I’m a cofounder of The Scintilla Project, along with my friends Onyi and Dominique, two whip-smart and artfully snarky women with beautiful hair. This is my response to one of the Day 3 prompts, Talk about a time when you were driving and you sang in the car, all alone. Why do you remember this song and that stretch of road? We believe that your stories make you who you are and we’re asking you to share yours. Interested? Sign up at scintillaproject.com and follow us at @ScintillaHQ.
(First, and importantly: When I thought of this prompt I almost rejected it or smoothed it out, took out the song request, took out the “all alone.” Maybe I should have. I didn’t want to be too prescriptive. But then I thought that if you had one of these memories, or something close enough—maybe with someone else in the car, maybe without remembering what was coming out of the speakers—you would know why I wanted to write it, and more importantly why I wanted to read your story of being on your way somewhere, simmering in dread or happy anticipation or simple enjoyment of the moment. We don’t usually talk about why we chose the prompts or where they came from, but since it’s so specific, I wanted to give it some background. Now, on with it.)
I was a hesitant driver at first, and frightened of accidents. My family had been in one when I was a kid and it had lasting repercussions. So I panicked through learning to drive, panicked through the day I got my license, and then eventually worked through the panic by driving. A lot. I had an old used Escort that I drove all over the valley and to work and into Pittsburgh, with friends and on my own. Gas was so unspeakably cheap back then. I remembered a day when my aunt Ramona picked me up and drove me across the state to stay with her family for a week in the summer (when this happened) and she told me how she just got sick of driving, that it wasn’t fun for her anymore. Instead of feeling guilt that she was in fact doing just that for hours in order to bring me to her house, I was astonished. How did anyone get sick of driving? It was the time when I felt most in control of anything.
I traded up, to a 1992 Geo Storm in Bennington Blue and put more miles on it, more and more. I commuted to college through snowstorms and sunshine, half an hour each way, and then the last year I moved to my college town and commuted to my retail job, selling shoes on commission. I loved the people I worked with even when they worked my last nerve; we were family in a way that I never found at any other job I held. I didn’t mind the drive either way. Through those years, that daily hour of solitude centered me, rebuilding any parts of me that had been rubbed raw by the day. Even today, when I stream NPR from the United States, I stream it from WPSU. That last year, the one where I wrapped up stray GenEd credits and sold nine pairs of the most expensive sneakers in the store to an entire basketball team in one record-breaking transaction, I haltingly put together my plans to leave Pennsylvania after graduation and head south. Winter was for suckers.
Problems: I had no job. English lit degrees do not prepare you for the most lucrative or in-demand careers. I knew no one there. “Heading south” encompassed an enormous swath of the US and I wasn’t particular about where I landed. I wasn’t afraid of having to meet new people, but I was afraid that this new start would take more imagination, money, or determination than I actually possessed. I had never been tested, not yet. And I had read enough contemporary fiction to teach me that freedom and control were meant to be seized half an hour at a time behind the wheel of a car, but in the rest of life they were often illusions.
Those of you who have held retail jobs know there were certain times of year that you just can’t take days off. In the shoe business, Easter is one of them. Hundreds of white patent squeaky t-straps come in the store, destined to be scuffed as soon as they’re put on children Easter morning. A Saturday shift during the lead-up to Easter is commission gold; the shoes haven’t hung around the store long enough to be marked down and commissions are epic. If the child is old enough to wear adult sized shoes, all the better. It’s insane to ask for time off around Easter—you’re putting pressure on your coworkers, you’re missing out on the best money you’ll see until back-to-school, and you put the manager, a 28-year-old moppet of a Deadhead named Todd, in the position of having to tell you no. But I needed to spend spring break driving south and getting lost in new cities and figuring out where I wanted to spend the next part of my life. My apartment lease would be ending a week after graduation. I didn’t have time to waste. So I turned in my two weeks, selling as many tiny wingtips as I could before I left. And then there was nothing else to do but head out for the road and find a place that spoke to me.
I was petrified. Somehow—and you see this buildup, these years of traveling between places, these years where my cars brought me to places of my own choosing—I was always driving distance from a home of some kind. My jobs. My apartments. My family. My friends. Even if I felt the need to get lost until I was driving on fumes, I had a place to go when I turned off the car. I felt spoiled, coddled. Even though I knew I was hardly taking a huge risk, I had never done anything like this before.
I took that Geo to the highway and put in a mix tape. It was one that my then-mostly-ex boyfriend had made. Side B, first song. Rush, of course, always Rush.
I knew all these songs, his songs. That’s the pleasure of a mix tape, that someone else has made choice after choice for you.. Sometimes in the midst of a dizzying blast of freedom, you need someone to make a choice for you, even a small one. And there is no better song to start a roadtrip with than “Dreamline,” and there never fucking will be. 220 South to 80 East, faster, faster. We’re only at home when we’re on the run. I sang it and was no longer doing this alone.