I’ve toyed for years with the idea of getting a Japanese driver’s license and maybe a junky car. For some reason, I’ve never gotten around to it. Part of it is that I can get everywhere on foot, by cab, or by train without really feeling inconvenienced; and part of it is that I think Atsushi likes doing the driving because it means I’m letting him do something for me. So we have a claim on a parking space in our building (probably worth more per square meter than our apartment) that’s empty while he has the Toyota in Kyushu.
The result is that my need to be at the controls of a motor vehicle gets saved up for eleven months of the year and only has an outlet while I’m home. Luckily for me, eastern PA has a lot of variety in the driving, so I get a good workout here. Within fifteen minutes of my parents’ house–have I mentioned that they not only have giant creche out front but also one of those fan-inflated light-up snowmen just outside my bedroom window?–you can go from back roads to a tractor-trailer-heavy interstate to downtown. But the most fun to be had is around Philadelphia.
For those who haven’t had the pleasure, four of the interstates through metro Philadelphia are 76 (the Schuylkill Expressway), 276 (the Pennsylvania Turnpike), 476 (the Northeast Extension of the Turnpike, which runs up by my hometown), and 676 (the Vine Street Expressway in Philly and then through to New Jersey). I assume that the number assignments were patriotic in origin, but figuring out which is which must drive non-locals insane.
And that, of course, is before they actually start driving on them. Today, I hit the Schuylkill Expressway at the perfect time to experience all its electrifying glory: it was crowded enough that you were hemmed in on all sides but empty enough that it was possible for everyone to do 70. The sun was low enough to get in your eyes at inopportune moments. Also, the Schuylkill is one of those roads with on and off ramps on both left and right, so quite a few people find it necessary to cross three lanes of traffic at some point along the way from A to B. You just have to settle in and treat it like a real-life video game.
I smiled a little as I shot past the University City exit. When I was in college and coming back from a few days home in Emmaus, my father and I would slow to get off there, and at that point my muscles would unclench and I’d think, I’m back–thank God! This was when I was still getting up at 7:30 to go to church every Saturday, so I meant that last part literally. It was also when Philadelphia seemed blissfully far away from the Lehigh Valley, though compared to Tokyo, of course, it’s right there. I think I might still have been entertaining the idea of becoming a writer then, before I realized that I’m perfectly content to play out my imagination inside my own little mental world and am much better, in the external sense, at explicating other people’s original writings than contriving my own.
Things have changed for my college friends, too, which is why today I was headed not for Center City but for Haddonfield, NJ, where two of them–married, with two little girls–moved from Rittenhouse Square when their family started growing. We ate Old El Paso tacos and seedless grapes and ice cream. The girls are clearly going to be brainy like their parents, and in years past, I’ve brought them age-appropriate books and read them aloud. You know, Make Way for Ducklings and stuff. But some four- or five-year-olds suddenly pull way ahead of their age group in terms of reading level, so I figured I’d overshoot widely this time around and give them one Hardy Boys and one Nancy Drew mystery. That way, if they get bored with children’s books in a few years’ time, Mom and Dad have something longer and a little more complicated to read to them.
It would have been nice to have time to see more people, but I’m feeling ready to go back to New York tomorrow and then Tokyo on Wednesday. Long ago in college, before I came out, I was afraid that a decade down the line all my friends would have settled into happiness and I’d still be terminally pissy and resentful without having figured out what I was resenting. That’s over, fortunately. I can enjoy spending time with my parents and visit my hometown without its feeling like a noose tightening around me. I can visit my friends and feel the familiar feeling of being back in the group kick in. But I’ll be pleasurably relieved to turn the key in the lock when I get home to Tokyo and start planning what to make for breakfast when Atsushi’s flight comes in the next morning.