I can still feel it in my gut—see the flash of stopped motion and hear the thump of body and motorbike against our fender as, enjoying the sunniest of moods, I made that awful right turn in Copenhagen. We fallible beings make all kinds and degrees of wrong turns in our lifetimes, from entering the wrong restroom to veering toward criminal behavior. The collision in Copenhagen happened long ago, yet lately I’ve been thinking about its haunting consequences. Maybe it’s that I’ve reached the approximate age of the man I injured, or it might be the way the growing herd of bicyclists here in Chicago seems to be closing in on me.
The green movement and the city’s new bike-lane markings have stimulated travel by bicycle, a good thing for the planet. I bicycle in these lanes myself, cautiously, in a law-abiding manner that often infuriates the anarchic riders, who squeeze by, shouting obscenities. I can’t help resenting them and their general attitude of owning the road. When driving along the boulevards, I find myself challenged almost every block by bikers who tear by on my right, rarely pausing at stop signs or other intersections, determined to beat me to a corner when I signal for a turn across their lane.
Recently, I was especially irked by a bearded, long-limbed biker, tricked out in a full racing outfit and reflector sunglasses, barreling through my residential neighborhood as if it was the Tour de France. I was slowing my car at a red light, signaling that I would turn right after my stop. From the look of this dude in the rearview mirror, I knew he wasn’t about to pause for anything or anyone, including a pedestrian and child waiting at the far crosswalk. A reptilian voice in my brain hissed, Take the bastard out! Just make the turn as if assuming he’ll obey the stop light. But I declined and let him fly through. I’ve had my taste of bone slamming into car. Had this biker read my thoughts, he might have attributed his safe passage to one Vagn A. E., an elderly Danish gentleman whose body I damaged one miserable day.
I say miserable, but the day itself was framed by ecstatically blue skies and a theatrical late-July brilliance on the waterways, stucco facades, sidewalk cafes, and impossibly handsome Danish faces. Millions of people worldwide were still glowing over the Apollo 11 mission a week earlier, the manned lunar landing and the successful splashdown that followed. In Scandinavia, astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s part-Swedish background was additional cause for celebration.
Meta, my wife of that time, and I were on vacation, savoring the Nordic delights during perhaps the happiest phase of our marriage. She was seven months pregnant with our second daughter, feeling robustly well, and brimming with that advertised radiance of woman with child. The week had already been glorious: it saw us cheering the televised lunar landing with other guests at a hotel outside Oslo. Then, in Oslo itself, weighed down by meatballs and sour cream and the restaurant’s name—Tostrupkjelleren—we watched the plucky lunar module rise magically from the moon’s surface to the command ship. Three days later, when the astronauts splashed down in the Pacific, we, too, were triumphing at sea, taking in the watery dreamscapes of Sognefjord and its Nærøyfjord on a daylong cruise we had planned and saved for.
The Giant Step for Mankind having passed into history, we spent the following days walking lake trails, touring old towns, and ogling the Swedish and Danish countrysides with their gilded wheat fields, thatched cottages, and castles. We ate ocean trout in butter sauce. We drank (Meta sparingly) beers with the crispness of mountain air. And then in Copenhagen, winding up the holiday, we drove along a busy, tree-lined boulevard en route to lunch at the recommended Oskar Davidsen restaurant.
We were manically cheerful. All those travel pleasures in the bank and yet another treat ahead for our growling stomachs. Sun in the sky. Baby in the oven. A few kroners yet in our pockets. Two-year-old daughter in the good care of a cousin and her family. (We had just telephoned, and everything was fine.) And on returning home, I’d be starting a new editorial job I’d landed in New York while Meta would be mapping out the completion of graduate studies in English.
According to the notes I took that day, I sang these very exclamations to Meta as we rolled along: “We’re young! In Copenhagen! And not a worry in the world!” Meta nodded happily, checking our city map for the turn we needed to make. It was coming up.
By this point in life, I’d made my share of youthful mistakes and, later, would take some shamefully wrong moral turns that caused years of hurt before things sorted themselves out again. Mistakes can be simple and mindless or more subtle, tied to the complexity of our options and bearing immense consequences: the slight miscalculation in a flight path, the wrong choice in a career or relationship. A fateful misdirection also looms just when everything seems right with oneself and the world; one is in the zone, providentially directed. Harm is suspended, and nothing can go wrong. But it does. Steroidal quarterbacks throw interceptions. Stoners step off a deck. A giddy American turns off a foreign street, oblivious to what might lie between turning point and the next curb.
That I was high on endorphins is the best case I can make for my blindness to the narrow lane to my right, a two-wheeled-vehicle lane on the other side of the boulevard’s landscaped island. My usual defenses, the alertness and caution that had served me well in years of urban driving, were down. Even the genetic disposition to always expect the worst, inherited from persecuted ancestors, was in the off position.
The novelist Pearl Buck argues that “every great mistake has a halfway moment, a split second when it can be recalled.” Perhaps that is so. Although I might have glanced a second through the trees between me and that lane, I didn’t notice Vagn A. E. and his motorbike whizzing to the intersection until——
Our small rental Fiat suffered only an ugly dent; his motorbike was misshapen, ruined. We were physically unhurt, but Vagn lay on the ground beside the bike, holding his side, grimacing, one bruised hand apparently in acute pain. Of solid build, ruddy, and with reddish-gray hair and short beard, he looked like a man who had taken care of himself, who’d managed to enter his senior years with health intact. And there he lay, thanks to us. As we knelt beside him, we were absorbed in his agony, horrified by it, bewildered by the sudden turn of events.
A small crowd gathered, and Vagn made an effort to raise himself. He accepted my help, groaning and fighting for breath as he got to a sitting position. I didn’t want him to move farther until help arrived, which, someone in the crowd indicated, would be soon. I was struggling for something to say to him when he asked, “English?”
“American,” I said. “I’m so sorry this happened. I don’t know how. . . .”
He looked up at Meta, who was standing now, her condition obvious. “She is okay?” Vagn said. “I hope she is not . . . in shock.” Meta and I exchanged a sad glance. I turned back to him. “No, no,” I said. “We’re worried about you.”
He shrugged and reached with difficulty for a pocket in his jacket. I noticed a sleeve had been torn up. He found his cigarettes and offered me one. I wanted to weep.
The Copenhagen police arrived quickly, and an ambulance soon after. The two officers looked me over; one examined my papers coldly while the other spoke with Vagn in Danish. Then both officers stood by Vagn and apparently—from their gestures toward the ambulance and his reluctant head-shaking—exhorted him to go to a hospital. Finally, casting a glum look at his motorbike and waving away a stretcher, he allowed the ambulance crew to help him up slowly and move him into the vehicle.
We wanted to follow them to the hospital—Kommunehospital—but the police said no; “You must come to the police station.” They led the way, and inside, we were interviewed by a cordial English-speaking officer, who appeared sympathetic to our distress. He made out a report and collected the set fine: the equivalent of $30 then, or about $150 now. I don’t recall the exact violation, if I ever did know, but it had something to do with not exercising caution.
He told us that Vagn would also be fined.
“What?” I said, shocked. “The poor man I hit?”
The officer explained that in most accidents, Danish law considers everyone involved to be responsible to some degree. So Vagn, too, would be faulted for a “mistake”—not watching out for bliss-blinded tourists at an intersection. We sickened at the thought of his receiving this insult on top of injury. In the course of the paperwork, however, I was able to obtain Vagn’s address.
Free to go, we spent the rest of the afternoon killing time—reporting the accident to Pizner Auto Rental, grabbing a cheap bite, picking up some small gifts for family. By evening, our nerves had calmed somewhat, but once we decided there was no choice but to go to the hospital, the tension returned.
We were hardly relieved to learn, at the reception desk, that Vagn had been treated and released into the care of his family. The nurses would give no details of his condition. It was too late now to go to his home, but after breakfast the next morning, we drove nervously along waterways and large canals, over bridges, and finally to a cobbled street beside a small canal. Vagn’s tidy three-story house sat along a row of attached nineteenth-century buildings. We rang the doorbell, then knocked softly and waited several minutes. We were about to write a note and leave when a neatly dressed man in his forties opened the door. I asked for Vagn and explained who we were.
“He is my papa,” the man said, looking down.
We said how sorry we were and asked how he was.
“It’s bad,” he said, his eyes still on the ground. He said nothing more, made no move to invite us in. Desperate, we asked if we might come again later in the day, when his father might be feeling up to it. The son nodded.
We left at wit’s end, scraping for some activity to occupy the interim. We ended up at the Thorvaldsen Museum, and I was in such a state—worried about Meta, too—that I (an avid nonbeliever) went teary looking at Bertel Thorvaldsen’s mannered sculpture of Christ resurrected.
After the museum, we kicked around a main shopping area, but by now, we were sick of tourist merchandise. We picked up a large gift basket of fruit and delicacies before heading back to Vagn’s house in mid-afternoon. This time, the door was opened by Vagn’s wife, a trim, self-possessed woman, who accepted the basket and nodded us through a foyer and to a pair of chairs in a sitting room. We sat uneasily while she disappeared and returned a moment later with someone to help translate—a neighbor who happened to be the wife of Vagn’s doctor.
Her opinion gave us a moment’s hope: “He’s very badly bruised, but we think he will be . . . maybe all right.”
We expressed our wishes for a fast recovery. No reaction. In the awkward moment that followed, we asked if we might know his profession. The neighbor said something to the wife then told us he was a taxidermist, still working at the age of seventy-two. But now, with his injury. . . . As she spoke, a door opened, and the injured man himself appeared, helped along by his son. I recall thinking how much Vagn looked like the elder Rembrandt at that moment. He wore a robe, and his emphatic features caught the afternoon window light. I’ve crippled Rembrandt flashed through my tortured mind. Vagn tried to summon some jauntiness for us, but the effort made him wince in pain and gasp for breath. The son patted his shoulder. We were again devastated.
Once more, we expressed our regrets to him, and he waved a hand as if to say, “Enough apology.” The family said nothing. We stood, and Vagn’s wife gently ushered us out.
The last entry in my notebook (we flew home a day later) says we were in better spirits afterward, having done what we could, and that we splurged on a last dinner of baked salmon, shrimp, and curry. I can’t remember now if we had an appetite or were just trying to wrap things up on a winning note. We’d sacrificed and worked hard for this grand adventure, to own it in memory before hunkering down with work, study, and raising two children. We didn’t want one wrong turn to color the experience as a mistake—prompting litanies of regret.
And yet, a mistake is something that happens; you can’t make it un-happen. The word mistake derives from an old verb—Scandinavian, in fact—meaning “to transgress or misunderstand.” Dictionary definitions hinge on the word error but not on the concept of unwanted consequences rippling from one’s action. I have a sense of how that wrong turn in Copenhagen has eddied through my own life, but I couldn’t tell you how it ultimately affected Vagn’s. We never found out. Of course, we might have written and asked, but the odds were too great of getting an upsetting reply or chilling silence. Rather quickly, the bustle of our daily lives put that higher impulse out of reach. It was easier to think of Vagn healed and energetically stuffing his owls and foxes; that image allowed us not to forget the pain we caused, but, in effect, to forgive ourselves and hope we were forgiven in turn.
Mistakes and how we judge them raise a cloud of moral questions, and the grandest blunder would be to think that we’ve worked out the answers, that we can umpire serious oversights like balls and strikes or can predict how the next mistakes—including our own, my own, those of the bikers racing me to the stop signs—will be received. We curious humans can more easily put ourselves on the moon.