Most of the time, when I drive to work, I just drive. I follow the same blue-green Honda Fit plastered with bumper decals about universalism, hiking, and geology. If I’m not catching up with family phone calls, I’m listening to Vietnamese language CDs and pushing the “back” button again and again trying to pronounce impossible words before 8 a.m.
The other day at a stoplight, I looked to my left and saw a Sikh in his black 1997 Hyundai Accent, sipping on a homemade energy shake. His turban was pressed against the ceiling. In front of him, a salt-and-peppered post-professional man revved his engine and smirked in his Mercedes convertible. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt. To his right and in front of me, a woman was hotboxing it in her 4Runner, blaring talk radio so loud that I could hear the anger passing through her windows. The hatch bore a Navy ribbon. The woman to my right sat in an Avalon and applied her perfectly coordinated lipstick in the rearview mirror, sipped her Starbucks, and blotted.
I’m sure none of them saw me peeking into their cars and studying their faces. They acted like no one was watching when those spare seconds granted me access to their candid morning routines.
In the small town where I grew up, often I observed people I knew in their cars who thought they were totally alone. At the intersection of Morgan Avenue and Center Street, I discovered that my high school journalism teacher chewed tobacco. He spit into a cup stopped at the light. Somehow, his flat top seemed even taller in his bright orange Camaro. Sometimes I saw boys I liked blaring their music and singing along as they rounded corners too wide and too fast.
The day I sat across from my mother’s black Jetta at a stoplight, I started to wave but paused. Usually, I looked forward to spotting my family members driving about town. I’d honk at my older brother’s white Dodge Spirit or at my Dad as he drove home from work, but Mom was not going to see me no matter how much I tried to get her to look my way.
As I waited through the most painful light of my life, I watched her scream through her tears. She was crying, angrily beating her steering wheel. She never knew that I’d seen her that day, and I was too afraid to ask her what was wrong. Her carelessness and lack of self-awareness scared me. I watched her, embarrassed to know that someone else could be witnessing that same breakdown — someone I knew could see my mom looking crazy and not understand that she wasn’t. She was just really sad. My siblings and I feared making our mother cry, even though it happened frequently, but I’d never seen her like that.
Five years later and twelve hundred miles away, I sped down a Texas highway screaming so hard that I wondered if my throat would bleed. I hoped it would. I drove 85 miles an hour, pressing harder on the gas pedal, screaming to stop myself from crying. I wanted dead people to live again, sick people to be well, and for faith in God to fix me. Desperate to exhaust my emotions by screaming, I wished I could simply stop.
When I did, I glanced at my passenger’s side and saw a man looking directly in my face, his mouth agape. Turning my raw eyes back to the road, I thought about calling my mother just to tell her that I understand, even if I don’t know anything. I didn’t make that call, but I realize that we’re the same fragile, spastic kind who use our cars like mobile confessionals and exorcism chambers to transport our secrets. Sometimes, without meaning to, we broadcast them and we’re not alone.