Sandra Benedetto: Driving Lessons

She wasn’t entirely ready for this and had a hard time believing her dad was, but there they were in the empty parking lot of his office building on a Saturday for her first driving lesson. The building stood on the same land where she’d played in a park called Kiddie Kingdom as a child. When her dad was hired to work there she and her sister had been indignant — he was allying himself with the skyscraping symbol of corporate America that stood on the grave of their beloved rides and castle. He was just grateful to have a good job during the recession after a period of unemployment.

He put the car in park and in his calm, thorough way went over some of the instructions he’d already explained to her the last time he drove her somewhere. It wasn’t often that they rode somewhere just the two of them. Sometimes he took her home from one of her soccer games, if she didn’t have to take the team bus. Sometimes they’d ride to the tennis courts together to play a set. He’d have the radio tuned to the Oldies station. If the Beach Boys came on he’d imitate Brian Wilson’s falsetto, but usually he had the volume turned down really low so they could talk. Today the radio was off so she could concentrate.

He reminded her that it was really pretty simple, that it would become like second nature in no time. She was eager to just do it already but also worried that she’d do something stupid like press the gas instead of the brake. She had a reputation in her family for being a little flaky, often leaving her house key in her locker at school and having to ask the neighbors to let her in with the spare. And there was the one time she ruined all of her textbooks because she’d decided to bring raspberry popsicles in her sack lunch. Plus, unlike a lot of her friends, including a classmate who regularly took out her parents’ car without them knowing, she’d never driven a real car before. She’d only driven Go-Karts, which didn’t count as real driving since there were no consequences for crashing into the wall.

After the review, her dad seemed like he wanted to say something else, but thought better of it. Instead he just said, “Ok”, and jumped a little in his seat, his shoulders jerking up and back down, like a little kid who’s told he can open a present if he waits his turn.

He looked at her, “Are you ready?”

“Yeah.”

He turned off the car and they played their own quiet game of Chinese fire drill around his car, a silver Mazda 626.

You’d never know the car was six years old, because like all of his things — tools, furniture, clothes — he took great care to make sure they’d last. She thought back to the day when the whole family had gone to a never-ending stream of car dealerships to compare a bunch of Japanese cars. She had liked testing out the back seats and felt important when asked for her opinion, but by the end of the day she was tired of conversations about power windows and head room and the attributes of gold versus silver. Her dad had alluded to the fact that she and her sister might be able to share this car in a year or two. No promises, and she’d have to get a job to pay for gas, but it was more than idle talk. Her dad took great care with words, too.

First she adjusted her seat and mirrors, quite a bit from their former positions since her dad was so tall. Then she slid the keys in the ignition and hesitantly rotated them away from her like he’d showed her. The car was compliant, easy. Her dad didn’t say anything, but watched to see that she had her foot on the brake before putting the car into drive. She shifted her foot to the gas and slowly, haltingly, moved the car forward. Then she accelerated, eyes jumping between the asphalt and the speedometer. It was a strange sensation. On one hand, she felt like the car was moving of its own accord, like she had no control over it. On the other hand, she felt a heady sense of power as she steered it around the lot.

She continued to meander up and down the lanes, her dad occasionally suggesting that she complete more complicated tasks, like reversing out of a parking spot or using the windshield wipers. When she was older she’d look back with amusement at the deliberateness and timidity with which she approached each component of driving. She doubted she would even be able to talk a new driver through the steps since they had long ago become automatic — a number that you could dial but couldn’t recite.

As she expected, her dad didn’t once curse or yell or use the imaginary ‘passenger brake’ that people joked about. After awhile he said he thought she’d had enough practice. She knew that meant he thought she’d done fine. They switched places again, leaving the car running this time. He adjusted his seat and mirrors, turned on the radio, and drove home.

There would be a few other parking lot lessons later on, to learn how to drive stick shift. There was the one Jason gave her in his pick-up truck after they’d broken up, but when they were still negotiating ways to have each other in their lives. His affection was not conditional upon her ability to gently release the clutch. He didn’t once curse or yell or use the imaginary ‘passenger brake’ that people joked about.

There was the lesson in the parking lot of the basketball stadium at her university, in Christopher’s pick-up truck. They’d met her sophomore year when she’d seen him standing tall and somewhat awkwardly across a room. He would be graduating soon and heading out east to work for the government. He was honest and funny and careful with his words, too. She knew what happiness was sitting in the cab of that red truck. He didn’t once curse or yell or use the imaginary ‘passenger brake’ that people joked about.

She never did master the manual transmission, and there would be no more driving lessons. However, in the coming years she would occasionally experience again the contradictory feelings of control and powerlessness that she felt in that empty parking lot. Every time she reached the top of a steep and curving exit ramp, she feared that her subconscious would tell her to keep the car straight, crash through the concrete and launch into space. Every time she crossed a bridge she was afraid she’d veer sharply left or right and plummet into the water. She would imagine the exhilaration, the terror, the impact, the darkness. Every time, however, she followed the guiding lines like her dad had taught her.

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