learning to drive

That day on 12th Street when you decide to
teach me how to drive,
I put my foot down just a bit to the right and
end up on the curb.

I am fifteen.

You aren’t smoking that day, but
when I get home my parents think that I have been,
as I wander into the kitchen
with the remains of your car clinging to my shirt.

The green lawns stretch forward to our right and left,
a sea of suburb as we leave the high school in the dust.
The chain link fence divides us from the band,
but we can still hear them play.

You tell me I can do it.

I don’t believe you
but I want you to keep
believing in me.

So I walk that mile around your 1969 cherry red Nova,
the journey from passenger to driver
a tumultuous affair for a girl like me –
torn between desire and rules.

I hover by the bumper,
knowing I can still turn back.

But through the rear window I can see:
you have slid over and are
ready to be impressed.

My legs stick to the seat, my tongue sticks in my throat.
Your arm rests behind me,
and my lips stop shaking
as I focus on the blacktop ahead.

I know you’ve got my back.

Now I am thinking less about
kissing you
and more about
Not Dying.

I don’t want to let you down.

I step slowly, cautiously,
but the jolt scares me and I can’t find the brakes.
My hands react without my brain and
when I notice the dad mowing his lawn,
I don’t look to see how far away he was
before I stopped.
I don’t look for children.
I don’t look for pets.
Instead, I bury my head in my hands
and wait for your laughter.

Even then, I’d rather
live a good story
than be a good girl.

Over casserole, I tell my parents about my close call.
I know they will bite the corners of their lips and try
to look disapproving.
But I also know that my
telling is a choice.

Later, when I hear my mother recounting the story
to some family member or other,
I feel that the risk paid off.

She knows, as I do, that I will be okay.
She knows, as I do, that I will learn to drive.


5 thoughts on “learning to drive

      • One of many favorites from when I was seeing bands all the time in L.A. who never made it big… I think I may put together a CD of her songs for you.

    • This takes me back, Michelle. I don’t have your poetic ability, but I do have a good learning-to-drive story. You may enjoy it, even in prose.

      My dad started teaching me to drive in the parking lot of my grandfather’s business on 10th Street, after working hours, when I was 14. Since the car was a manual transmission Ford Escort, the hardest part was learning to manage the clutch, throttle and brake to keep the engine somewhere between “high-pitched scream” and “car shuddering, about to stall,” while traveling at a chosen speed. That’s especially difficult to learn when you don’t have enough space to get up to more than about 20 mph. But after perhaps a half-dozen lessons I started to get the hang of things — at least as much as possible under the circumstances.

      And so it was that one lazy, bright summer day in 1985, Dad decided I had outgrown the parking lot. There was nothing for it but to move out onto the road. (As you may have guessed, Dad wasn’t much of a worrier.) So we cruised down some quiet streets and even quieter county roads in and north of Goshen for an hour or so. Learning to smoothly up- and down-shift in synch with the speed of the car, all while keeping it between the lines, proved tricky: the temptation to look at the gear shift was overwhelming. But we kept our speed reasonable and eventually I started feeling comfortable. After an hour or so, Dad decided we should head home. Displaying far more confidence in my driving abilities than I myself felt, Dad (again, no fraidy cat) decided to skip the back roads and take U.S. 20 east to State Road 15, then south into Goshen. By Goshen standards, of course, those are pretty well traveled roads.

      Sitting at the intersection, preparing to turn right onto 20, I told him I didn’t feel ready. “Oh, you’ll be fine,” he said. I let several cars pass, looking for a bigger gap in traffic, worried about getting rear-ended before I could get up to speed. Eventually I worked up the nerve to make the turn.

      Leaning hard on the accelerator, I worked the Escort through the gears and got up to speed with minimal grinding and jerking. Once we were at a constant speed I felt a little better, but only for a little while. Keeping up with traffic required traveling faster than I’d ever driven before, and keeping the Escort between the lines at those speeds took all the finesse and concentration I could manage. There was a good deal of traffic to keep an eye on in both directions, including turning vehicles that forced me to slow down or change lanes, both of which were nerve-wracking. There were semis flying by, rattling our car until I felt sure they’d push us out of our lane. It was all a bit much. At some point I may have voiced my worry, or else Dad just read it in my white knuckles, tense arms, and wide-eyed stare. Presumably intending to take the wheel, he directed me to take the next left onto a less-traveled county road.

      Can you see the problem? He asked me to turn left. Across oncoming traffic. On a busy road. In a car with a manual transmission. While traveling at high speed. To an experienced driver it’s a simple maneuver, and Dad certainly had no idea that he had just vapor locked my brain. But the internal monologue went something like this.

      Turn left. OK. What do I do? I need to slow down, so I take my foot off the gas. What now? Left turn signal. Brake. Clutch. Downshift. To what gear? How hard do I brake? How fast should I be going to make this turn? I think there’s a car behind me. Is he going to crush us if I slow down too much? Oncoming traffic. A semi. Great. Can I make this turn before he gets here? Should I stop and wait for him to pass? Wait, that’s right, the guy behind me! Is it too late to stop? Do I have my turn signal on yet? Maybe I should just slow down and wait for this oncoming car to pass. If I’m just going to slow down, what gear would that be? Is that another oncoming car behind the semi? Maybe I can’t just slow down. I hesitate for several seconds. We’re slowing down anyway. The car behind is getting closer; the oncoming semi is getting closer, too. Do I have my signal on yet? Do something now or it’ll be too late! (<–Teenage boy thought process.) Too much! Must simplify! Bare minimum! Foot back on the gas so we don't stall: check! Turn wheel left: check!

      Time slowing down. I sense the oncoming vehicle on my right; it's way, way too close. I notice Dad's left arm push out to the dashboard and go rigid, while his right hand crushes the grab handle. I register the sound of our tires squealing as we take the turn waaay too fast. Dad issues an unintelligible little grunt that does something like "ooooooooowaaaoh." I wonder if we're *ever* going to clear the oncoming lane. I wonder if the car might actually roll over. I say a silent little prayer: "please let us make it."

      Time starting to speed up again as we shoot across the oncoming lane and down the adjoining county road at a solid 50 mph: check.

      Heart pounding, adrenaline pumping, hands shaking, I started to brake but forgot to downshift. The car shuddered, almost stalled. I fumbled it into neutral and coasted down the road, finally finding a lower gear. After a few seconds, Dad released his death grip on the grab handle, took a breath, and quietly said, "just pull over here." Again I forgot to downshift; again the car shuddered. I finally got it stopped — I *think* without stalling it — and we switched seats. He drove home. We didn't say much.

      Dad was a funny guy with a quick wit. He loved to laugh. If there was any humor in a situation he was quick to spot it. But it was a long time before he was able to laugh about that driving lesson. After that day he decided I had graduated from his private driving school. I was ready for professional instruction. He didn't give me any more driving lessons until after I'd taken driver's ed. :)

      • Matt, that is a fantastic story! I could feel each and every moment with your description – hilarious and suspenseful, both. I’m glad you (and your dad) survived!

        (By the way, I also had to learn on a manual out and about with my dad – although that happened *after* I’d had a few lessons in driver’s ed on an automatic. Still some pretty nerve-wracking moments, though.)

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