Back in the Drivers’ Seat: Day One


There are a few driving schools listed in the city’s yellow pages and I’m heading to the one that’s advertised on Viale della Vittoria, off the corner of Via Europa, but I run into Auto Scuola Mirabelli first so that’s the one I pick. It’s nearly empty when I arrive; only a middle-aged man at a desk and a woman hanging by the door. I ask her: Are you in line? She says: No. I’m disappointed because I didn’t sleep last night, and I barely breathed on the bike ride over. My knuckles are white and I’m roasting in my t-shirt and cardigan. I want her to be first, but she’s not and the man behind the desk says: Next! so I go over and sit down.

I say: Hi. I want to take driving lessons. It’s been twelve years since I’ve driven. I always lived in big cities so there was never a need.

He says: I don’t understand you. Slow down.

I say: Hi. I want to take driving lessons. It’s been twelve years since I’ve driven. I always lived in big cities so there was never a need.

He says: Relax. Let me see your driver’s license.

I show him. He mutters: New York, New York and scribbles something on a pad. Then he says: You’ll need to get another license. There’s a fee and I say, No, that’s not true and he says, Okay. He takes my license and photocopies it. He takes down my name. He says: Where did you learn to drive? I say: America. We drive on the right, like you. He says: No, I mean, do you drive a manual shift? Those are the only cars we have. I say: I learned on a manual shift but I haven’t driven one of those in 14 years. He repeats: Well, those are the only cars we have. And I’m panicking because I can barely bring myself to drive an automatic, but I know this is necessary, I know this is what I have to do, and I tell myself – I tell myself – if I can drive a stick, then I can drive anything. So I agree. I say, Okay. And he says: Great. Let’s go. It’s the black car out front.

*

This is what I do any time I’m scared: I stop thinking. Remove all feeling. I stop thinking. Go on autopilot. I stop thinking. Follow directions. I stop thinking.

I’m supposed to go to the black car and I do. I veer towards the right but catch myself. The door is open and I get inside. It doesn’t feel so strange being in the drivers’ seat. I remember this. Drives to school or Dairy Queen or Gainesville and checking my lipgloss in the rearview mirror, listening to Duran Duran “Decade” or hoping to catch Chumbawamba on the radio. I almost feel like I can do it, like I can go, but there’s this matter of the clutch and the gears. My arms are heavy and sweat has begun to streak down my temples.

The instructor says: Okay. So adjust your seat. And put in the keys. No. Look – see how the dashboard lights up? Wait until it says good. No, no, don’t push it again. Just wait. Okay. Your signal is there. Press down for left and up for right. Here is first gear. Here is second gear. Here is third. Here is fourth. Here is reverse. Got that?

I make first, second, third, and fourth gear. I make reverse. I look in the rearview mirror. I look in the sideview mirrors.

He says: Press down the clutch. I remember this, too. My father in the seat next to me saying: More force. More force! and then Gently down with one and gently up with the other. But the instructor says: No. Press the clutch down all the way, with decisiveness. Up slowly with the accelerator. Down slowly with the brakes. It’s been fourteen years. Nothing makes sense. I’m trying not to think, only do. Don’t think, just do. He says: Take your foot off the clutch and let’s go.

So we go. But I’m thinking. I’m thinking. I’m thinking.

*

Make first gear. Let go the clutch. Keep looking straight ahead. See where the water is? Head that way. No. No. What are you doing? Stay to the right. You can go faster. Are you sweating? I’ll put on the air conditioning. Now make second gear. No, that’s fourth. That’s fourth, I said. Stay right. Why are you going to the left? Do they drive on the left in America? Keep going straight. Look straight. Are you looking straight? Why do you keep looking at the road? Be sure to watch for people coming out of the side streets. Why are you so nervous? Let go of the accelerator. Turn. No, turn.

You understand Italian, don’t you?

*

We’ve made a circuit along the boardwalk, heading towards La Maga Circe as she reclines in the sea, and I begin to panic when I realize that I haven’t used my mirrors once. I’ve been watching the side streets, for any random child or dog or car backing out into my path. I’m watching for potholes, too, because you know what it’s like when you go off the road a little bit and you hear the gravel crunch and then you jerk the wheel and then you’re back on smooth road again and everything is fine? One time it wasn’t fine. The crunch of the gravel didn’t end and we were on a mountain and it was in the jungle and we fell off the mountain for a long time and then we hit a tree. And there was broken glass and blood and I could see that things were broken and six years later, I can still see the tree coming when I close my eyes. And that’s the thing. You imagine how you’ll feel if something like that happens to you and you think: I’ll be brave. I’ll be strong. I’ll be the bravest, strongest surgical and broken back patient there ever was. But you don’t know what it’ll actually be like until it happens. You don’t know how much you can take until you have to. You don’t know how you’ll heal afterward, what things will scare you and what things won’t. Why is the idea of returning to the jungle totally unscary to you? Why haven’t you slept in a car in six years? Why do things like running and dancing and climbing volcanoes and riding elephants not phase you in the slightest? So I remind myself: I was a passenger. There was nothing I could have done. I’m in the driver’s seat now. The instructor is the one who’s in danger. Everything is up to me. Everything is up to me.

*

We get back to the driving school and the instructor tells me to take the car in reverse: NO, that’s fourth gear. What are you doing? Put your arm over the seat and look. Now go slowly. Slowly. Good. Brake. Now turn off the engine. I do that and look at my hands on the steering wheel.

Hey, says the instructor. That wasn’t so bad. But you are extremely nervous.

I start to cry and put my hands over my eyes.

Hey, he says. Hey. What’s this? Look, don’t worry. Everyone makes mistakes.

I nod and say: I’m so embarrassed.

He says: Don’t be. Mistakes are nothing to be ashamed of.  Are you calm now?

I nod my head yes.

Good, he says. If making you go in reverse has this effect on you, I won’t ask you to do it any more.

I laugh and press my finger tips underneath my eyes.

You’re calm? he says. You promise?

Yes, I say. Yes.

Okay.

We climb out of the car. I see my bike leaning against the brick wall.

Thank you, I tell him. Thanks a lot.

It’s okay, he says. I’ll see you tomorrow.

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7 Comments Add yours

  1. isa says:

    You are brave and strong. You are in the driver’s seat. ” You” are in charge this time! Once we are in charge , everything is under control! Rejoice!!

  2. Cristina says:

    You did good kid.

  3. Kao says:

    Intense. I held my breath as I read it, PS.

    Also PS; ♥

    1. Nancie says:

      Congratulations! I have driven twice since moving to Asia, and both times were back in Canada. I have driven a stick shift. I can only imagine what I would have done……..:)

      You’re doing great!!

      1. Opps….I have NEVER driven a stick shift.

  4. You are such a talented writer…I was careening down that jungle hill and crashing into that tree with you.

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