Learning to drive as a teenager in Manhattan was a hypothetical situation. Like stenography and monogrammed linens, it might be of use in the future, but was not essential for my immediate life. I looked forward to driving, sort of, but I didn’t think I would be particularly good at it. The whole left/right thing was off-putting, as was the fact that you could literally kill yourself and other people if you made a mistake.
We watched appalling movies. State troopers described crash scenes. A shifty-eyed man drove defensively among trucks. A camera panned down a street of danger. Children chased balls into traffic. People were distracted. On insurance claim forms, the instructor told us, people always use the phrase “came out of nowhere.”
Kids from the school down the street joined us for driver’s ed. A miasma of snark and boredom and bureaucracy filled the room along with so many rules and facts that were in equal parts blindingly obvious and pointlessly obscure (tire treads, visualizing 50 yards). “Must I signal others,” became a catchphrase after a friend asked a question—a deliberately stupid question? A question that was intended to point out the pedantry of the manual? The rules? The instructor? Our classmates?
It would be another eight years before I actually had a driver’s license. I drove infrequently for years on my permit. With my parents on a highway, heart pounding as I approached a narrow bridge. With my friend, John, in Poughkeepsie. With my fiancé, who would insist that a condition of marriage was that I convert my tattered permit into a legitimate license, now that we were of age for car rental. It’s like the football test, I grumbled. I passed. The wedding was on.
And then, somehow, we ended up in a place where you have to drive everywhere, ceaselessly, because without a car you are a prisoner of time and the sun, the lack of sidewalks and the sprawl.
When the time came for the younger daughter, she was ready, could see a need, we already owned a car. She downloaded the app for the written test, signed up for driving lessons, asks to drive all the time, while I clutch the handle over my seat, bracing myself.
“You just don’t want to admit,” she says after a harrowing turn, “that I’m an amazing driver.”
Or: “I could just keep driving and take us to Panera.” Maybe it wasn’t Panera. I don’t know why she would want to go there particularly. Aim higher in your fantasies, I’d say. But I’m too busy willing us to live to know exactly where she might take us, a sort of crazy Thelma and Louise hit the Parkway kind of thing brewing. The Parkway, you know, from the song.
“I feel like when I’m driving I have so much control.”
I am writing this when she asks me if we can go to Panera for breakfast tomorrow. Really, Panera? I was just mocking you in my blog about that. Why Panera? Everyone goes somewhere for breakfast, she says.
Then: “But, you’re blogging about me? Really, that’s so exciting because you haven’t written anything about me in ages. I’m like Britney Spears I’m so desperate for attention. But I said I was an amazing driver, not an awesome driver. That makes me sound like a camp counselor who wears cargo pants.”
When the kids were little and acting up my mom friends and I would say this action song joke where we would point at the child and put our hands on a pretend steering wheel and point at ourselves and then dial our fingers around our ears. The child would stop for a moment and work it out. It broke the tension. It made them laugh. Diversion. Trickery. Mom tricks.
She has a shirt from her lessons—in America you get a T-shirt for everything, even going to the orthodontist—the tagline of which is “Helping nervous parents since 1975.”
The symbolism of it all is obvious.
I hand her the keys.