The silence in the van is broken by the muffled beeping of Katie's cell phone, tucked away in her purse on the floor. She fumbles to find it, flips it open and bursts out laughing.
"What is it?" I crane my neck while keeping my eyes mostly on the cars in front of me.
"Um…I'm not sure. I'm supposed to guess." The message is a photo from Katie's best friend, Chelsea. She and two other buddies are gathered for a Friday night sleepover (movies, popcorn, sugar in various forms). Katie's missing it for a college visit three states away.
The photo looks like a microscope slide of something plaid. Boxer shorts? Perhaps.
She sends a text message in return, flips her phone shut and sighs. "This is so typical," she says. "Just when things with my friends are going incredibly great, it's all coming to an end."
I let her comment linger in the darkness for a mile or so. She's starting to experience the characteristic nostalgia that engulfs the hearts of all high school seniors — the sweet poignancy that inspires so many trite yet earnest graduation speeches and yearbook messages.
"That's how you know it's time to move on," I finally say.
She looks out her window into the inky distance. "I guess."
Not that she's hesitating about moving on, mind you. Like most high school seniors, she's had one foot out the door since about October, emotionally anyway. But for a few challenging classes and daily contact with her core group of pals, high school at this point simply must be endured.
She and her girlfriends have been counting down the days since New Year's Eve, when they gathered in our basement, donned a collection of goofy hats and feather boas from our box of Halloween costumes and wore their matching "Senior Girls 2007" T-shirts to celebrate the calendar change.
As the ball dropped in Times Square, they hugged and squealed and screamed, "This is the year we're graduating" with unbridled elation. It was loud.
The countdown now is at 25 days, and things have quieted considerably. At some point, it seems to have dawned on them that the end of high school means a new chapter in their friendship.
We roll along the highway, lost in our own thoughts. I imagine Katie is thinking about the things she and her girlfriends still have to anticipate — prom, Senior Skip Day, graduation and the parties to follow.
Me? I'm thinking about Katie and Chelsea and the cheerleading class I drove them to once a week in the first grade. Dressed in pink leotards and sneakers, they clutched their miniature batons (which they could neither twirl nor catch) as they attempted to execute a pompom routine.
They were adorable, but in all honesty, they were terrible. No wonder they both became runners instead.
Over the years, the relationship between Katie and Chelsea ebbed and flowed as the girls navigated the rough waters of female friendship. Longing to be accepted, trying to fit in, they went their own ways at times, as all friends do over the long haul.
Thankfully, happily, they gravitated back to each other and toward a group of young women who share their values, their strong faith and a love of alternative rock. As a mother, I couldn't have asked for more wonderful friends for my daughter if I had chosen them myself.
We pass the miles talking about who's going where to college, places her friends will work this summer, the cool things she imagines they'll do when they "grow up." She speaks with the easy familiarity that comes when you share everything, in the way high schoolers do so well.
"I love my friends," she says wistfully, no doubt wondering what all these miles eventually could do to her relationships.
Our conversation naturally drifts to the coming weeks and months, when at last it will be time to climb into the van once again and point ourselves in the direction of her future. Seeing as we're still tackling college visits, we're not quite sure where that will be; we only know it's a day's drive away no matter where she decides to go.
As if on cue, Katie's cell phone beeps again with another mystery photo. She banters back and forth with the gang at the sleepover, then finally types: "Have fun guys. Thanks for thinking of me. I miss you."
Katie settles in to snooze away that last couple of hours of our trip, leaving me to tackle the end of the drive with only my thoughts for company.
It's reassuring to know she has built such a strong foundation of friendships. Sadly, though, there's no way to warn her of the inevitable truth that these friendships will change, as she and her friends will, too.
Though they'll continue to make each other proud, they're likely to disappoint one another along the way as well. I think their friendships will grow to suit their adult selves; the trick is going to be staying in touch and supporting each other along the way.
It's simply part of the process of becoming the women they're meant to be.
Then again, by the looks of it, that's a process these young friends already have begun.