Driving on I-95
I grew up in a town of roads—roads that forked into obscurity, curved around mountain edges, fatal to deer and the neighbor’s dog. Roads that ran parallel to old stone walls, past the church where George Washington said his morning prayers and the cemetery where Revolutionary War soldiers lay interred. In the fall, roads that ran through foliage so bright it hurt your eyes the way the sun does. Beautiful, dangerous roads.
For neighborhood children, the rules followed the roads: I could ride my three-geared red boys’ bike in the safety of our development, up and down driveways, in figure eights and infinite circles around the cul-de-sac. I could leave the residential neighborhood only to visit a single deli—provided I wore a helmet and rode alongside my dad. There, unbuckled helmet slipping over my left ear, I would purchase a chicken-bacon-blue cheese sandwich.
Sophomore spring of high school was the season of drivers’ permits. Danielle went first, in January, green braces glistening as she ran out of health class five minutes before the bell on her birthday. In February, Michael was at the wheel. By May, Maya drove recklessly in her mother’s silver Toyota.
The week before June 1, my mom placed a skinny DMV pamphlet on my desk. June came. June went. The pamphlet became a bookmark and I gripped the corners of my desk as tightly as a wheel. My friends took dates to the Italian restaurant one town over, got in accidents, gave rides to younger siblings. They drove everywhere and nowhere, speeding over potholes, swerving around curves as tightly as possible, stopping to sit at the edge of the cemetery, red and orange leaves in their hair. I, anxiety-ridden, rode my bike in infinite circles around the cul-de-sac.
In my first few weeks at Harvard, I got to know the roads. Narrow Dunster Street, where I re-adjusted my sweater in storefront windows on the way to the intro meeting for the literary magazine, pulling it low to hide my shaking knees. Bustling JFK, where I tried to cross the street slowly enough to arrive five minutes late for a first date at Crema (or was it Tealuxe? Boba?). Garden Street, where I got lost on the way to Radcliffe Yard.
I got on to the literary magazine and, using my key to the building, I could stand at the window over South Street, hearing snatches of shouted Friday-night conversations or the rush of Saturday-afternoon Frisbees in the Mac Quad. The date didn’t work out, but I spent countless afternoons with friends at the counters of teashops, learning who took soy milk or almond milk or tapioca bubbles. I rushed to classes in the Yard, down the narrow pathways between low brick buildings, the white tower of Memorial Church always visible.
A few times that semester, I walked down new roads. Brattle Street—far past Burdick’s and the A.R.T, past the Longfellow House. The road was smooth and black, and the sunlight filled its cracks like clear, sparkling water. One night in December a friend and I went to Boston; searching for a comedy venue, we got lost on roads so cold white cracks ran through them like spider veins. We walked past the same closed falafel shop three times and the wind pushed against our faces, stretching our chapped lips; we had to shout to hear each other. Eventually we found a bar that let us, under-aged, sit in the back over a warm plate of spinach and dip.
After a while, though, I just stayed on the narrow pathways of the Yard. I walked between classes, almost all in the English department. I could run from the archways of Sever to the stained-glass windows of Memorial Hall five minutes ahead of Harvard time. I thought, for a while, that I had mastered Harvard, had mastered my anxiety, but really I had only mastered the shortest roads. No one knew that I didn’t know how to drive.
Over winter break during my freshman year, my dad and I stood on the curb of our street. He laid his hand on the blue Honda; I crossed my arms. The snow had melted a little, and dirtied. I dragged my boots through it, ruining my heels, squinting in the light reflected off the ground and the side of the car. My dad handed me the keys, and unlocked the door, the slow soft click echoing in my mind.
I sat in the driver’s seat. Somehow, the seat felt too large, yet I felt too large, too; in my memory the angles of the scene do not quite work, for the dashboard looks two-dimensional and the brake extends surreally off the floor. My mom came out of the house to take a picture, a gesture that would have been endearing, if somewhat embarrassing, in high school, but then only made me conscious of the hair in my eyes and my hands placed awkwardly on the wheel. My dad explained how to pull the seat forward, adjust the mirrors. He started to reach for the seatbelt, too, before I snapped, I can do that.
I couldn’t do much else. I felt, more than anything, the heaviness of the car, that big, dangerous machine. The first few times, I felt like I was riding a large, awkward dinosaur that wanted to throw me off its back. Here, no one cared if I could analyze poetry or reference literary critics; my jeans stuck to the seat, my hands stuck to the wheel, and I thought every crack in the road would swallow me up whole. Sixteen-year-olds passed me on the road, nearly license-ready, on the cusp of the rite of passage I had missed.
I learned slowly—it didn’t come naturally to me, the way literature did. The first few times, I could hardly drive straight through a parking lot. My dad gripped an imaginary wheel and shouted each instruction twice. Keep to the right, keep to the right. Straighten the wheel, straighten the wheel. These words meant nothing to me, for I didn’t see how the jerky motions of my small hands could control that 3,000-pound box; I longed for my small red bike—and, more than that, for the narrow paths of Harvard Yard.
Finally, I learned how to control the car, and my dad promised that I could leave the development. I knew where I wanted to go, to the small white deli, and I applied lipstick unnecessarily in the rearview mirror. I lowered my foot on the brake, imagining a force like a lightening bolt extending from the tips of my toes. I backed out of the driveway, into a parked BMW.
The owner understood. It was a used car, 15 years old. He charged us $300. My dad paid the bill. I stood next to him, toeing the ground, while he apologized for me: She’s still learning. Like a semi-trained dog who had just peed on the neighbor’s carpet. After that, I stopped driving. Occasionally, for the remainder of winter break, my dad would try to hand me the keys, but I would shake my head and get into the passenger seat, fixing my eyes on the cracked pavement straight ahead.
In the fall of my sophomore year, anxiety overpowered me. I never went to Boston, or even walked down Brattle Street. Mostly, I just walked down Dunster. The Yard, to the literary magazine, to Eliot House. I got to know that road so well, the cinnamon scent that drafted through the Au Bon Pain on the corner, Lowell tower to my left, white and blue against the gray sky. The sharp turn on to South Street, where my key fit so easily into the door, Eliot House just a stumble-length away. From this road, I never had to enter buildings that might hold strangers or strange experience, classrooms that might teach me lessons I didn’t already know. I crossed the streets in traffic but I felt safe.
Harvard, I found, made it easy to do the things that came naturally to me. To study a discipline I could navigate with my eyes closed, to move around and around the same social circles like so many cul-de-sacs. Beautiful, and dangerous.
When it came time to declare concentrations, I watched fellow sophomores meet with advisers and frantically plan courses, thinking I had it all figured out. I had known since before I set foot on campus that I would study English; I had nearly fulfilled the departmental requirements by that time. Though I had taken an American history course that semester, and found that I loved reading journals and letters even more than I loved reading novels, I ignored my doubts. I could not bring myself to walk down the narrow path to Robinson Hall, to consider something that might not come naturally to me. I filled out the form to declare English in my dorm room, gripping my desk as tight as a wheel.
That Thanksgiving, we visited my grandparents in Maryland. We planned to return the day after the holiday—braving the traffic—so that I would have a few days at home before returning to school. It was a long drive, and I get carsick, so I nestled in the backseat with a sweatshirt around my knees, ready for a prolonged nap. Two slices of pumpkin pie still weighed heavily in my stomach, and I felt comfortable and warm.
I slept for some time, and then I felt my dad’s hand shake my knee. I woke, and he held the car keys up to the rearview mirror. You’re driving. We were on I-95.
He had pulled over to the shoulder of the highway. The ground was littered with empty beer cans and shredded paper; bare trees extended their branches, skeleton-like, over the road. My dad closed his door and I closed mine. When we passed each other he merely raised his eyebrows, and I did not smile.
The seat felt cold against my legs. My mom slept in the passenger seat, and I could not believe that the sound of my nails scratching the faux-leather wheel did not wake her up. I adjusted the mirrors so that a thin, sickly branch centered in the rearview, pushed my seat forward until my goose-bumped knees nearly hit the wheel. I buckled the seatbelt, and it seemed to take ages for the metal end to click in its holder. It took ages, too, for a gap to open between the rushing cars, but finally I edged between two minivans.
On the road, I loosened my grip. I adjusted the speed to 60 mph, and the pavement flew behind me. I would not describe the sensation as cruising; I had not quite tamed the dinosaur. Still, I heard no calls to keep to the right or straighten the wheel. My dad merely gazed out the window, his eyes on spindly branches.
And then it started to rain. Large, heavy pellets, all at once, hitting the windshield like a thousand minuscule Olympic divers in slow motion. I could hardly see, but I thought I could feel the water slipping between the pavement and the tires, hear puddles splashing on the side of the car. For a moment, I felt something like equilibrium—the car just fast enough to keep up with traffic, just slow enough not to rear-end the minivan ahead, the rain falling in even sheets, the wheel straight in my hands. I drove for only a moment until we reached another shoulder and I could cede the wheel to my dad, but it felt like I drove for hours, all the way from New York to Maryland and back again.
Three weeks into the spring semester, I switched into History and Literature. That meant joining a tutorial late, and I pulled three all-nighters in a row to make up the reading. On the first day of class, I sat, bleary-eyed and nervous, both the seat and my body feeling too large. I didn’t yet have my driver’s license, and I didn’t know exactly how I’d fulfill my requirements, and that, finally, seemed okay.
I took a different route home from the Yard, a slower one, for no reason, really—only to adjust my sweater in the reflection of a different window, only to trace different branches dipping over the road.