Nearly seven years ago, 16-year-old Todd Stansfield was behind the wheel of his car when it smashed into another vehicle on a rural, two-lane road in Douglas County. Four people died. Stansfield lived. And ever since he put pen to paper after the crash, he’s been trying to use the power of his words to make sense of that horrific night.
Todd Showers and pours himself a glass of milk inside the kitchen of his Manhattan apartment. He stands next to the refrigerator, stripped to the waist, his exposed flesh a scarred patchwork of lines and squares and circles. There’s a buttonhook from the middle of his chest down to his belly button, where a surgeon cut him open and sewed his diaphragm together. There’s a raised patch the size of a quarter over his stomach, where a feeding tube was inserted. Two other circular scars dot his ribs on the right—another on the left—where more tubes inflated his collapsed lungs.
Todd moves to his bedroom, turns on an overhead light, and half-closes the door. It’s a weekday morning and Todd hunches over his desk, a glass-top no larger than a briefcase. He sits at the keyboard in the yellow light of his bedroom and waits. Todd wishes he could remember that night. It’s haunted him all these years—in his bed at home in Colorado, in his jail cell, and now here, where he’d gone to escape the ghosts but now finds himself chasing them with his fingertips.
Think of how great it would be to see the future. Where would I be? Where would my friends be? Who would they be? None of this...would exist.
A few blocks away, Lindsay walks her chihuahua-terrier mix, Bella, through the streets and heads to a dog park near the Queensboro Bridge. Her hair is shoulder-length and brown, and is pulled into a ponytail. She works the 2 to 10 p.m. shift at a nearby hospital, which means she has only a sliver of time each weekday to see her brother. When she returns home from work at night, she takes the dog for a walk. Like clockwork, Todd heats water for tea and serves it to Lindsay in a cup and saucer when she gets back. Later, they turn on the television and watch reruns of The Office before heading for bed.
The two rarely talk about the crash. The times Lindsay has tried to bring up the accident, Todd’s gone quiet, then started to cry. “I want to talk to Todd, but he shuts down,” Lindsay says. “How’s he really feeling? I’m not sure, because we haven’t been able to go there. I think Todd struggles with opening up about the accident. It hurts to think what kind of pain he must be in.”
Every few months, Todd’s parents offer to pay for therapy, and Lindsay’s encouraged it. Not long ago, Maryanne asked Todd if he wanted to fix the marble-size tracheotomy scar at the base of his neck. Todd wore T-shirts under collared shirts after the crash in an attempt to hide the hole, but now he tells his mother that he’s accepted the scar as part of who he is. “It makes you wonder if this is how he’s punishing himself,” his mother says. “The only thing I want is to see my son smile again. I want my old Todd back.”
Inside his room, Todd throws on his scrubs—a white smock and powder-blue pants—a gray fleece jacket, a backpack, and heads out the door. There are 18 subway stops between Todd’s place in Midtown Manhattan and New York Methodist Hospital in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, where he volunteers 200 hours a year as part of his probation requirements.
When Todd exits the train, the morning wind along Seventh Avenue is blowing hard. He raises his shoulders to escape the chill and heads through the hospital’s glass doors and up an elevator. He goes to the volunteer office to check in and soon is back down a phalanx of stairs, out another door, and into a second building where the physical therapy department is located.
“Hey, Todd!” someone calls out.
There are 10 padded tables lined up in the long, narrow room, with weights and a treadmill up front, and a sitting area in the back where rehabilitating patients get heat and ice treatments after workouts. Todd makes his way to the chairs to begin his work, and one of the therapists steps in his way.
“Whatcha reading now, Todd?” the woman asks.
“Orwell,” Todd says. “Some Gertrude Stein.”
“Stein,” the woman says. “Haven’t read her since high school. Let me know what you think.”
Within a few minutes, Todd is all helpfulness and courtesy. He organizes the exercise balls, strips linens from tables, and tosses the laundry into a bin. Soon, he’s icing a man’s knee and a woman’s shoulder. He cleans the underwater treadmill in the back room, ices another knee, and heats a back and a shoulder and an ankle and a calf. All the while he’s getting directions from the half-dozen-or-so physical therapists around the room. Todd, can you take this patient? Todd, can you reserve that table? Todd….
None of the therapists knows what Todd’s done to be here, and Todd’s not telling them. He just wants to work. So when people ask why he was here 250 hours last year—50 more than his sentence called for—why he pulled entire shifts for no pay, he answers simply, “I like it.”
Around noon, Todd spies a group of therapists huddled near the front door. Someone turns off the lights. One of them, a man, calls out.
“Todd,” he says. “Come on. Let’s go eat.”
“I’m alright, but thank—thank you.”
“Seriously, Todd, you need lunch.” The rest of the group waves him over.
Todd’s face goes flush. He’s frozen.
“I’m good,” he says.
“Really, Todd, come on.”
He lies that the volunteer office doesn’t want its workers mingling with paid hospital staff.
“Well, if you change your mind, you know where to go,” one therapist says. “We’d love for you to join us.”
Todd gives a half-smile and watches the group head out the door. He exhales and walks to one of the chairs in the back of the room. He puts his head in his hands.
Now, see Todd Stansfield in the half-light of this hospital in Brooklyn, New York, and ask yourself: Has he suffered enough? If not, how much is enough? No one can answer those questions, at least not now. Maybe not ever.
When Todd finishes graduate school, he’d like to find a job at a university where he can teach other writers, where he is happy and carefree and can focus on nothing but a perfectly turned sentence. He’ll work in a place that is friendly and inviting. He’s sure of that. He’d like to move back to Colorado. It won’t be to Parker—at least that’s what he says now. Give him until 2017, though—after his 29th birthday, when his probation ends—and maybe he’ll change his mind.
By then, perhaps he’ll have a place of his own, with an office and a wooden desk and a big, leather chair. Maybe he’ll have a car, too; one he will drive carefully down some street on his way to having morning coffee with a girlfriend or a wife who loves and understands Todd for who he is.
And then, maybe…well, who knows?
Until then, Todd works at the hospital. He goes to class. He has an internship at Fiction, a well-regarded literary journal. He is home before curfew. He writes, trying to work out the great riddle of his life one letter at a time.
And he dreams. Todd has seen his friends again. He’s written about it. They’re sitting inside his car.
And all at once, it becomes clear to me what I have to do; this is my second chance, and I am not going to waste it. But first, I wait to see those three perfect smiles just one last time. Slowly, I smile at each of them and they smile back at me. I nod my head and clear the tears from my eyes. With my right hand, I take the key out of the ignition and with my left I open the door. My face is still facing theirs and with my last words, I say to them, “I love you guys.”
In his dream, Todd throws his car keys into a nearby field. And then he runs away.
Robert Sanchez, 5280’s senior staff writer, profiled Tom Tancredo in the February issue. E-mail Sanchez at firstname.lastname@example.org.