Twenty Minutes in My Empty Mind

Over the past year, during the months living in my childhood bedroom, I often found myself taking aimless drives – canyon, freeway, shortcut to nowhere – discovering and rediscovering my favorite music. It is the only place where a spontaneous two-hour drive feels less like a chore and more like a gift.


At the intersection of Anemouku Street and Kamehameha Highway, cars glide across the dark road, a quick swoosh every few seconds. The ocean, cobalt and glassy in my peripheral vision, creates an optical illusion of solidity. In my rearview mirror, Jenny, Elyse, and Izzy are squished in the back. Alex sits beside me on the passenger side. I wonder how everyone looks so pretty at 6:15 a.m. Applying winged eyeliner at the crack of dawn is an impressive feat.

For the past few weeks, we’ve been living an hour from the more populated areas on the island of Oahu, Hawaii and about 15 miles from the surfer hubs on the North Shore. Our home base is a small town of isolated beaches, occasional food trucks, and a singular main road — any travelling beyond Foodland and a nearby mini mall is a solid trek. Because of this picturesque remoteness, Oahu is the only place where I drive more than I do back home; over the past year, during the months living in my childhood bedroom, I often found myself taking aimless drives – canyon, freeway, shortcut to nowhere – discovering and rediscovering my favorite music. It is the only place where a spontaneous two-hour drive feels less like a chore and more like a gift.

When we first drove from the Honolulu airport to our homebase in Laie, we played “Electric Dream,” which sounds pastel, and “Good Days,” which feels like glitter. Our rental car sandwiched between blue-green water and grassy mountains, my internal monologue sang, this is it this is it this is it!

Now, I fiddle with the Bluetooth to connect my Spotify. I wait for the system to ding in compliance, and I turn on my left turn signal. Hunched over the steering wheel, I’m jolted by the blaring onslaught of lyrics:

I love bad bitches that’s my fuckin’ problem and yeah I like to fuck I got a fuckin’ problem.

Rise and shine, I guess.

A wave of exasperation washes over me when I realize I’ve spent minutes at the intersection without moving. And now, the 2012 A$AP Rocky, Drake, Kendrick, and 2 Chainz collab, “F**kin’ Problems,” is roaring in our ears at maximum volume and disturbing the tranquility of our morning drive. I’m doing a terrible job at my designated gap-year role of Driver and Aux-er.

Whenever I’m running late, I’m hit with a three-cold-brews-deep kind of jitters. We’ve just rushed out of our temporary home and we’re scheduled to miss the sunrise part of a sunrise hike on the other side of the island. I didn’t even have time to queue a few songs before we left, and the idea that anything from my entire music library will play — simpy R&B to bar mitzvah-era pop tracks — provokes an unnecessary sense of dread.


The highway quiets for a few beats, and I finally turn left. At the next red light, I stop and scroll through my Spotify. Perusing my 104 playlists, I imagine myself 10 miles from now, peacefully listening to Joni Mitchell or SoundCloud-era Frank Ocean, passing the “No Development” signs and hidden beaches. I try to recreate my embodiment from that first drive to the airport — this, too, should be just as much a perfect moment. But instead, I falter: My self-induced pressure widens a gap between the contentment I should feel and the anxiety I’m actually feeling. The key to unlocking that ‘this is it’ feeling, I determine, must reside in an immaculately-curated soundtrack, the perfect playlist I have no time to create.

When the car behind me suddenly honks for 10 seconds straight, I’m jolted out of my mind. I spin my head up from my phone and see a green light. In the rearview mirror, a woman in a beige truck flips me off and speeds into the opposite lane to pass me. As she pulls up next to me, she rolls down her window.

“Pay attention, dumbass,” she yells, pointing at her temple. “Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing” starts playing.

A mile or so later, beige-car-woman’s offhand road rage worms her way into the insecure cortex of my brain. Am I a dumbass? Running late: dumbass behavior. Inappropriate background music: dumbass behavior. Unable to enjoy a perfect drive I should be grateful for: exceptionally dumbass behavior. I make a tally of everything I said I would do last week that I didn’t. Didn’t call Nana. Missed a Zoom panel. Didn’t finish my book. Barely worked out. I wonder if I need to do taxes this year. What is a fiscal new year? Mental to-do-list begets mental to-do-list. Anxiety begets anxiety.

I need to relax — we’ll be on Kamehameha Highway for 22 miles. I tell myself by the time we pass Papa Ole’s Kitchen, I will be the cool girl.

I steal sideways glances at the ocean. The street still glows in the diminishing moonlight. If we’re going to miss the sunrise hike, I hope for at least a little light on the stretch of highway beneath the mountains.

Driving to the cheery rhythm of Stevie Wonder, I see Jenny passed out in the middle seat and Alex sleeping on the passenger side. Izzy looks at her phone. Elyse looks out the window. We are settled into early morning silence.

We pass a fruit stand, a North Shore Tacos, a truck that sells malasadas, and, to my dismay, Papa Ole’s Kitchen. My irritability hasn’t cooled. And the most embarrassing part is that I am with my best friends on the most beautiful road in the world listening to one of my favorite songs. I am 20 years old and healthy and lucky. I am so annoyed that I am annoying, mad that I’m mad, sad that I can’t just let myself drive in peace. Why did I have to bring me to Hawaii?

“Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing” ends and “hand crushed by a mallet” starts playing. That’s more like it.


I make eye contact with Elyse through the rearview mirror. I know she doesn’t like this song or 100 gecs in general — an abrasive hyperpop band that elicits eye rolls from people who prefer their music to sound pleasant — but I find the awful noises oddly comforting, like slapping a mosquito bite or getting hit in the face in a good way.

As 100 gecs screeches on, I check Google Maps. From the small North Shore town of Laie to the better-known Kailua is a solid one-hour drive: 22 miles on the highway, another five on the main H1 freeway, and through a roundabout.

As I curve along Oahu’s coast, I dissect “hand crushed by a mallet”: androgynous autotune, off-beat drumming, psychologically troubling lyrics, cathartic beat drop — the kind of sound a Reddit user described as “take a bunch of colored pencils in one hand and draw on black paper.” On a morning where chaos rules my mental landscape, the discordance in the song offers a moment of respite. It meets me where I am.

A few tracks from Astroworld follow “hand crushed by a mallet.” Jenny stirs to the electric haze of R.I.P. SCREW and I hear murmurs of conversation in the backseat. Alex wakes up and plays my Hawaii playlist on Bluetooth. We start off calm with “Trouble Sleeping” and “I Say a Little Prayer,” reach medium-energy with “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings,” until suddenly I’m rapping the Rick Ross verse on “Money in the Grave” while thumping my shoulders against the car seat to the rhythm.

The high-volume bass reverberates in the center of my stomach and spreads through my limbs. My frenetic anger, anxiety, imposter syndrome, melodrama — whatever I decide to call it that day — hasn’t vanished, but I’m glad that my friends are awake now, the sun is rising, and I suspect I’m less of a dumbass than I thought I was moments before. Forcing away the discontent, it seems, does more harm than just vibing with it. I mentally thank 100 gecs for being an unlikely salve.

When we finally reach the mountains, “Poetic Justice” starts playing. Janet Jackson’s ethereal sampling overlays the gritty love song and unruly thoughts rest softer in my mind. I feel a warmth on my outstretched arms. The windows are down and the sunroof is open — I hadn’t even noticed.

— Magazine writer Josie F. Abugov can be reached at