It can happen anytime, anywhere, while I'm pushing a cart through the grocery store, flipping through radio channels, sitting in the dentist's waiting room, just doing whatever I'm doing when I catch a snippet of Stealers Wheel singing "Stuck in the Middle with You" and suddenly I'm transported back in time--not to 1972, when the song was all over the pop charts, but to 1984, when I'm wedged into the back seat of a compact car sound asleep until someone turns on the radio and that song comes blaring out and startles me awake. Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am--stuck in the middle of a perplexing memory I may never shake.
It's dark out, after midnight, and I don't really want to be awake but it's hard to find a comfortable sleeping position while sharing a very small car with three other full-sized college students. I look out the window and figure that we're zipping through downtown Atlanta on our all-night trip from our college in Kentucky to our hometown in Florida, where we're planning to attend a friend's wedding. It's a warm spring night and the car is too wimpy to carry the four of us and our luggage at highway speed with the air conditioning running, so the whole car smells like sweat and crumpled burger wrappers and anger.
The anger is mine, and so is the car. Driving my friends to Florida for a weekend wedding had not been my idea, and in fact I had resisted the plan for good reasons: you can't comfortably fit four large people and all their luggage in a Mazda GLC for a 17-hour trip, and besides, it's a wimp of a car carrying way too many miles and it sometimes shuts off entirely in a heavy rain. (The distributor cap keeps cracking. No one knows why.)
And then there are reasons I don't want to admit out loud: I don't want to be responsible for getting my friends to this wedding on time, especially given my car's track record; I know that spreading the driving duties out among four people will keep the burden off my back, but frankly, I've seen these people drive. I don't want to be responsible for transporting my friends, and I don't want them to be responsible for my car.
And so I had resisted and refused and insisted that we find another travel plan, but no other plan had presented itself. Over time, they wore me down. And so I found myself bundled into the backseat of a very small car and tearing down the interstate toward Florida. Stuck in the middle with--who?
These were my friends, remember. I'd known them a long time, maybe too long, so I should have been prepared for their idiosyncrasies, but somehow taking a road trip in close quarters multiplies the weirdness. I remember laughing a lot, enjoying the adventure, but at some point I started getting really annoyed--because they kept making fun of my car.
It's underpowered, they said. Well, duh. That little four-cylinder rotary engine couldn't putter its way out of a paper bag under the best of conditions, but pile it with people and luggage, turn the air conditioning on full blast, and then try to drive it straight up a Tennessee mountain at highway speed and you'll soon be wondering whether you ought to toss out some ballast or get out and push.
So the complaints start soon after we set out and they Just. Don't. Stop. I try to turn the constant griping into a joke, shake it off, deflect, resist, ignore, but they keep it coming, comment after comment about what a loser of a car I drive. I remind them that I'd resisted taking my car on the trip, remind them that they'd begged me to take my car, remind them that riding in a wimpy car is a lot better than walking to Florida, but they keep sniping, mile after annoying mile. It's a 17-hour trip and I spend at least 16 of those hours wishing my dear friends would just for heaven's sake shut up about how much they hate my car.
Decades later, I can still feel that anger. I don't recall one single moment of the wedding, although I'm sure it was a joyful event, and I don't even recall the name of the fourth person who made that trip with us, but all these years later I can vividly experience the sudden shock of waking up in the back of a small car that smells like sweat and feel the anger bloom once again.
If I could travel back in time and talk to that angry person suffering a rude awakening in that backseat, here's what I would say: You won't be stuck here forever. Someday you'll look back at this moment and laugh--but you'll also wish you could recall more of this trip than the anger. So pay attention. Look to your left. Who is that clown? Look to the front. Why did you let those jokers in here? Someday you'll want to remember.
But instead of remembering my friends, I remember their complaints, and I remember my anger, and I remember the car, but most of all I remember the song that holds the power to bring it all back. Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am--stuck in the middle with you.