I heard the explosion while driving north on I-75 in Michigan and listening to some smooth jazz on Spotify. Immediately, I swerved onto the wide shoulder and stopped my SUV.
Was it a tire blowout? A crash behind me? Neither one made sense because the sound seemed too close and loud. I felt frozen inside because it wasn’t that long ago that I’d finished therapy to cope with driving off that same highway into a ditch. Back then, I suffered a concussion and PTSD.
But I had to find out what was wrong.
As I opened my door, confusion turned to alarm. I felt very vulnerable with cars and trucks shaking the gravelly ground I stepped out onto as they zoomed past, scorching the air. Momentarily marooned and confused, I steeled myself against the noise, wondering what the hell I could have heard. That boom was reverberating in my head as loudly as the crash of a rain-weakened blue spruce when it had fallen in a neighbor’s yard, and the people on our street had rushed outside because they’d thought it was an earthquake.
Walking around the SUV to inspect the tires and the body, I suddenly looked up and saw it: the wreckage of my sunroof. The thick glass had somehow shattered and chunks of glass would have rained down on me if the sliding sunshade hadn’t been closed. I gawked at the damage, trying to make sense of what had happened—but I couldn’t.
I stared and stared, the highway’s heat and noise making me feel as if I was trapped in a bubble alone with my shock. Was I sweating? Shaky? I don’t remember. I can’t even say how long I stood there, buffeted by every car and truck going faster than 80 mph.
"Do something," I finally thought, jumping back into the SUV, grateful for the relative quiet. I checked to see if any glass had scattered inside, didn’t find any, and drove the last forty minutes of the route home with bits of the damaged sunroof clattering over my head as if I was trapped in a giant baby’s rattle.
I called home to alert my husband and tell him that I was okay. He suggested parking in the driveway when I arrived for a clearer look at the problem and that made sense. It was the only thing that did make sense at the moment. And I was thankful, as always, that I was married to a calm, even-tempered man who didn’t freak out in emergencies. He would have gotten me and a bunch of other people safely off the Titanic, I’m sure of it.
I had just spoken about my Michigan mystery series at a book festival in Ann Arbor and was feeling pleased with the turnout and my presentation, but this wasn’t just a buzz kill, it was an alternate reality. Right then, I felt weirdly detached, watching my hands on the wheel and the GPS on the screen as if I were a character in a video game.
As soon as the crazy question “Am I being stalked?” entered my thoughts, I dismissed it. I wrote crime fiction; I had never lived it.
A sense of detachment lingered through the next few days of contacting our insurance company and getting the sunroof repaired. They gave us a loaner SUV, but it seemed so weirdly alien that I couldn’t imagine getting into it. I couldn’t imagine driving. It wasn’t shock or fear or anything like that. What was happening was like those moments in sci-fi movies when someone explains a rift in the space-time continuum. Nothing was familiar, nothing was the same. And I felt insanely vulnerable—I barely wanted to take the dogs out for a walk.
The service manager at our dealership thought that the cause of the explosion could have been a bird strike of some kind, but if that were so, wouldn’t there have been blood and feathers? I knew it wasn’t some vicious dumb kid tossing rocks from an overpass because I hadn’t driven under one.
Then a friend I told about the experience said, "Your sunroof exploded? Go to Google and you’ll be surprised."
I did. I was. Exploding sunroofs aren’t a unique phenomenon or an urban legend. They’re real. The explanations vary from road vibration to spider web cracks, to the nature of sunroof glass and beyond—but the sudden, shocking explosions are definitely a thing.
I wasn’t a victim of something unheard of, a freak accident. Weirdly, I felt a whole lot better. And I found that I wasn’t afraid to get back into the SUV. With the sunshade closed, of course. I’d been keeping it shut to avoid sunburn and now I had an even better reason.
But as Joan Didion wrote in Play it as it Lays, “In the whole world there was not as much sedation as there was instantaneous peril.”
A first-generation American who lives in Michigan, Lev Raphael was married in Stratford, Ontario, which for many years felt like a second home thanks to the Festival. He is the proud companion of two West Highland White Terriers (Westies) and speaks French and German. He is the author of twenty-seven books in genres from memoir to mystery and has done hundreds of invited talks and readings in nine countries. His writing has appeared in fifteen languages including Chinese and Romanian. You can read more about him at levraphael.com.