One hour ago I packed up my housemate and leaned through the driver’s open window to tease her. Then, I stepped back. She spooled up her iPod, and her stereo’s bass thumped. We grinned. We had crammed her windows with socks and running shoes and an old clock, the folded flag from her father’s funeral. All the detritus of her 27 years squished into one silver Mini.
And then, for the last time, she pulled out of our Seattle driveway. On her way to Austin, Texas.
Just a few hours earlier, I’d had a tutoring session with a private student from Eritrea. Over peppermint tea, I’d confessed that I’d lived my whole life in one city and sometimes I yearn for something new. My student, a slender woman in her mid-thirties with freckles dark as coffee beans flecking her cheeks, tucked her hands into her black trench coat. She admitted she didn’t understand this desire to move—just for a change.
I think it’s probably very American.
This faith in upheaval and frontiers.
As Jack Burden tells it, launching his own road trip toward a different future in All the King’s Men, “It is where you go when the land gives out… It is where you go when you get the letter, saying: flee, all is discovered. It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and see the blood on it… It is where you go when you hear that thar’s gold in them thar hills… Or it is just where you go.”
For my housemate, I think it’s just where she’s going.
She’s leaving behind a relationship that didn’t take and a job that didn’t, either. She’s one smart cookie. And a tough one at that. She knows when to get out and floor the gas pedal and hit the highway for a shot at a new life.
But then there is the survivor from an East African civil war, smiling at us with humor and compassion—but also perplexity. Her eyebrows pinched together. Laughing a little. After all, she’s writing an essay about how leaving your native country is one of the hardest things anybody can do. No matter what the reasons are.
And these moves—among my American friends and me—they look so privileged in comparison. My housemate backed out of the driveway and waved, her face red and beaming with excitement. With happiness, even. For what is a better salve for the American soul than a road trip?
But there’s no uprooting of identity or of name. She won’t find herself in a strange place that can never quite be home. And if she ever returns one day—as my student did—she won’t find herself out of place in a nation she still considers home.
The older I get, the surer I become that optimism is a hallmark of either youth or privilege—or both.
I’m happy for my friend’s happiness at her new life in Texas. And I’m deeply sad at losing her.
But it’s a friendship I intend to keep. And there are no borders, no passports, no dictatorships splicing the airwaves between us. I am lucky in that.
And deeply, deeply grateful.