This is “Arrivals and Departures,” a new monthly column by Helena Fitzgerald on the ways, means, and rituals of traveling.
In the Savannah, Georgia airport, the car rental desks stretch out in a long horizon toward a sunlit door at the end of a windowless hall. Thomas gives someone his credit card and they give him car keys. He drives us into the sunlight, out of the airport and onto the highway. I crank the air conditioning and search for a radio station, sinking into the small cocoon of a borrowed life. I program the GPS and I make fun of the British robot who gives us directions. On long stretches of the highway, I turn off the radio and read out loud, adding commentary and stumbling over words. I watch for signs for good fast food, and I buy us gas and greasy, heavenly white paper bags at Chick-fil-A. I do everything but drive, because I can’t drive.
Sometimes I watch Thomas drive, trying to summon some sort of instinctive, bone-deep memory. It doesn’t happen—solving backward, I figure it out, but the shapes are no longer second-nature. I can remember when getting into a car was getting into a bed, when I knew these motions the way we know our own bodies, with the kind of stored instincts that govern love and survival.
When I was eighteen, a few months before I left for New York and for college, a lot of bad stuff happened to my family in blindingly fast succession. One of many results was that we moved out of the house in which I’d grown up and into an apartment in the city, far away from where I went to school. For this reason, my mom lent me her car for a few months. I had had a license for over a year, but rarely used it—I had been able to walk to school, and one of my friends was always willing to drive if we were going somewhere else. Lending me the car was my mom’s way to talk about something we had not otherwise managed to talk about. It was a way to say she hoped I was okay, to offer some kind of comfort without having to use words. I learned a lot about those strategies that summer, about the ways that people try to acknowledge something without talking out loud, without having to actually acknowledge it.
The car was a sanctuary, the only place that fully offered an escape. If I had lost the bedroom in which I had retreated throughout childhood, then I had gained the next version of it, a place where I could shut the door and close out the world. In the car I was inaccessible and free, as close to invisible as it was possible to get. No one cared if I yelled, or cried, or talked to myself in the car. No one cared if I sang along to the radio badly, or how I arranged my face in reaction to the events of the day. No one would notice me because I was moving too fast, the long slipstream of roads and highways, of overpasses and bridges, and clogged on-ramps blurring all its occupants into anonymity.
I was supposed to drive the car to and from school, but instead I spent hours getting lost on purpose, driving up into the hills in unfamiliar towns and driving out toward the flat horizon north of the city where the houses backed away from the road and farmland emerged, picaresque and unloving, promising the nowhere of the long country that came next. I drove trying to evade arrival; I wanted the open-ended story, the unfinished sentence. I wanted to drive until I escaped myself and the events that stacked up together and defined me, until I rubbed my image blank and could start over.
Driving in Northern California is an exercise in terror. The best roads, the most beautiful places—the famous vistas of Highway One, clinging to the very edge of the country, its sharp turns jutting out over a long, gorgeous drop to surf crashing on rocks below—make you as the driver feel you are taking your life in your hands. I liked that; I had the swagger that comes with a lot of sudden loss. I wasn’t afraid of anything else that might go wrong. I wanted to put myself right up against whatever was most frightening, driving too fast on a road whose hairpin turns clung to the edge of the world with only a dented guardrail between me and oblivion.
By the time I met Thomas, on our first date at a bar in Manhattan, I hadn’t driven a car in nearly ten years. I had lived in New York since college and driving had never been a necessity. I abandoned old survival skills and acquired new, strange ones. Thomas still lived in Atlanta, and spent at least three hours of every day in a car. That I was an adult but couldn’t drive a car was baffling to him. I told him that I missed driving, which was true as it has been constantly true, in an abstract, distant way, the entire time I’ve lived here. He told me if I were ever in his car he’d let me drive. Sometimes, now, when we have a rental car, he asks if I want to drive. We could find a parking lot and drive circles; I could just see if I remember how. I always say no, or say “later” in a way that’s understood to mean no.
We rent cars whenever we go to visit his parents, who live in a small town just on the border of Georgia and Tennessee. We stretch out these visits because, now that he lives in New York, he misses driving. We spend a few days driving long highways between towns along the Southeast coast of the country, ignoring the GPS in favor of green back roads through swamps and long highways overhung with trees that change shape and then dissolve as the road finds the ocean. We become a universe of two. The car is a private world, traveling hotel room, and confessional, a place that leaves our accumulated past behind and promises only a pure imagined future.
A rental car is a space that lets in nothing but imagination. It is a place in which one can reinvent oneself, then shed the reinvention like a husk, leaving it behind, forgotten, slipping free back into the old, long narrative that waits at home. When I briefly had access to a car, what it promised was that I owed nothing to anyone. It told me escape was as possible, as easily available to me, as turning a key in an ignition.
The car is the catalyst. We can drive away from what we know, moving through time and space alone, obligated to no one. Mid-century American stories about men who abandoned their families are always tangled up with the booming automobile industry of the same era; the car gave one the ability to shrug off a life that had grown up like vines, and walk away from it blank, into the open road and the ongoing bigness of the next possible nowhere. Like most stories this country tells about itself, one only has to scratch a little at the surface to get to something brutal underneath, a pure selfishness as large as the sky over an endless flat freeway.
Thomas sold his car when he moved to New York . I still haven’t learned how to drive again, though, because I haven’t needed to. Thomas is always willing to do the driving for us, and there is something about this trade-off that makes me deeply uncomfortable. There is an insidious way in which, as a woman, being helpless is a mark of a certain kind of old-fashioned, toxic value where incapability proves that one is attractive. This kind of valuation connects to the idea of a woman as an object, as that which is cared for. Capability as a woman is a powerful form of rebellion because it goes against these figurations. What I liked about driving, when I still could do it, was that it was something I could do for myself, something I was better at than men were at doing it for me, and something I preferred to do with no one else there at all. If everything fell apart and I had to gather all my stuff and leave, I would be ok as long as I had a car. My survival was not tied to the fact of any particular person continuing to love me.
In the rental car, we’re driving back from Thomas’s parents’ house to a hotel in an adjacent city, and on the way back the light sinks over the roads, the river coming right up to the highway, mapping out the green country. Thomas tells me stories about his adolescence and what came after it and all the stories have to do with cars. It’s easy to fall into this if one is lucky enough to be offered it, easy to let someone do the hard things when they offer to do them. Long-term love is to at least some degree always an agreement to depend on someone, to build them into the structure that keeps the house standing. We lean into the people we choose to love, we allow them to fill our lacks, to make up for the things we can’t do. We lattice together a shared capability where one does not work without the other. It’s a kind of tenderness, but it carries with it defeat, a nervous sense of disarming. The trust I place in another person erodes my ability to survive on nothing but myself.
When I imagined having a car of my own, the attraction was that I would be able to take care of myself fully, that nothing would depend on anyone else’s presence. I was a good driver when no one else was in the car; I was a bad driver as soon as someone else was there. When other people were in the car I became nervous; all at once the consequences mattered, and all my swagger evaporated. If I endangered my passengers’ lives it would actually matter. My fear of endangering them caused me to endanger them in exactly the way I feared. I don’t ever miss driving with other people in the car. When I miss driving, it’s the same thing I miss about being alone. Driving to nowhere, obligated to nothing, free of a destination and of the promise to return home to anyone.