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Alex Carnevale

Managing Editor
Kara VanderBijl

Features Editor
Mia Nguyen

Senior Editor
Brittany Julious

This Recording

is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Entries in kara vanderbijl (80)


In Which You Helped Pull My Bicycle Out Of The Water

by amy stein

Different Corners


There is a stretch of the blue line train route that rushes out of the tunnel after Belmont Ave and balances precariously between the branches of Interstates 90 and 94. The platform, while completely immobile, seems to shift to and fro underfoot. Cars rush past deafeningly, and even if it is not windy, it is all you can do to stay upright.

Once a week I find myself standing on this island, huddled below the heat lamps. There is rarely anybody else on the platform. There are only cars, blowing in and out of the city, and half-empty trains lurching down the track. I have never gone further down the line than this stop and it feels like the very edge of the world.

It is the loneliest place in the city.


I rarely remember my dreams, but this morning I woke up in a cold sweat with the memory of being chased by a starving tiger. I also remember waking myself up from that dream right before the feline sunk its teeth into my face, afraid to leave my bed for a drink of water in case it was lying in wait. Then, in those moments between 4:15 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. I dreamt again, this time of cockroaches crawling underneath all of our sofa cushions because we had left a few crumbs out on the coffee table. It was so very detailed that I remember the distinct crunch every time we gingerly sat down to watch television.


I’d like to believe that, much like the infamous “Carolyn Keene”, Harold Bloom is really just a pseudonym for a group of individuals who did not have enough talent to make it big on their own but were able, somehow, to attach themselves to some greater ideal, one that sleep and nutrition-deprived college students would later cite extensively in their papers.


A couple of weeks ago I decided that I would not spend my money on eating out unless I had specifically made plans to eat out with someone else. So far, it has been a great decision for me.

Today, though, I have an apple and chicken noodle soup with me for lunch. The chicken noodle soup isn’t really soup anymore because much of the broth evaporated or else the noodles soaked it all up, and all I can think about is some sort of sandwich smothered in tomatoes and pesto and melted mozzarella.


Coworker: Do you know, I thought this the first time I met you, you look a lot like—

Me: Shosanna Dreyfus?

Coworker: Yes!

Me: You're the 18th person to tell me that.

Coworker: You've been counting?


Peruse the shelves of your local drugstore to find an opaque bottle of castor oil; fill the bottom of a clear glass vial with this slow, thick substance. Then, cover it with twice the amount of either olive or jojoba oil (olive is by far the more economical choice, and works just as well). Finally, add a few drops of lavender and rosemary essential oils. Shake well. At dusk pour a quarter-sized amount into your palm and rub your hands together gently to warm the mixture. Smooth it into your face beginning at the temples. Breathe deeply; the lavender and rosemary soothe away anxiety and smell like the south of France. Let the oil rest on your face for a few minutes and then douse a clean cloth in warm (not hot!) water. Gently apply the cloth to your face, not wiping the oil away as much as letting the warmth coax it out; do not hesitate to leave a bit in your skin.

Repeat the ritual every other night, alternating with a simple warm-water cleansing. After repeated use your skin will glow naturally. You will never need to buy cleanser, make-up remover, or moisturizer again.


Do you ever grow weary of your own perspective? — of the mistakes you fall into, the biases you lean towards simply because you are only ever looking out your own eyes?

by amy stein

For many years my mother would switch around all the furniture in our living room once a month. While it was still in her possession, she would even move her piano around the room on its wheels and we would help by picking up the bench with its wobbly legs and placing it reverently behind the instrument. Other things — cushions, picture frames, side tables — moved around the room as if in some sort of dance. Christmas afforded Mom the opportunity to change everything around so as to open up the appropriate space for our tree; at the arrival of summer, our kitchen table moved closer to the doors of the terrace so we could dine al fresco. All this she did primarily by herself although my father helped her when she needed to move a large cabinet.

We responded with an incredulous “Again!” each time it happened, although it was secretly delightful to discover our living room all over again. The furniture seemed new, cool to the touch; for a brief disorienting evening it seemed as if we were guests in our own home.

What belongs to you has very little to do with whether or not you spend money or time on it. I am discovering more and more that for most things in my life, I feel the same level of attachment that I do for historical monuments or other tourist attractions. They belong to me in the same way that they belong to the rest of the world, and they are not more mine than anybody else’s.

“They are just things,” my parents taught me, when we moved from place to place and left more and more in our wake. But I have begun to find it difficult to escape from this mindset even in relation to people and experiences. I do not know if this is the epitome of unwellness or if it is mature; I remember crying for a pretty calico cat that my father took back to the pound because she could not accompany us on our move, but the years that separate me from that child also spunkily create distance between me and loved ones in airports as if there were no thread of feeling between us.

I do not think I will stay here forever. I have high hopes of finding a place that I will make mine or settle into. Realistically, though, I have barely been living in my current apartment for four months and I am already considering other neighborhoods and various methods of paying for heat. I quell the growing restlessness by moving pictures around, by planning to create a new reading nook, by sitting in different corners of the room. Searching out apartments in neighborhoods closer to the lake, I feel guilty and excited at the same time.

Removing yourself from any place or thing feels like a betrayal at first, and then the wounds close and the guilt only flares up in rainy weather. After I threw a penny into the Fontana di Trevi, I knew I would eventually return to Rome. When I do it will not be returning home or to some ideal of a fixed state; it will be a revisiting of what once flourished and then crumbled. We are better off different than we were yesterday.


Sneaking into meetings late with trays of mini pastries and fruit, meetings to which I am not invited but come to bearing food, is most embarrassing. The projector casts a blue glow on my mess of curls and I feel suddenly as if I am seven feet tall and enormous, that my hips are in the way of everything. My hands begin to shake; the platters rattle, the mini pastries fall out of their semi-perfect arrangements. I have no need to be sorry because it is the person delivering the pastries who is at fault, but I feel all eyes on me, accusingly, anyways.

Before leaving Los Angeles I went to the FIDM end-of-the-year fashion show with a friend and agonized for a few minutes beforehand about what to wear.

“Remember,” my roommate said kindly, “this is not about you.”


I'm really glad my mother taught me nail polish remover will remove candle wax from various surfaces, because otherwise I’d be in trouble right about now.


At the escalator I am taken aback by a stranger's bold greeting. My fingers brush my own coiffure, wondering if the gentle twists at the nape of my neck or the abundance of bobby pins suggest mornings spent in stark Baptist sanctuaries, the smell of stale coffee, the air whispering with the sound of paper bulletins filled with song sheets, empty envelopes for the offering plate. I contemplate waving back; imagine jumping the last two feet that separate us to catch up. She might promise to call later in the evening, to discuss casserole options for an upcoming potluck. A thousand lives whizz by on the tracks.

I feel unbearably weary. Some of it is good weariness; the weight of love, of trust complicit with the most satisfying of friendships. Some of it is the weariness of crying myself to sleep because I could not write something I wanted to write well. The last cobwebs of thought before slumber remind me, You can write something, but sometimes, you are not supposed to.

You can live one way, but sometimes, you are not supposed to.


by amy stein

Before I woke up, I had moved into a studio apartment approximately the size of an airplane lavatory that smelled like a dingy roadside motel. The bed and the small expanse of counter were plastic; the floor was linoleum. I thought to myself, “Good, this will be easy to clean.” I brought with me a tiny all-black cat with a white face and boots. We spent three days there together before I realized I had not fed him nor provided a litter box. He looked at me disdainfully, made a move to bolt whenever I opened the door. We sat together in complete darkness as there were no lights save for his luminous green eyes. Nobody else came.


There is a yellow orchid on my back porch.

Every Wednesday I nestle three ice cubes into the soil and rotate the pot ever so slightly to the right so that the plant will grow evenly in the sunlight. When I get home from work and it is droopy and unhappy I turn the hot water on in my shower and set it just outside the curtain, on the edge of the sink, until my little bathroom is so full of steam that all I can see are the bright yellow flowers and the little hard green buds trying to open.

They bloom at night.

Why can I not trust that this other person does not hurt me on purpose? And even if they do, that they are full of good intentions towards me? And even if they’re not, that I cannot expect them to be? Forgiveness (and love) have a lot to do with trust in the other’s spirit, in their desire to do good by you even when it doesn’t always happen.

My father keeps telling me that you have not forgiven someone until you have done something good for them. And I am full of words and sweet intentions but there is little good left in my hands.


In an early morning dream, I asked a friend which of my items of clothing looked worst on me. She unabashedly criticized all the pants I have with lower waistlines. “They give you a muffin top.” She went on to tell me that the look was so offensive that Hugh Jackman had complained.

I was so embarrassed I had to wake myself up and try on all of my pants to make sure it wasn’t true.


Verizon has inexplicably locked me out of my voicemail, because apparently none of the dozens of number combinations I have attempted in the past few weeks work. I seem to remember using my birthday month and day as the password. Now I have ten unheard voice messages and absolutely no way to get ahold of them.

Perhaps the problem lies with me, in my inability to remember a combination of letters or numbers that will somehow crack the code to my life. However, I’d like to believe that there is not enough room for human error in this system. People keep telling me to write my passwords down somewhere, and I keep asking, “Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?”

It’s not a good enough secret if you have to write it down.


Over the next fortnight I attempt an experiment in which I withdraw twenty dollars at the beginning of each week, and spend only that amount on myself.

A foggy Saturday morning I spend praying on the brown line; nothing is quite so easy as having faith on an elevated train. My headphones run like beads through my fingers. I find myself wishing for the simplicity of a command. Not praying the rosary or anything coherent, but moaning to any divinity who will listen, I receive miraculous signs: Sedgwick is next, doors open on the right at Sedgwick. Standing passengers, please do not lean against the doors.

I notice a proclivity in my relationships towards people born in June. Summer birthdays end in fireworks at the beach. I break two glasses at work and throw the pieces over my shoulder into the trash can. When I notice superstition curling up around the radiators at night or in the tea leaves at the bottom of a cup, I rinse it out with the truths I am most uncertain about.

When you lose someone close to you, most people assume that you want to be left alone, when that is generally the last thing you want. I find that I am not sure how to ask for help, so I carry all my groceries alone.

by amy stein

I'm making note of the already-sweltering heat at 7:30 a.m., the way the perspiration gathers on my abdomen underneath my dress, the way the ice melts in my tea before I walk two blocks, how the cup sweats and drips onto dusty toes, the heaviness of the air which makes every whisper seem like a shout and every shout foggy, how my curls double into more curls with each half-mile, how Tom Skilling promises this will be the hottest day Chicago has seen in six years.

I am making careful note of these things so that I will remember them in February.


We swam to the surface. Immediately in front of us was a rocky shoreline decorated with people in evening wear. The sun was going down in the background. I wanted to dive down immediately to retrieve the bicycles (they had been pulled into the soft, mucky sand at the bottom) but you insisted that we reach the shore. A few men at a table, garbed in tuxedos, played cards and looked on as you dragged yourself out of the water. There was a strange moment of recognition that is particularly fuzzy. I think you started running away from them, and I dove under water so that it would seem as if I had never been there. They saw me, however, and began shooting a machine gun after me. I got hit twice in both legs, but the bullet holes were only the size of freckles. I kept swimming. My bicycle was floating past, and I grabbed it. I wondered how I would manage to get it out of the water without help. When I surfaced, I was next to the beach, but it resembled the ledge of a pool. I rested my cheek against it, exhausted, but you were there, and helped me pull the bicycle out of the water. Blood was running down my legs. The holes were near my ankles, perfectly aligned like bug bites. I woke up on my back with all the covers off. I spoke to you for a moment before I realized I was alone.

Today I saw a woman sacrifice her sunglasses for a place on the train. Closing doors knocked them out of her hand as she squeezed into the last available spot, and they landed with a clatter on the platform. We stared. “Oh shit,” she said. “Oh shit!” She made a move as if to jump out of the train. I saw her debate, behind the silver half-circles of her eye make-up, sweaty hands pushing back blonde strands of hair.

There was only a moment during which she might have stepped off the train to retrieve them, but as it was, the doors closed right as she reached the end of her debate. “Oh, well,” she laughed breathlessly. I imagined her walking in the Loop without sunglasses, ducking behind buildings, a slim wrist thrown up for shade.

And what of the glasses? Are they like the mittens abandoned in January that mysteriously melt with the snow? Will somebody kick them into the tracks, steal them, throw them away?


I could love anybody in an airport for their foreign tongue, for their smart trench coat.


Down the street from my office a man leaves his blinds open. His desk is consistently messy. I tally up the damage when I walk past, before I cross the railroad tracks: one untouched glass of water with speckles of dust floating in it, three pens with chewed lids. What most intrigues me is the giant box of raisins that sometimes rests on the edge of his desk but now, oddly, on the windowsill. Not many people eat raisins because they love them. Some, like myself, put them in their morning bowl of oatmeal because there is something about raisins and milk. Some hate them but eat them because intestinal traffic is slow. I wonder which kind he is. Why has he moved the box from his desk to the windowsill? Did he eat too many and make himself sick? Did their uselessness cause him to exile them in a fit of righteous constipation?


To describe the process of barring someone from our lives, we call it “cutting out” or “cutting off”. The violence of this, as well as the idea that we can disregard a person — exclude them, remove them like we might remove a limb — does not ring true. You could not cut off your finger and not miss it. Subtly, the phantom remains. Rather it is like diving into the deep waters of yourself, and pulling someone out. There is beauty and darkness and truth at the bottom of this river; there is also fear, and there might be a monster or two. You say, come back to this appealing light. Here, the water is not so heavy. Here you can tread, disregard the profundity pulling at your feet. Remain at the surface where you are safe, where I can curl away from you to the places you no longer wish to visit.


How is that I can walk ten miles most Saturdays at a fast pace, and come home feeling on top of the world, but as soon as I run half a mile I feel like dying?

Kara VanderBijl is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. You can find her website here. She twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.


In Which It's A Metaphor You Potato With Eyes

Pied Piper


Orange is the New Black
creator Jeniji Kohan 

Orange is the New Black's wildly popular first season saw Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) sentenced to 15 months in federal prison for a crime she'd committed ten years previous: carrying a suitcase full of drug money for her ex-girlfriend, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), a globetrotting drug smuggler. In Litchfield prison, Piper comes face-to-face with a colorful cast of characters whose personalities are as varied as their crimes. More importantly, she sees Alex again for the first time in a decade, and they revisit their romance, to the detriment of her "real life" relationship with Larry, her fiance. In the season finale, after a bad breakup with Larry, Piper's ongoing spat with a fellow inmate, Pennsatucky, turns violent and they exchange blows (and perhaps stabs) in the prison courtyard. Then, every bit as dreadful as its blue counterpart, an orange screen flashed, letting us know we'd have to wait another year for more.

Binge-watching is proof of television's addictive powers. Two weeks ago, I sat down to watch Orange's second season, and didn't really stand up again until I was finished. I've always been partial to this kind of media-consumption; I like being able to get to the resolution of something on my own time. With Kohan's show, binge-watching only heightens the enjoyment. You begin to think you can't escape your own home (just one more episode just one more), then the only tolerable space between you and the computer is the distance between your armchair and the fridge. It's a sad existence but damn it if Orange doesn't make it worth my time.

Season 2 opens with a disorienting trip to Chicago in the middle of the night: Piper's pulled from SHU, where she's been since the incident with Pennsatucky, and thrown onto a plane with a bunch of strangers. Nobody tells her what's going on, which makes Piper very upset, because Piper is used to people humoring her. She's tall and blonde! She lives in New York! She juices! 

As it turns out, Piper and Alex have been brought to the Windy City for the trial against Kubra Balik, Alex's former boss. Alex begs Piper to lie to the court, to tell them that she's never met Kubra, because if they tell different stories things won't go well for them. Piper balks at the dishonesty, but obeys in the end: then, in a horrible twist, finds out that Alex testified against Kubra and was given an early release.

Alex's betrayal was so satisfying that it took me a while to figure out that the smoky-voiced Vause is actually trying to protect Piper. Alex is now basically a sitting duck for Kubra's evil henchmen, stuck in an apartment in Queens getting more and more paranoid. 

Piper's perjury and potentially extended sentence are peanuts compared to being dead. Still, being dead can’t compete with her hurt feelings. It’s hard to put things into perspective when the reigning perspective has always been your own. I'm surprised she didn't yell, "I've never been a lesbian!" as Alex disappears around the bend and into freedom. 

Piper returns to a Litchfield that’s facing significant problems. Assistant warden Natalie Figueroa’s embezzling has been taking its toll: there’s human waste coming up through the shower drains, the generators in the basement have no fuel in them, and there’s a staff shortage.

Figueroa’s crimes aren’t the only ones that are beginning to show. After their dalliance last season, Daya’s pretty pregnant with Officer John Bennett’s baby, and the bigger she gets, the more she wants him to ‘fess up and face the consequences so that they can build their family on a foundation of truth. Lol. You can’t blame Bennett for being reluctant — sex between an inmate and CO is considered rape, even if it’s consensual — but it’s no wonder Daya, whose own family was a mess, wants stability for her kid.

There’s new blood on the cell block, too: a chatty political protester, Soso (Kimiko Glenn), whose wide-eyed wonder reminds us of Piper on her first day, and Yvonne “Vee” Parker (Lorraine Toussaint), who isn’t new blood as much as she is bad blood. She’s got some uneasy history with Red, leftover from a previous incarceration, but more importantly, she’s Taystee’s foster mother/former kingpin.

Orange has always relied on flashbacks to bust us out of Litchfield’s walls and give us insights into the lives of its main characters. We sympathize with each woman as her story unfolds, and little by little, her crimes disappear into the background. Their pasts not only explain, but also excuse their behavior.


Not so with Vee. In Taystee’s flashbacks, she’s a caring mother figure, who takes in a ragtag group of children, feeds them wholesome meals, and encourages them, but she’s also a cold, calculating businesswoman who gets the kids to deal for her and doesn’t hesitate to betray them when her own interests are at stake.

Toussaint plays both with elegance; her Vee is a lethal, quiet tigress. Still, despite her overall evil aura, it doesn't take long for Taystee and the other young black women to drink the Kool-Aid (or in this case, take a slice of Funfetti cake) and get pulled into her business, which involves taking power by force and intimidation, deepening the lines between the races, between those who help and those who won’t.

Power is a funny thing. There’s not much of it up for grabs in prison, but for the high price of a stick of gum or a book of stamps, you’d be surprised at how much you can acquire. The women take control of their controlled lives by bartering, bribing, and trading goods and information. On the one hand, Red and her girls smuggle in goods that help the inmates feel good about themselves: candy, pantyhose, make-up, and hair color. On the other, Vee and her posse sell cigarettes and smack, throwing Litchfield’s women into a state of barely-contained violence, the threat of which increases with every episode.

Still, the second season isn’t without the mix of cutting humor and gruff warmth that endeared Orange to us in the first place. There are a few great one-liners (“It’s a metaphor, you potato with eyes!” and “You decide to tell me that with your flaccid dick in my mouth?” are my particular favorites) and even some tearjerking moments, like when we find out Morello’s adored boyfriend is actually a man she was stalking, or at the very end, when Rosa happily escapes in one of Litchfield’s vans, fragrant cash tucked into her bra. If anything, we care more for these women, as their relationships and the glimpses into their “before” lives show us that life at Litchfield just might be the best thing that happened to many of them.

I was particularly fond of Gloria Mendoza this season, played by the unfaltering Selenis Levya. She's the one character whose crusty behavior became more and more acceptable to us as time went on; hers is the saddest flashback, filled with an abusive boyfriend and two little boys who watch her get handcuffed and taken away for trading food stamps for money. The Golden Girls, three elderly women with whom Red starts associating, take Orange into territory few shows wish to explore: old age, and what happens to people when society no longer deems them relevant. With each new insight, my compassion for the women grew.

Vee is the antagonist because she doesn’t get a past. Maybe if we’d seen snippets of her childhood — how she was abandoned by a junkie mom, or how she had to fight her way through high school because the other kids bullied her — we wouldn’t be so fully invested in hating her. We’d find somebody else to hate, like Piper, or Soso the activist and her motley crew of followers who are hunger striking for “better prison conditions.” Do you think it’s a coincidence that all of them are white?

Piper and Soso are the anti-Vee. They’re the comic relief, because they take themselves and their problems so seriously. When Piper’s grandmother falls ill, she requests a furlough and, uncharacteristically, Healy grants her one. Everyone hates her, of course, which Piper can’t wrap her head around — doesn’t she have as much a right to suffer as anybody else? Isn’t her grandmother also a person? She doesn’t realize that being able to bust out of prison for three days, to determine her own narrative instead of society determining it for her, is a slap in the face to the women around her who only get a few flashbacks — not a future.

That makes her pain incredibly funny. Not to mention maddening, which is why it’s hard to blame Crazy-Eyes Suzanne for throwing a piece of chocolate cake at the back of her head, or Alex’s ex-girlfriend for leaving a bag of flaming poop on her doorstep. Do you know anyone whose first reaction to getting punched by the person they were cuckolding is to say, “Ouch, my face”? Who cares about your face, Piper? You just ruined some girl’s life.

People like to protect Piper. It's sort of like a media bias: unless a young white woman disappears, the news doesn't care. Without her to arrest our attention and take us into Litchfield with her, we would have never gone willingly. Do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars. This season, we would not have understood how privilege works in an environment where there are no privileges, supposedly, and who has power when everyone is supposedly powerless.

Power is a funny thing. When you don’t have it, you think the world would be better if you did, and you do everything — including things those in power did to oppress you — to get it. What most of us fail to understand is that the balance of power is more important than finding the right people to put in power: any human left alone with their own narrow perspective and a lot of influence will end up oppressing someone. It’s just the way the world works. If people were better at balancing power, things like sexism, racism, slavery, and a lot of wars probably wouldn’t have happened.

To her credit, Soso understands this (she’s a political protester, after all) and she’s not a slacktivist (she’s in prison, not angrily tweeting about the word “bossy”). What makes her comical is the belief that by changing the system, you can eradicate problems. Captain Joe Caputo shares this belief. He thinks that he can wrangle Litchfield into some sort of order if he can just get Figueroa sacked.

This works out great for him.

Orange is the New Black continues to be one of the best things on the world wide webscreen, shocking enough to ward off your grandmother and possibly your mother (it might be the only thing on the internet that really belongs to you) and heartwarming enough to make you feel like you’re improving your life or the world by watching it. Even though things resolve a little bit too neatly in the end, at least to me, it’s a wild ride from start to finish. We’re left wondering if Piper’s scheme to get Alex back in jail will actually work. Basically, we end up right back where we started — worrying about Piper.

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about learning how to drive. She tumbls here and twitters here.

"Even My Dad Does Sometimes" - Ed Sheeran (mp3)

"Thinking Out Loud" - Ed Sheeran (mp3)


In Which This Was Before We Knew We Should Hate Kerouac

Three Times a Permit


I have two party tricks: the first is that after two glasses of wine I fall asleep in the middle of the floor or on the couch during a conversation. The second is that I admit to not having a driver’s license at the ripe old age of twenty-six.

While the first trick paints me as an endearing lightweight, the second makes me look pathetic, something I did not realize until I became the butt of others’ jokes instead of the punchline in my own. It was winter, the worst in anyone’s memory. I couldn’t imagine executing the tire-squealing left turns that are necessary in Chicago on streets slick with black ice and pockmarked with potholes. By March 5th, winter hadn’t subsided, but I had been twenty-six for a full twenty-four hours. I had already missed a full decade of road trips, so I took two buses and tramped a mile through the snow to the Illinois Department of Motor Vehicles, certain that this meant I wouldn’t live to see twenty-seven.

At the counter in front of me, a Middle Eastern gentleman and his wife smiled at a blonde who looked like she had turned away more hopefuls than the immigration officers at Ellis Island. She thumbed through their three pieces of mail and yawned, “Does your wife speak English?” The gentleman shook his head. I wondered how his wife — a small, veiled woman — planned to take the test since translators, like cell phones, were certainly prohibited, but the blonde handed them a number and they took a seat in the waiting area, where at least half of Chicago’s population sat scratching their chins or swiping screens or screaming at toddlers. A lone teenager, white male, flipped through the driver’s handbook with a nonchalant look. He was wearing board shorts and didn’t seem appropriately nervous at the prospect that he was about to be handed the keys to a compact bomb with great gas mileage.

It has never made sense to me why you’re allowed to learn how to drive before you’re allowed to go to war or to start drinking. There you are, sixteen years old, and you are legally permitted to strap yourself to an explosive from which only your underdeveloped motor skills and questionable common sense can protect you. One wrong turn and it could be the end of you. It occurred to me, as Board Shorts pulled his iPhone out of his pocket and let the driver’s handbook drop to the floor, that youth is the only reason anybody would ever start driving in the first place. You believe yourself to be physically invincible, something that a few fender-benders and later, tequila, take away from you all too quickly. A belief that I’d never had in the first place. I slumped further into my seat and tried to determine which of the desk attendants was least likely to laugh in my face.

“Hi Kara, how can I help you today?” they’d say. “Or should I call you ‘Grandma’?”

I ended up with a young man who, with his long black ponytail and wispy mustache, looked like he was barely legal to drive himself. He smiled — dawn breaking over braced teeth.

“So, Miss VanderBijl,” he said slowly, looking at my forms, “this will be your third time taking the written test?”

“Yes,” I mumbled, ducking my head.

“And you’re sure you don’t have a driver’s license?” He stamped a form. He smelled like the sidewalk just outside a suburban Abercrombie & Fitch.

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that on my first try, I didn’t even make it to the learner’s permit. It was Valentine’s Day, freshman year of college, the sort of warm February day that makes you glad to live in Southern California. Cole, the boy I liked, had offered to take me to the DMV. He was from Texas and drove an old Buick, and we had met in the haphazard way you do when you go to a small liberal-arts school and you’re both English majors: over a chance three-hour discussion about books. One night, early on in our friendship, I was walking back to the dorm from the science building at dusk when he drove up. Pavarotti spilled out of his window as he rolled it down. The streetlights glinted off his glasses.

“I like your trench coat,” he said. “Want a ride?”

He’d been drinking Dr. Pepper (there was a half-empty can in the cupholder) and I had to move a dog-eared copy of Kerouac’s On the Road before I could slide into the passenger seat. He grinned when I held onto it for a moment before throwing it in the backseat.

“I haven’t finished it yet,” he said, “but I already know it’s going to be one of my favorites. There’s this part that reminds me of you.”

This was long before I knew I was supposed to hate Kerouac. I was hooked. Over the next week, I waited impatiently for him to finish the book, wondering if he’d reread the lines about me until the page was soft and creased. He found me shelving books during one of my shifts in the campus library, and held Kerouac in front of him at 10 and 2 with a grin.

“I can’t wait,” I whispered.

“No return date on this one,” he said. “Tell me what you think.”

I thought it was pretty lucky of Kerouac that endless roads unspooled before him as he chased meaning or women or whatever it was that he wanted across the amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesties. I also thought it was pretty lucky of me to have found a cute Texan who found me enchanting, even though my idea of fun was sitting on his kitchen floor reading French poetry out loud and drinking tea. Those were my college party tricks.

Cole could have had his pick of any girl, that was certain; he was charming, and his eyes had a way of crinkling behind his glasses while he smiled that made you feel like you’d just performed serious magic. I considered myself magical only to the extent that I no longer wore braces, and had lived in France. These were good hooks, but I had no idea what I was going to do with him once I reeled him in. Surely this was something we could figure out as the carpool lane unspooled before us on the 405.

I snuck a few glances at him as we waited in the tiny Santa Clarita Department of Motor Vehicles. He’d brought a book, and was quietly reading while I thought about what I weighed (it had been several months since I’d even seen a scale) and the color of my eyes. I wondered what he thought of me, and for the first time I allowed myself to believe that he liked me back. I was about to start driving, after all, and the only thing more perilous than seatbelting yourself to a bomb is tying yourself to another person. It was a day for embracing danger.

“Have you ever committed a felony in California or any other state?” asked the woman behind the desk. Her glasses hung from a gold chain around her neck. “Step up to the line for your eye exam, please, and read the third line.”

The lights flickered momentarily, and then with an electronic sigh, all the computers in the DMV went blank.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Our computer system is down,” she said. “It’s too bad. You can wait, but it might be better to come back and finish the process another time.”

“What if this is some sort of sign?” I asked Cole as we left the building. Relief washed over me in waves. “Maybe I’m not supposed to drive.”

He laughed and slid his arm through mine. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”

That night, he took me on a walk down a deserted road and asked me to be his girlfriend. Maybe I wasn’t ready to drive, but this, whatever this was, I could figure out. Cole took me back to the DMV two weeks later and, when I passed with flying colors, we left the city limits for brushy back hills, where the roads curved around old cattle ranches and classic Western movie sets. On the shoulder, we switched places. The car felt soft under me  all rubber and leather, wide. It was a car for the elderly. I took my foot off the brake. We rolled forward, slowly, then gaining momentum. Cole touched my arm.

“Penny for your thoughts,” he said.

“I’m not thinking about anything important,” I said, hands gripping onto the steering wheel like a lifeline.

It felt unnatural to be driving, after sitting in the backseat for so long. I hadn’t chosen a passive life (it had been given to me) and I was just starting to understand the ways in which I was allowed to take control. But this frightened me, watching the speedometer creep up past 20, then past 30, to hover at a limit that someone had once decided was safe for such a road. Sitting here with Cole felt strange, wanting to be with him felt strange, when I knew better than anyone else that it is never long before life takes you down different roads. I had wanted to be ready for this, and would readily pretend to be ready, if it meant finding some sort of meaning, even a meaning to work off of, like a wrong turn that brings you back within the confines of a map.

“What are you doing?” Cole cried.

I’d turned sharply into the brush on the side of the road, and braked. The front of the Buick crushed desert-dry shrubs and I said, “I think you need to drive now.”

As it turns out, I’d driven over a big rusty nail, and his car went to the shop. After they replaced his tire, they told him that gasoline had been leaking into his engine, effectively transforming his car into a bomb. One wrong turn could have caused it to explode.

After that, we didn’t do much driving. We moved at different rhythms when we weren’t on the road. Even after he’d kindly and firmly broken up with me, I found it hard to move forward at the required speed. By the time I’d gotten over him, Cole had already moved back to Texas and my learner’s permit had expired. I found myself sitting in the backseat of my friend Paula’s little car, singing along to moody playlists at the top of my lungs.

Paula drove with her left foot propped up by the window, a silver ring on each bare toe. She liked to drive, so it never took much convincing for her to take Hailey and I on late-night jaunts to Denny’s (the only thing that stayed open past 9 p.m.) and into the hills behind Santa Clarita. I stretched out in the back, head against one door and feet against the other and looked back at where we had come from, at the distant glow of Los Angeles.

Objects in mirror are closer than they appear. We all have a fantasy self, an image we conjure when we’re feeling insufficient. Mine is a witty girl who brings down the house at any party and never gets a ride from anyone. She’s in charge of her own destination and isn’t willingly relegated to the backseat. Paula and Hailey were the sort of friends who gave me license to believe these things, just as I gave them license to believe in their own fantasies. Within the next couple of years Hailey would be dead, Paula would move back to Arizona and I’d be in Chicago. But during those long drives our futures, and our beliefs about ourselves, were suspended. Nothing mattered but the next line of a song or the neon sign of an approaching fast food restaurant. We had come to college to make something of ourselves, but we did the real work in that car. On the road, we made our peace with what was possible.

Within weeks of moving to Chicago, I applied for a driver’s license. My aunt and uncle let me drive their red PT Cruiser to the grocery store for ice cream after their kids had gone to bed. The hills of Los Angeles couldn’t compare to the six-cornered intersection at Fullerton/Elston/Damen, where I regularly drove over the curb trying to make sharp, timely right turns with a legion of cars honking behind me. Soon I found a full-time job and moved out of my aunt and uncle’s place. My first Chicago winter was beginning. Even though both of my new roommates had cars, I let my permit expire once again.

As far as cities go, Chicago is relatively friendly to both drivers and non-drivers. It became second nature to me to add ridiculous cushions of time to the front and back end of events, calculating how much time and how many trains it would take me to get somewhere. I’ve been commuting long distances my whole life, so nothing made more sense than the steady rhythm of the train rocking down the elevated tracks toward my job downtown. I made friends with fellow non-drivers, and we laughed at the people we knew whose lives revolved around their cars, and where they were going to park them, and how much traffic they’d get caught in at rush hour. I felt like a true Chicagoan blundering around outside in subzero temperatures, instead of complaining about the weather from the heated interior of a car. The city was good to me, giving me trains that came on time and buses that stopped for me and friends who rode their bikes with me to Montrose Beach in the summer. Each time, it felt like a friendly nudge in the shoulder telling me I’d made the right choice.

In Illinois you’re allowed to get seven answers wrong on the written driver’s test. I’ve always had trouble identifying signs  last time I didn’t even recognize the universal sign for railroad crossings  so I spent a lot of time thinking about each one, their color and shape. It’s easy to get comfortable with a thought, until it comes time to put it into practice. I have never been nervous about the written test, just what it means  that the road is open to me, now, and I have to take it. On March 5th, I got five answers wrong, four of them signs. My new party trick is that I can’t identify upcoming railroads.

I’ve been driving outside the city in my boyfriend Jens’s Mazda, making too-wide turns and nearly crashing into other cars in the Home Depot parking lot. I am always terribly nervous when Jens turns to me and asks, “Do you want to drive?”, but he has a wonderful way of making me want to be brave. We stop at a gas station. He goes inside to buy a cup of coffee and I slip behind the wheel.

I move the seat up and adjust my mirrors. I put on my glasses so that I can read the signs. I am good at braking  sometimes I think stopping is the only thing I know how to do well  but I am getting better at moving forward, too. Sometimes I’m sure that I am following closely on the wheels of that fantasy girl who’s been my chauffeur for so long. Maybe this time I’ll overtake her.

“There’s no reason for you to drive so closely behind that car.” I catch Jens smiling as I turn to look at him for a split second before gluing my eyes to the road ahead.

Next time, then.

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about FX's Fargo. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing for This Recording here.

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