The first time I saw a dead body, it was Valentine’s Day night. I was 24, drunk, and had been fighting with my boyfriend on the cusp of him leaving me. The night started at a bar in Pilsen, and once my blood alcohol level was sufficiently raised, I unleashed on him all of the thoughts and feelings I had been holding back about his upcoming move to Asia, effectively ending our relationship. I had decided I wanted to stay together until the day he flew across the planet, but as the weeks ticked by closer to his departure date, my world felt like it was slipping sideways on me. It was the decision of a 24-year-old who hadn’t really experienced heartbreak before, and now, I was learning the extent of the pain stretched out over a 4-month period. 16 weeks of peeling a band-aid off slowly, one skin cell at a time.
After my public dramatic display at the bar, a friend wisely separated me from the situation by guiding me to her car and driving me back to my apartment sometime around 2 in the morning. When we approached my building, flashing blue emergency lights splashed across our faces. The side street perpendicular to mine was blocked off by emergency vehicles. My friend couldn’t drive up to my door, but I told her I was OK to walk from there. Nothing would happen to me; the area was flooded with cops and paramedics. I walked around the barricades toward my apartment and saw the body.
The body was lying in the middle of the street. As soon as I saw his head, covered in blood, I averted my eyes. I’ve always been squeamish. His legs were straight, his arms at his sides, as if he were in savasana at the end of a yoga class. He didn’t look like an accident victim, which you usually picture with limbs bent at impossible angles, pearly bone jutting through skin. The only thing that separated him from slumber was all of the blood.
At the edges of the crime scene, a woman screamed primally, anguish pouring out from every cell of her being. Two police officers held her by the arms, protecting her from herself. She lunged towards the body in the street, heaving with sobs, but the two cops gently guided her the opposite direction into a squad car.
I didn’t linger. I didn’t want to gawk. I felt like I was intruding just by being present. Quickening my pace, I cut across the street to my front door and let myself into my apartment. In my bedroom, I changed into pajamas and went to bed, but couldn’t shake the image of the body in the street. The man did not die to put my heartbreak into perspective. The world was not all about me and my own pain. My little heartbreak was nothing. He died because the world is fucked up and randomly cruel and chaotic as often as it is beautiful and transcendent and divine.
In the days after Valentine’s Day, I found out who the dead man was. I learned that he had spent the evening at a show at a bar just around the corner from my apartment. He had been on a date with his girlfriend and taken pictures in the photo booth. They would be the last pictures he’d take with her. While walking home, a drunk driver careened down the street towards the couple. He pushed his girlfriend out of the car’s path and was hit. The car dragged him several blocks before shaking off his body, yards away from my front door. He had saved her life. I wanted to cry all over again, thinking about how the last act he committed in his life was one of love and self-sacrifice. My anger towards the driver swelled as I learned that he had been so drunk he had swerved into several parked cars before hitting the pedestrian, and took off the second the body slid off his vehicle. Later, he would be caught and stand trial for his destructive actions, but nothing could undo his taking of a life. I wondered if his imprisonment was cold comfort to the woman crying in the street on Valentine’s Day night.
My own life went on, with a renewed insight on how precious it was, how fleeting it could be. My boyfriend moved to the other side of the planet and was no longer my boyfriend, and it was OK. There was heartbreak, but there was also catharsis and acceptance. And over time, new joys and new loves. I was lucky to have more time to figure it all out. I still am.