit bone, and then we just stood there, looking at each other. Just then another car came creeping by from the other direction, it’s occupants surveying the scene with horror and quickly rolling up their windows as they slid past our frightening little tableau.
Snapped out of the moment, I turned away, walked back to my car, got in, and drove away. The assaultee got into her SUV and proceeded to speed up behind me and recklessly try to pass me on a blind curve, and to my momentary satisfaction, she wound up careening off the road, spinning out and stopping in a cloud of dust. There was no reason to think she was hurt or anything. She just lost control, fishtailed, slid sideways and wound up all turned around in a patch of dirt. The last I saw of her, she was just vanishing in a cloud of California dust. I noted it through a numb sense of satisfaction and kept going. A short time later, I realized I was going the wrong way, and turned around in a rare wide spot along the highway. I saw a cop going by from the other direction at one point, but he just kept going.
It wasn’t until hundreds of miles later that it struck me, what I’d done. I was taking a moment, having stopped along the way and having snuck into a Travelodge – always reliable with their free continental breakfasts and their staff who aren’t paid well enough to give a shit whether you’re actually a paid guest at the hotel or not. I had just fixed a do -it- yourself waffle, and was sitting at a table by the window, overlooking the Pacific ocean, when it all came flooding back at me. I thought of her, the woman I’d punched. This feisty little thing with a lot more courage than common sense. Probably just on her way to work, just trying not to be late, and here’s me going like 12 mph on this winding stretch of coast where you can’t get by. I thought about what it feels like to be overtaken by annoyance like she had been, to react poorly to random strangers when they’re blithering along in your way. To not consider the possible back stories or consequences. To… dig in one’s heels to the point that pride overrides sense or caution. (To be an Irish girl in a world of blithering strangers, in other words.) I thought of her little nylons, and how she was all wrapped up in a little mall dress, trying to be someone in the world …And … and I had punched her, right in the face.
Suddenly, she was me. She was my mom. She was everyone I cared about. She didn’t deserve that. I felt such sudden and overwhelming empathy for her that I almost couldn’t bear it. I sat there on the Oregon border, at a Travelodge I’d snuck into for the free continental breakfast, and just wept and wept. For her, for me, for Sid, for everything. It was the first time since the service that I’d felt anything but numb.
A thousand miles and a day later, when I was telling this story to my friend Ninja in her living room in Cascadia, it made me cry all over again. But I mentioned that it was like I had just needed so much to punch someone right then, and there she was. Nin quietly remarked that she was thinking the same thing. Then she asked me how the woman had been able to just get into her car and drive after that. I mean, a full – on blow to the face, and I’m not a tiny waif either… I can pack a wallop. I hadn’t really thought about that before. Yeh…
And, “do you remember seeing any blood?” She asked. My god, I did not. I’d stood there staring into that Macys face, she staring back at me, for an eternal moment before the other car came by, and we wound up back on the road. I did not see a single drop of blood. Nin nodded. Uh huh, she said. She reiterated what a damaging thing it is to take a punch right to the face. There would surely have been blood. Had she been… human.
And that’s how we figured out that I’d punched an angel. She showed up in time to keep me from drifting down the California coast into a diffusing oblivion. In that one moment, she allowed me to focus all that impotent rage and pain into one giant PUNCH… She’d stood for everything in the universe and just let me smack it all, with all my might, all at once. An angel for an Irish girl. Then, over breakfast later, she stood, again, for everything and everyone, and she let me weep for it all, to cry for all the pain in the universe and every one of us, while I cried for what I’d done to her. She brought feeling back into severed limbs, and then she just vanished into the ubiquitous California dust of my childhood.
That’s the story of how I punched an angel once, on the coast of California, on the 101.