Sunday, 9 September 2012

lost highways

Andy Field's Motor Vehicle Sundown as it messed with my brain, 7pm, Saturday September 8, 2012.

One question. Passenger or driver?
I come from a family of drivers. I grew up on mythic tales of the nights they drove to Southend or Brighton just to eat fish'n'chips and look at the sea. I don't remember the family dogs but I remember the cars: the Allegra that got smashed up so badly we couldn't open the passenger door more than six inches; the BMW 1602 that blushed every time a 325i purred past; the mini van so temperamental that one day on the M11 my door opened of its own volition. When I was seven, my most cherished dream was of driving. I wanted nothing more than to be 18 tasting freedom behind the wheel of my own car.
Take a seat at the back. Only I'm on the wrong side. Growing up, I always sat behind my mum. Passenger side.
Driving through London, teenage, imagining I'm Marilyn Monroe. Because if I were beautiful, he would love me. I practise her seductive half-closed eyes, hoping I can't be seen in the wing mirror. A few days later, his best friend tells me he had seen me that day, head leaning against the window, looking dopey. Femininity humiliated.
It is every childhood memory framed by a vehicle I have. It is every teenage dream, and every movie that inspired that dream. Dark nights, long roads, skies full of stars.
Like the night in Cyprus. A road that is barely a road. No streetlamps. A jeep with no roof. And above me the electric shock of the galaxy, its multitude, limitless. I'm not driving, but for as long as I'm looking at the stars I feel alone. Small, insignificant, alive.
Roy Orbison's In Dreams. Shivered thought of David Lynch, but our hands reach reassuringly across the rough fabric of the seat and our fingers entwine. It's my husband sitting beside me, but I'm thinking of my brother.
I am 18 or 19. We're driving through the mountains outside Athens. The road curves precipitously and I'm exhilarated and I'm scared. I'm listening to my favourite album, Blonder Tongue Audio Baton by the Swirlies, on cassette and my heart is singing. My brother sits beside me, listening to Elvis. We won't be together like this for much longer.
And that's when I realise my husband is crying.


Part 2. Take a seat in the front. At last I'm driving. Only the car is stationery. We're at a drive-in movie. His arm over my shoulder, snuggling close. What would happen if we kissed? The sky is still light. This story will end badly.
My dad gave me a car for my 17th birthday. A black mini with red tartan seats. A few days later, my brother and the same friend who witnessed the attempt at Monroe drove it too fast over a speed bump and wrote it off. I still took the lessons. And the tests. One. Dreadful. Two. Almost run over an old lady who tries to cross in front of me at a roundabout. Three. We change test centres. Four. I get stuck behind a bicycle on a country road. Five. My tainted dream comes true.
The movie is growing tense. Something is wrong. In front of us, a car is having trouble negociating a parking space and I'm wondering what would happen if the driver's foot slipped on the accelerator and he came crashing into us. Disaster. And that's when he leaps out of the car and slams the door. I am alone. And I don't know what's going on.


Part 3. He's in the back. I'm still driving. Only the car is stationery, trapped in a gridlock of traffic. The rain beats down lugubriously on the window pane. Windscreen wipers ineffectually sweep it away. Our eyes meet in the rearview mirror and we laugh. This could end OK.
I always hated driving. And then at last I am given a reason to stop. I'm 20, it's past midnight, and I'm driving home from my boyfriend's house, exhilarated and scared. They disapprove of him because he's a skater and a guitarist and this is not what they've sent me to university for. The road is dark and winding and I don't realise it but my speed is creeping up. The road slopes downwards, curves right then left. When I lose control, I can see the whole thing as though floating somewhere outside myself. I am watching a movie, a movie by David Lynch. I am golden in the headlights. The car somersaults, a turn and a quarter. It lies on its side and I am suspended in the air. Already I know that for the rest of my life I will be able to replay this moment in my head, as though the whole thing had been filmed.
Suddenly I realise what's on the radio. They're talking about a plane that's crashed into the World Trade Centre. The rain is still falling and though the sun is yet to set the sky feels dark. I lean my head against the window. They think it's a 737. The water is rising. It cradles the car. And I feel so safe.
I hated it but I still miss the freedom. I'm too frightened to walk the night streets a girl alone, but in a car I could do anything. I could get lost in the countryside or drive to the sea. I could escape. I love trains, I've travelled from New York to Chicago to San Francisco on Amtrak, but somehow it's not the same. It's not what you see on the cinema screen.
The dull thud of the windscreen wipers. Flotsam and jetsam. It's the end of the world. Sinking and smiling.
So now I'm a passenger. And some of the worst arguments we have are in the car, when I'm supposed to be navigating, but all I want to do is close my eyes and drift away. Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter has been playing, but there's another song in my head. Because when I think of driving I think of my mum, and when I think of my mum driving, this is the soundtrack.
I'll love you with all the madness in my soul
Oh, someday girl I don't know when
we're gonna get to that place
Where we really wanna go
and we'll walk in the sun
But till then tramps like us
baby we were born to run
The American Dream, fractured and warped, as it's infected my imagination. The dream nurtured in me since childhood, unrealised. Next time I'll be the passenger. And I'll fly to the stars.

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