Sometimes I’m driving my car on the freeway and it hits me: one spacy moment, a hiccup, a tic, and I’m a goner.
The freeway lane is what–maybe twelve feet wide? Twelve feet of cement for me and my car, which must be at least six feet wide itself, so that leaves less than three feet between me and the dotted line on either side. Three little footsies. Hold my hands in front of me: that’s about the size of a doorway. Place two toddlers head to head and that’s how much space there is between me and the vehicle doing 75 mph beside me. There is simply no room for error.
What if I drop something? What if I spill hot tea in my crotch? What if I sneeze? It’s almost impossible to sneeze with your eyes open; does anyone else experience a post-sneeze swoon or is it just me? But I try not to think about other people and what they might be doing: I can’t dwell on cell phones or short attention spans or screaming babies or lusty passengers, hotheads, smokers fiddling with ash or ancient, shrunken drivers squinting through the steering wheel. I don’t look at them because I have to trust. I just keep my eyes blinkered and my hands white-knuckled on the wheel.
This trust requires that I do not stop to think. It’s blind faith is what it is, because even the tiniest hesitation will break the flow and this driving-on-the-freeway thing will only work if we all catapult forward at about the same rate without any sudden variations. It’s like being in a mosh pit, at a square dance, or praying with the congregation, standing and kneeling and reciting after. It’s almost religious. In this religion there is no leader or follower: we are all both and neither.
If I did stop to think–this is idiomatic but of course, it is also the problem, because thinking is an interruption and driving while thinking is like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time, or swinging a sword while petting a cat, or working a table saw and spooning food into a baby’s mouth–but if I did allow the improbability to hit me full force, I’d start to hyperventilate, I’d have to pull over on the shoulder to calm myself down. Because if you stop to think about it, you realize how fucking crazy it is to strap yourself and your family inside that flimsy metal box and press that accelerator.
If you have been on the freeway and can still put one foot in front of the other, it’s a bonafide miracle.
I’m in the fast lane, doing 80. Up ahead, I spy something in the median. It’s dark and lumpy, perhaps a long-dead animal, but softer–a wadded blanket or discarded jacket maybe–but it moves (is it the wind?) and one piece separates from the rest and I’m almost on top of it when it hits me that it’s a kitten, it’s a bag, it’s a bag full of kittens in the middle of the freeway and it’s behind me now and it’s too late, it’s all I can do to not crash the car.
How the hell did I get here? I went for a little freeway trip and ended up with a bag full of blood. I guess you never know where the flow will take you. I’ll just hold on with both hands and pray I don’t sneeze.
(I found this on the sale table: Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis. Wow. How can writing this fabulous ever go on sale? Where have I been and why didn’t anyone tell me about Lydia Davis? She is doing something amazing with words that I’ve never seen before and this piece was inspired by her, although for some mysterious reason mine got surprisingly dark at the end.)
(Of course, halfway through her book I had to google Lydia Davis to feed my curiosity, and I discovered that she was married to Paul Auster whose memoir, Winter Journal, was the inspiration for my body talk series. Talk about synchronicity.)
(Working at a bookstore is really, really expensive.)
(I often write this way: go to bookshelf, pick up book, and steal ideas. Or, while watching movie, press pause and scribble something down. Does this ever happen to you? What are you reading/watching now?)
Freaky. I have dreams like this.
Me, too! Ugh.
Interesting. Driving, to me, is a microcosm of society. I am working on a novel about driving/traffic. Maybe that sounds silly, but it seems as though most people act as though they can’t be seen inside their cars, that they are somehow shielded from the eyes of others and therefore reveal their true selves. Or maybe I spend too much time on the road.
Your novel sounds interesting. And yes, the car becomes an extension of oneself. I am an old silver Honda sedan.
Every time I’m in Cali and NY, I am reminded how grateful I am because here in Chicago, our lanes are much wider.
I didn’t know that about Chicago. How civilized!
Yeah freeways, I drive them here in greater L.A. for my job. Over 100 miles yesterday and the day before too. You’re right, it is faith that everyone operates on. It’s a religion of self preservation. One wrong move and you’re toast, and everybody knows it. It’s a religion and an equalizer. CEO in a new $100,000 Tesla or an $8/hr dishwasher in an uninsured ’85 Tercel, you drive at attention boy. You keep your eyes forward and pray the freeway god lets you live another day. A close call, brake lights at 70 when your eye shaved a second in the rear view, your heart comes up through your throat and pounds that ice water feeling through your veins. It’s the feeling of primal fear, it’s death tickling your nerves, reminding you that he’s here right behind you, waiting. It takes several overpasses for your pulse to drop back down as you think about your widow and your kid crying for daddy. What weird freaks of nature we have evolved into. We’ve morphed from swaying sapiens gathering berries in the fields to these stress-addled adaptations to concrete, steel and speed. Mom’s, grandpas and store clerks piloting huge kinetic energy bombs through space, time and the moments of our lives. I’m going to lay in the grass today and do nothing.
Ice water feeling, precisely. I feel very lucky to not have a commute. Why are highways such ugly places? I hope the grass was good.
We have no driving challenges here in upstate NY except for squirrels who run out, run back to curb and then decide to run out again.
Inspirations? Yes, Borges and Bukowski; talk about a soft side and a dark side. It is like a spoon full of sugar with a little vinegar added. MMmmmm good.
Well I’m a fan of both Borges and Bukowski, so there.
Oh yes, I must tell you. I often think about the post where you talked about living on the boat. I remain very envious of you.
Me, too. If I could go back anywhere, it would be there!
This post was difficult for me to read. After an awful car accident where an 82-year-old woman crossed the center lane and hit me head-on, I am terrified any time I’m on the highway, whether I’m driving or someone else is behind the wheel. She said the sun blinded her for a second. Just that one second and everything changed, for both of our families. No one died, but it’s a long recovery that may never be over. My daughter wasn’t with me, for which I am thankful every day. But she was just four, and I couldn’t pick her up after that. I wonder how much that’s affected her. It certainly sent our lives on an unexpected trajectory, but here I am, happy and reading your words, again. xo
Oh, Laurel– I”ve heard you refer to some horrible event in the past, but I didn’t know what it was. This is terrifying. Thank god she wasn’t in the car with you!
For several years I was an EMT and saw way too many car accidents. All that kinetic energy behind a moving vehicle has to go somewhere, and it amazes me how much damage can be caused by even a slow speed accident. My son is about to test for his driver’s license and yesterday he and I were talking about this so your post is timely. I want him to do a ride along with the fire department so he can see how life can change within a second of inattention. I now drive a big diesel Ford F250. I am a cautious driver anyway, and more so in a big truck that can do more damage. At the same time, I feel safer with ‘more’ around me.
I am so utterly unready for my children to drive. I don’t think anyone can ever be fully happy the day their child gets a drivers license. On the other hand, when I got my first car, it was the first time I ever experienced freedom. I’m thinking about your son and crossing myself (backwards) and looking up at the sky.
I’m realizing his driving is a sign of things to come, that I’ll see him less and he’ll begin that separating away. Because to have the car means he’ll need a job, and that will have to be after school…and so it begins. I almost hope, between you and I, that he fails the driving test!
This is why I prefer my drive to work…I head into the country on lonely country roads, so there are fewer people on cell phones to worry about. Only me.
That sounds lovely, Katie. One more reason to move to the country.
Except I will freak out the first time I get a flat tire. Remember Children of the Corn?
Oh, maaaan. Okay, that is scarier.
Jesus, Anna. What are you trying to do to us?
Ha. Sorry. I really have no idea what came over me.
for real, that was–ugh–hard to read IN A GOOD WAY.
i have horrible allergies and will often have sneezing fits. i can feel the tickle of one come up the back of my throat and now pull over because i never know if it’s going to be one sneeze or 12. with the winding roads and blind hills i drive around here, it would take nothing for a sneeze to send me to the wrong side of the yellow line or off into a ditch. not that i’m that great of a driver anyway.
my mind wanders a different way when i’m in my car…i think of how far i could go if i just took off. how far i could drive before i’d have to stop for sleep or food. i calculate how far i think the nearest beach is in the direction i’m going and think, “if my kids were older, and i didn’t have to be back in time for the bus, i would do it. i’d drive straight to the beach.”
What is happening with the pollen this year? I sneezed so many times the other day I lost count.
Road trips. I do miss road trips. Ah, the whimsy of youth.
You’ve captured the essence of this experience perfectly. Oh, what I would give to not have to be in the driver’s seat. Even for a day. I’m going to look up Lydia Davis right now. Thank you.
Apparently, everyone but you and I has heard about Lydia Davis. I’m glad to know I”m not alone. (She contributes to the New Yorker. Which reminds me that the current issue has NO writing by ANY women. It’s all men. WTF?)
I feel exactly the same way every time I get behind the wheel of my car. But I also think that we are all attached to life by a very slender thread which could break at any given moment. I blame this awareness/phobia on reading at a young age the story of how Aeschylus died. By the time I learned that the story of his being in the exact spot at the exact moment an eagle dropped a tortoise was apocryphal the damage had been done. Stuff like that happens all the time. A sneeze can be all it takes.
Wonderful writing as always.
The Greeks are great at predestiny but not good at randomness, which is even scarier. That a stupid sneeze could kill me for no reason floors me. And it’s allergy season!
Yes, hurtling cars and congestion. It’s not too bad here but every time I drive on the multiple highway lanes in Toronto (they seem a mile wide!) I get that sort of feeling you describe. And then there are the huge transports that require you to suck in and hold your breath, making yourself smaller until you squeeze by …
I don’t know Lydia Davis either, but as I was reading your story i was reminded of Alice Munroe.
Reblogged this on Javmode.
Your writing makes me want to curl up with a good book again. That, and winter is on its way. I’m going to look Lydia Davis up now…