“It’s getting really late so we should go soon.”
“I’m almost ready, mom.”
“I don’t know where Megan lives, so you’ll have to be the navigator.”
“I said okay.”
I stand at the open door watching my daughter stuffing things into a backpack. She packs her bag like she’s moving miles away, like she’s gone a million times before.
She has has just started high school, where more than 3,000 students attend. Last year, I was driving her to school and packing her a lunch every day, but this year, she wakes herself up at 6:30 a.m., takes herself to school on the train and doesn’t get home until 7:00 p.m. after she’s worked out at the gym. Last year, she’d ask me which shirt looked best with these pants and would occasionally crawl into my lap for a snuggle. Now, she’s got ear buds stuffed in her ears and she’s clomping around the house in a vintage silk blouse, form-fitted high-waisted jeans, and ankle boots, packing her bag like there’s no tomorrow, like tomorrow is a party only she was invited to attend.
Which, if I stop to think about it, is somewhat true. Suddenly, I’m a dried-up wallflower hanging in some antique frame. I’m outside looking in at her lithe succulence jiggling under silk and denim, watching her not looking at me, and it feels a little creepy. I am relegated to the position of some peeping pedophile. She has her back to me and her long hair is piled up on her head in a messy bun and from this angle, she looks so womanly it makes me dizzy.
I stand at the front door gripping the doorknob, jangling my keys, and biting my tongue before I remind her to bring her sweater which will certainly only convince her to leave it behind.
“You do know the address, right?”
“Let me say yes, yes, yes in case you ask again, again, and again.” She slings her backpack over her shoulder and breezes by, out the door. She is taller than me now and she smells like flowers—rare, sophisticated ones, if orchids had a scent.
I follow her out in my pajamas—it’s past 9 p.m. on Friday and I’m usually horizontal by this time but she’s going to spend the weekend with a friend and asked me for a ride. She didn’t ask her dad, she asked me, so I smile at the dashboard while she swings her bag in the back and bounces into the passenger seat.
“Go like we were going to grandma’s house and I’ll tell you when to turn.”
Now, she’s the navigator, in the car and in our relationship. She decides when and where and how and I follow. The car slides up dark streets, past cosy scenes shining from stranger’s windows, while she fiddles with the radio. It’s cold outside but we move along in a soft pocket of warmth and music. She has a lovely voice and she sings quietly, unselfconsciously, and when I pat her leg, she doesn’t flinch. I want to leave my hand there but I’m afraid to overstep the boundary between us, to cross the fine line between and patting and grasping, so I leave my hand on her thigh just long enough to leave a warm impression.
For twelve years, she rode in the back, now she sits next to me, and next year, I’ll be teaching her to drive. Zero to sixteen in the blink of an eye and I’m anxious and queasy, brimming with the sickening certainty that the climbing roller coaster is just about to drop.
“Turn right here, up the hill.” I cling to the steering wheel with two sweaty hands as my little car chugs and rattles up the steepest hill in town, a street that cuts like a knife up the Berkeley hills. At each stop sign, I grit my teeth as the car threatens to slide backward down the hill. I am terrified but my face is carved in ice, hard proof that I’ve got this all under control.
Because in this car, on this hill, we are an object lesson in the laws of physics. We embody Newton’s third law of motion, the one that says that when one body exerts force on another, the other body responds with an equal and opposite force. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, so if I want her to stay her beside me, I can’t move a muscle. Or if she and I are going to be able to sit in this car together, side by side, then I am going to have to hold my breath and screw my eyes tight and cling to her with everything I have, I will have to defy nature and physics and gravity in order to follow her forward momentum.
“Turn like you’re going to the park,” she says. I take a left. “Is this right?”
“This is the way we usually go to the park,” I say.
“Oh. I guess it just looks different at night.”
To our left, the panorama unfolds. Even in darkness, the largeness of the space is palpable and it’s as if the universe has opened its arms to reveal a ground of glittering lights of that stretch beyond the horizon to touch the stars, a dizzying wide-opening vaster than any two eyes could possibly hope to see. At the four corners at Grizzly Peak, I pause at the stop sign, waiting for instructions.
“I think you go straight here.”
“What do you mean, you think?”
“Just go straight.”
We nose under the redwood trees and begin the gradual, winding descent down the back side of the ridge. There are no street lights here but the houses shine bright and cosy as cottages in a forest fairy tale. At first, they’re close together, but the further we go, the fewer houses there are. Under the furry arms of redwood trees, the darkness is complete.
I lean forward in my seat until my chin is hovering over the steering wheel, as if this will help me see where we’re going. I ask, “What street does she live on?”
“I told you I know where we’re going.”
“I know, I know, I’m just trying to help.”
The street follows the sharp, organic dips and swerves of the hillside. I’m squinting through my breath on the windshield when a huge, pale body flies toward us, its huge black eyes staring right into mine, inches away from the right side of our car. We both gasp and duck our heads.
I snap the radio off. “Oh my g-g-god, we almost hit that d-deer!” I bleat. When I’m upset, I often stutter.
“Was that a deer?”
“It was just standing there on the side of the road! Didn’t you see it?”
“I’m not wearing my glasses.”
I don’t ask her if she packed her glasses. I’ve slowed to a snail’s pace, straining to see the slice of road lit by the headlights. She can’t see the chalkboard from the front row so I know she can’t read a street sign in the dark, but I don’t ask her why she’s not wearing her glasses.
Instead, I say, “So are we getting close?”
She pulls out her phone and pushes a couple buttons before she says, “My phone’s not working.”
“Of course not. There’s no reception on this side of the ridge.”
“But the address is on my phone!” She’s yelling at me as if I’m the one who chopped down the cell towers. “How am I supposed to get the address if I can’t check my email?”
Another deer comes hurtling out of the darkness toward us and I swerve to avoid it, screeching tires. The questions explodes from my mouth before I can stop myself. “So where the hell are we g-going?”
“Her house is up here somewhere! Just keep driving and we’ll find it!” I don’t say another word. “So what am I supposed to do, anyway? I can’t even call Megan to ask!”
We ride in potent silence for another few minutes until I find a place to turn around. Silence as thick as darkness and heavy as guilt. We don’t make a sound, not even as deer upon deer catapult toward us like a heat-seeking missiles.
We creep back up to the ridge and over the top and we’re confronted again by the full throng of winking, gloating lights by the time she can finally retrieve the address from her phone, I turn the car around, and we do it all over again, our car doing all the shuddering and shrieking as we crawl through the darkness, zigzagging like crazy to avoid the bountiful deer that fly towards us wearing such deadpan expressions it feels like this all must be some twisted joke. For a surreal span it feels like we’re trapped inside a video game, Attack of the Zombie Forest Creatures, swerving and skidding until finally, I see the number we’re looking for and I pull unceremoniously over to let her out.
I don’t even wait to see if she goes inside, I’m so upset, I don’t even try to speak. All that would come out is an apoplectic stutter: F-f-f-f–fuck me. I inch home with my face pressed into the windshield, dodging deer like volleys of bloody water balloons, and it’s not until l park my car, stumble inside, and collapse into bed that it hits me with the full force a hundred pointy little hooves: I just left my darling daughter on a dark road on the side of a mountain. I just drove off without even one glance in the rearview mirror.
We are both so ready and so not ready for this.