In the 80’s, I’m a passenger in our Volkswagen bus. The seat belts pinch us and we take turns rearranging the “Jesus Saves” magnets on the on-board refrigerator. Leah is still in a car seat. Some years later, we trash this rusting bus that left our doll’s heads smeared with chalky white paint when we banged them against the outside of it. It’s replaced by a large grey van this time.
These years, the air in the family van is thin and fragile, its silence broken only by the sound of the turn signal or wind shield wipers. My sisters and I rarely speak. We fear distracting my parents from driving and incurring their wrath; so we sit in silence and draw or quietly change the clothes on our Barbies, only making small sounds with the tiny bits of velcro and miniature snaps. Erin reads. At least she is smart enough to escape the painful absence of life in the car. My parents only communicate for the purposes of navigating. My mom often yells, startling us. We never have any warning. We hate ourselves for jumping. She’s usually chiding my father for breaking with his left foot. He always has an excuse, and I secretly like that he never changes the way he does it on account of my mom. They often fight on our short trips. I can feel my mom’s voice in my chest when she yells and I hold my breath between telephone poles, fearfully awaiting arrival at the Italian restaurant or the mall or any place where the door to the van would slide open, spilling our tension into a public parking lot and allowing time to start again. We never feel sorry for ourselves. We don’t know any better. There is no radio, no laughing, no talking in the car. But in a merciful way, there is still dreaming and imagining on the inside. That never ends.
Up through middle school I crave jaunts down the road to the hardware store with just my dad. We’d take a break from sweating in the garage and climb into the swealtering van. I sit in the front seat and we exchange the silence in the car for either NPR or the oldies, which my mom personally hated. We’d harness the space of auditory freedom the cabin of our car became for this ride and he’d sing “Do you loooove meeee do really dooooo!” and drum on the steering wheel with flat palms. I didn’t care for it, but I cared that my dad was happy.
Drives with my mom are far different these years. If she was mad before we left the house,we’d fight over who had to sit in the front seat. The unlucky passenger would have to sit on the right side of the seat as far away from my mom as possible and cling to the door handle. She’d drive with one hand and hit with the other. Or turn and spit on us at red lights. Whomever was in the back seat would be too scared to move to rummage for a napkin to clean the saliva from the front-seat passenger’s arm, so we’d ride in tense silence to the sound of my mom’s hatred. Or we’d ride feeling pressed into our seats by the blasting of Christian radio she cranked when she said she needed God back in the car and try not to watch her spit drip down one of our arms. Sometimes she’d threaten to drive us off the bridge. You don’t put makeup on in the car. Don’t ever be late to the car. Don’t talk loud. Don’t forget anything. Don’t wear the wrong thing out of the house. Your drive will be hell.
Then it’s high school. I barely survive learning how to drive. We all have to learn in my mom’s 1986 Mercedes. It’s heavy and awkward to steer. I tentatively drive around the parking lot in front of the vacated K-mart. Then we hit the residential streets. I’m tense. Experience tells me it’s not good to be in the front seat with my mom. I am right. I run a stop sign one time near the library. “You broke the laaaaawww!!” I drive the rest of the way home with my cheek swelling against my teeth on the inside where her hand surprised me. I decide that I am too stupid to drive. I don’t do it again until I come home after my second year of college. This time my dad sits in the passenger seat with his laptop and tells me I can’t go home until I put forty miles on the car. I drive just fine.
In college and shortly thereafter I drive a ’96 Ford Taurus. It’s green and reminds me of a praying mantis hovering above the asphalt. It’s my first experience with autonomy. I make the 189 mile trip back and forth from home to school and back listening to a tape I made from a Korn CD. I enjoy the sounds I’ve chosen for myself to ride to. There’s only silence if I want it. These are the years of driving to Siesta Key beach in Sarasota, Florida with the windows down and cigarettes burning. They soon become half a decade of working nine to five. Or Eight to four plus five-thirty to twelve. My car reeks of cigarettes and I listen to the morning show on radio while I sit in 45 minutes of traffic to get to the construction site. Or the office. Or the hotel. Icing appears on the seat from my stint as a cake decorator. And then pure joy for a while… I valet my car every night at the strip club when I start dancing. I feel more important than I am, and I enjoy the dissonance, tasting the first bits of financial freedom while I still feel I reek of dishwater and dough. My car becomes a shuttle of freedom. I make my own money. I make my own decisions. I am relaxed. Comfortable not in my own skin, but at least in my car those days.
These days my drives in the car seem mundane. I’m not sure it will be symbolic again. It might be a thing of youth. Perhaps drives were most memorable when they were defined by transition or by stagnation, like in my youth. Now I take my dog on rides to the bank with me. Or through the drive-through. She stands in the front seat, staring forward, rocketing through space. I don’t think much of my trips. Tension and adventure have long since dissipated. There is peace now. Nothing to report. And I like it that way.