Backroads are the most beautiful thing the suburbs have to offer: paths that twist around giant trees and hidden houses, concrete evidence of years of city progress that create a maze through which only a true citizen can navigate her way home. A novice could easily get lost and panic. A veteran gets lost on purpose. As soon as I got my license, I started learning how to get lost.
My first car wasn’t my car at all—it belonged to my parents, who let me borrow it whenever I wanted, because it was 1999 and gas was less than a dollar per gallon, and I was the kind of kid who was too afraid to get into any serious trouble. My parents would later tell me about the times they’d sneak into nightclubs through bathroom windows and cross state lines from Massachusetts to New York so they could buy beer at 18 as opposed to 21. I wondered, when they were young and dancing, if they ever had this conversation: “What if we get married and have a daughter who rebels by being a total square?”
The car was a 1997 Nissan Altima, a blue beauty with cream interiors and a six-CD changer in the trunk, which, believe it or not, was pretty amazing. This was an era when streaming music was the kind of thing you’d hear about from your stoned friend while you drove him home from the party and asked him to stop dropping Burger King onion rings on the carpet. I was madly in love with it, even though I was a terrible driver. (I almost killed my friends the first time I drove them by going the wrong way on a one-way street, and I hit more than one concrete barrier in a parking lot, leaving the front license plate permanently dented.) It represented the one thing I wanted more than anything else at the time: a place to be alone.
My heart was broken in those days, and I spent many of them trying to string it back together through half-hearted kisses and other signs of shared loneliness with my best friend-with-benefits: ceiling stares and deep sighs and if onlys and maybes and but not in that ways. Home was a hard place to be. My grandmother, whom I loved more than anything, was dying of cancer in the room across from mine, and I could hear her cry at night. I was pulling away from my friends, who were already becoming new versions of themselves, all of us aware of the inevitable separation that would happen when we left for college the following year. Soon enough I’d be leaving my parents for a city I’d only visited twice. All I wanted was to disappear, to become one of the pieces of gravel flicking at windshields, giving drivers a little scare, breaking their illusions a bit, waking them up. I wanted to feel powerful while also being virtually invisible. The car was a means to that end.
I’d never had my own space growing up—I shared a room with my sister—so the car became a de facto bedroom, a place where I could play whatever music I wanted (the Cure, the Smiths, and the recently released OK Computer) over and over again, as loud as I wanted, and where I could cry and scream and think and move in circles until I felt calm enough to go back home, where I’d have to interact with everyone else. Cruising around darkened schools and passing under blinking streetlights while the rest of the city slept created a feeling of control—I was out on my own, and the world was just a set that I was passing through. I didn’t have to pretend to be happy; I didn’t have to play any roles. I just had to pay attention to the road in front of me. Driving at night was always better—it was as if I had the entire city to myself.
On the nights when my grandmother was particularly ill, or when I was filled with anxiety about college applications or boys or the stress of just existing, I’d tell my parents I was going “out” and usually drive to my best friend’s house, where I’d hang out for a few hours, always leaving plenty of curfew wiggle room for the long way home. I’d get close to my house and then take a sharp turn in the opposite direction, moving toward unfamiliar residential areas or the screaming highways and an old turnpike filled with glowing diners, shady motel signs, and giant miniature golf sculptures that looked like plastic ghosts as I whizzed by.
Sometimes I’d pretend that I was driving back in time, that I was erasing the things that were waiting at home, or reversing mistakes I’d made, or taking back things I’d said to people I loved. Other times I had conversations with myself about the future or love or death, rehearsing for a play that would only take place in my mind, where I’d always say the right thing and there’d always be a happy ending. I wondered if anyone else was doing the same thing. Every set of headlights was a series of questions: Who are these people? Where are they going? Do they know how to fix unfixable things?
It occurred to me on several occasions, usually the bleaker nights when things were just too sad at home, that if I wanted to, I could just drive away entirely. I could go to the other side of the country, or to the airport where I could try to find a way to get to the other side of the world. But these things were all impractical, and I knew that even if I did manage to pull them off, they’d only bring more sadness and confusion, and the things I was running from would follow me wherever I went. It took me a few years (and a few therapy sessions) to come right out and say this in a concrete way, but the sick feeling in my stomach—a mix of panic and instinct—led me to believe it was true. I knew my limits, and I knew that if I allowed myself to get truly lost, I’d never find my way back. Really, I only wanted to disappear for a little while, to escape for an hour or two, to have my hands on the wheel and to be in complete control of where my life—and, in my mind, the lives of others—were headed. I could create the future from behind the safety of a seatbelt and an airbag, imagine where everyone would end up, which huge steps we’d all take, without ever having to leave the confines of the car.
The feeling I took from those long, solitary drives was one I never found in a boy’s bedroom, or at a party with my friends, or within the walls of my house. It was a calm sort of sadness, a regimented exercise in release. The ritual of putting the key in the ignition and hearing the engine roar under my command, coupled with the notion that I alone had the power to stop and go, just with the touch of my feet, made me feel powerful during an otherwise powerless time. I learned that I could be in control and present in one world even as my heart and my mind were racing toward another. Yes, I’m crying all over myself, but I’ve got this gasoline-filled beast by the reins, and I get to tell it where to go.
Driving alone on an open road at night is like being the captain of your own universe. Your song plays on the radio, your preferred temperature blasts from the air ducts, your breath fogs up the windows. Occasionally, an invading set of headlights from another wanderer will break your spell, remind you that you’re not alone, and you’ll either thank them or curse them, depending on your mood. All you want to do is move forward, to get out, to be in a place where your thoughts can spill out and be replaced, over and over, until the right combination of thoughts finally kicks in and you’ve had enough for the evening. Exhaustion usually brought me back: when I’d let everything out, I could crawl out of the driver’s seat, into my bed, and fall asleep. It’s therapy, I guess. Sometimes you just need to get away, even if you don’t have a set destination.
Every so often, I drive home to visit my family. It’s an eight-hour drive, round trip, and most people give me sympathy when I tell them I’m taking it. But it’s never a hassle. It is what it has always been: a chance to escape from everything, to once again pilot my way through my own life. The road is there to guide but not to judge. I still think through my worries, or imagine solutions, or just tune out and sing as loud as I can, and no one can tell me not to. I sit there and stare straight ahead, letting all things pass, good and bad and in-between, like the trees outside my windows. ♦