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Car talk

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JULY 27, 2020

Sonnet: I was alone in Tasmania, on a side trip from visiting my grandparents in Perth last January. I’d planned to rent a car and drive around, vaguely hoping I might find someone along the way to split the cost and driving time with.

My second night in Hobart, I was bending over the hostel bar’s pool table, trying to make a long shot. The girl with short blond hair sitting behind me suddenly doubled over in laughter and, having failed to notice I was standing in front of her, head-butted me squarely on the backside. Though we hadn’t introduced ourselves yet, the head-butt precipitated a moment of giggly recognition: I explained I was thinking about renting a car for the week, and she said she’d been planning to do the same. We agreed to meet at the farmers market in the morning, sober, to suss out logistics and size each other up to make sure we’d be a good fit to spend a week one-on-one in a car. The next day, over matching vegan breakfast scrambles, we decided to take the chance on each other.

We drove a wiggly outline around the island’s southeastern coast, stopping at random when the views got too beautiful to blur. We exchanged hopes and heartbreaks between mouthfuls of chips from the bag we passed back and forth, commiserating over the bloodied bodies of wombats and wallabies that studded the road. 

Over five days and several hundred kilometers of shifting landscapes, we stretched our stories out alongside each other, wove them through groves of eucalyptus and against jagged Tasman cliffs. By the end of it, we were partners, our playlists interchangeable, our vocabularies with their idiosyncratic local slang — hers south of Sydney and mine Bay Area — merged and traded. 

On our last day, I dropped her off at the train station and drove, sobbing, to the airport, bound for the other side of the world and leaving my brand-new beloved friend on this one.

Madeleine: It doesn’t even need to be a stranger. An impromptu road trip can build a framework around a loose relationship, making it something new. A few summers ago, sometime in a midsummer, midcollege slump, I drove to Seattle with someone I only sort of knew, off to visit our close mutual friend. We left after work, stopping at In-N-Out. We sat across those Formica tables talking for too long as the sun set out the window, before realizing we had 12 more hours to go, and plenty of time to get to know each other. 

We wanted to make it at least halfway there that first night, so we drove late. We talked to stay awake, trading opinions on the songs playing and stories from other road trips, other friendships. When that glowing dashboard clock passed 1, we pulled off into some nondescript field in Oregon and stretched out in the back of the car. In the morning, I woke to the sun and to the sound of him playing guitar. He strummed the same looping melody as I brushed my teeth, legs dangling out of the trunk. We sat there for a bit, in a specific sort of early-morning peace that I’ve only felt before a long day of driving, in a car that holds everything I could need. After a snack-scavenged breakfast, we gunned it north. A few nights later, we turned around and did it again.

It was a relatively grueling drive back, in this borrowed Jeep. Its air conditioning coughed up a few bursts of cold air before sputtering out, leaving us rolling down the 5 in 100-degree heat. But somehow all the hang-ups of the drive — restlessness and thick heat — felt fine, soothed by our delirious laughter and melting ice cream bars from gas station freezers. By the time we returned to Berkeley, loopily singing along to Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime,” we weren’t done hanging out. Trapped together in a car for 24 hours of the past four days, we had jump-started our friendship, flown through the phases of learning about each other’s families and getting comfortable sharing silence.

Sonnet: But the car isn’t just a place for making and deepening connections. It has also played a role, for both of us, in healing and maintaining existing relationships.

Madeleine: There’s an old parenting tip that the car is a good place to have serious conversations with your child. The conditions are perfect: They can’t get away, and you don’t have to look each other in the eye. 

My mom must’ve heard this advice because we’ve had a lot of serious conversations in the car. We first agreed that I’d go on birth control in the car, charting that old Volvo around a patchwork of one-way streets to get home. She initiated the conversation (as is usual for us) because I tend toward reticence, especially when it comes to sex or romance or anything vaguely emotional. Here, though, I could look out the window while I argued my case, letting the blurring background ease me into a confessional mood. 

I have never been the type to call my mother to confess a crush or ask a relationship question (though this would delight her). But here, discussing contraception, the drive loosens my grip, lets me speak a little freer. I talk more candidly about my burgeoning relationship, and let her dole out motherly wisdom about the importance of trust, communication, consent. I listen without the pressure to react, talk without having to read answers in my mother’s wide, expressive eyes.

Sonnet: Sometimes, though, it’s necessary to look each other right in the face. To halt the easy momentum and use the car just as a container for conversation.

Several winters ago, I made a stupid decision that hurt a longtime friend. We went for a drive a couple days afterward, to open a space for what needed to be said between us. We coasted through the darkening hills, listening to the songs that had first cemented our friendship, an effort on my part to thaw the frostiness filling the car. Rounding the corners of our familiar neighborhood, the car’s motion soothed us gradually out of our silence. 

He began to steer the car back toward my house, and I braced myself to hear what he needed to say. He pulled up, parked and turned to face me. No longer multitasking, he laid out his reasons for anger. We exchanged explanations, apologies and admissions of hurt, talking all the way through a Rainbow Kitten Surprise album. When the last song finally played, we had emptied our truths to each other and arrived at a tentative peace. He turned the key to start the car again and drive home. 

It shuddered. The battery was dead — we’d talked all the way through its life span. 

Madeleine: We’ve both had times when a car ride has been a catalyst for connection or an important milestone in a relationship. But sometimes it just shows you where you are, which isn’t always that harmonious co-pilot partnership. 

Sonnet: On a recent road trip, Madeleine and I were sitting as driver and co-pilot, sleepy friends in tow. We’d been sort of irritating each other all weekend — misplaced comments being received as jabs and sideways looks misread for contempt. We sat in icy quiet, staring straight ahead, unwilling or unable to dispel the inexplicable tension that had formed between us. So we sat, and let each other stew. 

Madeleine: The tension did diffuse, eventually. It just needed some space to diffuse into, which, for all its merits, is not something that the car offers. For those few hours stuck a center console apart, the drive was not a relationship accelerant, nor was the car a conversation box. I watched the sky darken as Sonnet kept her hands at 10 and 2, and her bloated minivan became just a vehicle again, getting us where we needed to go. 

Sonnet Phelps and Madeleine Gregory co-write the Monday column on kinds of love. Contact them at [email protected].

AUGUST 08, 2020

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