The moment I fell in love with the subversive nature of driving, my mom and I were hurtling down the Chrysler Freeway in the family Ford, the Detroit humidity welding my thin brown thighs to the cerulean leather seat as the Rolling Stones blared from the radio. My mom accompanied Charlie Watts, pounding out the drum line on the steering wheel, her red nails flashing in the sunlight.
“I can’t get no satisfaction! ’Cause I try, and I try, and I try, and I try. I can’t get noooo!” Mom and Mick harmonized.
I marveled at her transformation. We were a James Brown, Dionne Warwick, Aretha-loving family. Mom had gone from caregiver-and-cookie-baker-in-chief to rocker-in-a-blue-sundress in one song. At the age of five, I learned that cars were more than transportation; cars were magic.
When I was twenty-four, my post-Parsons School of Design life took off, but my first real relationship crashed. Though we’d broken up our junior year, the guy and I found each other again on a Brooklyn street shortly after graduation. I thought it was fate. He did not. Now I needed to put my heart in a wider place. I needed an injection of that open road magic I remembered and found so unavailable in New York City. Long Island seemed like just the place, so I rented a car.
“Don’t drive there alone,” my mom said over the phone. Her voice held a strange, jagged tension—even more than during the negotiations I’d endured to be allowed to walk home from Thirkell Elementary with my third-grade pals. Throughout my childhood, where other moms saw the possibility of danger, Annie Holmes took it as a foregone conclusion, a chained hound waiting to snap its lead and attack. From her leather sofa, my mother watched the evening news lineup of lost, kidnapped, or raped children not with shock, but expectation.
“I’ll be fine,” I said while lobbing a pair of sandals and a book into the maw of my suitcase. “I’ll call once I get there. I promise.”
I awoke at dawn, dressed, downed coffee, and tucked the directions into my purse, ready for my first big New York road trip. I was a few feet from the door when my phone sounded.
Mom launched a volley of tears that leveled me from three states away. “Honey, I’m begging you. . . . Don’t go.”
Terrified, I froze in place. I had never heard my mother beg anyone to do anything.
It dawned on me that the source of her worry was a combination of xenophobia and a lack of faith in my navigational abilities. Long-haul driving was never on her docket, and radio sing-alongs notwithstanding, she couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to drive for pleasure. As my mom aged, she’d begun to limit highway travel, sticking to the service roads. In time, she stopped all together. Now she wanted to infect me with her fear. I couldn’t give the virus time to spread.
“Gotta go, Mom.”
Once I found the courage to get behind the wheel, I drove to Long Island, shifting between choking sobs and tears, recalling my mom’s level of emotion. Until that moment, she wasn’t much of a crier. This trip had already changed us both.
I checked into my motel two hours later, called my mom, and then downed beers and dove into pages of Beloved on the beach. Since childhood, I’ve taken refuge in books, and Morrison’s well-crafted narrative served as a coolant to my overheated mind. At times, I read aloud the tale of a mother who risked everything for her children, turning it into a benediction. Through Morrison’s lens, I viewed my mother’s sendoff differently. Mothers, literary and real, seemed to see all the fissures in the world. I focused on the solid places. The road took me back to my usual view of the world, one of openness and warm expectancy, and I left Greenport carrying the optimal healing effects found in solitude.
Over lunch at Manhattan’s first Chick-fil-A franchise, on Sixth Avenue and West 37th Street, my friend Elizabeth and I deviated from true-toddler-tales and moved into mommy wanderlust. I told her about the gathering in Maryland my friends and I had founded two decades ago.
“It started out as a bachelorette party, but now it’s just an annual get-together—three days of alcohol-fueled dance parties. I haven’t gone in more than four years, since adopting Julia.”
“So this year . . . go,” Elizabeth said. Bank managers have a talent for using their words to full effect, even when money isn’t the topic.
“Don’t say no yet.”
I shrugged and stared out the window at the cars clogging Sixth Avenue. I thought it was an effective method of changing the subject, but Elizabeth wouldn’t let up.
“I know you’re worried about leaving Julia.” She baptized a waffle fry in ketchup. “But one day she’s going to leave you. Then it’ll be too late to rekindle those friendships.”
I returned to work, but thought of nothing but Elizabeth’s words the rest of the afternoon. While I had plenty of great friends in Manhattan, the Baltimore girls were a different breed. They turned me on to the freedom found in wearing a bikini, holding all night chat-a-thons, and exploring the culinary delights of junk food and premium cocktails. I missed the level of intimacy found each time we gathered: women announced engagements or couples’ therapy appointments, pregnancies or the move to adopt, imploding careers and our parents’ retirements. Time stilled in a cocoon of closeness.
“Jenine, I need you to step outside, please.” Between my dad’s businesslike demeanor and Arkansas accent, simple requests were recast as serious doings.
I clicked off the rerun of The Twilight Zone, my favorite show. I loved the otherworldly creations, the unique messages Rod Serling applied to life. But now my dad had a real world message for me, so I followed orders, tailgating him through the kitchen and out the door.
My lime-green Chevy Vega sat in the driveway, its hood yawning wide. Dad posted up beside the car, tucked his arms behind his back, and studied me. “Now that you have your license, there are three things you need to know: always check the oil, always wear your seat belt, and always look out for the other guy. Because you can be right. Or you can be dead right. First, the oil. . . .” He peered into the belly of the car. He grabbed a silver loop on the left-hand side and pulled, and a long, thin, metal rod slid free, the end coated in dark goo.
As Dad inspected the oil level, I reviewed his edicts. My dad grew up on a farm, where he operated combines and pickers. Machines were serious business. Since passing my driver’s test, I’d given little thought to the risk of getting behind the wheel. Now I couldn’t wipe it from my mind.
I decided to take Elizabeth up on her offer. My life needed an injection of something I couldn’t quite name, but I thought I might find it in Maryland.
I grabbed my five-year-old daughter, her favorite pink chenille elephant, and her overnight bag, and then we hit the subway. An hour later, Julia was settling down in Elizabeth’s Brooklyn living room beside her four-year-old child.
“What are you going to do while I’m at the sleepover, Mama?” Julia asked over a pile of Legos.
I gave her a slippery smile. “Have lots of fun.”
NY 9A South to NJ Turnpike South
I jumped into my rental and headed south on the West Side Highway. The traffic ran smooth. Endorphins flooded my bloodstream. I cruised past ocean liners, an aircraft carrier-turned-museum, and cyclists on the bike path near the water’s edge. Then, around 44th Street, I smacked into a massive traffic jam.
Maybe I should turn around. Typically, once I slid behind the wheel, I’d hit the gas and go. Yet minutes into my four-and-a-half-hour drive, I doubted my decision. I knew if I turned back now, before I’d even left the city limits, I’d look like a loser to my pals. Megan, the spunky host and the originator of Girls Weekend, planned the event months in advance. No doubt she and Heather were already lounging on the deck, cocktails in hand, toasting to their time-out from husbands, kids, and work. My contemporaries had locked and loaded motherhood ten years earlier. They were well-versed in getting out of town—sans children. I was late to the game.
I’d always done things a bit differently than what I’d grown up seeing. My mother had married and bore three children and, once settled, never moved from Detroit. I left home to attend college in Manhattan, built a life there around my work in advertising, and, in my forties, set out to create a family out of paperwork, patience, and prayers. I crafted the life I wanted.
But on my own, the constant alerts regarding the care of another human blared non-stop. There was no one to tap and pass the baton to at the end of a long day. When strangers and friends asked if single parenthood was hard, I retorted with the same truth: “The only thing harder than being a single mom is not being a mom at all.” As much as I valued my life, loved it, I needed to put that part of me—the responsible woman who kept all the balls in the air and never took a break—in the rearview mirror, at least temporarily. I needed a furlough.
Once free of the tunnel, powered by the music of Fat Boy Slim and Talking Heads, my getaway car reached the turnpike in minutes. As I entered this gateway to nirvana, I snapped off the radio, and the car entered a dense, delicious silence—a sensation I hadn’t experienced since I became a mother. I felt rooms within me give way to secret passageways.
The road, miraculously free of the big rigs and speed freaks that had dominated the turnpike for the decade I’d made the trek to Maryland, delivered me to the first Girls Weekend marker, the Clara Barton rest stop—named for the founder of the American Red Cross—in a little over an hour. Megan, Heather, and I always savored spending a little time with an accomplished woman. This was the first time I’d made the trip alone, but still I ordered a Whopper, fries, and a Diet Coke, answering to the second mandate of the weekend: junk food consumption. As I downed the food I regularly denied Julia and inched into the gas line, the feeling of decadence rose within me.
“Ten dollars’ worth,” I told the attendant. Never miss a chance to fill up, I heard my dad say. “No, actually, fill it, please,” I revised.
“Where you headed?”
“An annual all-girl weekend in Maryland. No men allowed unless you’re trying to conceive.”
He smirked. “Must be some kind of party.”
“It is. A few years back, the neighbors called the cops on us.”
His eyes crinkled. “Anyone get arrested?”
“No, but man, they were surprised to find a house full of forty-something women playing drunk Twister.”
He hooted so hard his belly rolled over his belt, exposing a patch of pale skin. “Have fun . . . but not too much fun.”
DE SR 1 South
The Charles W. Cullen Bridge glimmered against the purple sky, an elegant cat’s cradle of engineering. For me, crossings had always signaled the new and notable up ahead, evoking the same feeling of adventure that arose every time my family’s Ford crossed the Ambassador Bridge to Canada, leaving Detroit behind. Now, driving across the Indian River Inlet and feeling the rubber on the road and the engine’s hum, my getaway car felt like a moving meditation.
Then, past Bethany Beach and down a small coastal fairway, lay Ocean City. The official fun zone kick-off. Delights lined the road: miniature golf, bikini shops, and Big Pecker’s restaurant with its towering plastic model of a cartoon bird. At a red light, I spotted a mullet-wearing dude driving a Ford F-150 pickup. The clock read 8:30 pm. I could be drinking by 9:15.
Beyond the thin, steel fence along the road’s shoulder, waves peaked like frosting. In the console, I tapped my cell phone screen. The Google Maps app wasn’t cooperating, and the rental house phone number? Not in my contacts. I turned onto a side street lined with large pristine white houses, and then pressed Megan’s mobile number. No answer. No doubt she was mixing margaritas, making guacamole, or organizing beer cup limbo.
I dialed Heather. After two days in the house, she’d know the neighborhood.
“Hey, I’m close to you guys but can’t find the new house.”
“. . .”
“Heather, you there?”
“You’re in Maryland?”
“Jenine, Girls Weekend is next week.”
Everything dulled as if my skull were wrapped in cotton batting.
“It’s already 9:30,” Heather said. “Maybe you should stay there for the night.”
But I was in utter denial. “Did the date change on Facebook? I can’t believe. . . .”
“It’s late, Jenine. Head to Baltimore. Call some of our friends.”
“No, I’m going home.”
“Gotta go,” I said and hung up.
I sat there in a puddle of stupid, my anger rising. I knew I had double-checked the invite. Rather than talk to anyone, I’d gotten in the car and driven off, as if the house, the party, the fun were encased in a giant snow globe and just waiting for me to show up.
I sat at a crossroads of crazed screaming and instant action. I chose action. I wheeled the car around due north and called Elizabeth.
“Having fun?” she asked. I could hear our girls giggling in the background.
“The party is . . . next week,” I whispered. Hearing that fact outside of my head made it sound even worse.
“Dear God,” she said. “Are you going to get a room?”
“No.” I worked to get my center calm. “I’m coming home.”
“You think it’s safe driving that far alone?”
“Adrenaline will get me through.” I clicked off and hit the gas.
DE SR 1 North
Maryland motels streaked by, the traffic light. With luck, I could hit Manhattan in three and a half hours. My hand jabbed at the radio in search of shotgun music.
I was dreaming when I wrote this. Forgive me if it goes astray.
“You got that right,” I yelled back. I loved Prince.
So tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1999!
And just like that, I was five years old again and back in my mother’s Ford, fueled by lyrics and backbeats. My shoulders unhitched. Butterflies of unease returned to their cocoons. Road magic at work.
My cell phone broke in: Megan. I didn’t want to hear how sorry she was that I drove down for nothing. Sorry I don’t use Facebook like an IV drip. I ignored the call.
Love shack! Baby, love shack!
The B-52s brought me to full party mode as more of Maryland fell away. The Charles W. Cullen Bridge gleamed against the dark curtain of sky.
“I’m going to slow things down,” the DJ said. A haunting electronic whine curved into the car.
Who’s gonna tell you when it’s too late?
Who’s gonna tell you things aren’t so great?
You can’t go on thinking nothing’s wrong.
Who’s going to drive you home tonight? Benjamin Orr, bassist for The Cars, sang.
“I will,” I whooped.
Who’s gonna pick you up when you fall? he asked.
If you weren’t a young single woman in the ’90s, you can’t understand the destruction that lyric laid down. But I had picked myself up before, and I’d do so now. Sure, I was alone. Even my GPS app was M.I.A. But I had the rental, and it had me. I refocused on the road just as an illuminated sign flashed:
bridge construction ahead.
The tang of panic flooded my mouth. I could only navigate by the bridge. The road forked and I had to choose—left or right? My mind hurdled through memories, to road signs once seen, routes previously ignored. I swung the wheel to the right down a two-lane road. Soon the highway luminaries grew as small as a line of fireflies in the darkness, and that ancient worry—my mother’s credo that the world was out to get me—clamped down. The dash clock read 10:32 pm, the hour I became truly lost.
Somewhere in Michigan
“Can you all just be quiet?” my mom barked at the back seat where my brothers and I perched. Outside the car, columns of steel belched plumes of smoke. The road was grim, desolate, the type of place where bad things happen to good people. After what seemed like a year, my mom spotted a car with a red police light. She pulled up beside it and lowered her window.
The open air was an audio assault. Horns wailed off-key against whining whistles and thumping machines.
“Excuse me, can you please tell me how to get out of here?”
The cop wrinkled his sunburned brow. “Sure, ma’am. But first I have to ask: how did you get behind this auto plant?”
“I have no idea,” Mom said, and began leaking tears.
A short while later, we arrived home. We hauled our shopping bags and sour moods into the house. The evening was still, except for the chatter of crickets aiming their high-pitched laughter at us.
“How did the shortcut to the mall workout?” my dad asked, pulling a bag from Mom’s hand.
She didn’t answer. Neither did my brothers or I, complicit in the collective shame our mother felt. Never had she become so uprooted with her children in the car, and we’d all been alarmed to find her fright could not be hidden from us. I’d never known my mother to be afraid of anything. Now I knew that fear had come from something else, something she loved and was afraid of losing: us. And once I knew, I could never forget it.
Somewhere in Maryland
I made two decisions: 1. Keep moving. 2. Keep the tears at bay. I failed to stick to the second one when, after another hour on the road, I suspected I’d made a wrong turn somewhere. This was beginning to feel like a horror movie. And as we all know, things never work out well for black folks in horror movies.
An exit sign slid up out of the darkness. Another town, another mystery. I could take that ramp off the highway, cross the overpass, and retrace the route back toward the point where the highway split. Make a different choice this time. Create my own do-over. But the truth was, I wasn’t sure going back would be any better.
Don’t, Dad said in my head. Keep moving. I pushed onward.
I’d always had a healthy amount of hubris about my adventurous nature. Since those early days seeking escape on the road, travel had framed who I was. I’d gone as far abroad as India, and I had sailed the Greek Islands by private sailboat. I had once dined in a bleached white taverna on an island that had more goats than people. To meet my daughter and bring her home, I’d traveled seventeen hours to Ethiopia twice, alone.
Now I’d pulled the slot machine too many times and found it broken—found I could be broken. Women disappeared on lonely roads with frightening regularity. As a black woman traveling alone late at night, I knew I was at even greater risk. If my life ended on this road, in this car, Julia would be an orphan all over again. A book cover flashed up from memory, forest green with black type: The Negro Motorist Green-Book, a guide originally published in the 1930s that helped blacks travel safely. Too bad there wasn’t a 2015 edition.
But if black people have been disproportionately targeted, they have also survived more than being lost in a car. I drove under the same stars that the abolitionist Harriet Tubman once used to navigate her way to freedom from enslavement, as well as leading as many as three hundred others. Recalling that fact delivered a bit of balm.
Somewhere on Earth
I smeared tears from my cheeks under a renewed mandate: I stay with the car, and the car stays with me. I checked the fuel gauge. The red-orange marker sat near the center line. I remembered my empty Diet Coke cup resting in the passenger seat. Two hours ago, trash. Now, a gift—just in case. Black women don’t pee by the side of the road, as decreed by the African American Female Constitution I intuit each and every day. Peeing in a cup in the car wasn’t optimal, but it was safer. I couldn’t know who or what was beyond the shoulder of the road, hidden in the trees. I wasn’t leaving that rental car unless it was on fire.
The Bible says to “walk by faith, not by sight.” Now, on the Autobahn of the Damned, I drove by faith and my high beams. I was struck with the idea to pray. The writer Anne Lamott claims that God help me is one of the greatest prayers ever. So for more than ten minutes, my eyes held to the white lines of the road, and I asked intensely, earnestly, for assistance. I added the 23rd Psalm as an addendum. As my speech found its rhythm, my terror lessened. My mind felt altered.
The headlights caught a flash of green, a broad sign to the left of the road. I blinked. The last line read North to Philadelphia. Finally, something familiar—I’d driven to Philly many times to visit friends. I pointed the car toward the exit ramp.
Somewhere near Philadelphia
The moon was a pearl against the night sky, and its glow cut the black lace of the sleeping trees against the blue-black sky. It created a sense of endless expansion—the kind Buddhists speak of during meditation—and my mind drifted to poetic musings: When the sun changes places with the moon, this desolate land must be ringed in beauty. The car and I were one.
Soon, Philadelphia twinkled in the distance, and I stole looks at the high-rises—markers of civilization, bright and beautiful. Home was less than two hours away. The clock read 1 am. Maybe I could still find somewhere to pick up a Philly cheesesteak. My last meal was at 5 pm.
Don’t press your luck, Dad said.
I followed decade-old breadcrumbs back to familiar highways.
Somewhere in Pennsylvania
Right after college graduation, I’d left New York for a man I loved in Detroit. After three months, I realized that love and marriage were, in this case, not a forgone conclusion. While I worked to save money to move back to Manhattan, I missed the Big Apple enough to hitch a ride with Detroit friends for a visit.
Just before dawn, I awoke when my head smacked the roof of the car. The auto leaned at a mean angle, hit a massive bump, and then came to a stop, its contents shaken and stirred. Renita started screaming.
“What the hell happened?”
“Must have fallen asleep,” her cousin said, rubbing his skull with one hand, the other still gripping the wheel.
“Why didn’t you wake someone to relieve you?” Renita wailed.
“Dunno,” he said, full of sleepy remorse. The anger set on Renita’s face must’ve delivered the same crack as a starter pistol; her cousin flung open the door and bolted.
As Renita took off after him farther down the grassy highway median, I twisted around to watch the scene. Through the back window, the raw sun scratched at my eyes. I freed myself from under a duffle bag and climbed out of the back seat. The dewy grass felt cool and soft under my bare feet as I stood surfer-style on the sloping hill. Columns of dawn light glowed between purple-pink clouds, a mirror image of the Sunday School prayer cards of my memory—the scene adults used to shape the idea of God for kids. I felt God that morning along with the nearness of death.
I couldn’t resist the urge to hike up the incline, cross the asphalt, and peek over the guardrail. Seeing the field of boulders below, I realized how close we’d come to dying. The fine hairs of my forearms stood at attention in the summer heat.
Renita and her cousin finally came back, removed grass from the crankshaft, started the engine, and returned the Lincoln to the road. The car was fine, and so were its passengers. Yet, four days later, lacking the courage for the return drive to my parents’ home, I flew back to Detroit. Once there, I said nothing about my experience. I knew how my mother felt about such things.
I-95 North /NJ Turnpike North, Exit 13
Forty or so minutes from Manhattan, my radio search landed on a gospel station. I recognized a hymn from my Baptist childhood.
Mary, don’t you weep. Tell Martha not to mourn, Aretha sang. As I listened to her soothing voice, my body felt warm, humming with cozy pleasure. . . .
Open your eyes! Dad commanded.
I screamed, jerking the wheel. The memory of that Pennsylvania crash after college was enough to spike my adrenaline. I had to stay awake. I cranked down the window until it was blasting air into my face and yodeled along with the gospel tunes. When I didn’t know the lyrics, I made them up.
NY 495 East /Lincoln Tunnel, Exit 16E
I looped the car around the curve of the road, and the tollbooths—appearing now as sentries of welcome—smiled. Manhattan lay beyond, incandescent. It looks like Oz, I thought, and twenty-five years of jadedness dissolved.
An Ezra Pound quote came to mind:
“And New York is the most beautiful city in the world?
It is not far from it. No urban nights are like the nights there. . . .
Squares after squares of flame, set up and cut into the ether. Here is our poetry, for we have pulled down the stars to our will.”
I reached my Upper West Side neighborhood at last. Prayer had gotten me home, but even Jesus can’t come up with a parking spot in Manhattan at 3 am. Two blocks from my apartment, I pulled into a garage, but the metal gate was closed tight. The sign read, please honk for assistance.
I hit the horn. Nothing. Then a face appeared at the narrow window, glaring. I leapt from the car, driven by fresh fear.
“Please, I just drove more than eight hours. I’m exhausted!”
Face hidden in shadow, the man shook his head no.
“Please, only until 11 am.”
From the shadow, eyes stared.
“C’mon, I’m out here by myself!”
The shadow vanished.
The street was nuclear wasteland empty. Was it better to sleep in my car and risk a vagrancy charge? Or double park and get towed? I turned over my options in my head when, suddenly, blessedly, the mechanical gate creaked up. Yellow light spilled across the concrete. A Pakistani man sporting an Izod shirt stepped into the light and said, “Come.”
I suppressed the urge to hug him, my body whirling as if it still moved at eighty miles an hour.
I woke with the sun, the apartment still. All was beautiful in my blue bedroom. Little by little, I drew myself up from a coma of sleep. I tiptoed into Julia’s room, rubbing crust from my eyes. I squinted at her stuffed animals, hand paintings, and crumpled socks; travel had given the common sharper contours. But the pink room was devoid of my daughter’s energy. I blinked at the emptiness, and then I remembered.
I fished my cell from my purse and sent a text. I’m home, c u at 3.
I crawled back to bed, and in that dreamy state, I remembered why I had hit the road, why I’d gone to Maryland in the first place: I wanted to feel more alive. I found renewal in the cave of the self, holding dark communion. In discovering it isn’t the car, but rather the driver that matters, I was enlightened. No Buddhist meditation could’ve delivered the depth of gratitude one mistake had.
When I got up several hours later, I felt stiff, as I did after a good run. The soles of my feet embraced the parquet floor. Morning cappuccino never tasted so good. I showered, dressed, returned the rental car, and headed to Brooklyn.
“Mommy, Mommy!” Julia cheered, hugging my thighs. The weight and warmth of her arms was a benediction.
She beamed. “I had fun! Did you?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer.
Louise Boyd said, “The real work of an expedition begins when you return.” Maryland was the destination, but that’s not where I ended up. Fear had delivered me to a place of clarity. It emptied out everything from the way I’d seen myself—the public version, anyway. I found a me that wasn’t a mother, a woman, a writer. The me with nothing to prove and nowhere to run from. Now I can find her anywhere, on or off the road, if I get still and let go.