The last time I drove in my twenties, I was returning the U-Haul I’d used to cart my entire adult life from Pittsburgh to Brooklyn. It was larger than I needed – I had, as ever, overestimated how much space I took up – and I found it slightly terrifying to drive. Then again, I still found driving slightly terrifying.
The first time I drove in my thirties, I was out with my dad, tooling around behind the old mall in my hometown, which is presently (allegedly) being revitalized into the new mall in my hometown. The parking lot is huge and slightly feral, dimpled with potholes and traced over with the barest suggestion of parking spaces. The DMV used to be out there, which I always found hilarious. To get your license, you had to be able to drive, yes, but you specifically had to be able to drive the parking lot of the Middletown Mall.
I learned to drive when I was sixteen but didn’t get my license until I was twenty-two. That’s the funny thing: I’ve known how to drive for nearly half my life, but mostly I simply…didn’t. And I could get into campus bars with my permit, not my license, so who needed a license? I’d left my hometown behind. Lived in a city with public transit now, dubious as Pittsburgh’s public transit can be. Knew enough people who would be sympathetic if I really did need a ride sometime, if I really had an emergency.
I didn’t think I would ever really have an emergency.
Because I refueled the tank before turning in the truck, that U-Haul return ended up freezing my debit card for the whole first week I lived in New York. An auspicious beginning, to be sure. My eagle-eyed bank had caught a charge at a gas station in Brooklyn, and they knew I never bought gas. Didn’t need to. Couldn’t be me.
But: whatever. Who needed gas? I’d left Pittsburgh behind, lived in a city with robust public transit now. It was a blessing to hand the keys over and walk away to wait for my Lyft ride home. Finding parking in Bushwick? Couldn’t be me.
And then I was someone who didn’t drive again, not even on my trips home, where my parents still owned the cars in which I’d once practiced parallel parking and dodged potholes. I renewed my license faithfully, but really I just needed it to buy wine at the liquor store or pick up medication at Rite-Aid. It was simply proof that I existed, not any kind of evidence about what I could do. The years passed and I got used to living around people who’d driven, past tense, in the places they were from – or who might learn to drive, future conditional tense, if they ever left this, their hometown. My debit card was never frozen again. I paid for occasional Lyfts, but mostly I walked to the trains, then went wherever the trains were going.
Until I didn’t go anywhere, because no one was going anywhere. The last time I got in a car in 2020, it was March, of course; I was coming home from a cabin weekend with my best friend, her husband, and my boyfriend. This had been planned months in advance as an excuse to hang out, because we loved excuses to hang out, and wasn’t supposed to be a last hurrah for civilization, but as we ate chili and did puzzles in the Airbnb, I could feel the world slipping farther and farther away.
They dropped us off at home, and I wondered when I would see them again. A few months? The summer? Surely by the summer it would be safe. I closed the car door and went inside, where nothing had moved since our departure; we didn’t have the cat yet. Later, when the year had blurred together into an incoherent soup, I would tell time by recalling whether Leo greeted me at the door. That was the only before-and-after I wanted to remember.
I did not have my own car during the few years I drove. I borrowed my parents’. (I should reiterate, I suppose, that I’m an only child, that my parents and I are close.) Besides, where would I park in Pittsburgh? Besides, weren’t cars kind of bad for the planet? Besides, wasn’t I in grad school at least partially because the prospect of entering the so-called “real world” was terrifying, and wouldn’t taking on adult commitments – a car title, for example – be one step closer that particular gaping maw? And besides, my roommates invariably had cars, if I really did need a ride. Which I mostly didn’t. I was twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four, wearing out pair after pair of Converse, walking everywhere because I wasn’t the kind of girl who needed favors.
I had headphones. I had a book in my purse. I had plenty of patience, and I would get where I was going when I got there. And if I were driving, I would miss the way the Cathedral of Learning looked at sunset. Would miss gazing at CMU campus as we swung along Forbes Avenue, at Squirrel Hill as we entered it, at all the little brick houses and synagogues, the glass-walled library. I saw so much more because my eyes weren’t on the road. I had the luxury – it felt like a luxury – of watching.
When New York shut down, I went nowhere, and then I only went anywhere on foot or bike. I was wearing out my Converse again. There was no reason to ride the trains when I was working from home, when the city was somewhere else, inside, tucked away from itself. In April I biked with my boyfriend and a friend to my office in Midtown, where I needed to pick up my work laptop. I hadn’t brought it home in March because I’d missed that last day of work before the end, had woken up coughing and warm and afraid. It was nothing, it turned out. Just my own fear making itself known. But this thing wasn’t letting up, and I needed InDesign, so: we biked.
The next time the three of us biked, it was almost Pascha – the first Pascha I hadn’t gone to church, since all the churches were closed, too. There’s a photo of me standing in front of the Ukrainian Orthodox church in Williamsburg, helmet on, sunglasses on, smiling uncertainly, a scarf tied around my neck because I didn’t have a real face mask yet. There are a lot of cars behind me, but they’re all parked. No one, it seemed, was going anywhere fast.
After the cabin weekend in March 2020, the first time I got into a car again was January 6, 2021, though I didn’t yet know what the day would signify for anyone but me. It was noon; the day had hardly begun to mean anything historic yet. Was full of potential. And all I knew was that I needed a ride because I was running away.
I haven’t written much this year. Nothing I could share with other people, anyway. It’s not that I haven’t had anything to say, simply that saying anything about my life now means acknowledging this particular day, means saying that I was, in the end, a woman who needed a favor, who was having an emergency, who could not get anywhere without the car she didn’t have or a sympathetic friend.
“Writers are always selling someone out,” Joan Didion writes in the preface of Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Was my teenage adoration of her cliché? Who cares. Her neuroses complemented mine, and she made me think about the ethics of what I was doing, and I’ve fallen in love for worse reasons than that.
But this is my life, you see, and I haven’t yet found the right words. If I’m going to sell someone out, I want to do it properly, especially because the person I’d be selling out is me.
So let me tell you about the car instead: a sedan big enough to hold a suitcase and a few boxes, Leo in his carrier, me. It was a bright, sunny day and other people were out driving too, the streets hesitantly returning to some kind of life. I had half-forgotten what it felt like to ride shotgun, the way you glide level through the air whether or not you’re paying attention, which I wasn’t, because I was crying.
And let me tell you about the next car, that evening: a subcompact big enough to hold a suitcase and a few boxes, Leo in his carrier, me and the phone that wouldn’t stop ringing, that I was trying not to check. Up in the passenger seat, my best friend offered to hold it for me while her husband drove. “It’s fine,” I told her, and the screen lit up again and again, angry and bright, and I thought, I deserve this, I deserve this, I deserve this.
It has taken this long – ten months – to stop thinking that.
By the time we got to their house, I knew I could not go back to Brooklyn. The thought had occurred to me as I packed, but I pushed it away in order to keep moving, to do what I needed to do. Which is to say, to leave.
I wasn’t carsick, but once inside I was sick nonetheless. My own fear making itself known. I threw up spectacularly in my friends’ nice bathroom for the first of many times, my phone still lighting up where are you where are you where are you whether or not I checked it, so why not check it? I deserve this.
“Turn off your phone,” my best friend said, though by then the calls were coming through Messenger too, making my tablet unusable, my computer dicey. For almost a year I had been living through one screen or another and now could not bear to look at any of them. In the bathroom, throwing up for the nth time, I dropped my phone on the hard floor, and thereafter it buzzed horribly whenever I touched the home button, which is too on-the-nose to be anything but true.
The last car was my dad’s, the hatchback in which I had practiced parallel parking a lifetime or two ago. Big enough to hold a suitcase and a few boxes, Leo in his carrier in my lap, my parents, me. We hadn’t seen each other in a year, and so much had happened. I was returning to them different, older and smaller and uncertain of even the most basic facts about myself and my moral worth. The world had slipped so far away, but I had slipped away, too.
When I lived in Brooklyn, home meant two places. Now it only meant one.
I drive pretty frequently these days. You have to if you want to get around in my hometown, where I’m still living for the time being. And I no longer find it slightly terrifying, perhaps because I have been afraid of other things and survived those, too.
Last month, I drove to a friend’s wedding. It was out in the boonies, though I suppose “the boonies” is a relative term; maybe you think I was from the boonies to start with. Listen, once I lived in a city with public transit, and then I lived in another. Once I rode trains, and then for a long time I stayed home, hearing them move underground, dreaming of the places they used to take me. “Once” can last a very long time.
It was good to get in the car, to cue up some music I liked, to pull away from the curb without having to think about each component movement. When I was a teenager in driver’s ed, putting the key in the ignition felt nearly impossible – how was I going to be responsible enough to get from here to there, to bring us safely back again?
What I didn’t know then was that “there” could be freedom, the possibility of escape, the rest of your life waiting for you. That yes, cars are kind of bad for the planet, but when you need to leave, you need something big enough to hold you. That sometimes the whole point is that you will not return.
That’s what I wanted to talk about: the leaving itself, not the parts before. The ignition and the keys. The ending that has been a beginning, too.
I bought gas last week and my debit card wasn’t frozen. Because that’s what I do now; the bank knows that. I buy gas. I need it, where I’m going.