We were somewhere near the Tennessee-Virginia border in early April. Night was falling, and I was at the wheel of our minivan. We’d been driving for most of the day, having left Arkansas a little before noon.
My son Julian was in the passenger seat, queuing up music on his phone to play this new Canadian artist he’d recently discovered. I was trying not to lose sight of the other car in our caravan, the black Chevrolet with my other son and his girlfriend. The interstate was hilly here and with their taillights not working properly, it was easy to lose track of them.
Julian had driven until we switched drivers somewhere near Knoxville. We’d run through a variety of conversation topics, and the scenery rushing by outside had kept our attention. But with dusk and a change of drivers came a change in mood, as we continued to roll into the night.
The coronavirus pandemic had only recently become a reality, and it had been three weeks since I’d begun working from home every day.
As the music played, I asked him how community college was going, now that they’d moved classes online.
“I’m not going to class anymore,” he said. “And I don’t think I’m going to enroll in the fall.”
“Oh?” I said.
“Being online isn’t working for me,” he said. “And I think this coronavirus thing is only going to get worse.”
We listened to the music for a minute.
“You’ve been staying in your room a lot,” I said. “Some days I hardly see you.”
“I need my space,” he said.
It was hard to be optimistic about the coming months. Anything I could think to say would sound hollow. I nodded in agreement, but realized he couldn’t see that in the fading light.
“What’s your plan, then?” I said, throwing the topic back to him.
“I don’t have one,” he said. “What’s the use anyway? It feels like the whole world is a shit show right now. Everything I expected for this year isn’t going to happen.”
I glanced over at him. His dimly-lit face gazed out at the highway ahead while he got quiet again as the music played. He leaned forward to turn up the volume.
That night, I had no way of seeing just how bad it would get, both in the world and in Julian’s life. The weeks and months to come would be filled with awful news, the shutting down of normal life, the cancelling of so much, and Julian being fired from his job, retreating further from his mother and me, leaving the house to go smoking, getting drunk alone in his room late at night.
But we had a long way to go still until we could get home to relative comfort and some sleep.