Since this is a story about a road trip, I feel obligated to mention we weren’t supposed to take this road trip. About a month before my college move-in, my dad bought three plane tickets from San Francisco to Los Angeles, excluding my little sister because she was too little to see her big sister go. My dad is the type of person who prefers things to be pragmatic, like when you’re making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and using two different knives to spread each condiment. But I like dipping the peanut butter-contaminated knife in jelly and swirling the two around on my Wonder Bread, creating abstract art belonging to Valerie’s Finger Food Collection. Anyways, the purpose of this far-
fetched metaphor is that he wanted what was “easiest.” A one-hour flight, minimal tears because there wouldn’t be time between the flight attendant asking, “Sweetie, what would you like to drink?” and the plane landing.
They didn’t talk about it, but I knew my parents were worried. College was an inevitable occurrence, like death. Both were coming, but we didn’t think about when or how. At dinner, when all you could hear was sparkling grapefruit soda filling our bellies, my mom cluttered the table with jokes. “What are we going to do when you go off to college?” We laughed because it was hilarious to think about her first-born daughter plagued with anxiety—no one called it that—going to college, let alone even leaving home for a week!
When I convinced my parents to drive down instead, I blamed this decision on my self-proclaimed hoarder status. Along with the college essentials, I filled three boxes titled “Miscellaneous/Sentimental Items” with wrinkly birthday cards from old friends that became acquaintances, camp T-shirts, holiday candles I was prohibited to light in the dorm, and fourteen books I’d already read. I want to say we drove down solely due to pragmatism, but I’d be lying. I needed to say goodbye to California, and driving felt like the only respectful way to do this. I know geography well enough to know Claremont is in California, but my version of California is the California I first knew, the one with exits and interstates and mountains and oceans I’ve memorized so well that I could smell San Francisco fog from anywhere in the world.
After saying goodbye to my sister and grandparents, we loaded the grey SUV I’ve know for the majority of my childhood. I’d imagined this moment for years: me in the backseat of the car, looking at my house for one last time. The reality was less extravagant—mounds of luggage and boxes obstructed my view. My childhood fantasy of pretending I was in an indie film montage, watching my house become a colorless speck, was destroyed. Once we got onto the freeway, I could see the moon’s leftovers being devoured by the sun, who was feeding thirsty redwood trees and deer babies. This was my California: so sweet that I wanted to bottle the feeling up and keep it forever.
There’s something peaceful and painful about driving away from home and feeling your lungs detach from the only air they’ve ever breathed. I’m a person of place, which is my greatest strength and weakness. Driving down I-280, I saw glimpses of exits taken countless times: Edgewood, Cañada, Arastradero. My eighteen years of living were compressed into a giant blob of time, overflowing with first school days, first sunset picnics, first car crashes, and first heartbreaks. Exits were now looking like they were written in a foreign language. California was a stranger, a beautiful stranger who I wanted to get to know over a cup of coffee. We drove past a Gilroy berry-picking farm, envious of families collecting strawberries for their August pies. I thought about that September day when I picked our unripe figs.
“Mama, do you remember that time I fell off the ladder picking figs for you?”
My parents laughed, and we all remembered how much we’d forgotten. What color were the figs?
“We’re out of gas,” my dad sighed, breaking our collective reminiscence.
We stopped at the next gas station and I got out of the car, overwhelmed by the stench of fish tacos and cigarettes. My mom convinced me to take a photo in front of our car: “Teenage Girl Goes to College, a Family Road Trip!” The photo was dumb, but was forensic proof that I was going to college. As a person of place, I know that places have expiration dates. I craved new gas stations with overpriced Twix, new friends reminding me of old friends, and used bookstores where no one knew I liked Nicholas Sparks. As a person of place, I know when a place tells you it’s time to let go.
“Dad, can I play some music?” I asked.
He passed me his phone, and I distracted myself by queuing enough music to last us a week. My parents aren’t pop culture fanatics but are music lovers who learned English from The Beatles and ABBA.
“Guys, no one talk. I love this song,” my mom yelled.
“We know,” I said.
This moment was the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of a broken record, so repetitive that my annoyance morphed into comfort. My mom hummed along to “Yesterday,” while my dad teased her singing. The rest of the car ride was uneventful, and I soaked up this monotonous bliss like one last Half Moon Bay swim before the winter swell.
I was suddenly six years old, sitting in the backseat of our SUV, listening to my parents bicker with love, not knowing whether to be grossed out or grateful. I thanked the God I didn’t believe in for this moment, the God I only used for emergency cases.
Valerie Braylovskiy is a first-year student at Pomona College and is from San Francisco, California. She loves exploring the intersections between poetry and prose and experimenting with different genres. Her work has been published in various places, including Agave Review, The Ekphrastic Review, and The Allegheny Review. When she’s not writing, she can be found playing Bananagrams or reading at the beach.