I’m always falling in love from the passenger seat. From the inside of a Volvo or Subaru, an air freshener dangling overhead like a sprig of wilted, taunting mistletoe. My lovers’ profiles from the periphery stay in my memory longer than their faces.
People like me are called “passenger princesses” (yes, like “pillow princesses,” though we often aren’t the same crowd). A passenger princess is a partner who never takes the wheel, but is constantly driven. Some passenger princesses had a steady kingdom in childhood that crumbled from substances or abuse, some of us had a kingdom that was constantly under attack, others never had a kingdom to begin with. No matter how we ended up this way, our partners are our current Kingdoms and here we are with our bare feet on the dash.
In a lover’s car, I take control by refusing it. (With that, I have it all the more.) I sip iced coffees from the drive through and request bathroom breaks every other hour. I perch cross-legged, while my partner, my Kingdom, hovers her steady foot over the gas. I pull my knees into my chest and curate the playlists to match my ever-shifting mood. I may be in charge of giving directions, but in my distractedness I’ll most likely forget to alert my Kingdom of a turn. On late night drives, with her hand stroking my upper thigh, I fall asleep. My Kingdom blinks her eyes rapidly to keep the dark highway lines from blurring, while I’m somewhere off in dreamland. I give her permission to choose when we start and when we stop. I know she’ll never leave us stranded.
I wasn’t always a passenger princess. When I was in middle school, I fantasized about having a beat up old pickup truck like Bella from Twilight and taking solo beach drives along the coastline. I’d envision myself blasting showtunes and belting until my vocal chords went raw. I took driver’s ed the summer I turned 16. My dad and I practiced driving in the open lot behind the airport. I loved the way the movements felt coming out from under me. In his reactive nature, my father would exclaim profanities if I was too slow to brake, or wasn’t holding my hands around the wheel at the 10 and two positions. Mom was jumpy too. I’d drive myself to school with her in the seat beside me while she clutched the roof handle like a child clinging to a security blanket.
I remember being told that driving is about trusting yourself. Our driver’s ed instructor preached that those of us who did not trust ourselves were a danger behind the wheel.
“You’re in control of a weapon after all,” he’d say. I’d have dreams where I was behind the wheel and my feet would turn into jelly or my vision would become kaleidoscopic. I’d ram into trucks or rear end whatever hazy vehicle passed in front of me. Most of my waking adolescent life already felt like a daze, and after my father passed away, any trust swirling around in my gut abandoned me completely. I failed two drivers tests; one time for not looking over my shoulder, and the other for driving on the wrong side of the road. (I paused and panicked — the highway was my personal death-trap hellscape.) After that, I preferred to stay safe and sound in the passenger seat. I did not want any weapon in my hands.
Phoebe Bridgers was on. She always was when my hands were on the aux. “Part of me wants you, but most of me needs you,” her voice sang as my partner drove us from New York to New Hampshire. I took out my notebook and she told me it was the sexiest thing she’d ever seen me do. I tucked my knees into my chest and pierced my pen into the paper. My right hand jotted down “WANTS vs NEEDS” while my left hand curled around her wrist. I needed to pee again so we stopped at a gas station and ordered sandwiches. The car filled with the scent of red onions.
We were both from the New Hampshire coastline but lived in New York. She’d been in the city for seven years and I for one. She was thirty and I was twenty-four. She was always driving the two of us, paying for meals, lending clothes, and introducing me to artists like Patti Smith. She showed me the tucked away heartbeat of the city I could never have found on my own. In return I gave only sex, some books, and perpetual indecisiveness. I needed her more than I wanted her, but couldn’t bear to let her go.
People often make fun of me for never getting my license. I tell them it’s sort of chic not to have one, especially in the city. If they berate me any further I blurt something out about trauma or daddy issues. Maybe it was my father’s death, maybe it was anxiety, or maybe it was just plain old laziness. They ask me how I’ve made it this far, especially coming from a place like New Hampshire with so many roads. I tell them, I can drive, I just choose not to. I tell them I owe everything to my partners. The men and women who’ve taken me places. The people who’ve held me in my grief and nursed me out of dissociation. Who’ve met my needs before I can even register them as my own. I never meant to be a damsel in distress, just as I never meant to cause any. Unknowingly, I relied on so many partners as I would a parent. Kiss me. Praise me. Drive me. Love me.
When I left her apartment, “Hey Jude” was playing and I took it as a sign from the universe. New York was hot, humid and hugging me like an uncle I wanted to swat away. I had pit stains and no pity for myself when I promised this would be the last time. (It wouldn’t be.) A man whistled while he swept the sidewalk outside a Cuban restaurant on Thompson Street. That morning, I had researched Codependency Anonymous groups while sitting on her toilet. I’d attend my first of many meetings that night, after finding a gold Lux lamp discarded on someone’s stoop. I watched the tourists in their Filas and walked past the bar where everyone truly knew her name. I made my way down the streets she and I knew well. The streets she’d shown me. The streets that were hers, not mine.
Like most Passenger Princesses, I get lonely in my tall tower. Sometimes I have such a hard time sleeping on my own, I have to retrain my body like an old dog. I adjusted my nervous systems to match my Kingdom’s for so long it will take me some time to find my own equilibrium.
And so I return to my Kingdom (It wasn’t the last time). As a passenger princess, it’s my job to study and stress over what surrounds me and my Kingdom. With her eyes on the road and my eyes steady on her, I’ll tell her how sexy her parallel parking jobs are. I’ll kiss her knuckles and play her favorite song. I’ll observe her. See things she wouldn’t see about herself, and try my very best to show her. I’ll write about her. I’ll hold the wheel steady while she removes her hoodie. I want her to know I loved her, and I’m sorry. As a passenger princess, I’ll never really leave her. For her own good, it’s best to kick me out while the car is still in motion.
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