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Us College Kids
Samira looks like the picture of happiness over there in the driver’s seat—my driver’s seat. (What could I do? I hate Interstate driving.) She’s got one slender arm on the wheel; the other out the window in all the gallons of sunshine.
We always seem to get chanced with perfect weather on these road trips of ours; there are cotton-ball clouds in the sky every time, and seats that are already warm before your butt hits them. My sunroof is open and the wind is whipping in our ears, and when I look up, there’s nothing but shiny speeding cars, big green road signs, and the radiant blue sky holding it all in.
She looks great, of course, her long hair in two loose, straight braids, her big brown sunglasses with the “S” (for “Sport” and “Samira”) obscuring her eyes. She’s all decked out in her usual crazy colors: a navy shirt with bright red stripes, a purple-and-black checked scarf hanging from her neck.
I’ve got big brown sunglasses too. I started liking them because she liked them first. Kind of like how she was the first of us to like parting her hair on the side, and like wearing skinny jeans, and like blasting her music and dancing with the windows down.
There’s a little jar of wasabi peas in my glove box, a box of Thin Mints on the floor, and a can of Monster in the cup holder. Relient K is playing on her iPod: Someone please save us, us college kids! I could sleep. I feel good. We’re going to see Marine at George Mason, a billion years away from us—gone at college, an institution that we, too, are technically in, though we can’t imagine not waking up every morning in Gloucester County.
I miss Marine. I met her in the eighth grade, and in tenth-grade poetry class we wrote notes to each other to keep from falling asleep. Her little get-togethers were always the best.
Samira and I don’t speak to each other. We’ve known each other too long to stress about the effort it takes to fuel a conversation; the silence is as warm as the sunshine.
Marine is just like I remember her. She says she’s already gained two-thirds of the Freshman 15, but we don’t see it; she’s still little as ever, but now she has the room to match! I never knew, for some reason, that a college dorm was so small. Three people fit together in that tiny room! Marine says her crap “exploded” right before we came, and everywhere you look there are books about mythology, Andy Warhol posters, and crew clothes. She has paper lanterns separating her space from the others’ (which are a fire hazard, she says), and her window is open, the wind rustling the blinds and scaring me every time. I’m a little quiet, trying to soak it all in. There’s so much to look at.
Marine has magnetic poetry all over the little black refrigerator on the floor. I rearrange some of it to say, “Travel to the outside and feel peace.”
We travel to the outside and there’s a parking ticket stuck to my windshield.
Fairfax is a town for the oldest, richest, whitest people in Virginia. Even Marine says so. It’s not a college town, she says. Everything is expensive, and you can’t just walk down to the store and buy a loaf of bread.
This was apparent the moment Samira and me first took the exit and started winding down the road. Oh, man. Those houses were big enough, gorgeous enough to kill. Samira nearly crashed my car a few times craning to look at them, and the craggy cliffs with the marina just below, and the big fancy brick City Hall.
But there’s this strange feeling of youth here, even though we know full well that everyone in those houses is either retired or a gazillionaire. Everything around us is so rich, and we’re just trying to take it all in: small-town girls with an inborn hunger for the city. I have forty-five dollars in my pocket, and God only knows how much she’s got on her check card, and it’s dusk and we’re hitting the mall—minus Marine, who had to go to work.
Marine didn’t know where the mall is.
We don’t know where the mall is.
“Samira, we don’t know where the mall is,” I tell her, as though she doesn’t know.
“We’ll find it,” she says, slipping on her sunglasses again. We’re in the middle of a traffic jam that’s overflowing into the intersection even though the light’s green. I feel nervous.
It astounds me how calm she can be about this. We’ve been driving for about half an hour—still no mall. We’ve been taking random lefts and rights at random intersections that look like they might prelude a mall. And Samira has no repercussions about any of this. She is driving so eagerly, even aggressively; she cuts in front of people when she has to, me squinting my eyes shut and praying for the split second the panic lasts. She always laughs and says, “Alys, you need to learn. It’s okay! When you put your turn signal on, they know not to hit you! You need to learn.”
I take a deep breath and sink back into trusting her with my car. It’s hard not to. She aced range when I was practically failing it; and I know she’ll pay for gas.
Starbucks ends up helping us a little with directions; they point us on the right path, and eventually we arrive at the mall: two stories and five hours of shopping galore. Samira loves shopping, but I don’t; at least, sometimes I don’t. This time is fine, though. We try on clothes at H&M and I ask her and she tells me what’s flattering on me and what isn’t. We test makeup that turns the natural shade you blush as soon as it hits your skin. We eat at Taco Bell and get some Coldstone afterwards: strawberry cheesecake with cookie dough randomly thrown in, because we both love cookie dough with anything. We leave in a frenzy because it’s cold; run to the car and start driving, and get lost again.
This time it’s really bad. We end up at a gas station miles and miles north of GMU—completely in the wrong direction. We get directions from a random police officer. We call Kirsten and Peter. We blast our music. Then we find our way back.
The city lights are more beautiful than ever. I am fascinated by this place. It’s not even a city, really; it’s a pretend-city, where you can run away and lose yourself even though there aren’t any skyscrapers or dark alleys to hide in. It’s all so new. I want to go to college, I think; I want to be somewhere away from where I’m used to, drive around like this every day. I want to listen to Ron Pope and Angel Taylor and Sara Bareilles in my car in a place where no one knows me except the person sitting next to me—fly down the Interstate at 85 sipping cold sweet tea in the broad daylight, wind down empty back roads at midnight with only streetlamps to light the way. I want to be gone; gone forever from the place I once knew, enlightened, estranged, and embraced by the beauty, the bittersweet freedom of escape.
Right now, I am.
So I’m happy.
I set my alarm for 6:30 the next morning so I can move my car from in front of that dumb parking meter and to the Catholic church down the road—where they can’t be Christians if they charge money for visiting a friend. The meters start charging at 7, so I’d better get up and do it, in spite of my natural inclination to sleep in. Marine is already awake and getting ready for crew practice; Samira is groggily sitting up from the top bunk where she slept, her hair disheveled, rubbing her eyes. “Come with me, Eia,” I say. “I don’t want to get raped and killed.”
So we drive the car down to the church, where we pretend to ignore the sign that reads PARKING FOR CHURCH ACTIVITIES ONLY. It’s pitch-black out there and cold enough for hypothermia—so I’m glad she’s come with me. We run all the way back to Marine’s dorm, where we clamber back into the bunks, panting breathlessly, our chests hurting from the cold, and fall sound asleep.
When I wake up again at 10, my first instinct is coffee, and Samira has a headache, so I go out into the sunshine, walk to the church, and drive my car to the University Mall on the corner, where I get some Saxby’s coffee—who ever heard of that? It is just like Starbucks, but the girls in there aren’t as friendly. I come out bearing a cinnamon and a vanilla latte, two shots of espresso each, and try to climb back into my car with the wind nearly knocking me down. I laugh to myself about it.
It feels strange and good to laugh for no reason at all. In my rearview mirror I look at that laughing face, and my makeup is done, my hair in ringlet waterfalls over my shoulders, my clothes clean, Adidas Fruity Rhythm everywhere. It’s finally just me here. Without anyone else here by which to define myself. Without even my hometown by which to define myself. I’m all emptied out, left with no past, no history in this new place.
Those girls in Saxby’s probably thought I was one of the students at GMU. They probably thought I was a grown-up child, a wise fool, a baby adult. A college kid.
Well—I am a college kid.
Snow Patrol erupts from the speakers as I wheel away:
I want so much to open your eyes
‘Cause I need you to look into mine.
Something in me wants to cry, but I’m not sure where it comes from.
I bring the coffee home to Samira and we sip at it and eat Marine’s bagels. Then I realize that I just called it home.
Washington, D.C. is more amazing than I ever thought it would be. In middle school, we used to come on field trips here, but the only place we ever visited was the Lincoln Memorial. My old best friend Katrina, with her long skinny legs and blonde hair, took a picture with me in front of that big stone Lincoln, sitting on a giant throne like God’s on Judgment Day—and we put it in our scrapbooks that we were going to give to each other. I never did give Katrina the scrapbook; I haven’t heard from her in years.
Samira, still next to me at the wheel with a breezy sort of confidence, was the best friend who replaced her. There is a glorious sunset just beyond the glass in the window: pinks and purples and oranges melting like popsicles in the summer, all over the place. The tall white buildings, the city lights look merely like a tribute to the sunset; they pale in comparison, and the Washington Monument is just a blank stone silhouette against all those marvelous layers of sky.
I wonder how come people need that security of having to call someone their best friend. It seems to me that it’s a possessive thing, a childlike instinct that still wants to take the toy back from the parent and scream, “MINE!” But if God’s the parent and the toys are our friends, I guess we haven’t got much say.
Samira’s new jacket reminds me of the sunset. It’s all pink and purple and zigzaggy, lightning bolts of color keeping her warm. How come she can get away with all that? If I wore that, I’d look ridiculous. It must be her personality. When you live loud, then you can dress loud. Live quiet, and you dress quiet. It’s okay, though—both are individuals.
We went to the Museum of Natural History today, and the Holocaust Museum. Educational and amazing, both of them, though I drew more pleasure out of walking in the windy city and gazing up at the marble and stone and watching the carousel on the grass spin around and letting Samira graciously buy us a pretzel and some ginger ale from one of those street-corner vendors. All day long we read road signs and the captions in museum exhibits. Now the day is drawing to a close, and sleep sounds promising—but this is our last night with Marine, and we’re going to drive home late, so we can’t waste a minute napping, missing our last tastes of our road trip and our adventure.
We’re lost again.
Somewhere in downtown D.C. this time. This is the scary part of the city, you can tell; here there are no tall black men in funny caps like you see in the movies promenading down the wide sidewalks; there is no green grass or glorious architecture; there are no park benches, no blue arrows pointing to the different parts of the Smithsonian. This part reminds me of some places I’ve been to in Richmond and New York City—the part that all cities have: where lonely people are scuffing down the sidewalks in their heavy coats and designer shoes, their eyes looking for something. There’s something about that city lostness and loneliness that scares me to death, makes me glad I grew up in a small town: it’s heart-stopping, the idea that you can be walled by people and still not have a soul to call your own. How come people pressed so close together, all living in their tall skinny townhouses with paper-thin walls, can be the people who feel the furthest away from each other? It makes me think that perhaps it’s human nature: to withdraw further inward the more you face the harsh reality of others. In the small town there is room to be selfish, space to consider your life as a singularly important thing—to God, to other people, to you. Here there is none of that. There are shopping malls and shabby liquor stores and a funeral home with a big black van for a hearse. There are people who brush your shoulder on the sidewalk and hurry on by, not stopping for your face or your name, never thinking of you again. There are people who are every bit as acquainted as you are with the darkness of humanity. No one is naïve, and because of this, there is little hospitality, little hope. There is little belief that one person can have significant worth to anyone else.
I’m thinking this while Samira is driving us somewhere we don’t know, and with the sunroof open again we are blasting Metro Station, and sometimes people look at us funny for it, but mostly they only care that she keeps accidentally running the stoplights (they’re over to the side and hard to notice). I’m watching every face on the sidewalk zoom by, inventing stories about who they are, where they came from, where they’re going.
It’s not too long before we find our way out of there, though. Back on the Interstate, into the sunset, and on the way to Marine’s dorm.
I check my phone to see if anyone has called me, and Katia has, so I dial the number to call her back. I’ve been checking up on her periodically because she got stranded at the school earlier, and I had to get a hold of Symphany and arrange a ride for her. All the way up in D.C.!
I feel like a mother; I’m way out here in the capital of the United States of America, and I still take care of my babies.
But it makes you feel kind of cool to walk around the city with your sunglasses and your wind-blown big hair, and press your cell phone to your ear: like you’re an important businesswoman with a call from a client, or maybe even a CIA agent planning an urgent mission.
Then, just as I start to talk to Katia—excited, inevitably, because while I do love this whirlwind road trip, this glamorous taste of city life, I miss the person I love the most—Samira says it.
“Um, do you have to talk to Kat and Symphany every second?”
I look at her. The words sink in like a weight in my stomach. For some reason, I am mortified.
“Sorry,” she says with an ironic smile that means she isn’t sorry. “That’s like one of my pet peeves.”
I reluctantly tell Kitty I have to go, and click off the phone, and fold my arms over my chest, and lean my head back, and close my eyes, and sit in stormy silence.
It is an awkward silence. It is the first time our silence has been awkward since we left for the trip.
What a b****, is what I’m thinking. “Every second” my a**! The only reason I started talking to them in the first place is because she decided to spend 50 million years taking MySpace pictures of herself! And it wasn’t even that much, or for very long!
My pride is hurt. I can feel my insides surge with anger. It’s weird how a single comment—probably meant in passing, with no ill intentions—can hurt your feelings so badly, make you feel like you hate someone.
I hate her.
The thought felt good; it was sharp and hot, and it made me want to cry it all out, or start screaming at her. Unbeknownst to Samira, quiet over in the driver’s seat with her little smile, I was conjuring a mental list of all the good reasons I had to hate her, and her whole world, this whole world: road trips and pictures and music and MySpace and fashion, everything with a price tag attached.
I could get mad at her, too, for pulling out her Mac last night and talking to all her friends on THERE when she said she’d come down to the bottom bunk and keep me company.
I thought about how superficial it all was. Who even cared about all those things Samira cared about? How much did any of this even matter? College life. Who the fuck CARES. Who cares about trying to be hot: listening to the hottest music, wearing the hottest clothes, making yourself sound hot online so that everyone will want to know you? It’s all a product of our own design: nothing natural, nothing true, nothing real. Recycling?! Think green?! Save MOTHER NATURE?! Save yourself—you’re a part of nature, aren’t you?! It’s just another fad, isn’t it—just like everything else in this world? We’re all driving down the great highway to hell on our road trips, spending our last breaths on the energy it takes to make money so we can put more gas in our cars, buy more clothes, get more music. The green’s all gone now and instead there are malls and billboards and roads and a bunch of wide-eyed lonely people who buy the clothes and drive on the roads and take the pictures of themselves and look great but always get lost, never really figuring out who they are, where they’ve come from, where they’re going.
In the midst of my mental rage I open my eyes to the open sunroof, where there’s nothing but blue, and a pale crescent moon in the corner of the sky.
I want so much to open your eyes, because I need you to look into mine.
Suddenly it’s a few years ago, and I’m back at Aunt Zhor’s beneath another crescent moon, its light flooding everything, the pool lit up from beneath and the backyard cool and summery in the creeping dusk. There are strains of music from the garage with the beads hanging from the entrance. Eia and me are on the wooden porch swing, and Aunt Zhor is talking to us about life. Well, kind of. She is telling us not to always give men what they want. Keep them guessing, she says, and you will have them.
Samira and I are exchanging glances and giggling, her eyes deep brown with those little pockets painted beneath them, and Aunt Zhor is also telling us, without words—or maybe it’s just me advising myself: Always be friends. It will get you through men, through good times, through disagreements. It will be the one thing you can hold on to forever.
I look over at Samira, wishing I could see her eyes, but she’s still wearing the sunglasses. Is she still the same person—somewhere in there? Or did that one girl Eia die? I wonder if she thinks these same things about me, over here with my arms folded. I’ve changed so much too.
How can we forgive the great crime of changing? There should be some sort of legal, governmental punishment for it, I sometimes think, because it would save us from having to punish ourselves and each other for the offense.
But I love Samira, I remember. Nothing she’ll ever do will make me hate her.
I love Samira.
“I’m sorry I talk on the phone too much,” I blurt suddenly, with no idea where the words come from. I smiled.
Sometimes, you have no choice but to put away anger, replace it with love. Because you know that that’sthe one thing you can hold on to forever. It always makes sense in the end, when all the things you thought were forever fail. And if you can’t see the beauty in everything, then you’re not a poet.
Chipotle with Marine was delicious: the Apple Bottom Jeans song came on just as we were about to get out of the car, and we danced like idiots for a moment, then ran through the chill and to the restaurant, where we feasted on beans and rice and meat (well, excepting Marine) and cheese laden with Tabasco sauce, guacamole, sour cream, and oh, the best salsa. My lips and tongue were on fire by the time we’d made it to Borders, browsing all the bargain books.
Now it’s cooled down, though, and we’re driving down the road at 11 pm with all the glowing traffic that remains. We’re trying to find something to do before Samira and I have to leave, but nowhere is open. Marine leads me on dark back roads, and we make U-turns here and there when we feel as though we’re not finding anything. I’m starting to get nervous again: no direction.
“Hey Marine,” I say periodically. “Where are we going?”
She says, “I don’t know,” and keeps on singing High School Musical.
I’m going to miss Marine again when we leave. She’s just the same as I remember her. That’s what I like about her. I mean her thoughts and ideas and opinions have changed, but she—she is the same. I don’t really know how to tell you what I mean. But I like her hair the way it’s cut now, even though she thinks it’s messy and has to have it up in a ponytail; I don’t think she’s fat, even though she insists she eats nothing but junk food. She is picturesque in the college scene. She still likes all the artsy things she used to like; she’s still an intellectual type of person; she still likes us and has a heart for us, and we still like her. We’re all still friends, even though it feels like high school is something she shrugged off like an old coat in exchange for the beautifully crazy world of college. Maybe one day I’ll meet her friends. I’d like to get to know this type of life. But for now, GMU is nowhere in sight: we’re still lost, with no evidence that we’ll be getting anywhere too soon.
For the first time ever, I don’t mind.
The road signs all start getting blurry when it’s 3 in the morning, and you’re still about half an hour away from home. The best part about it, though, is that there’s no one on the Interstate then, and for once in my life I can drive, and Samira can finally rest.
That is exactly what is happening. She is sound asleep as I curve into the exit marked “West Point,” my eyelids heavy, taking generous sips of my nasty 7-Eleven coffee at intervals. All over the floor are Samira’s Hot Fries and my Sour Patch Kids, and clothes and duffel bags and purses and our bags from the mall are slung everywhere in sight: my car is a craphole. I don’t care too much. Right now my thoughts are of my bed, all made up and warm, and of how good it will feel to wash my face with cold cream and brush my teeth and crawl beneath the sheets, and of how late I’m going to sleep in tomorrow.
The familiar stoplights and auto shops of the highway through West Point seem to smack me in the face: on the Interstate, you can be nowhere near home even when you’re passing right through it; but when you get off, boom. There’s your town, just a few miles ahead of you—where in the world did that come from?
Not that I’m not ready to go home. I didn’t miss it, but know I need it, at least for now. One day I’ll probably live in a college dorm like Marine; my life will be all color and lights and studying and friends, and that freedom feeling I’ve had for the past few days will be a permanent part of my existence. But for now, it’s okay to be where I am. It’s okay that I still live in the house where I grew up, and that I’m driving home to sleep where I have always slept, and that I’m going to wake up tomorrow morning and talk to the people I always talk to. It’s okay that right now, I know where I am, though I might not always.
Samira’s iPod is still on full blast, but fortunately the shuffle only seems to be playing the mellow songs, and she is not stirring. Her seat is leaned back all the way, her head on one of the pillows I brought from home, her body all curled up and comfortable in the heat blowing in from the dashboard.
It’s a strange feeling: driving her while she’s asleep. I’m so used to her driving me everywhere, I think I’ve made a habit out of submitting the wheel to her, looking up to her as the driver who knows much better than me, who will get me through the road trips without a scratch. But then again, I’ve always looked up to Samira. Growing up, she was the model after which I attempted to fashion my every move. Now, she is the tried and true friend whose existence has changed everything. I still live in her shadow, base myself on who she is. I probably always will.
There’s a kind of beauty you find in friends who waltz into your life, unexpected. You never lose sight of that. You leave home, you grow up, and you go all crazy. But you never really forget what they did for you; you never shove aside the fact that they came, and they saw, and they conquered you. You eventually turn into someone different, but the whole time you’re holding them closer than most, because at your heart they’re always still who you are. Just like your hometown, they’re everything you want to leave behind, and all the memories you cling to.
While I’m pulling into my driveway, I think that I am the definition of a college kid: half of me alive with the thirst for the unknown, half of me desperate for the comforts of familiarity. But it’s like handing over the wheel. I think that letting go is the hardest thing we ever do in life.
A few days later I’m walking arm in arm with Symphany down her road in the warm spring sunshine, talking about my road trip. I tell her about the brick villages in the city, and about the windy day in D.C., and about how Marine is doing, and about all the beautiful skies I saw and all the pictures I took.
But mostly, I tell her about how often we got lost.
“It’s funny, because it—I don’t know. I’ve always been one of those people who panics when I don’t know where I’m going, you know? Like, I have to have directions, or I freak out. Being lost just gets me so nervous. But Samira’s my total opposite. She doesn’t care where we are or how we get there. She just knows we’re eventually going to get where we’re supposed to. She just trusts in that. She doesn’t worry.
“It just makes you think,” I laugh. “Like, it’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with having no idea where you’re going. That’s, like, the point. Even if you’re lost, you always end up finding your way.”
All of a sudden, I stop walking. Sympha does too.
I look around. The tall tall pine trees are stretching up to the sky, and the road is stretching out in front of us, and I am holding on to her, frozen in thought. Struck suddenly with all the layers and layers of meaning in the statement I have just made.
“Are you okay?” she asks, confused, studying my face.
I’m okay—but I am having an epiphany. It’s an epiphany I find myself having over and over again as I live my life, and it’s in everything from the natural beauty of Gloucester County to the thrill of road trips. I am here for something, I just don’t know it yet; I am one in 6 billion people who are very very different but completely and strangely the same—who take the wrong exits and cross double solid lines, all searching for the road that will lead them to life.
Sometimes I swear I think the journey is more beautiful than the destination.