by Randon Billings Noble
It began one day at the shore, although I didn’t know it then. It was late in the summer, right after a hurricane, when the waves were brutal but we swam anyway. It was great—throwing our slight selves again and again at the bulk and force of the water. I can’t remember what the weather was like, but I imagine it was a hot, clear, fierce day. I was fifteen years old. I was with my best friend.
We drifted farther and farther out until our toes gently left the sand and the salt lifted us up and over each incoming swell. But then one wave rose larger than the rest, and picked Jocelyn up—or was it me?—and brought her crashing down on top of me—or was it her?—and slammed us, a tangle of arms and legs, to the bottom where the impact split us apart. I remember groping towards the surface, feeling the desperation tight in my lungs, and plowing my face deep into the sand; I had lost my sense of direction. There in the ocean’s bed, hands clutching fistfuls of shells and weed, I had a long moment of deep clarity. Instead of being taken away, my breath was given back; my panic dissolved into a deep calm, and I hung in suspension with my body.
But this moment was torn from me as a hand, her hand, reached blindly through the dark water, touched my ankle, and, finding, pulled. She reeled me to the surface as a lifeguard reeled her. He had seen us caught in a riptide, had swum out to bring us back, had found her wrist just as she found my ankle, and pulled us both to shore. I remember coughing on the wet sand, the sun and sky piercingly bright, coughing and coughing, faintly realizing that I had lost that moment of clarity in the turbulence of recovery, in my body’s mechanics. As I looked over to Jocelyn, I thought I saw a flicker of recognition. We trudged to our towels, embarrassed, and lay in silence. It wasn’t until the long drive home in the safety of the car and the dark and the miles we had put behind us that she said, “We could have died,” and I said, “And it would have been good.” We never mentioned this day again.
This was an unspoken agreement. Somehow it was too powerful, the realization that death at that moment would not have been a tragedy but a completely right ending to our barely-begun lives. I never asked her what she had felt under the waves, and never knew if she, too, had that moment of clarity on the threshold of death. I could not have described that moment to her, nearly impossible to put words to, and yet, at the same time, it was the truest thing I had ever—almost—known. What I caught that day was only a glimpse. It would be years before I had another chance to see.
I was in France, at a party, with friends and friends of friends. We were on the patio of someone’s country house, playing a drinking game that involved reciting limericks and drawing on each other’s faces with a burnt cork. When I went inside for a glass of water and to take a break from the smoke in my eyes and the French in my head, Marc kissed me behind the pantry door and asked me to go upstairs with him. I said no. But when Enzo, at one in the morning, asked if I wanted to go for a ride on his motorcycle, I said yes.
We flew, no helmets, my hair streaming, the wind blowing any words we might have said into the night behind us. Then I saw the tree ahead of us, and when I knew we couldn’t hold the curve, when the impact was inevitable, I thought, You should be thinking something really important now, with a directness that surprised me. But there was no time to think. We slid along a barbed wire fence, crashed into the tree, and I was thrown from the bike. Then nothing.
I came to in a field of grass, its itchiness a reassurance that I was alive. There was, as yet, no need for last thoughts. Instead I had to attend a more practical need: my arms and legs could move (spine not broken), my head could turn (neck not broken), but my face was wet and I couldn’t see out of my left eye. But even while I was absorbed in this physical self, some other part of me stood by, aloof, watching and waiting for what I didn’t know.
“I will get help,” Enzo had said, stumbling and backing away from me. He tore the motorcycle from the wires of the fence. “I will bring help,” he said again, before the engine caught and drowned my weak voice saying over and over, like the lover I wasn’t but wanted to be, “Wait. Don’t leave me. Wait.” Then I was alone—or thought I was, in the dark and cold.
That other self grew more vigilant after Enzo left. It watched as I flailed weakly against circumstance. She watched as I dug a mirror out of my back pocket and saw that the wetness on my face was blood—blood had blinded my left eye—and I saw that I wasn’t going to be all right after all. She watched as my shock became panic in the privacy of the night fields. But the whimpering, squealing me knew that second self, calm and clear, was there as well, attending me during those moments of separation.
Later, I began to wonder if the body has a chemical, something like adrenaline, which bathes us in this calm acceptance. Something different from endorphins that gauze over our feelings of pain, something instead that gives a mental awareness in the midst of the body’s trauma. That day with Jocelyn, underwater, my breath was failing fast. Very little time was left. And that night, on the motorcycle, there was nothing I could do to prevent the crash, no use for fight or flight. In neither case did I feel pain, but I felt something far deeper, something the essayist Montaigne described after his own terrible accident. He says nothing of pain, but languishes over the pleasure of letting himself go, and when he does, it is “that sweet feeling that people have who let themselves slide into sleep.” He is so removed from his body, “dead,” he claims, “for two full hours,” that these mysteries can be revealed. Reading Montaigne I began to wonder if, during such moments of bodily crisis, we split for spiritual reasons. More and more I believe we do.
Before I left for France, I put on a necklace my godmother had given me when I was a child—a tiny silver cross. As a child I had been infatuated with stories from the Bible, but as I grew older, I questioned, and by the time I was thirteen, I couldn’t go through with the confirmation ceremony, couldn’t stand up in front of the congregation and lie about what I wasn’t sure I believed. So it wasn’t because of faith that I hooked the chain around my neck before I boarded the plane to Paris. It was because I was afraid to fly.
The plane, however, landed without incident, and I tucked the cross into my collar. I forgot about it in the weeks that followed until I found myself alone and scared, near a tree by the side of a road laced with barbed wire. I had already seen my bloodied face in the mirror and my reflection had shocked me out of shock. I couldn’t deny that I was hurt; I couldn’t pretend that I would leave this place unscarred. Something irrevocable had happened and still I fought against it. I was desperate to hold onto something, and without thought my hand reached for the cross around my neck.
It is hard, in moments of great fear, not to reach for a benevolent unknown. Madeline L’Engle says that although she cannot intellectually believe in God, she finds it impossible to live as though she does not. I, too, reverted to what seemed a muscle memory. I reached for my throat, to grab onto the cross and all the centuries of meaning it symbolized—but it was gone.
Now, I thought, I am truly alone. And that’s when the wave of hysteria I had so carefully been riding broke over me. That’s when I split. Half of me twisted her head from side to side and cried against my helplessness. But there was another part of me that felt distinctly separate, as if she were standing next to or above me, watching. I could feel her calm and faint disapproval. Not so much disapproval, but wisdom. You’re only making it worse, she seemed to say. There’s nothing you can do. There’s no one here to hear you. Don’t you feel silly, carrying on like this all by yourself? And although I knew she was right, I couldn’t stop until I had cried myself out.
I became unmoored. My body slipped further away. Again, I felt the same calm, the same clarity, I had felt under water. It was indeed “a sweet feeling,” and I remember turning towards it. Did my second self reach down to collect me? Did the two of us become one again but on a plane apart from the physical? I couldn’t say. The only bright light I saw were the twin beams of headlights. A car stopped for me, its family piled out and held my hands, patted my cheeks, and insisted that I stay conscious until the ambulance arrived.
In the hospital, surrounded by nurses and doctors and two carloads of people from the party, I felt entirely alone. My courage had left me, but my second self had too. After an X-ray the doctors started firing French at each other so rapidly I couldn’t follow. One started feeling my skull and I grew panicky at the thought of a head injury. But in the wind-whipped snarls of my hair the doctor’s fingers found the cross that had been ripped from my neck; its silver shape had shown up bright white, nearly miraculous, on the film. The next day I would find a tiny cross-shaped bruise on my collarbone from the original impact before our momentum, or maybe the barbed wire, swept the cross up and away to catch in my hair. But there on the hospital gurney I only had a moment to realize that it had been there the whole time, out of reach of my seeking fingers but there just the same, and that I didn’t have a brain injury, only three deep lacerations on my face, which now seemed to catch fire as a hand pressed a square of alcohol-soaked gauze to my cheek. I screamed at the wash of pain, shrunk back from the stinging pricks of anesthetic, cried at the deep puncture of each stitch, and whimpered in French, asking again and again when this would be over. Eventually it was, and I was taken “home” to sleep on a crisp white pillow that in the morning would be spotted with blood, which I saw, before the pain, as the first evidence of the trial I had been though the night before.
In the days that followed I spent my mornings on the couch numbing myself with French game shows, surprised that after a week I could solve some of the puzzles on Wheel of Fortune. In the afternoons I sat for hours at the piano, unable to read bass clef without F-A-C-E, struggling to pick out the tune to Für Elise. What I couldn’t figure out, though, was what, exactly, had happened. I remembered being proud that my last thought wasn’t a knee-jerk Oh, God—or worse, Oh, shit—but You should be thinking something really important right now. I tried to give myself an extra ten seconds before the crash, to move the fence and the tree back fifty feet, to widen the arc of the curve we didn’t make—anything to think of that important thing—but I couldn’t.
Back in the States I turned to Sherwin B. Nuland’s book How We Die to try and get some answers about the “state of apparent tranquility and release” that many people enter when threatened with serious trauma or imminent death. Nuland, a doctor and a scientist, is reluctant to ascribe a spiritual dimension to the body’s methods, but he speculates that there is “far more at work here than the well-known ‘fight or flight’ of a rush of adrenaline.” Nuland believes that endorphins are the cause of this tranquil state, but he explores their etymology in a way that makes me reconsider their role in the emergence of the split self: “They are endogenous morphine-like compounds. Endogenous [is] adapted from the Greek endon, meaning ‘within’ or ‘inner,’ and gennao, meaning ‘I produce.’” So endorphins are produced by the self within the self. Could the split self be a manifestation of spirit, launched from within our own bodies to help usher us from fear to calm, from life to death?
Even if the split self is triggered by a chemical reaction, it serves no larger, physical, evolutionary purpose. Adrenaline gives us the strength or speed or sureness to survive; our genes have a better change of being flung into the future. But the moment of clarity the split self gives us is a purely internal gift that affects no one else but the self. And I begin to wonder if that isn’t part of the plan as well, if we don’t carry a small piece of mystery within us that is intentionally inaccessible for most of our physical, sandwich-eating, bus-riding, every-day lives.
Being in this moment is like lazy Saturday mornings spent in bed— awake yet not fully aware, entranced by the blank expanse of ceiling above, lingering in deep thought that vanishes as soon as I go vertical, leaving nothing but a feeling of great potential behind. This feeling lingers the same way the ghost of the split self does. It is something we can carry with us, regardless of what happens when our split selves reunite, when we get up from whatever bed we have been lying in, and walk back into life.
Randon Billings Noble is a writer and teacher living in Washington, DC. She earned her MFA in creative writing from New York University and has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts as well as a resident at Wildacres and the Vermont Studio Center. Her work has been published in The Massachusetts Review, the Modern Love column of The New York Times, and Emrys Journal. She has recently completed a collection of essays, The Summer before Marriage.