Inspired by a New York Times article on driving, here is my addition to the conversation:
I’m nine years old, walking hand-in-hand with my mother on the way home from school. I’m the new kid, a fresh face in a town full of people that have known each other since birth. My teeth grew in quickly, and my cheeks were insanely plump, which earned me the nickname “Chipmunk Girl.” On this particular walk home, I’m explaining to Mom how Brendan from school gave me a new nickname, and I’m pretty mad about it. On a street lined with hundreds of cars around my elementary school, my mom stops next to a silver sedan and sends a mischievous smile my way. It took me a few minutes to connect the dots: we finally had a car.
That car meant the absolute world to our family. We had never been able to drive in New York City nor did we ever need to. My first year in California was plagued with a lot of family issues, and having a car was a sign that we were starting a new life that seemed impossible a month before. My mom drove the car to school every day, tackling the ins-and-outs of all the freeway exchanges out of pure motivation to get her degree and her life back. Even though gas was expensive, there were nights where my mom knew my brother and I needed to experience the thrill of a joyride. We named it “chasing the sunset,” and it was our little break from life where we would head toward the cliffside ocean as the sun was setting to catch a glimpse of the ocean and the sky meeting. We’d always put on a CD during the chase, and we would turn the music up so loud that I could sing at the top of my lungs and not hear myself. It was magical to have freedom to go at my own pace and discover the place I would soon consider home.
I’m fifteen, and I’m sitting in the driver’s seat this time with my mom on the right, gripping the door handle and borderline panicking as I attempt my first left turn in an empty parking lot. We park (crookedly) as Mom goes over the maneuver again, but I get frustrated and a little scared. All of a sudden, all I want to do is go home, get under my covers and never drive again. We agree to switch spots, and as I’m stepping out of the car, my right foot taps the gas pedal. The silver sedan screams with life, my mother screaming at the top of her lungs out of shock. Luckily, the car was parked, and all that happened was a loud noise and the smell of burning rubber from the tires turning in place. I didn’t drive again for six months.
I’m seventeen, and the second one of all my friends to get my license. Soon, we were driving anywhere we could whenever we wanted. I taught them how to chase the sunset, but in constantly miscalculating our timing, we found solace in catching a sky full of stars. A cliffside patch of dirt surrounded by an oasis of flowers became our Friday night hotspot, an area we lovingly called “The Bald Spot.” I felt immortal standing in our dirt patch, only to get back in the silver car and sneak pictures of my friends when they would fall asleep with their mouths open on the drive home.
I’m twenty, and everything has shut down. Things are scary, and I genuinely have no idea what’s going on, but I now have new video call apps on my phone and a Google graph website that I refresh every morning to monitor everything in the world. I’d take my keys and in the confines of my socially distanced vehicle, I’d drive the same streets I’ve always driven, now barren and eerie. The beach route I took to class every day was empty and a pleasureful stress drive. Driving became a hobby for the first time in my life.
I’m twenty-one, and I’m leaving my now ex-boyfriends house for the last time. I get in the driver’s seat and keep my composure for three blocks before I need to pull over. I stare at the wheel, now slightly decayed with hand marks and logos fading away. My heart is in my throat, and I can’t help but cry. I make a beeline for a friend’s house, crossing the two bridges that connected my town to my ex’s. I can’t help but feel relief and utter sadness. I let my friends hug me when I pick them up. I am safe with them in this little bubble.
I’m twenty-three, and I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m in my same spot outside of Mom’s place, yet the silver sedan is filled to the brim with Ikea bags and bedding sets. I make sure my favorite plant is seated right next to me in a cup holder, and I keep an eye on her shaky leaves as I pull out of my lot. Mom’s on the steps of the front door watching me drive away with the same car we used to chase sunsets and conjure up feelings of immortality. She’s tearing up, and I flash her a smile, telling her I’ll come home soon. I put on my favorite sad playlist as I head back to school for the last time.
Driving the 405 is the worst. I drive the same route every day with the same car that I’ve always known. Everything has changed yet nothing has changed. My teeth grew to fit my face and my cheeks have sunken in. I can now successfully navigate a left turn. My friends and I have taken to the occasional dinner nights rather than dirt patch nights. Rush hour is still awful and I dream of barren streets on my commutes. I still pull over to cry on rough days. And I still don’t know what I’m doing. But I will always be endlessly grateful to the magic that driving has allowed me, to the sweet independence I learned to embrace that began with a little plastic card that allows me to go anywhere.