Sunday, February 12, 2017

Behind the wheel

      Over the weekend, Satish's sister, Neela, and I spent some time driving around Maumee, Ohio.   Having earned her temps a while ago, Neela needs to log in fifty hours on the road before she can take the test and become a licensed driver. 
     When I arrived at her house on Friday, Neela smiled, "My dad has taken me out enough so that I'm safe to drive with other people."
       Buckling my seatbelt, I laughed, “I’m sure that’s true.”
      Sure enough, Neela carefully and conscientiously drove us to her high school where we practiced parking.  Then she drove through traffic to Target and on to her brothers' school where she maneuvered around the parking lot before taking us back home.  As we headed west on Bancroft, I thought about the summer before my senior year when I was petrified to drive, but did it anyway so I could finally get my license…and experience the freedom of stepping more firmly into an independent life.
      Along the way, I pointed out what Neela did extremely well and gave her pointers on listening for the gears to change when accelerating after a stop sign.  To be honest, it was the first time in a long time that I had been in the passenger seat with a newer driver, yet I wasn’t nervous at all, for Neela kept her eyes on the road and her cell phone in her purse (as did I except for texting her mom to let her know where we were).  When we arrived in the driveway, I enthusiastically said, “I’m looking forward to practicing maneuverability with you next week!”
       For the next month or so, I’ll spend Friday afternoons tooling around town with Neela, remembering that sunny afternoon in the summer of 1983 when I was behind the wheel, petrified but hopeful to enter another rite of passage on my way to adulthood. 

Behind the Wheel

I’m way past my sixteenth birthday, in fact, I’ll turn seventeen in only three months.  Still, I’m afraid to enter into the rite of passage looming before me.  I sit in the cool, dark basement rocking in the brown recliner that's so old, the seat feels as though I’ve fallen into a bucket. 
I’m studying for my driver’s road test.  I’ve already passed the written part, but I’m terrified to get behind the wheel with a stranger.  Heaven forbid I get the same old bat who flunked Patricia the first time around. 
I don’t really want to drive anyway.  I’m terrified that I’ll ram my car into someone or that I won’t be able to control it in snowy weather.  Once I earn my license, I’ll get to drive my grandmother’s old Chevy Malibu; but I see that huge blue beast for the enormous Boat that she is and feel overwhelmed.  I was supposed to take my test with Mom’s smaller car.  Dad had me drive it to the church and practice for hours in the parking lot.  Breaking.  Accelerating.  Parallel parking and using the signals.  I had it down pat. 
But last night, Mom’s car broke down and I have to drive The Boat for my test.  I’m so terrified that I've skipped breakfast.  My stomach churns and my hands sweat as I studying traffic laws for the tenth time this morning.
“C’mon, Kate,” Mom calls down the stairs.  “It’s time to go.”
I take a deep breath and make my way to the driveway where The Boat ominously sits waiting for me.  Mom and I drive to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles in silence.  We walk to the counter where my mother makes a face that says, “Tell him who you are.”
“I’m Katie Ingersoll,” I timidly tell the man behind the counter.  “I have a driver’s test at 9:30.”
The office manager glances at some papers.  “Yes…Officer Manson will be right with you.  Please fill out these forms.”  He hands me a clipboard with a pen attached to a beaded chain.
I sit next to my mother and fill in my address, my height and weight.  I check the box to become an organ donor if I should die in an accident.
“What if I flunk?” I whisper.
“Then we’ll practice some more and you’ll come back again,” Mom says matter-of-factly.  “Don’t put so much pressure on yourself.  Mr. Houck says you’re a fine driver.”
Mr. Houck is my driver’s ed teacher who once said I couldn’t talk and drive at the same time.  Still, I've learned how to consistently check my blind spot and signal.  To parallel park and put the car in reverse without stripping the gears.  After six long months of getting up early to practice at Southland Shopping Center along with a horrifying driving experiment downtown, I finally have enough hours to take my test. 
When I'm finished filling out the paperwork, I give it back to the man behind the counter.  Moments later, a uniformed police officer comes through the front door, with a dejected looking teenager in tow.  “Come back in a couple of weeks,” the officer says brusquely.  “Work on those braking skills.”
She reaches across the counter and exchanges clipboards with the office manager.  “Ingersoll?”
“Oh, no,” my mother whispers.
I don’t have to ask what she means.  That's the officer who flunked my sister.  Patricia told me how tough she was, that she was an impatient, bossy witch.  I wanted to say, “It takes one to know one,” but thought better of it.  I kept my snippy comment to myself and asked questions instead:  “What did she mark you down on?  Did you have to drive on the highway?  Did she make you do the parallel parking first or last?”
Now I bite my lip and stand up.  “I’m Katie.”
The police officer curtly shakes my hand.  “Nice to meet you.  I’m Officer Manson.  Where’s your vehicle?”
“In the back lot,” I tell her.  I glance at my mother who gives me a quick nod and a smile.
I’m surprised that Officer Manson is friendly.  Not overly so, but nice enough.  She politely makes her requests all the while making notations on her clipboard:  “Please turn on the second street on the right….now please make a left.  After the stop sign, please take the loop to Cass Road.”
When we get back to the Bureau, she instructs me to drive to the section where orange cones designate the maneuverability part of the test.  I’m not sure if I can do it with The Boat.  Nervously I pull forward to the right, then back up slowly, staying within the boundaries.
“Please park your car over there,” Officer Manson says, pointing to a row of empty spaces.  As we exit the car, she unclips the form and hands it to me. “Congratulations, Miss Ingersoll.  You are now a licensed driver.”
I beam with relief.  “Really?”
“Why are you surprised?” she asks.  “You did an excellent job.”
I nearly fly into the Bureau where Mom sits reading a magazine.  “I passed!” I whisper excitedly.  I catch Officer Manson’s smile as she hands the empty clipboard to the manager.  “Can I get my license today or do we have to come back?”
Mom shakes her head.  “No…you can get it today.”  She wraps an arm around my shoulders.  “I knew you could do it.”
As I sit and wait for my picture to develop, I think about all the things I’ll get to do now that I’m a senior and have my license.  I'll be able to drive to my job at Denny’s Doughnook, a bakery downtown.  I’ll be able to drive to my babysitting jobs, to school in the fall, and even to the library. 
I’m elated to tell my dad I got it on the first try and to gloat that I had the same officer who flunked Patricia!  It’s not often that I can prove I’m better than her at anything.  This is a big deal and I savor the moment for a day or two…until Mom asks me to drive to the Rec Center to pick up my little sister who's been swimming with her friends.
“Greta will be waiting by the front gate,” Mom says.  “I’m fixing dinner, so will you get her?”
It will be the first time I’ve ever driven all by myself and I don’t know if I can do it.  As I pull out of the driveway, I’m scared and want to go back inside the house and admit to my mother that the shine of my success has already worn off, that I don’t want to drive anymore.  Getting my license is one thing.  Driving in the real world is another.  I don’t want the responsibility.  But I also don’t want my mother to think I’m a baby.
As I carefully make my way up Cass Road, I tell myself, “You can do this, Katie…you can…keep going…keep going.”  I arrive at the Rec Center ten minutes later and find Greta standing near the entrance, a beach bag in one hand, and a cardboard cup with the remains of a slushee in the other.  As she opens the door, a blast of warm, moist air enters the car. 
“Thanks for getting me, Kate,” she says, buckling her seatbelt.  Greta’s wet, rust-colored hair is plastered to her head and she smells like chlorine mixed with tropical scented sunscreen.  
“Yeah, no problem,” I casually reply as I make my way toward the main road.  Now that my little sister's in the car with me, I’m magically less afraid.
“Will you drive to school this year?” Greta asks.
“Can I come so I don’t have to ride the bus?”
“Of course,” I say, glancing at her.  “You don’t even have to help pay for gas.”
          Greta smiles and we head home together, slowly…and very carefully.