The day I nearly died after needing to pee

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ZZ in recovery

ZZ Lundburg is a senior Creative Writing major at Chapman University—as well as one of my favorite students. She was nearly killed after trying to pee off the back of a boat, and wrote this essay for the site. You can follow her on Twitter here.

If the worst day of my life had been worthy of a news story the headline would have read, “College Girl Gets Run Over by Duffy in Newport Beach After Drinking Too Many Mimosas and Needing to Piss.” And everyone probably would’ve thought—this chick is an idiot. And someone’s aunt Susan would’ve reposted it on Facebook saying, “I hope this is a warning to all the college age kids who drink!!!!! Too many accidents can happen!!!” And my mom would’ve cried. And then she would have sued everyone and made it worse.

There are all these rules everyone follows when something bad happens, all these phrases we say to make it better. See scar. Ask about scar. Say you’re so sorry. Ask if it still hurts. Tell me that I’m lucky. But if we’re being honest, then one question everyone really wants to know is how did that happen?

It was August 25—the Saturday before the first day of my last year of college. About eight friends of mine, mostly my new roommates who I was friends with, but not quite close to yet. I was nervous that I wasn’t going to fit in the dynamic. I changed into dress after dress, until my new roommate offered me one of hers. It was sunny, it was pretty, the water, the sailboats, all of it. We were celebrating someone’s birthday with the classic cheap champagne and orange juice combo, I don’t remember who for. We turned the boat off and someone’s boyfriend did a backflip into the water. Some other girls had to pee and I followed them to the back of the boat and into the water. I remember feeling bad about getting the dress wet.

And then someone got scared and someone thought we were going to hit a dock and someone was playing music too loud and someone turned on the motor and someone got cut and that someone just happened to be me. The first cut was clean, fast. Straight down my inner calf on my right leg. I felt it happen, but I don’t remember the pain. Just lifting my leg up and seeing yellow fat and blue veins and red muscles and white bone. All of it blurry under the waves, but there like an anatomy textbook.

“I’m cut,” I said. “Guys, I got cut.”

My friend Emily looked down at me, wide-eyed, and reached out a tiny hand. She’s 5-foot-2, blonde, little in the most endearing way and absolutely could not, no way pull my body out of the water. But I held on and the motor was off and I was so close to being out of the water and on the boat and away from this creeping buzzing that was running up my leg. And then it was just noise and water and white. And I was back under and I could feel myself being pulled backward again towards this terrible spinning fucking thing that I knew was going to end my life and my dress was caught and all I had was this hand, Emily’s hand. I was screaming, “Please, please turn it off! Please!”

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It gets blurry from there. I felt the motor dig into my back three times. I ripped my dress off of my body. The motor stopped. And I laid there in the water for a moment. Wondering if I just sank if none of it would be real, if I could just stay there and make it all go away. And plus, I was mostly naked, which felt like salt in the already saltwater-filled wound. This quiet choice where I could just go. Leave. But then I was on the back of the boat with hands all over me, holding my leg together, covering me up with T-shirts, yelling about pressure and parents and steering back to shore. And Emily’s tiny hands on my back, looking like she might puke. Then I cried. And I felt stupid and bad that this had happened to me, that this had happened to all of us.

That my mother had to get that phone call. That maybe I was going to die and ruin everyone’s damn day.

When I went in for a long-overdue checkup six months later, a nurse told me that one of her friends had been working that day that I get brought in. According to her, I was a big deal in that Newport medical community, though I’m not sure what that quite means. But the Coast Guard told my shaking friends as they towed that bloody Duffy back to the dock that when they get calls like that, they assume someone is already dead. I got lucky. Or maybe I didn’t. But probably, I did. The propeller sliced right in between my bone and some important muscle that I can’t remember the name of (I’m guessing soleus but anyone is welcome to fact check me). I could’ve lost my foot, could’ve broken my leg, could’ve nicked an artery, sliced into an organ, hell, cut off my head.

But, really, it didn’t end up being about what could have happened. Or about how dumb I felt or felt people thought I was. It didn’t end up being about the pain, or the bleeding, or the ugly ass scars that wind around my body. It wasn’t about the moment, the blood, the pain. Or the Coast Guard, or the hot EMT who walked my bleeding body to the ambulance. But are you allowed to hit on a guy after he’s seen your bone? Am I allowed to be angry? And say I’m really mad that the motor got turned on and that no one listened to me? Am I allowed to disagree with everyone about God saving me? Am I allowed to cry six months later because my back reminds me that I can be a bit of a shithead? Am I allowed to not be okay? I don’t know those answers yet.

I learned a lot of things, the obvious one that those of us who are lucky learn about invincibility. And friendship through the sluggish ugliness of healing, changing bandages and checking yellowed puckered stitch skin. I know my body better now, how it feels to really hurt and ache and bruise.

And as much as it was hard, I don’t really wish it hadn’t happened. It’s a story. A story that makes me cry sometimes and makes me laugh most times. It brings me closer to people, it’s something to talk about. And just before that day got crazy and chaotic, all I was thinking about was how damn pretty it was outside and how cheap champagne honestly tastes just like the real thing.

And how good it feels to pee.