This story is by AnnaLise Sandrich and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“I wonder if I’m actually scared of moving too fast, or if I’ve just told people that— told myself that— enough that I believe it,” I say to Sean, my biology partner. Calling us friends is a bit of a stretch, but I could confidently say that we’re friendly acquaintances. I have lots of those, people I talk with about grades, people I know from extracurriculars, people I count on for notes if I’m absent, but not a lot of actual friends.
Sean looks at me like I’m insane. He’d been talking about the college decision letters coming out in a mere four days. Out of nowhere, I had just blurted something completely random.
“You’re afraid of speed?”
“Terribly,” I explain. “I have to hype myself up just to get on the freeway.” The only thing that really scared me more than moving too fast was probably those college decision letters. In general, fast meant out of control, so I tend to go slow whenever I can. But I haven’t done anything really fast in over a year. I can’t remember what that kind of fear feels like. Am I even afraid of moving too fast, or have I just convinced myself that?
Suddenly, with no warning, I desperately want to learn how to drive a race car.
Normally I’d dismiss such a thought the same way I’d dismiss the random urge to jump out of a car as it moved, but this thought is persistent. Every day for the past four years has felt the same, and I get the unshakable urge to do something insane, something so non-monotonous it seems impossible.
The second I get home, I break the cycle and blow off Friday night’s homework to sign up for a racing class.
The first day is all sitting in a classroom, watching a presentation, taking notes— the kind of stuff I’m used to. In a way, it’s a relief, as a part of me is desperate to put off actually getting in the car for as long as possible. At the same time, it’s way more stressful. I’m agonizingly conscious that each minute that passes is a minute closer to facing my second-greatest fear.
No sleep comes Saturday night. By Sunday, I’m so exhausted that I resort to a few more espresso shots than usual. Fatal mistake. My heart races faster than a rollercoaster, which is almost as terrifying as the reality of driving a race car.
Stepping into the Formula 1 car feels like stepping into a casket and pulling the lid shut— if the casket looked like a clunky oversized neon blue go-kart.
“Alright, everyone!” an instructor announces, voice booming over a megaphone. “Let’s start out with a warm-up lap!” A loud horn blares, and everyone zooms away. Everyone but me.
I close my eyes and inhale slowly. This is fine. I’m safe. Everything’s fine. With a shaky exhale, I open my eyes and press down on the gas, accelerating to about thirty miles an hour. Faster, I think. I press down harder, speeding up to about sixty, seventy miles an hour. I think I might have a heart attack right then and there, lose control of the car, and die, but I keep going anyway. My fingers grip the steering wheel for dear life, knuckles white and clenching with the full force of all of my fear.
Faster. I’m still ten times slower than the other racing students. I force myself to creep forward a little quicker, rigidly guiding the wheel around the curve, catching up to my classmates second by second.
Faster. One lap down. We’re supposed to be practicing braking exercises, but coming to a sudden stop seems even scarier than moving forward, so I keep my foot on the gas, all the while feeling like I’m going to throw up.
Faster. I think of the admission and rejection letters just sitting in post office trucks, lazily ambling along, unaware of the life-changing impact they would impose upon their recipients. I think of the emails that hadn’t been sent yet, just mere drafts lying maliciously in wait on admission office computers.
Faster. Another lap passes, this one much easier than the last. Adrenaline starts to take over. It’s not that I’m not afraid, just numb to the terror.
Faster. Those letters, those emails, they were everything. I know my chances are slim. I’d worked hard, but schools want to see real exceptionalism. True uniqueness. I’d be kidding myself if I thought that was me. No, from the time I’d been in elementary school to now, all I’d done was what I thought I was supposed to do. There’s nothing extraordinary about me. I probably have the same statistics as dozens of other applicants.
Faster. I hear the distant blare of a horn, an instructor shouting at me to stop, but it all feels far away.
Faster. Had I squandered my high school experience? I have no real friends. I never do anything interesting. School had been the main focus of my life for so long. What if I got rejected and all that waste was for nothing?
I never did anything new.
I always let my fears hold me back.
Each day is always the same.
Faster, faster, faster, faster—
—I feel it all in a flash: a perfect moment of adrenaline rush, fear either gone or forgotten altogether. My car soared weightlessly around the track, like the paved ground wasn’t asphalt at all, but clouds. Like I wasn’t steering a car, but a plane. For one glorious, perfect, surreal moment, I leave the world behind. I am limitless.
I come back to earth and realize how close I am to the corners of the track far too late to brake in time. My steering wheel swerves to the side, and I close my eyes as reality crashes into me.
In my state of grogginess, memory of the crash and my stress over college decisions both melt into my headache. I know my head hurts, I know there’s something I’m supposed to be worrying about, but I don’t distinguish the two. Everything just blends into a collective feeling of exhaustion.
Slowly, everything comes back to me as I register where I am. Race cars. Hospital lights overhead. College. Headache.
My parents sit in the room with me, my mother asleep, my father looking just as tired as I felt. Gently, he nudges her awake. They wear matching expressions of relief and horror as they fill me in: I’m fine, but very well couldn’t have been. I have a bad concussion and a broken arm, but nothing worse. I’m lucky but stupid.
“What made you want to drive a race car?” my mother questions.
I shrug and instantly regret it. My parents wince right after I do, and I feel guilty.
“I… thought I’d enjoy it?” Not exactly true, but not wrong either. I think I wanted for just one day to feel like I wasn’t myself. To feel like someone who made the most of each day, someone of substance.
“Well, did you?”
I burst into laughter, not even caring that it hurt. “No!” And I keep laughing because the whole thing is absolutely ridiculous. For the first time in years, I’d finally taken the initiative to do something just for fun, not because it was something I thought I should do. And what was the first thing I tried?
My second greatest fear.
A wave of exhaustion saps the remaining laughs from my body. I attempt to explain myself better. “I… I tried to ask myself what I wanted to do. What I really wanted. And I… I didn’t know.”
My parents look at me like I have brain damage, which, at this point, was possible. But any trace of laughter on my face was gone. How could I have gone through all four years of high school without ever knowing what I wanted?
“I still don’t know,” I amend, my words hollow.
My mom shoots me an anxious but reassuring smile. “When you don’t know all the right answers right away, that’s when you know you’ve got the right question.”
If only I knew how to soar with my head in the clouds while maintaining a tether to reality at the same time.