Week One of a Six Week Series
My first car was an eleven year-old Nissan Sentra, bright red. It was a Christmas gift that sat in my driveway for 9 excruciating months before I took and passed my road test. Another car was always parked behind it when my mother left for work—I knew this was to deter me from driving illegally because of some sense of ownership pseudo-entitlement. A day alone usually had me thumbing the key, looking out the window until I couldn’t take it anymore, and climbing in. I’d start the engine and make a series of devastatingly small maneuvers to angle the car out, over the grass of the side yard, over the curb, and on to the dead end street. I never left the dead end street and would always have to park the car in front of the house when I was done practicing K-turns and daring to go further and further. Everyone knew what I had done. But the draw to be behind the wheel and in control of my own movement was too intense to ignore.
My next two cars were not gifts. I worked multiple jobs to afford them. A Daewoo Lanos (remember Daewoo?) and a Ford Focus. Small cars, affordable and manageable cars. These cars were not about freedom, they were about control. They offered me a way to leave. I made sure these vehicles of leaving were a space I controlled, entirely. I made the car payments, the insurance payments, and paid for repairs. No one would take ownership of any part of my car. I had a lot from which to run; securing my own egress was the first time I claimed power.
Every time I got behind the wheel, just knowing the possibility for distance was enough. I knew how far I could drive. I knew where my gas money could take me. Each time I returned home was a choice.
Since the age of 17, cars have taken me away. Cars helped me take myself away.
I’ve cried in my cars, I’ve screamed, I’ve shot heroin, I’ve had sex, I’ve drank coffee, eaten breakfast/lunch/dinner, I’ve opened all the windows doing 110 mph and felt the wind tear through me, I’ve come to terms with the pieces of my life I can’t change, I’ve come into myself in cars.
Since moving off of Staten Island last year, breaking a six generation stint on this outer borough, I haven’t stopped taking myself away. Now I have geographic and emotional distance from trauma and those who continue to traumatize, who prove you never age-out of abuse— it just shape shifts, bobs and weaves. Now I have distance from intersections that jog memory, the sting of Fresh Kills at sunset, and inevitable run-ins with a family that comprises a calculable percentage of the island; my family. And yet I can’t stop running.
I know now that I can’t run forever. As comfortable as I feel in movement, I have to stop. Or I believe one must stop to live a full life. But first, 8,000 more miles, five more weeks, 22 more states. I will drag my body across this country and back. For my daughter, this is an adventure; for me, this is a last ditch effort to feel comfortable in my own skin. If this doesn’t do the trick, I am hopeless—destined to a restlessness that no movement could dissuade.
In one of the last sessions with my psychiatrist before leaving for this trip, I asked him, “What is the fucking point? Why should I sit here, on this couch, like all the other couches since the age of five, why should I trudge through trauma and memory, the brown water constantly reaching my nose? What am I supposed to do, how am I supposed to get past this and be normal?”
Effortlessly, he said, “It is about the relationships now, not then. Who is in your life, why, and what are you doing to nurture those relationships? What are you doing to protect yourself from some relationships?”
Although these practical words ticked me off to no end when he uttered them, they stayed with me, are with me now as I move through this first week of traveling.
There is so much time to think when your little one is distracted by a movie and you have nothing but miles ahead of you. I am asking questions of this trip, I am making a few demands—because when I get back home I need to be different, or I need to see things around me differently.
I am circumnavigating this country and I expect to have a better understanding of it.
What is an American?
What ownership am I taking of this weighted term?
Where do I belong geographically? With whom?
How do these interstates connect us? What else connects us?
Maybe this is no longer about what I am running from, and instead what I am running toward. If this time of healing really is about developing and nurturing the relationships in my life now, then I have a lot of work ahead of me. I don’t know what to do with my body when I am around other people. If it weren’t for my little one, I might not leave the house for weeks at a time. I seize up at the very thought my family, afraid and unsure what word goes where and when to utter them.
I don’t belong and it is safer that way. I am a free agent, untethered, orphaned. Hard lessons have taught me to keep all ropes tied loosely with a panic string at the ready.
There may be a chance for community, a made-family, but I don’t know where I will find it. Maybe among artists, maybe in the small oases like the one in Minneapolis, with poets and mothers. Maybe there are still places where kindness lives in this country and maybe I will put myself in the way of it. But for now, the road.
At an intersection off of the Ohio Turnpike, I merge to the right because of an accident that has taken over the left lanes. A young, black man has been rear-ended by a white man in a pick-up truck. There are three cop cars on the scene; all the officers are white. I felt uneasy, watching how anxious the young man was. He was talking on his phone with a strained look on his face; most likely with a torturous insurance agent.
I looked around and to my right there were five black men and women leaning on a guard rail, watching. My instinct is to place everyone; I wondered if they were in the car, if they were part of the accident. Then I see more cars in the lot behind them. Young, black children are playing in the grassy area next to the parking lot, their parents’ attention divided between them and the scene in the intersection. Watching, quietly.
The light changed and I drove through. The images turned over and over in my mind. Those families had pulled off the road to wait, to watch, to comfort, and to bear witness. It crystalized for me then. They saw the accident, quickly understood the disparity, knew their presence was needed— tethered only by a community of shared experience. If something was going to happen to that young man, they were going to see it and know it. They were going to testify and tell his mother the truth. It was an everyday reverence with which I was not accustomed.
I have the luxury of surviving alone, of craving commune. I have the luxury of not understanding that sometimes we need to pull over, make our bodies present— bear witness. What the hell do I know about community?