My best friend John and I are driving back to Minneapolis from my farm in North Dakota. We are 45 minutes (because in the Midwest, we describe distance with minutes and not miles) from the city and we’ve been eating Twizzlers and singing to the CDs I made specifically for this trip.
The weather has been perfect, but night has started to blanket the sky in dusky navy colors. Suddenly we notice a pile of cars, red brake lights flashing a warning, stopped in front of us. John hits the brakes.
At this point in time, three years removed, I do not remember if we were driving my car or his. All I remember is that it was beige.
“I can’t stop. The brakes aren’t working,” he says, his voice very flat.
The misty rain has turned to ice. The highway, upon which hundreds of cars travel daily, has become a hockey rink. Cars are smashed into one another, glass shattered like a thousand tiny diamonds in the snow. No one is hurt yet, I think, but they might be. We have driven into a war zone.
“Should we pull over?” I ask. I’m panicked. I’m panicky on ice; it’s learned behavior from my mom. John says no because what if a sliding car (and they’re all sliding like so many ice skates now) plows into us? Glare ice, black ice like this is the most dangerous kind because you don’t see it coming and can’t do anything to stop it.
I spot a motel off the exit near us and we decide it might be best to split the cost (or beg our parents, pleading safety, to pay) and stay overnight. John manages, his nerves so steady it scares me, to pull the car towards the exit, which is down a slight hill. I see police cars whizzing through the stoplights, probably because it’s too slick to stop.
But then the car is turning, turning an entire circle down the hill. We spin in full circles around and around and around. Everything is very still inside the doors, Loretta Lynn and Jack White are singing about Portland Oregon and sloe gin fizzes quietly on the radio. In my flashbacks, that’s what I remember: the song. I remember Loretta and I remember my own voice murmuring “Oh my God, oh my God” on repeat as we spun. You know how time stops in certain moments, freezes like a screenshot? And only the tiniest details remain in your memory. That was mine. Loretta Lynn singing “If that ain’t love, then tell me what is.”
I’ve always felt safest with a man behind the wheel. I grew up on a farm and spent my first 18 years sitting shotgun in an assortment of vehicles with men who’d grown up driving, who could handle any curveball the moody North Dakota weather threw at them. I was never scared, never. Piles of snow and pounding rain did not stop them; they were fearless and therefore, by proxy, so was I. Even when I watched my friend’s boyfriend die in a car accident on the gravel roads we knew so well, I didn’t feel afraid when a boy was driving. I’ve been in cars with them when they’re full of liquor, seesawing on their feet but steady on the road. Farm boys have a grasp on a steering wheel, they were born holding it. I would climb on the back of a snowmobile with them, clasp my arms around their waists and we’d fly across fields and sheets of ice. They’d fill me up with Bud Light and drive me around all night, then drop me off at my mailbox and watch me run to my door. We’d never be lost and I’d never be afraid of anything. They were going to protect me; that’s the nature of boys like that.
John will protect me, I tell myself. He can drive anywhere! We drive all over together. He loves to drive. He’s good at it. I never have to face my driving fears because John’s there to do it. I am not particularly good on my own. He is my other hand, he is my partner, he is my crutch. We will be just fine. We will not die like this, another car will not come flying down the hill and T-bone us. We will be just fine. If you keep repeating things, that makes them true.
The car stops, blessedly. John’s face is ghostly white. I know him well enough to know that he is terrified, but trying to mask it for my sake. We make it to the motel, a cheap relic that’s managed to last despite the efforts of this expanding Yuppie suburb, but we’ve missed check-in time. We bang on the windows, we call, we plead. We tell the attendant about the mess outside. She gives us a key and John calls his dad to pay for it, because we’re both broke.
John doesn’t sleep the entire night. We get a smoking room and he smokes one cigarette after another while staring at SNL. I pull my hood up on my old cheerleading sweatshirt and sleep on top of the scratchy blankets. Both of us tremble uncontrollably all night. The next morning, we drive back to Minneapolis and we don’t even listen to the radio. The two of us tell this story to others, but we never really speak of it to one another again. I swear we wrote about it, separately, but I can’t find evidence of that.
I think about this every time my wheels grasp for traction on slippery roads, when the surprise of my car fishtailing sends my heart into my throat. It’s when I’m alone in the car that this is scary, because even though I’m holding the wheel, that car and the road beneath it have every opportunity to make my decisions for me. It’s a thud of adrenaline unlike any other, because you know that if you don’t steer into it correctly there’s a chance that car could send you careening into someone else. You wouldn’t even see it coming.