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I strolled along the black wrought-iron railing, twisted and shaped into an aesthetically pleasing means of preventing the general population from plunging to their death in the water below. Feeling the pricklings of water on my face, I stayed well within the boundaries of that protective fence and listened to the booming roar of the waterfalls’ maw, the glassy-green water streaking down that cliff into the greedy mouth of froth and vapor. Looking beyond the fence and over the water, I took in the opposite shore where I had just come from a day ago, America. Her grassy fields and rocky slopes were plunged into the boiling ice bowl of water and shoved under the lid of azure sky. Knowing I’d be back in America soon, I turned away.
Ahead of us, a river of people rippled with excitement. I edged towards the crowd, intrigued as news cameras, microphones and sets buoyed along the airy fence. Catching a passing news reporter in mid-step, I inquired about the commotion. A brief response and a freckle-faced smile told me that a daredevil was going to walk across Niagara Falls in a few hours, on a tightrope, from the American shore to the Canadian shore.
I was bored. I slipped into a tangled world of thoughts while leaning against the fence, dreaming deeply about falling off tightropes into lava hot abysses as the hour hand trekked forward. Then, the crowd around me started to cheer, their crazed shouts mingling with the voice of roaring water, jolting me from my world of thoughts.
Someone had set up a white plastic screen for live TV coverage on the CTV or CBC news show. The glow of the screen softly illuminated heavy curtains slowly swooshing down from navy blue heavens, embedded with twinkling golden garnets. Rubbing my stinging eyes, I shoved on my three-year-old, tape-covered green-brown glasses and tuned into the commotion. Following the direction of the unblinking stares, my eyes squinted into the glare of stadium-like lights stationed on the opposite American shore, the lights trained on a tiny red dot. Shifting my gaze to the makeshift screen, I caught a close up of the daredevil in his red jacket, waving proudly to fellow Americans. Then, he stepped onto the platform.
The new height pulled up more frenzied screams of excitement. People, pets, buildings, and even the falls seemed to hold their breath as he stood at the top. The tips of his leather shoes were inches away from the rope and the infinite expanse of open air.
The daredevil raised his foot…
…and put it down on the tightrope within the blink of a second.
The tightrope walker inched forward, steely heart and nerves resonant against the steel of the rope. He maneuvered his feet in a steady cautious tempo; right, left, right, left, one foot in front of the other, the other after the first, smoothly, calmly, with ease, his balance pole barely trembling. He walked consistently up to the edge of the falls until suddenly, he was amidst the steaming water vapor, water shards shattering and whipping around with the wind.
His bright red coat was barely discernible from afar through the thick fog, but the cameras were in the fog with him too, filming. I shifted my eyes off the life-threatening journey of the 3D water-wrapped man, and refocused them on the daredevil’s calm and playful 2D adventure on the news coverage. The cameras zeroed in on his face and expression, vivid details smeared by tendrils of water smoke. Desperate lips tossed and turned in a sea of face wrinkles, trickling with glossy perspiration and vapor. The mist caught his words and tumbled them over and about themselves, refusing to dissipate.
And suddenly, everything was wrong.
The balance pole rocked precariously in wide angles, and his feet stopped drumming completely. He stood in stoic poise while everything else churned fiercely about him, around him, and at him in the immaterial air. As he rested his faith in the braided steel, the small-figured man stood unmoving for several seconds. He did not look down at the waters of death one slight misstep away or at where he had stood moments ago. Instead, the man looked ahead through the churning weather.
So he raised his foot into the gusting wind...
And planted it onto the tightrope, safely.
The stagnant blood drained from my head in a pulse of relief, but I scrunched up my eyebrows and looked on. The man took another tentative step. Then another. And another. He recovered enough to regain his hollow wooden rhythm. The mist started to rise and carry his words towards the heavens as he emerged from its velvet suffocating folds. I saw the man’s nerves rattling under the pressure this time, swaying like the taut wires bouncing precariously under his weight. But they still held on, coated with the strength of constant prayers.
Finally, the man caught sight of the Canadian coast, and started to run across the tightrope. I looked twice to make sure I wasn’t imagining things, and for once, my eyes didn’t deceive me. He really did run. I imagine he ran for his life, his family, the corrosive tension, and his thinning patience; all the while, stomach clenched in fear and blind trust. The man flew and hopped safely onto the stable platform. And that was the end.
As he touched stable ground, the mob of natives and tourists exploded out of support, the boisterous ones letting out a few piercing hoots and whistles of admiration. However, once the pull of the moment ended, the crowd dispersed more quickly than the daredevil had come. After all, the entertainment was over; what was the use of staying any longer? The dark robe of night smothered the glow of the makeshift screen as the news media, wrapping up the broadcasting of the daredevil, scrambled to keep up with the next hot topic on air.
Walking through the dimly-lit streets back to our hotel, struggling to keep my eyes open and my legs from staggering like drunkards over the sidewalk, I could manage only to twirl one spool of conscious thought. The string of thought was that it must have taken a mouthful of gall to balance at such heights, keep the eye focused, and thread the way to the end. He could have easily let everything fall into the icy abyss below him.
One thing is for sure, I told myself. I will never endanger my life as the daredevil had purposefully done. Self-assured, my head sank into my pillow foam of frothing falls.
On the ride back home from Canada the next morning, a blanket of clouds rolled over the dewy earth as the first rays of fire purred against my face. The clouds gave off an aura of uncertain security and gloom over the freeway. A silence slipped into the car as my mother turned the volume knob to zero, putting an end to the Canadian pop I had insisted on forcing upon myself. The itchy fabric of the unfamiliar radio tunes had been the only thing keeping me awake, though. Fluttering with every bump in the road, my eyelids drooped shut, trapping the image of a massive conglomeration of approaching clouds.
Something woke me. The first second, I was wrapped in a blanket of nothing. It was a weird feeling. I was conscious and I was unconscious, conscious but unable to think about being conscious. I tried to summon something material, something that proved I was still alive. My eyes were open, my ears were alert, and all my senses seemed to be tingling but I saw nothing, heard nothing, felt nothing, and thought nothing. Something had woken me, but I did not know what, yet. The next second, a firework of energy exploded against a backdrop of black nothing as I tingled alive.
The thunderstorm screamed, and rain sliced down in sheets, chopping against the hollow shell of our car. It rocked from side to side, a mere plaything skidding wildly on the racetrack, controlled by an unknown hand. Inside, the windshield fogged over; and outside, a watery film of distorted clarity locked us in. All of a sudden, we were directly amidst the steaming water vapor, water shards shattering and whipping around with the wind. And I suddenly started to worry about the déjà vu.
I wondered how my father managed to stay on the freeway itself, let alone his own lane. Noticing the speed my father was traveling, and worried the windshield would cave in any minute, I cried, “Dad, exit the freeway, now!” I vaguely sensed other cars zooming past us, and I was afraid our car would crash any second. Shortly after my outburst, my mother followed with, “Yes, get off the freeway now!”
My father protested, his mind tottering as ideas of what to do and what not to do and what he wanted to do and what my mom and I wanted to do pushed back and forth on a multi-person seesaw. At the end, most likely with steel nerves melting to jelly and blood pounding ferociously, he succumbed. Shaking from uncertainty, my father swerved up the nearest exit which led to a bridge and…another wide road.
By now, the splattering raindrops had swept away my sleepiness. I sat on the edge of the backseat, staring fervently through the windshield, a teenager on the edge of her theatre seat, yearning for suspense to end in a movie scene.
“This is...this can’t be...another freeway?” My mom loudly voiced her jitters through the ruckus of drumming water pellets. I cursed in my head. Oh no, I thought, and my stomach clenched tight and hard. I kept my lips sealed. No need to worry my parents when they were nerve-racked and bewildered enough. A few seconds of raindrop-ripped silence prevailed until my mom burst out in a frenzy, “There’s a huge massive truck speeding towards us from behind really fast from behind! Get off this freeway! Go back, backwards if you have to!”
My dad panicked. “How am I supposed to get off? How the heck am I supposed to go ‘back’? Backwards? What? What is going on!” It was the first time I ever saw my father throw a tantrum…or rather, drive a tantrum. The intensity and the poor timing of the whole situation bound my chest with fear. He yanked at the sleeve of his left arm and every twitch of his aging body shook the car in many directions. All the while I sat in the backseat, wearing away despite protection from the pouring acid rain.
Knowing that he was going forward in the wrong direction; knowing that if he stopped, a truck was going to slam him from the right; and knowing full well he couldn’t drive backwards, my father firmly jerked the wheel of the car to the left.
And then we crashed.
As the car came to a stop after a series of skiddings and shakings, “Daddy, no…….” escaped my dumbly parted lips like the ghost of an afterthought. I closed my eyes in dread, and the words “movies” and “shows” flashed across my mind. Movies or shows commonly agonize the audience with suspense, but most at least guarantee a miraculous happy ending. I blamed them for throwing me off, because I wasn’t expecting this crash. My innocence and sense of immunity had been enforced by my youth and my attraction to moving pictures on digital screens, assuring me that nothing devastating could happen to me or my family in real life.
Yet, there I was that first week of summer vacation, sitting in the backseat with the car tilted to one side, ears ringing and blood oozing from the slap of the airbag against the left side of my face. One desperate jerk of the wheel had turned us into a breaking news story on TV.
As I gazed at the back of my parents’ heads with my eyes half-open, listening to the deafening silence, I watched realization descend upon us like an irritated mob of mosquitos. As the clouds started to lift from their protective shield of darkness, I felt like crying. I tried to keep my childish helplessness from pumping to the surface, but my thin skin failed to keep in both the immaturity and the blood on my cheek.
As my mother lamented over the bright gaping scar that streaked across my left cheekbone, I squeezed my throbbing skull between my arms, attempting to block out the terrifying turn of events. Contradictory ideas of blame tangled in my mind. It wasn’t my father’s fault, it wasn’t anybody’s fault, the crash just…happened. The car that crashed into us didn’t have headlights on, and my father didn’t see it speeding in on the left. But at the same time, my father made the mistake of listening to my mother and me. And from the same point of view, it was not his fault; my mom and I were the ones responsible for hyping up my dad’s nerves during the storm.
I peered up through the sun window. The storm was now calm and placid, the sunlight filtering through a few sparse holes in the clouds. My headache worsened, and I silently cursed the terrible timing of the storm. A low rumble of distant thunder followed in response, as if hearing my thoughts.
I couldn’t think straight, so I gave my paralyzed brain a break. I rested in silence, taking it all in; at least, all I could see from my view in the back. I soaked up the speedy whooshing of passing cars rocking our car, the soft pitter patter of the receding rain, the ringing in my left ear, the labored breathing of my parents, and a jolt with the sudden appearance of scissors tearing away at my airbag, wielded by a man from the victim car. Police cars and ambulances pulled over, bright colors reflected dully in the marble sky, dizzying and dreadful. I wanted to see reality for myself; yet at the same time, I didn’t. I was curious, yet terrified.
A policeman came to our car to ask my father for our side of the story. I listened to my dad’s halting English, the bumpy Chinese accent weaving a song of self-blame, dread, and denial, a piece played by violin bowstrings screeching furiously, a melody that would send the audience running for the doors, cringing from the emotion.
After the policeman left, we slowly hopped out of our car. The first thing I did was to close my eyes and let the cool breeze lick my hot face, and to taste the sweet sprinkles of rain dissolving my petrified skin. I cracked my knuckles and shook out my limbs, loosened up my stiff neck. Then, I joined my parents in staring dejectedly at the wreck.
Coming out of that car crash was like trying to balance on the braided steel tightrope the daredevil Nik Wallenda had walked on across Niagara Falls. That experience taught me to remember, that even when the world is crumbling into car debris and spinning out of control, we are still alive. Situations could be worse; a slight misstep could’ve led the tightrope walker to tumble to his death into the falls below, and a one-second delay in turning the wheel could’ve wiped my family and me from the world of the living. There is no turning back; what happened did happen, and there is no way to time travel back to fulfill our “if-onlys”. The best thing we can do is look forward toward the opposite shore and regain our solid rhythm, our balance. And when trouble comes, the best thing we should do is to learn to turn the other cheek and press through the frothing uncertainties, hopping out a stronger human, alive.