In the Headlights
January 11, 2022 / Olivia Du
If it was all a blur, when would I finally find clarity?
When I think of my youth, I think of feeling safest in the backseat of my dad’s car. The world’s sights seemed that much rosier to me when filtered through the looking glass of the window. I remember the rain droplets that raced each other down windows, road trips through Albuquerque’s fiery sunsets, driving to the pool on summer evenings when mosquitoes were hungry and skies bare, and visits to the library after which I would proudly come back with my new conquest of treasure.
Life was simple and contained. I could spot the yellow minivan from any distance, like a steady reminder of home. I knew who I was, even if my thoughts were much more elementary than now. My identity was as constant as the car that would pick me up every day after school: I was my father’s careful daughter and my mother’s mirror image.
As 16 candles were blown in excitement and my mom’s car keys were gifted to me in warm hands, I found new liberation: this time, behind the wheel. In my car, I was separate from the world. As everything outside blurred into vague mirages, I created time that belonged only to me.
I sped through billboards of heartbreak and piercing sirens of raw, gut-wrenching cries; I screamed my favorite songs until my lungs gasped for air and gazed in silence at the melancholy beauty of traffic lights flickering in the rain. I wielded my independence, moment by moment until I felt sure of myself in the same anchored confidence I had as a child.
When I drove, I found vulnerable and honest confessions of my feelings the way one finds lost keys between snug couch seats. I defined who I was for the first time without association to anyone else, not even my family. I watched the odometer creep its way past 100,000 miles that year, and I drove for 10,000 more. It gave me a quiet satisfaction. If I had driven 10,000 miles alone, I believed I could do 10,000 more.
Three years later, after uncomfortable confrontations with growing pains, stinging realizations from hurting others, and overwhelming feelings of inadequacy, I lost security in driving. The same roads and sights no longer gave me the same rush. Each time, I drove farther and longer in attempts to find that peace again and to unravel my growing knot of discontentment. But freedom seeped into aimlessness. Happiness subsided into growing waves of doubt. The world that gave me vertigo from racing through the looking glass was now far removed and distant.
When the suffocation grew too much to bear, I flew to New York spontaneously in an effort to escape my self-doubt. Without a car to fall back on, to nourish my identity in the careful mold I had created before, I was uprooted. I was struck by the realization that I had been so focused on the next place, the next stop, that I didn’t even know if I’d planted seeds in the past roads I had traveled.
I grew up shapeshifting my identity to fit those around me. The feeling of every inch of me being agonizingly stretched out in every direction was one I detested yet didn’t know how to resist. That’s why, when I drove, I thought I’d finally achieved independence. But every time I stepped out of the car, I realized I was still the same me. I still cared about the same small things and worried about the effect of my actions on others, and couldn’t stand the feeling of isolation.
In New York, I forced myself to live my fears. In the beginning, I let the predetermined times and set routes of buses, subways, and trains lead me without resistance: resting on cold subway seats, watching stations and people blur by; sitting in the backseat of unknown strangers, trusting that I’d find my way; riding the train to the end of the line to upstate New York. I spent every evening retracing my steps on Lexington Avenue in hopes of finding direction in my emotions. To relinquish the control I so desperately sought from driving made me feel like I was reverting back to my worst parts.
Yet to relinquish control was to finally begin experiencing the world underneath my two feet: one that was deeply saturated by textures, colors, and sounds. I began to notice the steady concrete steps of the Met that murmured beneath me as I scratched fervent love letters in wrinkled journal pages. Or that one evening, when a thunderstorm kissed me, piercing and cold instead of its usual pitter-patter on the windshield. And the wind that raced like youthful innocence beside me in the forest of a riverside town, where I was enveloped whole instead of just grazed across the cheek through cracked car windows. When I stood in Brooklyn and saw a million lives across the river diminished to tiny specks on the horizon, I found exhilarating freedom in my insignificance. An epiphany, of sorts. This time, I didn’t have to be separate from the world to find peace within myself.
These moments are the seeds I plant in the roads I’ve traveled. When I’m on my own two feet, I decide the pace. I determine where and who I want to be. I am in my own power, and I’m rooted in the same world I once peered at from beyond a glass wall.
I still worry that I’ll fall victim to habit and follow life’s tempo and not the other way around. I’ve never been bold. Or determined. Or courageous. Or strong. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to live my life like I am those things. I used to chase after past memories of a life simple and contained. But this time things are different: driving can no longer be my crutch to define myself. Nothing and no one can save me but myself.
From outside of the car, I turn towards the glow of the headlights. I place hope in the idea that disbelonging and reinvention are inevitable lovers in marriage.
If I have found happiness before, I will again. ■
by: Olivia Du
layout: Mateo Ontiveros
photographer: Richard Ahn
stylist: Andrea Claudia Mauri
hmua: Lily Cartagena
models: Ophelia Brown