As soon as we start driving I’m enveloped. In fact, I buckle myself into it with the seat belt often before the motor even starts. Click. It’s like a camera zooming in and in within the space of a second until it’s focused on a pinpoint, and then in another second it passes through that point and widens the shot until it’s as big as the universe again. Only now we’re in my universe—this strange little sphere of the passenger.
This time we’re in Ireland, my husband and I. The view from the window makes me sigh. I can feel the rolling hills against my back and heels; I can smell the green grass, the gray stone, the sheep’s damp wool, all from the plastic and upholstery that encase me. We drive for miles and miles, and I feel like I felt when I walked the length of the Bayeux Tapestry. I feel like a gel-cap coursing through the narrow, paved veins of the island. I’m afraid to blink in case we suddenly come into the heart and I won’t know how we got there.
Our first casual ruin, lying exposed in a field near the road, sheep grazing its perimeter, we both say, “Look!” and we stray slightly into the oncoming lane as we crane our necks behind us to see it disappear from view. For a moment we’re joined in the world of the passenger, but then Erik has to become the driver, make sure he’s on the left side of the road, squeeze over when the trucks come barreling through the other way, clear the car from the stone walls and hedges lining the roadside (as if the road were not narrow enough). It’s my job to pop the rearview mirror back out when we hit it against the mirrors of parked cars lining the town centers. But I don’t have to shift with my left hand and get in the correct lane in the roundabouts. I do, however, have to navigate. I pore over the two maps and the GPS and squint at the oncoming signs, which we have been told the children like to turn around to point the wrong way, in an effort to locate and direct us.
If it weren’t for this, I’d fall into a wakeful coma. When I sit still, I’m just a sponge soaking up the scenery, and at times I become saturated, and it leaks out of my head down the strands of my hair so if I shake my head, sheep and pastures and tiny tractors and ivy-covered walls go flying around the car and are sucked back out the open window. But every few miles I’m pitched into an intersection, many of which are not so straight-forward as you might think, and I have to figure out what to do. So I oscillate between tranquillity and frenzy.
After awhile I realize that I’m often thinking, “That would have been a good picture.” So I take out my instant camera and lay it on my lap. We come to an abrupt stop as a sheepdog is herding its flock across the road. Tiny lambs bobble up and down beside their mothers as they cross from one pasture to another. I can’t stop cooing at the lambs and waving “hi” at them. “Good dog,” I yell out the closed window to the diligent creature who sees the last sheep through. Then we drive on, and I realize I didn’t take a picture.
I’d been wanting to get a snapshot of one of the tiny little tractors the farmers drive everywhere for my grandparents, who are farmers, to see. We’re driving around the Ring of Kerry, and there’s a beautiful lake in front of us, with willowy trees bending their high branches as if trying to drink from the lake. And from a side road a little blue tractor enters the scene. I smile at the perfection of the picture on the windshield. I imagine myself as the little farmer in the little tractor, singing Whisky in the Jar above the hum of the motor so that my quaint accent comes through even in song, and I imagine what it must be like to look at that lake every day. We’ve zoomed past the tractor and the whole lake before I curse that I forgot to take a photo.
So now I decide to try to hold the camera in one hand with my finger poised on the button, and manage the two maps, the GPS and the itch on my shoulder with the other hand.
We’re listening to Gaelic radio, which sounds like English spoken backwards. Erik and I imitate the more funny words and make up some of our own. From my car seat it seems like I’m on an audio roller coaster. A sentence will build in hilarity with its gibberish sounds, and then crest at some word or phrase, and I rush down the other side of it laughing, straining against my seatbelt, the fascination that this makes perfect sense to someone blows back my hair, and I raise my arms to let myself be thrown around the car by this other language.
We pass a ruined square stone tower. It is so covered in ivy that I almost cry at its suffocation. It’s so beautiful, standing tall over the gentle lilt of the land. There’s a beauty in its surrender to the green of the island; it’s as if the flora has said to it like a small child, “OK, come to bed now,” and it pulls up the blanket and tucks it in ivy. I’m so moved by the scene that we’re miles down the road before I realize my finger is still poised on the camera, and I’m a little distraught that the country is passing by undocumented. I have such a poor memory, I rely on photos to help keep the images alive in my head.
So now I decide to hold the camera up to my eye, and I will view the world through its viewfinder. I know it won’t be long until a photo-op appears. We’re driving through a town, and I’m tempted to snap the shutter, but I’ve seen more colorful and more quaint towns here (whose photos I’ve neglected), so I hold out. [Note: This was when I was still using a film camera, and it cost real money to take a lousy photo.] Then we round a corner, and in front of us is a huge castle on an island in the bend of a river. It’s so tall and its walls so long, the river so wide, I can’t see all the boundaries through the camera, so I instinctively lower it to absorb the whole scene. Erik applies the brakes. We say “wow,” and I gawk at it through my passenger window as we drive by. We end up making a U turn and coming back to it, getting out and walking around it, and two days later we’ll come back and tour it when it’s open to visitors. I could walk back up the street to where we first came round the corner and gasped, to where I mindlessly lowered the camera, and take that picture. But it wouldn’t have been through the windshield, and therefore it would be a completely different picture. One time I went to a surprise party where the victim walked in and his eyes nearly popped out from the surprise. But somebody’s camera didn’t flash, and she said, “Come in again and act surprised.” The windshield is like the stamp of authenticity—this is how it happened. Erik gets out and composes the perfect picture, with the lighting and the right angle, balance of fore and background, he waits until there are no people in the shot. He is a photographer; I am a passenger. [Later, I will become a photographer, too, annoying Erik with the extreme length of my patience to compose the “right” shot.]
I finally give up trying to photographically document the experience of the passenger. It’s too engaging an experience. Yet, most of the time I’m not thinking a thing, just listening to the radio. Most often we listen to Today FM because we like the DJ. He plays mostly cheesy music but he’s marvelous to listen to. He says things that are actually amusing, and his show is very interactive, with listeners constantly emailing and texting him, and he constantly responding. A whole morning is spent pondering time travel, another discussing dreams; every Friday he researches answers to obscure questions. I just listen and watch out the window. My passenger seat absolves me of all responsibility in the world outside of the post of navigation control officer. My seatbelt straps me into a silent world. There is noise in the speakers, occasionally in the mouth of Erik, there are even thoughts in my head, recreations of the voices we talked with in the pubs. But it’s a silent world, just like the process of a stone in a meadow soaking up the sun, or a dry patch of earth soaking up water, is a silent process.
Most often when the driver stops the car, I don’t want to get out—even though there’s something cool out there that I can walk around in. I feel as if I’m under a spell. It’s always this way no matter where I am or what car or train or bus I’m in; the passenger seat wraps around me the way seaweed can wrap around your feet in the ocean. My triceps strain with the effort of pushing open the door; the latch is like lead. Sometimes I think I’m a vampire when I step out and flinch from the sun hitting my bare skin, or a witch when the rain drops sting.
When we pull into a parking lot, even if I can see it’s completely empty, I’ll often think, “I hope the lot’s full and we’ll have to keep driving around.” I think this when the car has stopped right in the middle of a film. The car wheels are like the reels of a movie; when they roll, the movie plays. The theater is pretty eclectic. There’s the more avant-guard of superimposing images of ruined abbeys and ornate cathedrals with the foam on a pint of Guinness, of people belching holy water, of butter churns and hand weavers sinking into the bog. But the ones that really entertain me are the daydream-like films. They’re usually short films, one or two scenes. Like the guy in Clifden who bought us pints showing up in my home town for some reason, and we recognize each other and we buy him a drink and have a merry old time. I imagine how I’m going to be so gracious to the visitors that swarm through my town, pull up a chair to them like people are doing to us in Ireland, how I’m going to make friends with people all over the world.
I co-star in a film where I’m pen pals with a guy we met in Dingle who said he wanted to start writing letters to people. He has a tender and broken heart because he cried when we told him we’d been married ten years. We told him not to get choked up about it, but he said he was crying for himself. Then he couldn’t stop telling us how lucky we were. He insisted I read James Joyce. We had a long discussion about moving pianos. He drew us a map on a napkin to show us where to hike in his secret spot. We watched his soberness ebb over the course of the day until at midnight, when we were the nicest people he’d ever met, he slurred hugs all over us. So now in the passenger seat, we write to each other, once a week, about all manner of things. We laugh and cry at each other’s words. We become intimate with each other the way you become intimate with the fictional characters of a novel. I come back to Ireland to visit him and we hike all over the Dingle Peninsula to a hundred secret spots, and I come to know an Ireland that I can never know from the car seat.
I know people who say they’ve wasted enormous amounts of time playing computer games or watching TV. Well, I’ve spent an awful lot of my life lost in daydreams. The thing about the passenger seat is that it’s just like a movie theater; I’m in my little bucket seat, the floor’s often sticky, and I’m usually snacking on something like popcorn. I paid my admission to the car rental company, and there’s nothing else I should be doing. So when the movie stops and I have to exit the theater, I feel all moody, like I’ve been told to stop playing and come do my homework.
But after I get out and walk around, when I come back it’s to a new passenger seat. While I watch the rural countryside pass as though I’m dreaming a perfect world, I’m perfecting a sentence that struck me as I stood outside St. Finnebar’s Cathedral and watched Erik approach the gilded colossus and shrink into a tiny, tiny man, a pagan effigy raised from the bog. It seems a worthwhile activity from inside the car to spend an afternoon mulling over a sentence. It’s like I’ve stowed everything else in the glove compartment. I see the land and I hear the radio, and there’s one sentence. Erik’s dodging shaggy sheep that line the roadsides, and I’m dodging commas.
We drive along the coast where the sea meets the sharp land at the bottom of its cliffs. I’ve been looking forward to seeing this, hearing its place in our itinerary like the splash of cymbals in a symphony. But there is nothing more ceremonious about it than beauty. We drive around the Cliffs of Moher and the Sky Road in the North, and around three peninsulas in the South. I promised our friend from Dingle that I’d write about the Beara Peninsula. But the beauty drains all the words out of me. The best I can do for him is to stare out the window and feel overwhelmed.
It seems to me the coastline is rather profound. We’re driving the Southwest coast where the water’s been heaving itself a wondrous distance, I-don’t-know-how-many miles across from North America, down from Greenland, to meet this sudden land. It’s all salt and fish, it’s all movement, mysterious depths, and then there’s an abrupt solidity blooming with humanity and written history. Right there, at that edge, is this amazing collision, modestly proclaimed by a gentle froth. I try to grasp the scope of this meeting with my imagination: My eyebrows morph into the chaos of the yellow gorse dotting the fields, my stomach turns to hard rock, my clothes the water against it, the air out of the defrost the wind off the ocean blowing on all the little hairs of my body like little people. But it’s just a silly exercise and reveals nothing.
Then we careen down Healy Pass as if we’re on a motorcycle; we have the whole road the whole length of the pass to ourselves and we laugh at the fun we’re having in the tight turns. For a few moments driver and passenger are one in their imagination, we’re one entity in our make-believe motorcycle. We “baaaah” at the sheep that nibble at the roadside and pay us no mind. By the time we get to the bottom we have descended into the ocean of fog we saw from above.
All is gray and heavy, mysterious and portentous. I imagine preparing for battle in this gloom. At one of the museum exhibits of a sword found in the area, Erik said, “I wonder how many people it killed.” And I’m consumed with this thought.
After we followed the napkin map and walked to the secret place in Dingle across the land with no path, I am amazed at how difficult it is to walk across the spongy, marshy ground. We felt in a Dublin museum the weight of chainmail; now I grip the handle on the car door as if it is the hilt of my sword, and I run through these fields, heavy with armor, my feet sinking into the ground to my ankles at each step, my sword still speckled with the blood of the last conflict. We’re running, running toward the enemy running at us, running as fast as the car is moving. “We should get one of those,” says Erik. I have no clue what he’s talking about; I’m about to kill someone again. The fog is so thick I can barely see past the stone wall lining the road. The enemy has been absorbed by it. At any moment he may fall out of the fog, in front of the car, so we have to swerve, or on top of it, crashing through the sun roof. My knuckles are white on the door handle. How many people have I killed with my sword? When we break through to sunlight, I’m exhausted and lay down my weapon.
The passenger seat becomes my home. When I was young, I used to pile all my toys on the couch and pretend my home was a ship, and I couldn’t get off the couch because I couldn’t swim. I have my seat pushed all the way back so I can fit my backpack with all my essentials down by my feet. Soda in the cupholder, chips on top of the parking brake. Sometimes I think I can’t get out because I won’t know how to walk. I wonder how long I could live in here, in my little seat. Maybe I could grow crops on the dashboard and I’d be like in a little biosphere. My seat reclines, so there’s my bed, and I could fill the little plastic depression beneath the parking brake with water so I could take sponge baths. Sometimes when Erik speaks it’s like I’m listening through the wall to the neighbor in the next apartment. I feel like I shouldn’t answer or he’ll know I’ve been eavesdropping. Erik often drives with the window cracked open, and it makes me feel like my home is old and drafty, that I must hire someone to redo the chinking.
We visit the famine ship, Dunbrody, and I realize that my passenger seat home is spacious and utterly luxurious. I feel guilty that I have thought myself sparing, and now I imagine my husband and child squeezed in with me and our belongings. As the car goes up and down small hills, I can feel the ship undulating in the water for days on end. I try not to think about what the conditions were truly like sailing to America, even though they have been described to me by the guide. But the humiliation of my degradation aboard the famine ship rises in my throat and I cry alone in the passenger seat. It becomes a confessional; there is a latticed window between me and the ship now miles down the road behind me, and I confess how I complain about my 21st century life, about how we don’t have as much money as I’d like, a new enough car, a big enough house. I confess this awful sin and hope that the starving, destitute, diseased, dehumanized passengers of the coffin ship will forgive me.
At one crowded pub, a bald and liver-spotted old man, small and wrinkled in his three-piece suit, dances around the room to the music the small band plays with women half and a third his age. He dances as though that’s the only thing in the world that can burst his heart with happiness. And yet it seems to me that his face is one that has born a weight, that has set itself against grimness. I imagine his life’s been hard because I read The Great Hunger and Angela’s Ashes, and I imagine all Irish lives are hard and unspeakable. As I watch him dance, I feel as though I haven’t left the car, that I’m still in the passenger seat watching the scenery, as though his wrinkles are ivy covering the stone tower around his heart, that he’s a picturesque ruin in the bleak rain, that I need to get my camera out and take a picture.
We do, alas, take a picture of an old guy in Tralee, who plays Irish songs on the piano with his small, almost feminine hands, just for the two of us, telling us about the songs, sometimes singing the “alternate,” cruder lyrics, as he puffs occasionally on the cigarette left smoldering on the music ledge of the piano. His fingers are stubborn with habit, and he can play some songs only by leading into them from another. But his back sways with allegiance, with old feelings of joy.
I say “we” take the picture, but it’s actually Erik pushing the button, like he takes the steering wheel, and it’s me sitting beside him, my face reflected in the mirror above the piano, apprehensive the old man will be put out by the flashing mechanism of documentation reducing him to a glossy sheet that will be covered in fingerprints of our friends and family, and yet I’m secretly smiling because I want the others to touch him, to see his slender hands, to know the window that I looked through to see a man’s delight. Erik asks him questions and they talk. I listen, likely more enraptured by the conversation than the participants, hoping I can remember what’s been said and the timbre of the Irishman’s voice. My barstool has a seatbelt and a windshield, too. Even in the Melody Lounge where the proprietor buys us pints and the piano player brings us words, they’ve handed them to me through my rolled down window like I’m at a drive-through.
I often sit quietly, and people ask what I’m doing, what I’m thinking. They seem suspicious of me and my silence. But I’m just watching. Who is that silent girl? At times I wonder, myself, who I am in my silence, for I am neither wife nor daughter nor friend nor foe. I’m just an anonymous rider in time’s wagon. I may not even have skin, only senses. I get hurt sometimes when people look through me or around me, and I think sorrowfully that they’re all drivers driving bumper cars into each other, shaking rubber hands and kissing rubber cheeks. And who am I on the other side of the car, acting like I have the luxury of meeting them all later, after I’ve photographed them and pondered them?
Erik mentions pulling into an empty parking lot and letting me try driving, to see how it feels to shift with my left hand. “Maybe,” I say. Then later I say, “I don’t know.” Then finally I admit that I’d rather not cross over to the other side of the car. Its passenger seat and I have molded to each other; I would feel scandalous sneaking over the border. The other side of the parking brake seems like a foreign world, and I don’t have the nerve to defect. Even though Ireland is a foreign country, I see it through the same lens I see so much of the world outside my home turf—the lens of the passenger. Were I to take the steering wheel, it’d be almost like pulling out my eyeballs and sticking in new ones.
The engine is indifferent to the two halves of its frame. It treats me and the driver the same, humming along in front of both of us. But when it shuts off, only I feel the discomfort, like that of standing up from a warm bath into the chilly air. I suppose it must be like emerging from a womb, having been a snug passenger in a belly, and suddenly you’re outside and you’ve got to interact with the world.
I do actually leave the passenger seat for extended periods of time; you shouldn’t think I’m without feet, unrendered. But I often have to travel a long way before I finally do that thing I’ve been wanting to do. Then I’ll jump up in a frenzy. Our last day in Ireland, I snap pictures left and right through the rain-streaked windshield. I sit on my heels in the seat, snatching scenes into my camera like a little kid grabbing candy off the sidewalk in a parade. In the pubs I say my most charming “hi” to everyone I can, drinking Guinness and Smithwicks until I’m taught at the girth, opening myself up for conversation.
But eventually my taciturn nature will return. I will tire and fall back into the lazy curves of my brain. When we drop ourselves off at the Shannon airport, I step out of the car and wince at the shock of it being the last time. I pat the back of my black, plastic friend at the point where it cradled my head. I feel wistful. But I’ll find another such friend. I walk across the black pavement into the small airport without looking back.