CW: suicidal ideation
Four days after I started driving without a seatbelt, a deer ran out in front of my car. I was coming home from work, down the same road over which I’ve watched the sun rise and set hundreds of times. The sky a vibrant orange in the mornings to match the burning in my chest. In the evenings, a soft lilac bruise.
When the doe came bounding from the woods, it was afternoon. The sky wasn’t gray, but it wasn’t blue either; it was empty. The animal was skinny, her legs bony and fragile. She led with great confidence at first, but once she realized she was out in the open, vulnerable in a place she didn’t belong, she slowed, discombobulated as if she had forgotten how to move.
I had spent the day alone at my desk, teaching high school students online. I poured out whatever enthusiasm was left inside of me and spoon-fed it to them via webcam. They returned blank stares. I failed to get any work done on my prep periods, teetering between “I’ve gotta get my shit together” and “What’s the point?” The day before, on a video appointment with my therapist, she asked why I wasn’t leaning on the people in my life who often lean on me.
“I don’t know,” I said, turning my gaze away from the screen and onto nothing in particular. “I don’t wanna burden anyone. Or scare them.”
“Scare them about what?” she asked, in a way that signaled she already knew the answer.
“I just don’t want them to be worried about me, you know?”
“It’s okay,” she said, with a smile and an eye roll. We had established a sense of sarcasm in the way we talked. “You can tell me you have suicidal ideations, as long as you’re not going to act on them.”
Just before we hung up, she asked the same question therapists always ask me: “If you’re taking care of everyone else, how can you take care of yourself?”
As the doe slowed from a sprint to an ungraceful trot directly in front of me, I thought of science. I tried to remember high school physics. If I was driving fifty miles per hour, my shitty little car a mass of almost three thousand pounds, what would happen when the front bumper collided with the delicate body of the hardly moving animal? Was it momentum that mattered? For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Or inertia? An object at rest tends to stay at rest.
I thought of the chemicals in the human body. I knew to expect a rush of adrenaline, snaking its way through my veins the way water rushes through a garden hose when you first turn the spigot—a quick build up, a burst of intensity. But that would only happen if I dodged the collision and lived, if I swerved out of the way or slammed on the brakes and stopped just short of the body of a living thing. Then I wondered what chemicals must be missing from my brain to make me consider not swerving or stopping. Was I lacking in serotonin? Dopamine? Was cortisol spraying wildly through my amygdala like an early morning sprinkler system?
“You need to get help,” my wife had told me a week earlier.
Rather than eating dinner or watching TV in the evenings, I had taken to lying in our bed alone in the dark and shrugging under the covers when she asked what was wrong. Instead of admitting I felt our relationship was falling apart, I found it simpler to say nothing at all, lest I risk hurting her feelings by sharing mine.
“You need to go on medication,” she demanded. “It’s a chemical imbalance.”
But I argued that the things I couldn’t balance were the ones in the world around my body, rather than inside it.
It feels important to mention there was another deer. One who was already dead on the side of the road. One I had just been fixated on before I looked up, before I had to react. Its body looked unnatural, neck cocked as far back as ligaments would allow, head jutting out toward the street. I stared at its tongue, hung pink and loose from its half-opened mouth, its eyes pinned wide open: a caricature of death, of lifelessness. I used to try to write poems about roadkill, making short notes in my phone each time I’d see a flattened opossum or the entrails of a squirrel. But I never could finish them. There are only so many ways to talk about the absence of life. There are only so many words to describe a state of being we’ve not yet experienced.
I only had a split second or two to make a decision once the deer was in the road. There were no cars coming from the opposite direction, no cars behind me in the rearview. Just a dead thing, a living thing, and me. My body acted instinctually. My foot lifted itself from the gas pedal to the brake. The muscles in my leg applied a force I forgot I had. Beneath me, the rubber created an impenetrable tension with the concrete, jolting me forward, my palms braced against the steering wheel. The car stopped within less than a foot of the doe, nothing but space and air between us. She continued to the other side of the road, clumsy and unaware. The adrenaline came as expected, but with it was another familiar sense: I had slammed on the brakes to save the deer’s life, not my own. I had, all at once, forgotten myself again.
Jackie Domenus is a queer writer and educator from New Jersey. A graduate of the 2021 Tin House Winter Workshop, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Foglifter Journal, Variant Lit, Hooligan Mag, and elsewhere. She serves as a publishing assistant at Guernica Magazine. You can find her on Twitter @jackiedwrites.
Photography by: Kevin Clyde Berbano