New York to Philadelphia is a pretty straight shot down I-95, but somehow somewhere in eastern New Jersey, on the way to drop my sister off at college, my family got deeply—possibly irrevocably—lost.
“Did you take the wrong exit?” my mother wondered aloud as the car, an old borrowed Jeep with a manual transmission and an enormous rainbow bumper sticker, idled in neutral in a deserted gas station.
“I was following your directions,” my father answered in the sardonic sigh he used to express barely contained rage. My sister, Zoe, and I (19 and 25, respectively, but feeling a lot younger) sat helpless in the backseat, exchanging tense blinks through the splintered rattan chair between us.
“Why don’t you ask someone else, then?” Mom said, staring pointedly into the middle distance.
“I would love to,” Dad snapped, gesturing out at the barren landscape.
This was far from the poignant scene we’d envisioned when Zoe had first opened her fat acceptance envelope that spring. But then again, a lot had changed since then—including the fact that later that night, after we dropped Zoe off at her new dorm, Dad would be driving back to Brooklyn to move his stuff out too.
Our parents had announced their separation two months earlier. It was not a mutual decision: He was leaving, and she was devastated. That summer my mother and I had gone on what had traditionally been our annual family vacation. Not knowing what to say to her, I had said nothing, watching her weep on the beach while I pretended to be asleep beneath a paperback horror novel. But nothing was scarier than seeing a parent so broken.
“Fine. I’m calling the school,” Mom said quietly, opening her door and stepping out into the blistering late-August sun.
“No! Please! Mom!” Zoe pleaded, searching desperately for her seatbelt buckle under the boxes on her lap.
“Relax,” Mom said, already dialing. “I’m just letting them know we might miss orientation.” My heart threatened to explode. It wasn’t even my school, but the thought of admitting to anyone that we had drifted so far off course filled me with an inexplicable, all-consuming panic.
“Can you please just drive?” I begged my father.
“Believe me,” he sighed, “this isn’t how I wanted to spend my birthday, either.” (Did I not mention it was his birthday? It was his birthday. This was clearly the best-planned road trip ever.)
Zoe finally freed herself from the seatbelt and leapt out to run interference, spilling toiletries in her wake. For the next few minutes she and Mom exchanged animated facial expressions. Then, red-faced, they returned to the car.
“Tell them,” Mom said, her voice vibrating from what was either a giggle or a sob. Or a combination of both.
“I think I want to be a midwife,” Zoe said. We were driving her to art school.
“And please tell them what I told you,” Mom said.
Zoe swallowed hard. “That sometimes it’s too late to change your mind.”
Dad cleared his throat and shifted into gear. “That’s true,” he said.
Mom turned on the radio. We got back on the road.
Cars. They’re a microcosm of family life. A four-doored home on wheels. And, as this series of essays reveals, a little magical. Cars provide a window to the past and the future. They can shift gears to make you feel 20 years younger or add a touch of gray. They can wipe away emotional scars, bring us closer together or transport us somewhere else. We asked writers to take a look in their rearview mirror and recall a car ride that impacted the way they look at life, love and the pursuit of happiness.