I was 22 years old when I totaled my Mustang while parking.
That cherry-red ’96 sported a perpetually lit check engine light on her dashboard and a colorful lei from Party City on her rear-view mirror. What I remember most about driving Ol’ Red is how stinkin’ cute I felt behind the wheel.
What I did not remember that fateful Friday morning—as I swung coolly into an open parking space en route to my internship at a Charleston ad agency—was which pedal controlled the gas and which controlled the brake.
And just like that, I drove my baby straight into a wall.
Both airbags deployed on impact. The doors jammed, trapping me inside, shaky hands still gripping the wheel. A 20-something Asian woman looked on with horror but did nothing; asked no questions, offered no assistance.
I wish I could say some awesome song on the radio diverted my attention that morning. That I had been applying mascara or sending a text message at the time of the crash.
Truthfully, the only thing I was doing was driving. And even then, I wasn’t paying attention.
As that hot, smoky airbag exploded in my face, I saw my days zipping by like mile markers and me, an absent passenger cruising through life without living it.
Nearly a year and half later, I met a guy online through a shared connection on Facebook. David lived five hours away, near my hometown in Georgia. Our social media flirts evolved to text messages. Our text messages grew to late-night phone calls until one Friday in early November, when he drove the 300-mile trek to meet me in person.
I fell for his honesty. His earnestness. His eagerness. We said “I love you” after a few weeks. And after a year of falling asleep over Facetime, he moved to my Holy City, and we got an apartment together.
Even then, I knew he wasn’t the one.
As a young man who never lived on his own, David lacked maturity and independence. His short temper flared with little notice, leaving me edgy and nervous. When I told him my love language was physical touch, he countered flatly that it wasn’t his own. He read comic books and played video games and waged wars on Twitter and waited for me to place a dinner plate in his lap.
Even as we drifted apart, I refused to stop that relationship from accelerating. I knew if we could just reach the next stop on our journey together, we would be happy. And I could finally lift my foot off the gas.
Three years into living with David and five days before Christmas, my mom died from pneumonia. Suddenly, all the next steps and finish lines and brake pedals and totaled cars and forlorn relationships vanished. As I stood by her bloated, comatose body in that buzzing hospital room, I discovered that time offers no promises except this one: there will come a time when you must let go.
After losing my mom, I became acutely aware of the ruthless and unpredictable clock ticking in my head. I scrutinized my relationship with David: the happiness it gave me and the happiness it did not. I tossed the good and the bad on the scales of emotional justice and realized our love too crashed long ago.
Once again, I was stuck inside.
This year—at the end of June–I figured out how to put that car in park and walk away.
Now I’m living alone for the first time in seven years. I read. I write. I run. I cook the foods I enjoy and drink red wine. I watch the leaves fall from the sweetgum trees in my backyard. It’s a strange and unfamiliar sensation but, for once in my life, I’m finally behind the wheel.
Occasionally, I catch myself slipping back into bad habits and just speeding through the days. In those moments, I can almost hear Mom’s voice nudging a gentle reminder of one of the greatest lessons she left behind: how to use the brake.
This post was written as part of an online blogging course with the incredible Cindy Reed. Many thanks to Cindy for her thoughtful critiques and abundant encouragement on this piece, which ended up in a significantly stronger place than it began.