There I am, 24, crying my eyes out at the stoplight at 9th & Main, crossing the Tapawingo Bridge and beating the steering wheel. There’s my car — a gold Saturn. The one the salesman kneed hard to prove its side-panels wouldn’t dent. As I remember it, the problem was that I wanted everything back — the woman I’d left, my childhood, a sense of myself as blameless — and it wasn’t ever, not ever, coming back. Around other people, I could hold it in. At my apartment I had a wall of books and a guitar to cry into. But alone in the car, the churches and bars of my hometown flickering by like frames of 8mm film, I couldn’t escape the hurt. Every pot-holed street led me straight to it. The big blinking sign at O’Rears Bakery delivered it like warm bread. I cried and cried and didn’t care who saw. Out running errands, a backseat full of groceries. On my way to work. Shame. Self-pity. Rage. The feelings hung over me like the bone-white sycamores leaning over their reflections on the Wabash. I wept for myself, for all of us. A vet at the Indiana Veterans’ Home where I volunteered — Gene — once said to me: “In Korea, why, I fought for everybody! Red, white, black, yellow, brown! My own men was just as likely to shoot me in the back! I fought for everybody!” I hadn’t understood. Then one day, out driving and crying, I did. And I wept for Gene. And for all the vets gathered in the day room smoking in their wheelchairs, watching The Price Is Right with the volume so loud the walls quaked, while outside sunlight cascaded through oaks and dappled the grass and a pair of squirrels hopped from nut to nut. No one was undeserving of love — not even me. I tried to talk myself out of it, dragging up old wrong-doings and regrets, imagining the wreckage people far worse than me had left in their wakes. But the world was relentless. For every incurable heartache, some undeniable gift. The smell of rain on hot asphalt. Powerlines catching a light so tender. Once I saw a striped awning in the parking lot of the Dollar Store and underneath it a boy selling flowers slept with his head on a table. The hurt I felt was coming for him, too. It made him luminous.
The story behind the story:
Sometimes when I feel stuck as a writer–not knowing what to do next or burned out on a longer project–I’ll turn to short forms. There’s something in a litany, in particular, the way it gathers steam, that helps break me out of the rut. With this piece, I was remembering an era in my life that appears to me now as little more than a blur of details and images. I’d gotten married at twenty-three and divorced six months later, and in my grief (for the relationship, for my childhood, for my sense of self) I couldn’t drive anywhere that next summer without crying uncontrollably. It was incredibly cleansing. Transformative. I don’t know. As soon as I wrote that first line, “There I am, 24, crying my eyes out at 9th and Main…” I was off to the races.
Steve Edwards is the author of the memoir Breaking into the Backcountry, the story of his seven months as caretaker of a remote Oregon homestead. His essays appear in The Sun, as well as Orion Magazine, Literary Hub, Longreads, and elsewhere. An Associate Professor of English Studies at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts, he lives outside of Boston with his wife and son.
“Driving & Crying” was first published in Medium.