As much as I enjoy riding the subway, with all its opportunities to people-watch and read and breathe in strangers’ body odors, I really, really love driving. On my list of top five gerunds, driving is ranked number four, after laughing but before eating, and the car even provides the platform to enjoy all five of my favorite things that end in -ing simultaneously, if desired. Not driving for the past two months has been sadmaking, but it wasn’t until I borrowed my dad’s car Saturday night and involuntarily shivered and sighed as I started the ignition that I realized I had missed driving more than I’ve ever missed any man.
One Sunday when I was fourteen, my dad told me to tell my mother that we were going to the grocery store, and we did, only it was an abandoned grocery store with an empty parking lot, and that’s where he taught me how to drive. Before he’d even let me inside the car, he popped the hood and I had to learn what every single thing under there was, and what it did, and why it did it. I would have memorized the OED to get behind that wheel. (I’d like to lie and say that I could still rattle it all off, but unless it’s a ’78 Caprice, I seriously doubt I could.)
My first car was a 1974 Chevrolet Caprice Classic—dark sparkly blue, white vinyl top, CB radio, 8-track player, V8 engine. I inherited her from my grandma, who’d put on 60,000 miles in 20 years by driving from church to the grocery store to the beauty shop and back. You could fit nine people inside, and three in the trunk. The backseat was bigger than my parents’ couch, and I often skipped fourth hour to nap in the parking lot.
In high school, I used to drive out to the airport and race my boyfriend in his TransAm (shut up). He never won. In college, while driving to visit my boyfriend one hour away, I’d have to stop first and buy two bottles of Pennzoil 10W-40, one to make it there and one to make it back. Sometimes I had to sing to her to dissuade her from stalling—a very specific, very secret, very desperate song that no one else ever heard, because she knew better than to stall with company around. She was a bitch, but always a lady. The day I got my ’92 Accord, I knew better than to ever get behind her wheel again, even to move her from the driveway to the street, because I knew my car, and I knew she was furious, and I knew she would kill me, Christine-style. My Honda was sweet and dependable, but it was like giving up Angelina Jolie to settle down with Angela Lansbury.
If I could have any job in the world, and salary or esteem or career path didn’t matter, I’d be a racecar driver in a cross-country race. I have no interest in NASCAR, but an undying fascination with monster trucks. I don’t care what kind of car you have so long as you have one. A suitor once mentioned his past involvement in demolition derbies and I immediately became aroused. Driving, whether fast or long or over things or into them = bliss.
Not being able to drive sometimes feels to me like not being able to sleep, which is ironic, because my freshman year of college, I had a horrible bout of stress-induced insomnia, and I didn’t sleep at all during the month of December. Instead, every night I’d put on my pajamas, and then my coat, hat, gloves, and boots, and I’d drive around the city from midnight until the sun came up, when I’d come back to my dorm, shower, and then go to class, feeling fine.
I’ve been having a hard time adapting to my new life in a new city, and some late nights the only thing that can calm me is to take an antihistamine, listen to The Sea and Cake’s Nassau on my headphones, and close my eyes and imagine driving down highway 51. I miss my time in my car, zoning out and singing along and turning everything over in my head with my foot to the floor. I get all of my writing ideas in the shower, and I solve all of my major life decisions in the car. Maybe that’s why I’ve been having such a difficult sorting through things lately: I’ve lost my sanctuary.