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Constance Alexander: As a teenager, a springtime drive along Main Street provided a lasting memory

In the northeast where I grew up, it was springtime until prom was over and graduation loomed. The promise of summer glimmered on the landscape, just barely out of reach. By early June, the days began to stretch out like a sinuous silk road that led to somewhere better, someplace special, something more exciting than a small town where you could tell time by the train whistles and the chimes of the Presbyterian Church.

In my New Jersey high school, big projects and research papers were due in the last couple of weeks of school, designed to keep teenage noses firmly to the grindstone. Because these assignments could make-or-break a grade point average, they were a great excuse to spend time at the public library on a weeknight. After all, in the days before the internet, that was the only way a student could gather appropriate data.

My last year in high school I didn’t care about grades. Somehow I managed to get stuff done, but I had that itch to get out of the house and away from my parents. I made up assignments and begged to use the car to get to the library to do some “research.” If I were dramatic enough, my father would grudgingly turn over the keys to the Lincoln before settling into his chair to read the evening paper. As long as I did the dishes before I left and promised to be back by 9 o’clock, my mother did not object, either.

At the library, I remember sitting alone at one of the long wooden tables, notebook ready, pen poised, pages blank. The scents of spring wafted in through open windows. Sweet honeysuckle merged with the verdure of newly mown lawns and trimmed hedges. I spent a few minutes pretending to work, took time to look through the new books, and promptly escaped to the car.

On those evenings, I turned the radio up loud and drove like there was no tomorrow. I can’t call it daydreaming or night dreaming, but my consciousness hovered between now and forever. I felt as if everything was possible. Unknowns became familiar. I understood chemistry, quadratic equations and jazz; wished I could speak ancient languages; believed I was capable of thinking new thoughts and forging different paths than those who came before me.

One of those nights, driving down Main Street, I spied a classmate walking alone and offered him a ride. He hopped in and for a while we drove the familiar streets of our hometown in silence. Then we began, shyly, to talk of our hopes and dreams, confessing a mutual yearning for freedom, for knowledge, for adventure.

He was a smart boy, an athlete, one of the nice guys hampered by acne and a streak of shyness. I don’t think I ever saw him after high school graduation. He would probably think it odd to know I am waxing melodic about a brief encounter we had so many years ago, on a random weeknight in early June where we revealed amorphous yearnings for the future. We did not have adequate words to describe the tangle of thoughts we were thinking, but we tried. We didn’t know exactly what we wanted from life, but were determined to find it.

Driving was a sanctuary, a way to imagine ourselves grown up, in control of our lives, not subject to the rules and demands of school, teachers, family. This is the stuff that poems are made of, and Stephen Dunn, another New Jersey poet, touches on those feelings in “The Sacred.”

He speaks of the magic of driving, a teenager’s hiding places, and how driving alone or with one other person “who understood the bright altar of the dashboard,/and how far away/a car could take him from the need/to speak, or to answer, the key/ in having a key/and putting it in, and going.”

To hear the poet read this poem, log on to https://goo.gl/6HqmMd. An interview with Dunn is available at https://goo.gl/Yx1UQ7.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray, Ky. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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