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In the Car
By Amanda Hiber


Black Chrysler Laser

I’m ten, cross-legged in the backseat of my dad’s new lease, reading a Judy Blume book. In the front, he sings to a Waylon Jennings cassette spooling in the tape deck, and my sister Emily, 17, reclines in the passenger seat, her bare feet out the window. We’re driving to Riverton, Wyoming, my dad’s hometown. He is road-weary, Emily is complaining about her allergies, and I’m attempting to ward off nausea by looking out the window, though there is nothing interesting so far: Iowa is flat and monochrome. We are looking forward to mountains and wildflowers and a bigger sky—and the sight of my grandmother scampering out, dentures clicking through a wide grin, chiming, “Hello, hello!”

Khaki Jeep Cherokee

I’m a few months from 15-years-old and my Dad takes me to the high school parking lot to practice driving. The paint marking the spots is faded and the cement is a dark black but cracked, like it’s been patched too many times. On the lot’s periphery are the football field and the building itself, a 1960s concrete architectural abomination. He’s teaching me starting and stopping now, and mastery seems far off. I suddenly appreciate the seamlessness of his driving, in contrast to my constant jerking. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” he says, every time I curse myself. He is an endlessly patient teacher—I’m the fifth child he’s taught, and cars are his job, so this is old-hat to him. For me, it’s much bigger, and after a half-hour, I call it quits. “You sure?” he asks, and I say, “Yes, I’m sure.” I tolerate failure badly and harbor little hope of improvement. 

*

It’s my sixteenth birthday. I get a pink Casio boombox, slick and petite, and the Sinéad O’Connor tape I’ve been wanting, The Lion and the Cobra. But most importantly, my driver’s license. My dad says I can take the Jeep out for my first drive, alone. Driving without him in the passenger’s seat, guiding me, is harder than I’d anticipated, having grown brash in the year with a learner’s permit. But Sinéad on the car stereo smoothes things out. I’m singing “Mandinka” with such devoted passion that I almost swerve into another lane. For a moment, I wonder if I should be behind the wheel, alone. But my teenage self comes to her senses and presses the gas pedal. 

Almond Cream Honda Civic

Katerina and I are 16. We are obsessed with University of Detroit High School boys, The Cure, and coming up with code words for pot in case our parents overhear us on the phone. I’m driving us from school back to my house in my stepmom’s old car, my first stick-shift. Katerina is impressed with my ability up until my first stall-out. My dad’s been telling me, “You’ll get the feel of it,” but the simultaneous easing-on of one pedal and easing-off of the other seems anything but intuitive—and, as in every other sphere of my life, my lack of confidence exacerbates the problem. As do the honking cars behind me, followed by Katerina’s “Oh my god, oh my god!” But then I get it; my feet work in sync like Fred and Ginger, and I slide through the light just before it turns to yellow again. I forgive Katerina, turn up the volume on my They Might Be Giants tape, and we are singing and laughing again, all the way home.

Cirrus Grey Volkswagen Rabbit

I’m 17, on Christmas break from my senior year of high school, and my sister has just given me a Dylan mix tape. I love “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” because I fancy being the kind of woman who might say that to a man—a female Bob Dylan—because I know I’m the furthest thing from it: a sensitive and fragile soul. I’m headed to a boy’s house—a boy I had previously disliked; I’d thought him too cocky until he began waxing rhapsodic about me to our mutual friend, and then his arrogance transformed magically into charm. In the used car my dad bought for me, I cruise down the Southfield Freeway, headed for Northwest Detroit and the boy. I have butterflies in my stomach but Bob Dylan smoothes them out. I’m singing “Visions of Johanna” at the top of my lungs and imagining myself worshiped, like Johanna.

Claret Red Dodge Caravan

It’s the summer before college. Meghan’s going to a state school, Dan’s not going at all, and I’ll be out of state at a small private school neither of them could afford. My dad has borrowed a van for us, and we’re headed to the Dead show in Indiana. It’s all bootlegs, all the time, and Dan is packing one bowl after another. I’m the sole driver, and, at times, too stoned to drive properly, have to refuse every other bowl. Dan makes fun of me, but I don’t care. We are flirting, as usual, though nothing will come of it. “Sugar Magnolia” is blaring, we know all the words, and the THC has me feeling fluttery and alive.

Burnished Gold Volkswagen Rabbit

Spring break of my sophomore year in college. My (first) boyfriend, Jamie, and I are headed for Texas from our college in Wisconsin, 24 hours straight through. I haven’t driven cross-country since childhood trips with my dad. Jamie’s got tunes and a couple of joints, and I am aching that I have him all to myself for a whole week. I do not yet know why he resists being alone with me or why, when we are alone, he wants to sleep rather than touch me. I will feel rejected and undesirable for over a year before he finally confesses that it’s not me he doesn’t want, but any girl at all. Driving to Texas, though, I’m still hopeful, and we touch more than usual—his right hand reaching for mine, fingers in an interlocking movement that feels implicitly erotic. When his hand settles on my thigh, I feel a firework shoot from my groin to my stomach, imagining his hand will keep moving—up, over, in between my legs—but he always pulls away at that very moment, and the firework sputters to the ground. He is insisting on Pink Floyd, and I want him so badly that I submit, even though I hate Pink Floyd. Finally, when my angst passes, I can enjoy the quiet night air and his hand in mine, and wonder what will happen when we get to Texas.

Lapis Blue Dodge Neon

I’ve just finished college. My newish boyfriend, Ben, is a year behind me and we’re spending a week together driving around Wisconsin before I go to Europe for a month on my father’s dime. Ben is 6’2” and huddled in my passenger seat. The wind blows his long, coarse curls and when I turn to him, he looks at me with such unequivocal love that I can’t imagine anyone could be so deserving. Driving through Door County, we listen to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. The idea of being without him for two straight months is making me weep and “Highway Patrolman” isn’t helping. It’s sunny out, and Wisconsin is hilly in these parts, and I want to hold Ben’s hand and inhale his smell for as far into the future as I can see.

Black Dodge Neon

Ben and I have finished our one-year lease in Chicago and are headed to Santa Fe, his soon-to-be new home. We’re going our separate ways, at least for a little while. Erasure is on the stereo, and we’re enchanted with the Southwestern scenery: muted browns and greens we’ve never seen before, mountains looming powerfully in the distance, as if to reinforce the grandness of our separation. I’m sad to leave him, but I need some time away to decide if loving someone more than I ever thought possible can compensate for this nagging boredom. I’m off to graduate school in Tucson—against my father’s advice—where I imagine a debaucherous writerly lifestyle à la Anaïs Nin, and I’m still naïve enough to believe this is possible without breaking the heart of my first love.

Pewter Grey Honda Civic

In Tucson, I don’t own a car, so I get around by bike or hitch rides with my new boyfriend Jason in his decade-old car. Jason smokes—one of the things I find surprisingly sexy about him (after complaining about my father’s habit my whole life)—and his car smells of his cheap aftershave and the smoke that he curls his top lip to effortlessly release. The seats are a velvety cloth that soothes me, despite their grunginess. On the tape player is the new Bob Dylan album, Time Out of Mind, and the steady, haunting beat of the keyboard seems to somehow echo the dull, ever-present Tucson sun, and the way my heart pirhouettes when I least expect it, multiple times a day. I am content and frenzied with infatuation at the same time.

Candy White Volkswagen Golf

I’m headed back to Detroit from Tucson. My cat, Millie, is beside me, with no notion of what is in store for her. She and I are embarking on this journey together—leaving my home of three years (hers of 16), back to my hometown in suburban Detroit, where my family remains. I don’t know why I’m going back, but it makes more sense than staying in Tucson. There’s nothing left for me there—I’ve finished graduate school and my friends have already gone. All that remains is a two-month fling that started as a broken-heart rebound and has now lingered longer than it should: far from enough to keep me in a town with no job prospects. Millie and I are tapping our paws to Fiona Apple, asking why a girl would break a boy just because she can. Looking ahead to cooler weather, and my father’s open arms.

Aztec Gold Dodge Omni

I am driving like a bat out of hell from my flat in Detroit to Botsford Hospital in the ‘burbs. I’ve slept through three phone calls from my sister, something I never do, and I hate myself for it. Driving through night rain, crashing through puddle upon puddle, all I can hear is my sister’s voice on my answering machine: “The doctors say Dad has had a stroke.” Then, in the last message: “The doctors say Dad isn’t doing too well.” That last one, I woke up for. Ran to the bathroom to pee, had to steady myself after my knees nearly gave in. Drank three gulps of water, then out the door. My heart is racing so hard, I don’t need music. Besides, it seems wrong. It would smooth things out, I suppose, but nothing should be smoothed right now. Nothing is right, or will be again.

Satin Silver Honda Civic

My father has been gone for three years, and still I cannot drive on Parkhill, the street of my childhood home, without breaking down into sobs every tenth of a mile so that I have to pull over. And yet, half of the times I pass it, I find myself turning, like some sort of self-punishment. I have to reach over and pull Kleenex out of the glove compartment—I’ve begun keeping it there for such an occasion—before I’ve reached the first yard. At each house on this street is a tangible memory—the day the woman in the pale yellow house babysat me, the day I sold Girl Scout cookies to the couple at the end of the street—and every memory links back to him. But he is not here to fill in the blanks, to reminisce with me, and this is what pulls me to the side of the road every time: the emptiness, the silence, the absence. 

*

I am driving to Madison from Detroit to see my best friend from college, 10 years after our graduation. The monotonous scenery from Southeastern to Southwestern Michigan—cornfields, chain restaurants, comically bad billboards—is enlivened by the Beastie Boys and Liz Phair. I remember twirling around my dorm room singing “Fuck and Run.” The closer I get to my college town, the more nostalgic I become. In college, I was still a child. I had a father who called me and whom I would call back days and days later, casually offering, “Sorry, I’ve been busy.” I had a father I would rail against for his lack of political consciousness. I had a father who would eventually tire of my antics and tell me so, and then I would rail some more. 

Eventually, I pass Mary’s Market, the restaurant where he and I met when he was on a business trip, my senior year. It was just him and me that evening—a rare occasion, since his re-marriage—and that dinner marked a turning point in our relationship, for me at least. At that dinner, it all seemed so much simpler than it had been for years, since high school, even. The resentments had passed, the moral outrage snuffed out with maturity, and what was left was the fact that I loved him, I needed him, and he was here, as he always had been. By the time I reach Madison, my tears have dried, but remembering has left me exhausted.

*

I’m 35-years-old. I’m driving back to Detroit from Ann Arbor, where I’ve met my sister Emily for a Salvation Army run. We both leave with bags full of musty-smelling clothes. We say goodbye, we’ll see each other soon. But on the way home, the New Pornographers singing about addiction in the background, I’m hit with a wave of love that sends tears rushing down my cheeks. Since our dad died, it often seems that we have switched roles, with me as the older sister, and her as the younger one. So much of the time, I experience my relationship with her as a responsibility I am unprepared for. But today—and this isn’t the first time—I am stunned by how much I have missed her. I had forgotten that she feels like safety, and warmth, and childhood, and the three of us together, always together: me, her, and Dad. Arguing over where to go to dinner, in our apartment with the green carpet. Walking downtown, eating ice cream cones. Only with her is he alive still, only with her can I remember him, fully, out loud. And I want to turn my car around, find her in the Salvation Army parking lot, and tell her, “You mean everything to me, I don’t know what I would do without you, I’m sorry for taking you for granted, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I love you.” But I keep driving.
Amanda Hiber is a Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Detroit Mercy where she teaches first-year composition, creative writing, and literature courses. She earned an M.F.A. in Creative Non-Fiction Writing from the University of Arizona in 2000. She writes primarily about family, place, and the body, and is currently wrestling with a memoir about being raised by a single father. Her work has appeared in Clackamas Literary Review, Narrative Northeast, and other publications.