It was pouring rain. I was in my third semester of college, shaking my head at the fact that I was carrying a giant piece of foam board which held a pirate ship replica atop it, a project I’d made for my Latin America/Caribbean Intercultural Studies class. We’d had a choice between making a treasure map or a pirate ship (Yes, I said this was college). Everybody had chosen the map for its simplicity, but I resented being a part of the majority, so I decided to make the pirate ship. It was easy. I’d chosen a foam children’s kit at Target that I assembled, following the directions, and I’d used salt dough to create little islands.
It was a piece of crap, really. I’d stuffed the whole project into one of those big black trash bags to protect it from the elements, hoping it could make it to the classroom mostly dry. My pirate ship, unfortunately, was not made to sail the ocean waters.
Parking was impossible at that school, so I exited my vehicle which I’d parked about two miles from my classroom, in some empty, run-down neighborhood, and I tucked my hair into my warm coat and began my journey.
What I had not anticipated was that the wind would take my big black trash bag and magically convert it into a sail, which nearly flew from my grasp multiple times. I finally found a position that seemed to keep it under control, which consisted of me hunched over my project, arms outstretched like the monster in Frankenstein, gripping the front of the poster board, my back arched with my 30 pound backpack on my shoulders.
“It’s only about ten more minutes,” I told myself, feeling a burn begin to run up and down the muscles which ran along my spine. “I’ll be sore tomorrow.” I picked up my pace, and when I made it to class, relief washed over me. I took off my backpack, collapsed in my seat, and stared at my pathetic looking pirate ship. I still couldn’t believe that I’d been assigned a third-grader’s project in college. What was I doing wasting my time here?
That afternoon, I visited my boyfriend in between my two classes, had lunch, and returned to school, only to find my Anthropology classroom entirely abandoned. I had just checked my email, and there hadn’t been a class cancellation. Where was everybody?
I whipped around at a rustling sound I heard behind me, and I caught a glimpse of my elderly professor walking aimlessly down the hallway with his hands dug deep into his pockets. He seemed a little confused, distant.
“Where is everybody?” I called out to him.
“They’re all gone,” He replied.
“Gone where?” I called back.
“The cemetery. They’re all at the cemetery.” He sighed.
Had I just entered a horror movie? Was he going to kill me now?
“The…cemetery?” I asked, feeling a chill shoot through my body. Was it the cold or the fact that my Anthropology teacher seemed to be admitting to sending every single one of his students to the cemetery except me?
“For the field trip,” he explained, his voice suddenly lightening.
“Oh,” I hadn’t heard about this field trip.
“It was last minute. Did you not receive my email?”
I hadn’t. I explained this, asked where the cemetery was, and said I’d meet them there momentarily.
First, I ran to the bathroom, figuring there might not be one at the cemetery. I’d just drank two bottles of water. There was only one other girl in the bathroom, and as I was pulling up my pants (yes, you needed to know this detail), a sharp pain shot through my ribs and back, a pain which didn’t let up.
I screamed, quickly covering my mouth with my hand, remembering that there was a girl in the stall next to mine. What I would like to know is what she thought I was doing in that stall.
I stood still, unable to expand my lungs for a full breath, feeling muscles tightening every time I tried. When I heard the girl exit the bathroom, I too, exited, walking carefully to my car, calling my boyfriend. No answer.
My dad. No answer.
My mom. No answer.
My boyfriend. No answer.
My dad. No answer.
My boyfriend. Answer.
“Bec? What’s wrong?” He knew something was off because I never called him at this time. I was supposed to be in class.
“I can’t breathe!” I was crying from the sheering pain that was shooting through my body. “Maybe I have a rib out or something. I can’t breathe at all!”
“Okay, okay. I haven’t left for work yet. Can you drive? Maybe if you make it to my house I can help you get the rib back in.”
“Okay!” I winced, another wave of the near-blinding pain shot through my back.
“Bec, maybe you shouldn’t drive. I’ll come pick you up. Where are you at school?”
“You’ll be late for work,” I replied, crying again, not thinking clearly. I felt light-headed from my inability to take normal breaths.
“I don’t think I want you driving,” he insisted.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” I argued.
“Okay well…just… drive really carefully. I know you, and you’ll probably be focused on the pain and get distracted on the road.”
“Alright, alright. I’ll be fine.”
We hung up, and I began my drive to his house, fighting back the tears, having found a slightly crooked position that allowed me to get some air into my lungs without pain.
About two or three minutes into the trip, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to make it. I reached for my phone to dial my boyfriend’s number and tell him I couldn’t drive. I was going to put him on speakerphone. While reaching for my phone, I was idling forward at a stoplight that had just turned green. What I did not see was that the man in front of me had just stepped on the brakes since the people in front of him were taking a long time to finally accelerate.
I idled into his rear bumper.
We both pulled off to the side of the road.
My mind was frantic. I needed to get out and examine the vehicle, but I couldn’t stand up straight. I had barely made it from the bathroom to my car at school, stopping once to support myself on the wall. Because I was taking so long, the driver of the other vehicle came to my window.
“Your car looks a little dented, but mine’s fine,” he said. “Why don’t you write down your insurance information for me and we’ll exchange phone numbers in case I find anything.”
I glanced at my purse on the seat next to me. Would I be able to reach for it without screaming?
I finally turned to him and asked, “Do you have a pen and paper?”
His expression was that of confusion and discomfort when he looked at my face. It occurred to me then that I still had tears on my cheeks and my makeup was probably running. I felt the need to explain.
“I’m having back and rib trouble and I was on my way to help,” I quickly said, hoping he’d find me a pen.
“You know what? I think I’m just going to go. My car looks fine.” He turned on his heel and walked away.
I dialed my boyfriend’s number.
“You got in an accident, didn’t you?” he said when he picked up.
“Yeah, I rear ended somebody. I can’t drive. I need your help.”
I gave him my location and within ten minutes, he was there at my side, carrying me to his car. I was so scared. What was happening to me?
We quickly assessed that it was not a rib I was having trouble with. It was definitely my back, injured from carrying the pirate ship to school.
He carried me to a couch in his house and put a heating pad on my back muscle while he tried to get ahold of my father. A mutual friend of ours, B, a man who was doing some fence repair work on my boyfriend’s front yard (a man had fallen asleep at the wheel and driven off the road and crashed through his front yard, hitting a redwood tree in front of the house which stopped the vehicle from plowing into it) knocked on the door.
My boyfriend answered, not wanting to explain to him that I was inside dying from some unknown ailment. My back tightened and I screamed, muffling it with a pillow.
Later, I’d text B and in our conversation, he’d mention that he was at my boyfriend’s house that day and heard some sort of screaming come from the house. I had a hard time explaining that one. “Back spasm, huh?” he said. “That’s what you kids are calling it these days?”
With a lot of physical therapy, doctor’s appointments, and NSAID’s, we finally discovered that I had nerve damage from carrying the pirate ship to class that one rainy day in the storm. Ever since then, whenever I return to that slightly hunched over position that I was in while carrying the project that day, I trigger the muscle to go into a spasm. Over time, the spasms have become a little bit less severe in their length and amount of pain, and they can be reversed by several minutes lying on my back arching it in the opposite direction.
Of course, thought, it affects my ability to do the martial arts sometimes. Certain exercises will cause it to go into a spasm, and I have to step off the floor and do the exercises physical therapy taught me that I use to stop the spasms.
Recently, somebody in one of the classes there asked me, “So what grade did you get in the project?”
“An A,” I replied.
That was the most brutal A I’ve ever had to earn. Who would have thought that a children’s foam pirate ship would take me down?