Fiction: Periphery by Benjamin Curttright

Bresson Hyères, France 1932

Reviews of the film on various critic aggregators were positive, contributing to N’s decision to see it with A at the old theatre that Thursday, a decision he’d regret after a bright yellow Jeep came screaming across the intersection of 11th and Spruce and struck the side of his bicycle, sending him flying like a dropped egg. He’d been halfway through telling A what he thought of the film’s climactic scene, which interestingly injected self-referential comedy into an otherwise melodramatic and overtly sentimental moment. Ironically enough, the scene was of a car crash. The film’s protagonist was a young American man who was taking a bus tour through southern Europe with his pregnant wife, a sort-of last fling before the baby was born and the couple’s responsibilities to their young child more or less permanently closed the possibility of the two of them flying to Europe together and spending a few weeks being young and free on the sands of coastal Portugal. What was interesting about it, N said while unlocking his bicycle from the stand outside the theatre and walking it down the sidewalk next to A, was that the film completely foregrounded its plot and thus took all storytelling significance away from the scene itself. We already know, because the scene is a flashback, that both the young man and his wife survive the crash, though she is restricted to a wheelchair as a result of injuries sustained in the crash, and that the baby does not live. As soon as the image of the two of them sitting on the bus as it winds through the Serra da Estrela coalesces into a scene, we can infer its outcome. The actual experience of the scene is completely visual. It’s unsurprising. Except for one thing about it. N paused as the two of them pulled up to a red light in tandem. It was the first time he and A had been out cycling together since the early summer. He didn’t like riding much in the hot months when every block added to a journey increased his chances of breaking out in an unstoppable greasy sweat that would last for hours if not the whole rest of the day. Now it was mid-fall and N could feel a numbness settling in his toes and at the tips of his exposed ears as he and A whizzed through the dead city, their voices hanging behind them in the stinging air. That makes it sound meaningless, said A. Like knowing a thing happened is the same as seeing it happen. Maybe it is, said N as the light changed and they kicked off the ground. It took N a few seconds longer to get going; his toe clips were bent, complicating the act of sliding a boot in and pushing down and fluidly pedaling away. N used his right foot as a plant while A used her left foot, though they were both right-handed. The streets of the city were never completely dark. In some sense, that’s comforting, though it’s also like every night, you’re sleeping with the lights left on. The warm glow of the streetlights in their wrought cages was bright enough that N felt comfortable riding with his front light off, though he’d later wonder whether this had any causal relevance to the collision with the yellow Jeep just a few blocks from the apartment he and A shared, whether the driver of the Jeep would have seen him coming across the intersection and, realizing he was about to hit someone, stopped short or successfully veered off the impact vector. In truth, he driver was distracted, as all of us are sometimes, and after A passed by, he advanced into the intersection at speed without a thought. He, too, was an avid cyclist, more avid than N, though he only ever rode his bike near his house in the suburbs. His domain was half-lit neighborhood streets wide enough for five cars to sit across without touching, the gravel-dusted shoulders of avenues where passing drivers rarely slowed from forty-five but honked and cursed at him anyway, and unearthly trails that disappeared beneath the arched bows of trees and for all the world looked like tunnels with dim lights on the other side. His wheels would crunch and crack over fallen sticks and branches, and he’d feel a proper chill on the back of his neck as he crouched over the frame and gripped the handlebars real tight and focused on not hitting any of the big branches, the ones that’d give his road bike problems if he tried to cross over them at speed. He stood outside his yellow Jeep, shivering in his t-shirt on that cold but clear November night, and these memories of himself as a biker and a sympathizer rolled around somewhere in the back of his head as he waited for an ambulance to show up and take N to the nearby teaching hospital, where his missing front tooth would be rapidly rinsed off with cold water and reinserted into his pulsating gums by a young resident who was otherwise having a fairly uneventful third night on call. One of several bystanders, a woman in a long coat the color of an empty glass soda bottle, had found the missing tooth among the leaves and pebbles along the side of the street and presented it to A wrapped up in a napkin. The woman was now standing among a rustling group of people who had gathered in a streetlamp’s halo on the opposite corner. Each of them felt somehow called to do something to help the poor kid in the street, though the woman’s right to be there and see this through was possibly truer than that of all the rest combined, she thought. She had, after all, found his tooth. It was this small crowd gathered at the opposite corner that made N feel the most anxious. He would, if he could, lie back down on the concrete and let its stony grey expanse envelop him like water. He hated being watched. I saw it, said one man to the gathered group, just loudly enough for N to hear him. I was looking right out the window and I saw it. The man’s friend nodded and took a sip of his coffee. There was no disputing such a claim. In addition to being angry at the driver, N was also embarrassed at his bloody display of vulnerability, and pretty sure that the deactivated light and the way he’d sailed through the stop sign to catch up with A made this accident in a very big way his fault, though he’d never admit this to the doctor or the cop or the insurance claims investigator or even to A. He tried to say it quietly to himself, years later, when he was alone, but the words tasted sour and dry in his orthodontically reconstructed mouth. At the time, his leg was what hurt the most, though it would only bruise and he would be able to walk perfectly fine by Monday. He hadn’t yet noticed the conspicuous gap between his upper left central and right lateral. A, with nothing else to do, was standing next to him on the sidewalk, clutching the napkin in her right hand, which was in the pocket of her jacket. She’d already called the hospital and taken down the driver’s name and plate numbers and insurance information. She’d even notified N’s parents via text message, stressing that he was a little shaken but otherwise okay and successfully convincing them, for the time being, not to panic. She was completely calm and lucid. Every detail was, in that moment, striking to her: the hushed voices of the huddled group on the opposite corner, the wind from the east, cold against her exposed eyes, a slight soreness in her chest from air gasped in and recycled in the immediate aftermath of the accident, leaving her mouth markedly dry. She’d rarely in her life been more aware of herself as a thing embodied than she was then. This awareness was a striking departure from the disorienting space of the theatre, which aimed to extinguish all perceptions but the visual and the sometimes deafening Dolby 7.1 SR. Not that it had been quite effective at doing so. She had felt her eyes sting with tears as the protagonist of the film woke from brief unconsciousness on the dun sands of the Portuguese mountainside, five thousand four hundred kilometers from home, blood smeared on the side of his head, the hiss and sputter of the flipped tour bus drowned out by the swelling orchestral score. The bus’s other passengers screamed in silence. The protagonist pushed himself up off the ground and onto his elbows, a blank expression on his face, his eyes glazed, his mouth half-open. Then, as if from nowhere, a giant tire came bouncing in front of the camera, kicking up little clouds of dust as it rolled past. She saw N’s arm go up in the corner of her vision as, with an outstretched finger, he traced the path of the wheel past the bleeding body and down the hill and toward the distant water and out of frame.

Ben Curttright graduated from Temple University’s MFA program in 2017. He lives in Philadelphia.


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