Let’s Drive, an essay by Kristin Mitchell

“Yeah! I’m down!”

I’ve long since forgotten how many times those words have crossed my lips. When the requests began, I can no longer contribute to a single date. They linger as something that simply was and is; a time before and a time after. I suppose the lack of temporal specificity fails to alter the significance of these moments. For amid the clutter of discarded memories, the shift prevails—when this unspoken “nothing” between us became something more.

Vulnerability never comes easily, but nestled into the passenger seat of his silver Nissan, it felt natural, as though it was meant to happen. Left knee to my chest and arms wrapped loosely around it, I turned to this dear friend as he drove, every muscle straining to maintain an air of collected confidence. After knowing him for a year and a half, you’d think this pocket of intimacy would pose no challenge. Yet, that night, he opened an unfamiliar door of trust I had locked long ago. Perhaps this was just a drive with a good friend for him, but in his pursuit to vent about life, he chiseled the first crack into my previously impenetrable exterior.

Maybe it was the heat blasting from the vents letting down my guard or the blue lights of the dash reflecting off his glasses and casting shadows along his pronounced jaw. Perhaps the clock ticking slowly towards 1 a.m. made me see him in a new light. Regardless of the cause, he looked different.

Without warning, he meant something to me.

As he watched the road and I watched him, I glimpsed the version of him he tucked away during the day—the hurt behind his eyes and within his mumbled singing. Somehow, this imperfect reality of him only stirred my heart more.

Terror tore through me at the realization.

Diverting my focus, I asked him about life, but silence was his only reply. I let it linger as his music filled the space between us that words could not reach.

That band, I had never heard them before—the ignorance of youth. From then on, listening to their music would be like hearing his presence—a frightening concept to someone who certainly wasn’t falling for him.

How easily we lie to ourselves.

Of his own accord, he began to peel back layers of himself, and my heart leaped.

Letting fancies carry you away never helps anything.

I tore my focus from him and watched the blackened world outside my window, each sight we passed as unfamiliar as the last. With as long as I had lived in this little town, it embarrassed me how little I knew of its roads and routes—how disconnected I was from everyone and everything. As we circled the heart of the town, we circled one another’s hearts as well. Only, my deepest truths remained imprisoned in my throat; He couldn’t see too much of me too soon. If he heard how broken I really was, our friendship would certainly dispel by morning.

Still, I took a breath.

This was home—this exchange of validation and appreciation. My worries were ridiculous until he gave them value. For once, I had value and saw it for myself through his eyes.

He was just a friend; I knew this—he didn’t need to be anything else. However, I also knew that whatever this was between us had changed, and a beautiful future had begun.

Two nights in a row? Once could be excused as a pleasant but limited occurrence, but twice was a choice; he’d chosen to venture with me a second time. No one had ever cared enough about me or my opinion to warrant such behavior. A new kind of warmth spread through each muscle fiber and drop of blood.

There are certain events in one’s life to which they can attribute for the fundamental reshaping that transforms them into the person they were meant to be. As the car thrummed softly and the wheels kept turning, certainty coursed through me. This moment would be one that changed me.

The city’s lights faded as we wound past Walmart and Taco Bell; there was the turn into the waterpark—closed because no one wants a pool party in November. Yellow lines swiveled and curved like a child’s drawing, and we followed them for hours, driving along in a deformed circle. Canopied by bare trees, he began talking of his discontent here; if only he knew how much I understood. It took a certain kind of person to thrive in this town, and neither of us fit that mold. We passed the high school and then our college—dead during night, the cold keeping students indoors. Each scene we encountered was an eerie sort of alive, the magic within the car lighting the outside world with a peculiar light.

Cruising downtown, bravery coursed through my veins for the first time since he and I met. I knew I would question this bravery once we parted for the night, but I refused to let it die while I sat in his car.

“What do you want out of your life?” I blurted.

He hesitated, and I let him collect his thoughts.

With hopeful brokenness, he answered, “I know that I want to be around people who want me unconditionally. I want to be proud of what I’m doing, whatever it is, and I want to just be with the people I care about.”

To be valued—to be enough: it’s what we’re all looking for. It’s what I was looking for. To my surprise, my soul ached for him. He doubted he had any real friends at school, and I had no way of proving otherwise. Even though he didn’t regret leaving his past self in Tennessee, he missed his “real” friends. A desperate cry telling him that people loved and cared about him endlessly clawed at my throat, but I swallowed it. Volume would have meant nothing; he wasn’t willing to believe the words. Regardless of how he perceived his “friends” at school, I vowed to prove him wrong; I would be the one to always support him, even if no one else would. I would never grant him the opportunity to question my friendship—I would be as genuine as possible.

For him, at least.

He turned the car around in the USPS parking lot, and we began the cycle again.

An orphaned lei shivering upon the blacktop stared up at me just outside his passenger’s side door. What a lei was doing in the men’s dorm parking lot in the middle of January, I didn’t want to know. Before I realized it, it swung from my hand. Sliding into his car, I handed the adopted plastic flowers to him. His confusion overruled any of my concerns about its previous whereabouts, a smile pushing at the edge of my lips. No doubt he would throw it away as soon as he got the chance, but for the time being, this minuscule token of my affection would be enough.

Lei cast aside, the drive commenced.

A month passed in a flash of memories all fused together in a beautiful weave of dopamine-inducing recollections. I slid into his passenger seat in pursuit of making more.

Looking up, I smiled.

The lei still swayed from the rearview mirror.

My kingdom for a drive!

Oh, what I would have given to traverse our streets at that moment. For it was not upon his leather seats that his confession filled my ears; it was not in the mess of his car that my chest felt as though it were a punching bag against which my heart ceaselessly struck. Rather, he opened his heart on the couch of my childhood home at 3 a.m. in late February.

A whole month, he said. He had liked me for a month while I felt ridiculous for even entertaining the idea. For the first time in my life, someone expressed interest in me; better yet, I was also interested in him. We had discovered something rare, and we knew it.

Regardless of his feelings, he admitted to his being unprepared for a relationship; he had much to figure out about himself. I agreed, but the prospect of one day being with him steeled an unexpected patience within me. I trusted that one day, we would go for another drive, and it’d be then that we found ourselves ready to embrace one another.

For the moment, though, I sat grounded to my couch, hoping.

Thankfully he was driving, or else I might have gotten us lost. The town I had come to know as home during the night disappeared almost altogether, in its place loomed brick and broken roads. It was as though an unwelcome guest had settled into my house and rearranged what once brought me comfort.

An entire summer spent apart—months of anticipation accumulating into a thirty-five-minute conversation. Finally, after twenty years, someone liked me; no games, no gimmicks, no tricks. Someone I cared for finally cared for me in return; we wanted to be together.

The lei was gone.

The sun shone too bright for the storm trapped inside this mobile metal cage. Clouds cast shadows across our features and electric energy radiated from our skin, but the rain would wait.

The one thing we wanted the most was the one thing we knew we couldn’t have: each other. Though our interests aligned, little else did the same. Before long, he would fly across the world and live out his dream, and I would be stuck with our roads—trapped in an endless circle of which he would no longer be a part. He’d explore new places, and I’d revisit old ones. Had this been the only hindrance, perhaps we might have endured, yet more roadblocks brought us to a halt. While my heart belonged to God, his belonged to humanity; though I could not fault his compassion, these differences at the center of our beliefs built a concrete wall between us and a future with one another.

How does one choose between the God of the universe and the human they love the most?

Somehow, cruising through these intricately known yet presently foreign paths, my words spoke what my heart could not. Looking out at the signs that were impossible to read at night instead of his face, I told him, “I know what I want to happen, but what I want and what I think should happen are not the same thing.”

A weight fell from my shoulders, my heart sliced open. I did not think it could ache any further until his mumbled, “I agree” shredded what little hope I had left. It was as though we locked the door that we had only gotten to peek into. We would never know what lay beyond, and we would have to learn to be okay with that.

We understood we were not destined for the life we dreamed; we must have known there was no other way for it to end. No matter the roads unexplored—regardless of the memories we could have made—when the light turns red, you stop.

We ended before we ever began.

I stepped out of the car into the August heat, walking away from home with its locked doors and rearranged furniture.

And the rain poured.

Right turn, left turn, roundabout, left.

I paid little attention to the roads I took; I didn’t need to anymore.

The music blared, and my cheeks were tight, straining against dried tears. My passenger seat sat empty—and empty it would stay. No longer would those words cross my lips; “I’m down” would die on my tongue. His absence loomed like a whisper intended to pierce my soul with every familiar road and each memorable song we shared.

Alone once more, my world shifted. There may come a day when our light turns green, and together we’ll discover new paths.

Until then, I turn around in the USPS parking lot and begin the cycle again, this time on my own.

Kristin Mitchell hails from Corbin, Kentucky. She is a Junior at University of the Cumberlands pursuing a degree in English with a Creative Writing emphasis. Set to graduate in Spring 2024, she hopes to thereafter pursue an MFA from University of Kentucky. It is her goal to travel the world while writing/publishing Young Adult (or New Adult) novels that touch the hearts of readers through the exploration of life’s hardships and conquerable circumstances. She also plans to inquire into editorial opportunities in the years following graduation.