Mom had her chance. The way that she chose to teach me to drive was by sharp inhalation of breath followed by absolutely senseless directions shouted in the heat of terror. Her right hand is braced on the dashboard. Her left is braced against my headrest. Her feet are braced against the corners of the floor as though we are about to fly off a cliff. I put the car into reverse, and her tense SCCCCCCHHHKTT of inhalation is accompanied by the vibration of my seat as her panic strengthened arm shoves it to the side. A left hand indicator click before an intersection elicits a yelp “NOOOOOO” with no explanation, the headrest creaking uneasily in its socket as she shoves it to the side. I lean further forward. We simply cannot drive together in this time. This is most ironic because when I was a boy I remember her letting me steer the car from her lap, and she even taught me to drive stick shift when I was too young to reach the pedals. (where have i lost her trust) For some reason something has changed. (she knows when I start driving I will get a job and move out and she’ll have to live with the man she married)
So Dad got to do it. This is absolutely what I didn’t want to happen. The lessons start simply enough. We get in the car and drive to a parking lot nearby. I was hoping we’d start with some normal stuff, drive to the freeway, get on, get off, learn how to handle a four way stop. So we get to the parking lot and he says, “OK now get going and then SLAM on the brakes EMERGENCY STOP.” So I roll forward and jam the brake, we jiggle to a rest. “No, you have to get up to speed so you know what its like.” So I gun it and screeech to a halt. “Now do it backwards.” This was a theme. “Drive as closely as you can around this planter.” “Now do it backwards.” It was pretty fun. Not very useful, but pretty fun in a scary way. But this is all high stakes, high anxiety fun for dad. You get to scream at your kid and make him flinch OH NO A KID WITH A BALL YOU HAVE TO SWERVE AND PANIC STOP TO MISS THEM, chide him for not responding quickly enough YOU SWERVED THE WRONG WAY. Prime Tim time. When it comes to the rest of learning how to drive, the hours of supervised behind the wheel time that make the difference between a confident and competent driver and a panicked moron, well it was a different story. When you’re starting off and you have lots of mistakes to make your parent has a lot of stuff to do and later there’s less. You pretty much just have to let the kid get confident by butting in less. So instead we turned to other emotional games.
We are going to the grocery store we turn right onto Evergreen and then left at the end of the block. Mom sucks in breath because there is a truck going in the opposite direction a quarter of a mile away.
“Oh man you do NOT want to get into an accident my boy, if you do you will pay for every dime of it.”
We pass through a four way stop sign, two intersections with other streets that stop, over two speed humps, newly installed, and approach the stop light. I signal right. This is my eighth trip to the grocery store, and I am feeling pretty good about how things are going. Mom sucks in breath because a kid in a nearby yard yelled. Mom braces her hand on Dad’s headrest.
“And lets not even TALK about tickets because there are gonna be CON SE QUENCES.”
I turn right onto the street past the mini office block. There’s a massage place upstairs. An accountancy downstairs. I turn right on the red light but there are other vehicles in the same zip code as we are, so mom sucks in breath and panic shoves his headrest. She sucks her breath in at him, and his neck tenses and he has to do something about it. He has to assure everyone that he is in control here. He slaps his hand on my neck. Mom sucks in breath every time the turn signal stalk clicks. Or when she hears a car like noise. She rocks his seat back and forth by the headrest and he seethes.
“Oh yeah if you screw up. You’ll pay for the ticket, and for the insurance, and you’ll be grounded from driving for two months, no six months.”
We go to the store and I manage to get away from them for a while. I look at pictures of guns in magazines. I manage not to cry this time, which is good, dad hates it when he sees you cry, he really really feels like he’s supposed to parent you extra hard if you’re crying. I wish we had driven to the mall, I’ve only done that once. If you go to the mall book store you can sneak a porno and look at boobs, but if you’re at the grocery store there’s just guns and cars. I remember their model numbers and names.
“And if you get a SECOND ticket you’ll be grounded from driving for a YEAR. And you’ll have to buy your OWN insurance. In fact you’ll have to get a job and take the BUS to it so you can pay off…”
There are tears in my eyes and I don’t want to look over in his direction so I don’t start crying. I turned to the window but too sharply and he noticed. Mom hates when he proves himself to her in this way but really that only incites him further. We are in Tim time. His voice has a tone of barroom provocation now. Schoolyard provocation.
“Oh are you MAD about this you think this isn’t FAIR that there are CONSEQUENCES. Well if you can’t HANDLE IT you can’t DRIVE and if you can’t DRIVE… ”
I turn into the parking lot of the water and ice and I get out of the car and I tell him I don’t want to drive anymore. If this is the price, if this will be the price for all of the next six months until I get my license then it is not worth it. I’m sobbing now. The ugly tears over my cheeks.
I got in the passenger seat and he drove home. He apologized later. Then he went over the consequences again just to make sure I was still scared of him. Still scared of what he would do to my life if I disobeyed. I could know that he loved me. As long as I was still scared.
Later, I enrolled in the Sears Driving school. I highly recommend their professional, results driven approach to driver education, with time tested curriculum, well established guidelines for improving skills, honing instincts, and driving defensively. Driving cars (not in traffic) is one of my favorite things to do in the entire world, a time when my entire body engages to give me feedback on every aspect of the vehicle, from state of tune to state of slide. It’s one of the great thrills of modern humanity.