June 24th, 2012 - June Gervais
I had one superstition. Just one.
I am not generally superstitious, but at some point, this one appeared like moths nesting in the back of a cabinet. It was troubling and irrational; it was superstition, not intuition, and I knew that.
But it kept returning, an intrusive thought so morbid I kept it to myself:
When you finish writing your book, you will die.
The thing about intrusive thoughts is you can’t always reason them away. When did this foreboding begin?—in my twenties, I think? At that point I’d been puzzling out my novel for half a decade or so. I needed to finish; I’d made a promise to my teenage self, a girl with depression so severe she was hospitalized twice. This was my mantra: I need to live, because I’m going to college, and I’m going to write a book that will make someone else feel less alone.
But did I think this was the sole purpose for my life? Had I absorbed that cliché—everyone dies when it’s their time, when they’ve completed their mission on earth—and decided this book was the only reason the universe kept me around?
I don’t know. Sometimes I went months without thinking of the superstition; but I was always thinking of the book. Finally, in June of 2009—resolving to finish it, once and for all—I entered an MFA program. And five days into the program, I discovered with joy that I was pregnant with my first child.
Clearly, I had a dual vocation now. I wasn’t just here to put words on paper; I was here to welcome this child to planet Earth, with all its wonders, and be his tour guide for a while. I dreamed of him before he was born. He had huge, beautiful eyes, and I could tell that he was funny and kind.
He arrived, and it all turned out to be true, and more: he spoke early and clearly and took in the whole world with those big brown eyes. Our days were full of walks and blocks and books and look at that!
Look, Charlie, a motorcycle! What noise does it make?
Look, Charlie, the ocean! What does the water feel like?
Look, Mama, look! Yes, that’s a starfruit. An old cicada shell. A mourning dove.
My superstition should’ve evaporated at this point, disappearing in a puff of its own weird logic. But sometimes—especially when I was nearing completion on a draft of my novel—it would start to materialize again, like smoke seeping under the door.
This brings us to June of 2012.
If you look, look, in any given June, you’re sure to see the signs of something bearing fruit. A wedding dress. A graduation cap. A strawberry field like an acre of rubies.
That June was one of those seasons for me, with more changes than I can recount here, hard and happy and both. Charlie was nearly two and a half, recently graduated from diapers—no longer a baby, but a boy who made us laugh by reciting lines from “The House that Jack Built,” This is the man all tattered and torn, who kissed the maiden all forlorn...
I was about to complete the requirements for my master’s degree. I’d been hired for a new job, slated to begin soon. And just a few weeks earlier, I’d accomplished the dream I’d labored over so long. I finished writing my book.
When you finish writing this book… I waved it away. Relic of old nonsense, anxiety in disguise. And there was so much else to do. Soon I’d drive to Vermont for my final MFA residency, heavenly Green Mountains in June, fresh air and fireflies. Years of work would culminate. I’d give a reading from my novel, and I’d give a lecture that I’d poured so much heart and soul into, it might as well have been a sermon. If all went well, later that day, I would put on a black robe and receive the diploma for my MFA.
I fretted and worried, but it did seem to go well. At the end of my lecture, my son yelled “YAY, MAMA!” and a hundred people laughed and shared my joy. We graduates graduated. At the party, my hungry boy ate a pile of buttered rolls, and I wore a red dress, red as the ripest June strawberry.
That day, June 23, was supposed to be the big day. It would mark the beginning of everything I’d been working toward: querying agents, seeing my book in print.
June 24 was supposed to be the day of catching my breath. After the ecstasy, the laundry. After the party, the goodbye. June 24 was just the day we’d pack up my little green Toyota Echo and go home.
I don’t remember what my husband and I were talking about as we drove west. I do remember we were on a two-lane highway in upstate New York; that we’d been on the road for about an hour; and we were stressed. Details, maybe? Day care, coordinating calendars, remind me when the new job starts?
Charlie had a bout of hollering, weary of his car seat, and then he calmed down. The fields blurred by, soft with timothy, the air hazy. Every now and again: Look, Charlie! A river. A hawk. The fog.
Driving straight toward us, in the wrong lane, trying to pass the car in front of it.
The driver saw us too late. He tried to jerk back into his lane, but he fishtailed and lurched into ours again. He was heading straight across our path now, too fast for my husband to do anything but hit the brakes and try to veer right. We hurtled toward him.
In that flash of a moment before impact, everything in me went dead still. What happens in a moment like that cannot be called “thinking,” exactly. But I did have an oh of understanding. Oh.It was true. This is how I die.
I closed my eyes. Our car slammed into his.
I opened my eyes, and I was alive.
Broken glass, limp airbags, crumpled metal. I didn’t know I was hurt; nothing mattered but Charlie. The only thing I remember is jumping out, grabbing him from his car seat, running as fast as I could and yelling at my husband Get away from the car, get away.
During the collision, I closed my eyes—but Charlie didn’t.
Over the next few days, he told the story again and again, in slightly different versions. It was weirdly riveting. I wrote them down. If you transcribe a young child’s speech, it sounds spookily like poetry.
The car hit us and we got boo-boos. We went outside on the grass and I can smell smoke and the smoke is beautiful. The cars came. Came to help us.
We went on the grass and drink water. Smoke coming out of a hole in mama’s car.
The car hit us and went to the hospital. They made you feel better. We went in the ambulance and drove.
I don’t want the smoke. I don’t want smoke to come out of Mama’s car.
The way Charlie’s words circled around and around in 2012, trying to tell the whole story—the smoke is beautiful… we went on the grass and drink water… I don’t want the smoke… Life feels like that to me, more like a spiraled labyrinth than the linear ticks of a timeline.
And every June 24, I think of the accident. The fishtailing car. Holding my son and running. I don’t like thinking about it. Even as I type these words, fear darts through my body again.
But when I come around to June 24, mostly what I feel is awe. That is the day we could have died, and we didn’t.
Charlie is twelve now. He’s told me that one of his first memories is drinking apple juice in an ambulance, but he says this matter-of-factly; it seems to carry no trauma.
My novel, it turned out, wasn’t finished, and had a long road ahead. As I write this, though, a red hardcover rests on my desk. The cover shows a girl with streaks in her hair, red as a June strawberry—no, redder; July fireworks. An illustrated eye hovers above her. Look. Look.
The book is finished, and that no longer frightens me. When I made the last fiddling copy edit a year ago, on a summer day, no dark foreboding haunted me. Ten years ago, I had one superstition—but now I have none.
June Gervais's debut novel, Jobs for Girls with Artistic Flair, was published this week (6/21/22) by Pamela Dorman Books/Viking Penguin. It's the coming-of-age story of a young woman aspiring to become a tattoo artist in 1980s Long Island, when the profession was overwhelmingly male. June grew up on the south shore of Long Island and holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Lithub, Writer's Digest, Big Fiction, Sojourners, The Common, Cordella, and elsewhere. Find her at junegervais.com.
June would also like to highlight the organization Mercy Corps, which helps communities forge new paths to prosperity in the face of disaster, poverty, and the impacts of climate change among other notable services.