Hayley’s invitation arrived in the form of a Facebook message on a Monday afternoon. “Are you sure you don’t want to go to Nashville on Wednesday?”
Hayley and Sammy, two of my closest friends, had been planning this road trip to see our friends studying in Nashville for nearly two months. I’d received these invitations weekly, but hadn’t taken them seriously. Of course I wanted to go, but carving out a week of time in the middle of the semester seemed impossible.
But this time—the last time she’d be asking—I was feeling impulsive.
Five hours after receiving her message, I was googling the weather in Nashville, mentally preparing what to pack. I’d said “f*ck it,” pushing aside my responsibilities; the mental reprieve was a bigger payoff than an A in the class I’d be blowing off. Hayley’s offer taunted me, dangling inches from my face like a carrot at the end of a stick. Lately, I’d felt as if I were suffocating, the walls of my college apartment closing in as the days to graduation dropped to double-digits. The idea of turning a car into a kind of temporary home, a place to hide, was the stuff of my fantasies. I needed to escape, even if only for a handful of days.
I wasn’t the only one running from my problems. Sammy, originally from a tiny town in Connecticut, had been growing restless in the city; she missed grass and looking out into a vast expanse of nothing. Hayley was tired of her dead-end 9 to 5 job, a monotonous routine she was desperate to shake. This trip was a temporary fix, that much we all knew, but we were excited for the escape regardless.
We left from Hayley’s house in New Jersey as the sun was setting. I bounced on the balls of my feet as she crammed our things into the trunk of her dad’s old 2004 BMW. Black with a tan interior and a history of engine failure, the old car had just gotten back from a tune-up. Her dad swore it’d make the trip; we decided to take our chances.
I settled into the back, lining the seat with blankets and fluffing the pillows I’d brought along. I went to painstaking lengths to transform my area into a comfortable cocoon—anything to create a sense of semi-permanence to forget that, eventually, we’d have to return. I stacked notebooks under the driver’s seat and shoved my laptop into the pocket on the back. In the passenger seat’s pocket, I stored my toothbrush, toothpaste and charging cables for convenience. Pleased with my arrangement, I hunkered down, tuning out my graduation-induced-dread and, instead, tuning in to the conversation my friends were having.
The initial invitation to Nashville came with a caveat. Hayley, who had never learned to drive, would act as the shotgun co-pilot, leaving Sammy and me to split the driving. For any normal person, this would be fine—but for me, it was terrifying. Although I’d had my license for nearly four years, I had only driven a handful of times, and never further than fifteen minutes in any given direction, especially not on the highway.
Although I prayed that, somehow, Sammy would be able to make the entire trip on her own, I found myself at the wheel around hour eight. As I traded my backseat sanctuary for the driver’s seat, I couldn’t help but think back to the time I hit a curb, mangling a tire and cracking the car’s oil pan. I palmed the wheel with sweaty hands, foot hovering over the brake, checking nervously over my shoulder.
“Change lanes when you can,” Hayley instructed from the passenger seat as I merged onto the highway. “Just make sure you check that no one’s coming first.”
“Keep your foot on the gas,” Sammy said from the backseat where she was shoveling fistfuls of Skittles into her mouth. “But also make sure you’re ready to brake if you see someone’s taillights.”
I signaled for the left lane. “What if no one lets me in?” I asked, sweat pooling under my arms, dripping down my back, settling into the crevices of my inner elbows. I was painfully aware that their lives were in my hands.
“Be aggressive!” Sammy said, leaning between the two front seats, elbows on the middle console.
“But not too aggressive,” Hayley warned, always the voice of reason.
It wasn’t as bad as I expected. I drove exactly five miles under the speed limit, obsessively checking my mirrors, my back ramrod straight. I left the driver’s seat that night stiff, achy and eager to return to the backseat.
After eighteen hours, we had finally made it to Nashville. Although I was ecstatic to be with the friends we had traveled to see, an overwhelming sense of sadness pooled inside me, settling right below my ribs. When we first started, I was ready for Nashville, but somewhere in Virginia, I realized reaching our destination meant the trip was halfway over. Before I knew it, I’d be back in my claustrophobic apartment, panicking as the days to graduation dwindled. Instead of enjoying my time in Tennessee, I spent the next few days dreading the moment I’d have to climb back into the car to head home.
On the way back, the car felt more like a chicken coop than a luxury vehicle. Each mile towards the Mason-Dixon Line was another mile we spent in silence, contemplating what the end of this trip meant. Hayley would be back to pushing papers for the building department by Monday morning. Sammy would feel trapped after stepping back into her shoebox apartment in Brooklyn. My cap and gown hung ominously in the back of my closet; my hands would brush against it each morning as I dressed. When that BMW was headed south, I had an excuse to set my problems aside. Now speeding toward Jersey, I had nothing to do but confront my issues.
When we finally got back home, I cried as I pulled my things from the backseat. Hot tears spilled down my cheeks and I didn’t bother to hide them. I knew I would miss the worn leather seats, the squeal of the brakes and the bubbling excitement brought on by an endless, open road. I felt nervous as I unlocked the front door to my apartment, but I was ready to accept that, whether or not I wanted to, I was going to graduate.
Two months later, I walked the stage to receive my diploma, still filled with uneasiness. It’s funny, though—although graduating filled me with an unmitigated amount of dread and despair, nothing could have prepared me for the way I felt when I heard that Hayley’s dad had sold the BMW.
Author: Elissa Sanci
Author Bio: Elissa Sanci is a freelance New York-based journalist who covers a wide variety of topics ranging from arts & culture to local government. She is currently studying magazine journalism at New York University.
Link to social media: https://twitter.com/elissasanci