With Death Cab for Cutie crooning from the speakers in my 1989 Honda Civic, I pulled out of my Seattle apartment’s parking lot and headed toward the freeway. Picking up as much speed as my car could muster, I rolled down my window and lit my one “driving cigarette” (I know, I know, dumb). The cold night air blew past as I sang and smoked, feeling free and looking forward to the four-hour drive.

I was a senior in college in Seattle, heading to the small town near Portland, Oregon where I grew up. I traveled the 200 miles of I-5 between the two towns about once a month for many, many years. I usually made the drive alone and late at night, once classes were over and traffic had died down. Even though the drive was long and seemingly dull, I always looked forward to it. It was a chance to be alone, listen to music, sing at the top of my lungs, and (more times than I like to admit) cry over whichever boy I had a secret crush on.

There was a fast food restaurant halfway between campus and home. I stopped there on almost every trip, wondering if the staff was starting to recognize me and wonder who this strange person was, wandering in late at night, returning two days later, then disappearing for another six weeks. Usually, I just used the bathroom, maybe bought some fries if I was hungry. But this night I was feeling different. As I approached the exit I started thinking how good an ice cream cone would taste. It was late at night — and it wasn’t summer. Yet for reasons I could not explain, the thought of an ice cream cone as I drove alone with music blasting sounded like perfection.

I was also tired and coffee sounded good too, and more than a little necessary to make the remaining two hours of my drive. I parked my car, walked into the restaurant and stood thinking. Ice cream? Coffee? Then I had a new thought. Why do I have to pick one? I smiled to myself and looked around. I realized that this decision was mine alone. No one was going to tell me what to do. My parents were not there to say, “don’t get ice cream at night” or “you can have coffee or ice cream, but not both.” As I stepped up to the counter to place my order, I pulled out money from my part-time job and felt myself stand a little taller, confident in my own decision.

As I walked back to my car, ice cream in one hand and coffee in the other, I felt a shift. Growing up happens at strange times and catches me off guard. Usually, I can’t see it in the moment. But that night, I felt it happen. I could make my own decisions — in fact, I had to. I was in charge of my life, and while the ice cream or coffee choice was small and inconsequential, the sensation of freedom and autonomy were real and new enough that I can still remember them clearly, almost twenty years later.

As soon as I arrived back at my car I learned the second half of that equation; I am responsible for the choices I make. It turns out that opening your car while holding ice cream and coffee is a bit tricky. Also tricky is figuring out how to drive holding said items in an old car without power steering or cup holders. But when it’s what you want, you find a way. I settled into my car, pulled out onto the freeway with an ice cream in one hand and coffee balanced between my legs. I turned up my music, took my first sweet bite of ice cream and settled in for the ride I could feel I was only just beginning.

(Photos via Getty)