“Aren’t you nervous about meeting Chuck’s mother?” everyone kept asking me. “Not at all,” I’d reply.
Chuck and I had been seeing each other almost a year, and although I haven’t met a special someone’s mother in almost two decades, I’ve got my mom- pleasing moves down. It’s basic stuff, really, moms just want you to be on time and look presentable. They want you to listen more than you talk; they want you to nod knowingly and agree with them, even when you don’t; and they want you to eat anything they offer and tell them that it’s delicious. Anyone can do that for an afternoon, particularly if it’s someone else’s mother. “Piece of cake,” I tell everyone. I don’t mention my real concern, which is the road trip.
Chuck’s mother lives about two and a half hours away in South Wayne, Wisconsin, a short drive from where we’ll be staying in New Glarus. Two and a half hours is a snappy little day trip, and I like to get out of town, especially to places that have some kitsch appeal. A weekend in “America’s Little Switzerland” sounded like a perfect romp, except that we will have to drive to get there. When I say “we,” I mean Chuck. Chuck will be driving, and I will quietly be having a nervous breakdown, because I have a paralyzing fear of being in the car.
I am zero fun when I ride shotgun. I’m the passenger that’s constantly flinching and gasping and putting on the imaginary brakes on my side of the car. I get that panicky look, a look that I’m familiar with, as I work on an airplane. Almost every day someone comes to me with that same wild-eyed face and tells me that they are afraid to fly. I often say to these pale, nervous folks white knuckling it through turbulence, “I get where you’re at, really. I’m afraid of the car,” which doesn’t make them feel any better; it just makes them confused.
I once had a perfectly normal relationship with the automobile, owning one for most of my adult life. I used to love road trips … for me, they meant eating beef jerky while listening to carefully prepared mix tapes and enjoying meandering conversations about the meaning of life while mocking rural America’s hyper Christian road signs. The trouble all started with an accident I was involved in about nine years ago, when I was T-boned in the driver’s side of my Toyota pickup truck by a girl high on meth in an SUV going fifty miles per hour, an accident where I crawled out the passenger’s side door covered in safety glass pellets, miraculously without a scratch.
When the insurance totaled out a truck I was trying to sell anyway, I wrote the whole thing off as a lucky break. But it awakened a piece of my brain that never existed before, a piece that began to envision phantom cars coming at me out of nowhere when I started to drive again. I knew it was stupid and ridiculous, but no part of my rational brain could make it stop. I began to drive less and less, eventually selling my car when I moved to Chicago four years ago. I live close enough to the airport to walk to work and I could take the train everywhere else. It didn’t make sense for me to have a car here. But fear loves it when you give in. It just settles in that space in your brain and gets all comfortable and starts spreading itself around. Pretty soon I not only didn’t want to be behind the wheel, I wasn’t comfortable being in the car at all. The phantom cars started coming out to play when other people were driving. I can usually keep it under wraps for short hops around town, but I knew several hours on the freeway would bring out the hallucinating, flinching, fake, breaking weirdo worst in me. I tell myself to pull it together for the next three hours as I see Chuck pull up in front of my house. Just pretend that you’re like other people, I tell myself. Just pretend that you are normal.
When Chuck arrives a bit later than originally planned, I know that he will be on edge. He is generally very organized and punctual. He is upset when he pulls up; his head is still wrapped up in work, it took him longer than he had anticipated to pick up the rental car. His mother has called him several times to check to see if we have started driving yet. Now I really need to keep my anxiety under wraps, because there’s not enough room in any car for accommodate two people freaking out inside of it. Chuck tells me he is worried about me meeting his mother, and I ask him, “Why? What could go wrong?” He replies, “I don’t know. I just keep thinking that something will.” I know that he is concerned that the distance between Chicago and South Wayne, Wisconsin, population 489, is more than 150 miles; that it’s possibly another world away, a chasm that perhaps we won’t be able to traverse as a team. Small-town life doesn’t worry me, but I’m at one with his apprehension as I stare at the navigational program on my iPhone, noting that we must take the exit on to 290 off of 55 in 8.2 miles, now 8 miles, now 7.8, now 7.7, now 7.6. I do not take my eyes off the screen, as that will bring me back to the reality of being in the car. Just be like other people, I tell myself. You can do this.
I tell Chuck everything will be fine with his mother. Even if the worst possible thing imaginable happens, it will all still be fine. He doesn’t seem convinced, but his stress eases as we eventually find our way out of the city, while my tension remains fairly constant. I’ve had to go to the bathroom since shortly after we started driving, but I say nothing as I worry I might not be able to get back into the car if we pull over. I finally have to concede that casting a pall on a road trip with an anxiety attack is probably trumped by wetting your pants in a rental car. I take some deep breaths after we leave the rest stop and attempt to mentally reset myself. We’re only an hour or so away, but the Friday afternoon traffic combined with some construction has stretched the trip out to over four hours, which is the longest I’ve been in a car in quite some time. I’ve told Chuck about the accident and I’ve admitted to having mixed feelings about being in the car, and he’s a safe and conservative driver, but as all of my fears are stupid and irrational, none of this brings me any peace. Eventually there are rolling hills and the vivid colors of the trees changing in fall, beautiful scenery that I focus on intently to distance myself from being in a rolling prison of my own design.
Once we get there, I feel fine. The weekend is chock-full of small-town-Wisconsin wonderful: farmers selling Honeycrisp apples, fancy cheese curds with jalapeno dipping sauce, petting a goat named Gus while we play miniature golf, and a trip to the New Glarus Brewery to fill our trunk with the coveted local beer. On Saturday afternoon, I meet Chuck’s mother and she is kind and lovely. She listens more than she talks and she smiles agreeably at what everyone else has to say. She serves us strawberry shortcake, and I tell her that it’s delicious. And it really is.
Towards the end of the visit, Chuck goes to get her a bottle of fancy beer from the car, and she tells me, “I really like you, and I don’t like most people.” I tell her I intend to take good care of Chuck, because, again, I know how to please a mom. She replies, “It’s much more important to me that he takes good care of you,” which seals the deal on a highly satisfying mom meeting. Through all of this, I haven’t thought once about the ride home, I’ve just allowed myself to really enjoy what’s happening. On Sunday, as Chuck begins to pack up the car–and he’s as relaxed as I’ve ever seen him–that space in my brain that is all about seizing up and making my life miserable begins to tingle and stretch its legs. Perhaps I’m all aglow from fancy cheese curds and craft beer and thoughtful moms, but I tell that space that on this particularly perfect Sunday, I am not having it. I don’t have to pretend to be normal, to pretend to be like other people. I just need to remember that I am a girl who is not afraid to fly, who is not afraid to meet a mom, who is not afraid to tell a bunch of strangers what totally scares the shit out of her. I tell that warped chunk of my mental real estate that no matter what happens in the car on the way home, it will all be fine. As we drive along Highway 90, I look out the window at the passing trees and their changing leaves. Chuck and I talk about life and we listen to carefully chosen songs and we eat beef jerky, just like I did when I was a normal person. As we make our way back into the city and the cars and big trucks on 55 begin to whiz by us, I close my eyes and make peace with taking my foot off the imaginary brake pedal.
Two days after this lovely weekend, I go out to run errands with my friend Anna in my roommate’s car. Anna is tight on time; she has a flight to catch in an hour. As we pull into the Costco parking space, she checks her watch and asks, “You O.K. with dropping me off at the airport and then getting the car back home?” Keep in mind, she’s asking me to drive the car for about ten minutes, maybe a little over a mile. I give her a slack-jawed expression as my mind races. “Is she insane?” I think to myself. “She knows that I got up at 4 a.m. and I worked all day and it’s pouring rain and the airport is filled with hostile travelers and crazy cab drivers! Conditions could not be worse for me to actually DRIVE a car today!” But what comes out of my mouth is what any normal person would say. I say, “Yeah, of course, sure.”
At the departure drop off at Midway, I slide behind the wheel. “You going to be O.K.?” Anna asks. I nod hesitantly as I smile and wave goodbye. I wait for my stomach to drop, for my heart to pound, for my hands to clench the wheel in a death grip. But it doesn’t happen. I put on my turn signal and ease my way into the processional of cabs trying to get back to the freeway. I actually try to conjure up the worst possible thing that could ever happen, like an airplane falling out of the sky onto me and the Cicero bus next to me full of South Siders minding their own business and the whole thing just seems so crazy and improbable, so very far away. As I put on the brakes at a four-way stop a few blocks from my house, I look left, and then right, then left again, feeling relief that there are no cars to consider, either real or imagined. I hit the gas pedal, sensing only the rain pounding on the roof, the melodic sound of the windshield wipers going back and forth, and the satisfaction of being back in the driver’s seat.
Eileen Dougharty has shared her musings at Story Sessions, WRITE CLUB, 2nd Story, That’s All She Wrote, and every other watering hole in Chicago. She believes that stories can provide more than just amusement, that well-told tales can be an ass kicking force for positive change. Eileen has a special love for Story Club South Side as it is a celebration of friends coming together to savor words, beer, meat pies, and community.