Jill Talbot’s column, The Last Year, traces in real time the moments before her daughter leaves for college. The column ran every Friday in November, January, and March. It will return again in June.
I’m pulling onto I-35 North. It’s morning, and my daughter, Indie, is in the passenger seat. The sky’s a soft blue, as if every cloud has somewhere else to be. When I put on my blinker and move into the right lane, Indie tells me that I-35 runs from Laredo, Texas, to Duluth, Minnesota, something she learned last year in school. I ask her how far that is, and she taps her phone. 1,568 miles. Today we’re only traveling forty.
Indie and I watch the news at night. We see the empty streets of New York City. We listen to the stories about San Francisco. Texas moves at a slower speed, and the only sign our world is changing is in the empty grocery store shelves. But we feel it coming, especially when Indie worries that all the ceremonies of her senior year will be canceled.
I had a plan, something we could do before we couldn’t do it anymore: get in the car and go far enough to leave everything behind, if only for a little while. Last night I asked Indie if she wanted to get up early and get on the road and cross the Oklahoma border. No stops, no gas stations, just there and back. Her face lit up. We set our alarms.
My daughter grew up on highways, I-70 and I-84 and I-90, chatting or slumbering in the passenger seat as we moved from state to state, nine in all. Every time we crossed a border, I’d honk the horn. This highway, I-35, crosses six states. Today we’re only crossing one.
I don’t like to admit this, but I don’t always know what Indie needs when she’s upset, when she folds into herself or drives the streets of town with no direction or when I hear a catch in her voice over the phone. In those times, I feel useless and sad and lost.
Last week I was running around the lake when I saw a young woman in a clearing off the path. She had a blue backpack, a dark coat, and lavender hair. Indie put pink highlights in her blonde hair a few weeks ago. I love them. She loves them.
If you grow up always going, it’s hard not to want to always be gone.
The sign says twenty-one miles to Gainesville, the last Texas town before the border. Along the way, Indie points to cows in a field, a dilapidated horse ranch, an empty mansion with window frames but no windows. I tell her she can turn on her alt-rock station, but she says what’s playing is fine. The Doobie Brothers, “Minute by Minute.” We sing along.
On my second pass around the lake, I watched the lavender woman move in circles while a wand hovered in midair around her. She guided it with her hands. Magic, I thought, she’s practicing magic.
We’re approaching the city limits of Gainesville. I turn down “Sister Golden Hair” to ask Indie where she would go if she could go anywhere. Boston, she says, because she had a layover there when she traveled to her university’s visitation day last November, and from her plane window, Boston looked beautiful.
A few days ago, the president of the university she will attend in the fall sent an email with these words: “The campus, at the moment, is absolutely still. The shadows remain long at dusk and dawn, east and west.”
Up ahead, we see a large bright sign between the north and south routes of I-35. Oklahoma. I speed up a little. I honk the horn. Indie raises her arms and lets out a long whoop.
In two days, our county will declare a shelter-in-place order. Four days after that, we will be under a stay-at-home order.
But for now we pass grassy fields and wooden fences, an abandoned single-story motel with diamond-shaped windows, and one gas station after another. My daughter and I talk the way we always do on the road, a conversation that hovers between what we dream and what we remember.
On the way back, I think of the woman in the clearing, her magic wand floating. How I wish she could say the word that would turn back time.
Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir and Loaded: Women and Addiction. Her writing has been recognized by the Best American Essays and appeared in journals such as AGNI, Brevity, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, Longreads, The Normal School, The Rumpus, and Slice Magazine.