It's not often that I drive at night these days.
In the winter, I'm often behind the wheel after dark, of course. We frequently return from late afternoon playdates or trips to the grocery store after the sun has set and the town is bathed in darkness. On some of the shortest days of the year, I might even have to turn on my headlights when we leave the house for an afternoon outing and on those days, it's pitch black when we come home. It's just dark out then, not really nighttime, though. And in summer, when the days stretch endlessly and my children are often asleep long before dusk even falls, it's pretty rare for me to ever even use my headlights. Even on the nights when we get a sitter and go out, we automatically fall into our traditional gender roles, which means that Paul almost always drives. Being a passenger at night is not at all the same as being behind the wheel.
Once a month or so, I try to get out for a girls' night out of some sort, and it is only on those evenings that I get the rare and now unfamiliar sensation of sliding behind the wheel at night. There's something both freeing and illicit feeling about driving after dark for me now, probably because I do it so seldom, and I can feel my pulse quicken a bit as I glide through the familiar streets that look so different under the shadow of nightfall. I feel silly getting excited about something so small, something so routine to most people, but it happens to me every time nonetheless. All around me, there are signs that the rest of the world does not necessarily end the day on a 3 year old's schedule, and I suddenly remember that I was a night owl before the early rising habits of my children forced my body out of its natural rhythm. As I drive, I feel unencumbered and free, like a little bit of the self that has been shoved aside to make room for Mommy Me has temporarily re-inhabited my body. I suddenly realize how incredibly insular and small my world of parenting young children is, and I start to remember who I was before I entered this stage of my life and to think about who I will be when it is over.
Downtown, I watch people carrying bottles into the town's mostly BYOB restaurants and standing outside ice cream parlors licking cones. Teenagers gather in clusters on the sidewalk in front of the movie theater as my friends and I used to gather and as Julia and Evan will no doubt gather someday, too. People are still coming off the commuter trains and I suddenly remember the world of late evening meetings and drinks after work in the city with coworkers. I'm always surprised by the number of people out and about on a weeknight, taking for granted the extra hours of evening I scarcely even consider part of my day any more.
On side streets, things are quiet and there's far less activity. Many houses are shut down already, as mine generally is by this hour. It's easy to tell where the master bedrooms are upstairs by the flicker of TV lights behind the curtains. There's a sense of community in this town even when the community itself has gone inside and shut their doors, and I'm often surprised by how content and secure and at home I feel driving alone on these streets. I love the little peeks into other people's domestic life that I get through unshuttered windows, the opportunities for unabashed voyeurism that solo nighttime driving afford. It's not uncommon for me to take a few extra turns on the way home, to see a little more and linger a little longer in the world at large before I pull into my own darkened driveway.
The company is always good when I meet friends for a night out, the food and drinks and conversation generally all well worth the trip individually. But it is the trip itself that I cherish the most. In those few precious minutes behind the wheel, I am alone and responsible only for myself, both an observer of and a participant in a world that I sometimes need to be reminded still exists.