Earlier this week, my cousin and I took a brief road trip from her home in County Meath, Ireland up to the Derry to visit her sister. As always, I compiled a CD for the occasion.

I do love a good mix tape. Real life should always have a soundtrack. Thanks to the aptly named Trains in France mix I made for a trip that A and I took when we were 17, both of us will forever associate “Such Great Heights” with the French Alps racing by our train window. When KS and GK took their road trip across America two summers ago, I painstakingly provided a 13-volume, geographic-specific mix with liner notes. And almost every time I get a care package from PenPal these days, there’s a new mix CD in the box. She has been tasked with keeping me culturally-relevant while I’m abroad, and I forever indebted to her for “Same Love.”

But the mix that is relevant to my story today–the mix that started it all–came my senior year of college. L and I were driving down to K’s parents house, and Katy Perry’s “Hot N Cold” was getting a lot of airplay on the radio at the time. So much so that, despite not knowing any of the words when we left Boston, we were absolutely nailing it when we arrived in Connecticut two hours later.

After that fun-filled experience with the radio, we always traveled with CDs in the car.

I made the first mix promptly thereafter, but many were to follow. Before long, L was demanding a new CD for every road trip, a rule that was quickly amended to be a new, multi-volume mix for each road trip, the number of CDs corresponding to the length of the trip. L’s car was soon liberally decorated with shiny silver discs.

Our life in DC was punctuated by road trips. In addition to the numerous trips to Connecticut, Charlottesville, and even a couple to South Carolina, there was the first fateful trip down to DC from Boston, where K’s car died on the New Jersey Turnpike and we rode the rest of the way with a shady mechanic named Chip. DC began with a road trip, and so it ended. Two perfectly mirrored bookends encasing three years of our lives.

A couple days before we both moved away from the District, K and I made an impromptu visit to L. We picked up her car (the backstory there is slightly more complicated and may or may not involve me committing fraud at the impound lot in Anacostia, but that’s a story for another day), and after loading it full of casseroles and the like for our hardworking business student, K and I rushed off into the sunset in L’s trusty Ford Focus, more commonly known as Anthony.

The key word of that story is impromptu. For the first time in months–maybe years–I didn’t have time to make an appropriate CD before embarking on a road trip. K and I were setting out onto the highway with only the Ghost of Mixes Past to keep us company. I dug through the glove box and found hits of yesteryear like Apple Picking Ahoy, The Easter Bunny is not a Vegan, Vol. 4, and It’s Really Time for a New CD, L.

We left the city with Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights,” a favorite of Summer ’12, but slowly worked our way backwards through the past three years. I can’t remember what all we got through, but there was definitely some Katy Perry, and surely Neutral Milk Hotel made an appearance to commemorate KS’s endless guitar sessions up in his room. Our temporal journey through music culminated with Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman’s duet of “Time to Say Goodbye,” a song that had been chosen in honor of the rather embarrassing time that K and I watched this video of Andrea Bocelli and Elmo and didn’t realize that the former is blind. L then mocked us for the rest of eternity.

Not every song we heard was significant, but certainly each CD represented a little cross-section in the history of L, K, and my friendship. Every road trip came at a different place in our lives–jobs, addresses, and other passengers were always in flux, but the one constant was the three of us. Even when one was missing, we were always there by proxy–borrowing Anthony, playing my mix CDs, wearing a sweatshirt stolen from K’s closet.

Despite being in completely different places in our lives, this last road trip was much like the first. Not the part where the car broke down, thank God, but the ambivalent feelings of sadness and hope and terror and excitement and uncertainty all tied up together. When K and I drove south three and half years prior (to the tune of “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” naturally), we were about to graduate from college in the middle of a terrible recession. We had find a house for the three of us to live in, which we would pay for with our imaginary money from our nonexistent jobs. But at least there was comfort in numbers; we were all in the same boat.

This time, our immediate plans were firm. L and I were both headed to grad school, and K was going to teach English on a Fulbright. We all of us had housing and, even if from student loans, money. The uncertainty this time stemmed from the knowledge that the three of us were going to be separated. Indefinitely.

In a lot of ways, we had never graduated from college. We lived in DC wrapped up in our Wellesley security blanket, supported not only by each other but by a rotating cast of friends and friends of friends from college. Living with K and L for seven years generated some serious codependency issues for all of us. Now, each of us was striking out on our own, in Charlottesville, in St. Andrews, in Russia. Driving toward L’s, it was hard not to wonder how we’d fare on our own as three years of our lives together played back through the stereo.

When we arrived at L’s apartment later that night, we found that, while very excited to see us, she was also happily settled into her new life in business school. She had already moved on several weeks prior. During breaks from college, I always joked that L was the first to leave and the last to return, a trait that seems to have carried over into our adult lives.

By contrast, there was still much to do before either K or I left DC. I hadn’t even started packing, though my move-out was just two days away. There was also the return trip to make from Charlottesville. And then the night before my dad arrived to pack up the car with all my worldly possessions, K and I turned up the Carissa’s Wierd and just lay in my half-empty room, sobbing for hours. But all of that–and the ensuing weeks that followed–passed in a nonexistent blur, the extra space at the bottom of the page when a chapter is finished.

This chapter ended in one perfect, cheesey moment: the sun setting, windows down on a hot August night, Andrea Bocelli blasting from the speakers as K, Anthony and I crested above a Virginian hill and headed into the dark unknown. The final period in a book seven years in the making.

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