It is July 13, 2003, and I am about to run over a snake. I am driving down Highway 5 from San Jose to L.A., wondering for the umpteenth time if I should have flown instead, when I turn into the rest area near the Firebaugh exit and I see the snake, coiled on the hot asphalt of the parking lot. It looks cozy and content, like a cat on a couch, up until the moment I drive over it. It all happens so fast: the seeing it, the driving over it. “That was a snake” I think, and then because of the way it was coiled and because of its gold and brown bands, I think, “That was a rattler.” But I don’t feel any bump as I pass over it, and when I look in the rear-view mirror, there’s no dead snake on the road.
Where has it gone? Perhaps it has snuck up into the lower part of my car, winding itself around something mechanical. The carburetor or radiator or alternator — I see them all, wrapped in reptile. Or maybe it has wound itself around the tire somehow, has managed to delve deep into the tire grooves and is now circling around and around. Either scenario disturbs me, so I don’t stop at the rest area but keep on going and think again that I really should have flown, if not for my sister’s sake, then at least for the snake’s.
All the way to L.A. I keep the radio off, listening for a rattle; for a clack of fangs against the brake pedal. I imagine the snake wedging its head out of the AC vent, poking at the electrical wires, molting on top of the engine and creating its own duplicate, so that when I open the hood I won’t know which is which. The snake gets hotter and angrier with each mile, and it will kill me if it gets the chance. Still, it is easier to think about the snake than what is up ahead. It is easier to think of fangs and scales than to berate myself for waiting so long to make this trip.
I get to the hospital and park and I can feel the snake’s tiny eyes on me as I make my way to the entrance. It won’t leave me alone. Even in the waiting room, even as my brother tells me “You’re too late” and my mother says “She won’t know you” and my father says “You should have flown down” — even then, I think of the snake. My brother and I sit side by side on couch, just like in the old days on Easter Sundays when we sorted through candy in our Easter baskets, only now there is an empty space between us.
We are silent and dumbfounded and starving as we sit in the waiting room, and my mother puts on the TV. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez are on Entertainment Tonight. “She sure is cute.” Mom says this. She is talking about Jennifer Lopez. She smiles a kind, doting smile she reserves for puppies and some celebrities, like this is a normal day, like we should ever give a shit about people on TV, especially on a day like today.
But I can’t reprimand my mother about smiling over Jennifer Lopez. I am still thinking about the snake. Maybe when I drove over it, I think, maybe it liquefied into almost nothing. Maybe its fangs are still in my front left tire.
I imagine its family, its nest of snake babies, waiting for its return. Even when the nurse ushers us into the ICU, even when the monitor starts to shriek and the slew of doctors rush into my sister’s room, and even when the nurse pokes my sister’s arm with another needle, and even when my mother says to no one “Can’t they just leave her alone now?” and my father says nothing but just stares at the floor, even then I think of the snake, resting, I am sure, on top of my car’s battery, licking up the battery acid with a burp and a sigh.
When my sister is gone (my brother was right, she didn’t know me, I should have flown instead of drove), when my sister is gone, my brother opens the window in her room and looks out toward nothing. I stand next to him. A hot and muggy day — a small warm breeze drifts inside. My car is ten floors below us in the parking lot, but I’m afraid to look. I know what I will see. The snake is wound around the steering wheel. It is sticking its head up, hissing, trying to get my attention. Its eyes are two tiny embers.
Maybe if I don’t look, I think, maybe it will go away.
Published in Switchback, Fall 2015