By Maggie Smith
The first time I remember driving farther than the half mile from my front door to my high school, my friend Elisabeth and I went to the new Sonic in Gluckstadt, Mississippi. I had an order of mozzarella sticks. Elisabeth had a Sonic Blast. I stretched cheese between my teeth with my feet up on the dash while Elisabeth filled me in on the state of things with her new boyfriend, Zach.
“So are y’all, like, together?”
“Kinda, yeah, I guess. I dunno. I just like him, ya know?”
I didn’t know, but I pretended to. It fit with the aura of independence I was basking in – driving with a friend, paying for food at a drive-thru with cash my parents had allotted me, gossiping about boys.
Elisabeth and I talked for an hour or more before I drove her home. After dropping her off, I waltzed into my house, triumphant. Not even my parents’ rapid-fire questions — “How was the drive? How fast did you go? Did you full-stop at stop signs?” — could dampen my mood. I had driven myself, bought myself food. I was a proper teenager. It was glorious.
I am unsure what I find so soothing about a Sonic Drive-In. Is it the cheerful carhops on roller skates? The freedom to park and nonchalantly put my feet up on the dash or hug my knees to my chest, listening to a podcast while I wait for my food? A first taste of freedom, the leftover feeling of independence that permeates each drive-in visit? Whatever it may be, I have found Sonic to be a constant comfort.
My order has changed little as time has passed. I rarely go to Sonic intending to eat a full meal. In fact, I rarely go to Sonic when I am actually hungry. For me, it is a reprieve, an excuse to drive and get out of the house, an opportunity to either spend time talking to a friend or in quiet conversation with myself. I either order mozzarella sticks or a Reese’s Sonic Blast. If I am feeling peckish, I order both. I chase the meal with a medium water or a Coca-Cola, or both. If I am actually hungry, I order a kid’s grilled cheese, occasionally a pretzel dog.
Rarely do I eat Sonic anywhere other than in my car. Sonic is not food to be taken home and eaten at your kitchen counter or dining room table. It is food meant to leave crumbs on the seats, eaten with your feet either propped up while the car idles or driving down the interstate. The few times I have entered my home with a Sonic bag in hand, my appetite has disappeared immediately. I cannot explain why.
My freshman year at the University of Mississippi, I would cruise the streets of Oxford late in the evenings with no particular purpose, wading through seas of drunken underclassman as I drove around the Square. I would jump at every message sent in my sorority’s pledge class GroupMe: “Anyone sober and can drive?”
Why not? I was already out. Perhaps this was a way for me to meet people, to get them to like me, to make friends. It was proving harder than I thought to make friends in college. I wasn’t sure what to talk about or how to begin a conversation. Perhaps by offering a service, I could open the door to friendship.
I would begin almost every outing at the Sonic on University Avenue, burning my mouth on the hot grease from mozzarella sticks as I drove girls from their dorm rooms in Crosby Hall to the Levee to Martin Hall to Rooster’s to Stewart Hall to The Corner to the frat houses. These chauffeur trips offered brief interludes of chatter in what were otherwise solitary evenings. I would play the full discographies of the Head and the Heart and the Avett Brothers as I drove in circles, trying to wear out my brain so I could force myself to go to sleep.
One late night in the dead of winter, I stumbled across the grave of William Faulkner for the first time. I had found it by accident, when only a week prior I had given myself a stress headache trying to follow directions on my GPS and being led repeatedly down dead-end roads. The next time I came back, I sat cross-legged on Faulkner’s grave in the cool night air, munching on mozzarella sticks.
In the summer after my sophomore year of college, I was home for a brief period, finishing dinner with my parents. That January, I had driven off the road in a haze of emotional turmoil — and told my parents I had been trying to avoid a deer on the highway. I had been dating my first ever boyfriend for two months, and I was leaving for Gulf Shores in a few days with some new friends. I was at the close of a year filled with lonely, late-night drives and greasy comfort food, and I felt contemplative. As I washed my plate, I brought up that first time I had driven by myself.
“Oh yeah, and Dad followed you,” my mother said.
I stared. “He did what, now?”
My mother blinked innocently. My father sat, looking off to his left and not at me.
“We never told you? Dad was tracking your location on his phone. The Sonic must’ve been new or something, because Find My iPhone said you’d driven off the road. We thought you’d driven yourself into a ditch. So he followed you to Sonic and then left right before you did.”
I stared at my parents for a second. A minute. And somehow I couldn’t help myself. I laughed. It seems somehow fitting that on that first outing, that first time I felt I might be free, my father was not far behind. It seems reminiscent of that comforting red and yellow neon that seems to never be too far away no matter where I am, waiting for me to slide into park, press that bright red button, and greet me with a cheery, “Hello, welcome to Sonic. May I take your order?”