I remember the last time I drove a car. I had to pick up my husband from the airport. To change lanes on an almost empty road, I looked back several times, wavering until the driver behind me started desperately gesticulating to encourage me to make the move already. I remember every time I’ve driven – there were so few of them and they were always terrifying. Every time was like my first time. I always had to think which was the gas, and which was the brake.
I only got my license at 36. I thought it would finally make me feel like a competent adult, like I wasn’t just impersonating one.
When I was growing up my mother never drove. She had a license, but after a near-accident she never tried again. She would always overreact at my father’s driving. I can see her hand reaching for the dashboard as she yelped for caution. I was never scared then. I thought nothing bad could happen to us. Once when we were driving through a mountain pass my father had a gallbladder attack. Fortunately, my mother was a doctor and travelled with all essential medicines. She gave him something and we had to stop and wait for his spasms to pass. That’s the first time I questioned her not driving. I decided I wouldn’t be like her – this ultra-competent woman who could save a life, but couldn’t operate an automobile to save her life.
When I turned 18 I promptly signed up for driving lessons. I wanted to go with a friend, but I got wait-listed as the class was full and so I dropped it. At 19 I got pregnant. That summer I went to the beach with my brother and my new husband. My round belly covered in hot pink spandex did not stop me from swimming and diving, to the horror of mothers with small children around me. The vacation ended abruptly when my husband was called back for work. My brother drove us back at night on another perilous mountain road. I sat alone in the back seat in the dark not seeing where the road would swerve and for the first time I felt a paralyzing fear for the life growing inside of me.
When my son was a baby we were constantly shuttling between our parents’ homes as we didn’t have one of our own. He would always promptly fall asleep in the car as I held him on my lap in the back seat. When we finally got our own place I was alone there with him a lot, since my husband traveled for work. One time my son got the stomach flu. He was two or three years old and the vomiting and diarrhea had left him limp. I had never seen him so sick that he wouldn’t speak or play. He smelled like nail polish from the dehydration. We didn’t have a phone line installed yet. I had to leave him alone and run to the payphone outside to call a friend with a car. I felt so scared and helpless that I barely got the words out to explain what the problem was. Later she told me she had thought ‘the worst had happened.’ No, that would only happen years later.
Throughout his childhood I would have recurrent dreams that my son was in danger and I had to drive him somewhere, but I couldn’t. Often in the dream I would have to take control of the car while I was in the back seat.
When I finally achieved some financial stability, after having moved to another country and struggled to support my family while going to graduate school, I bought a car so I could learn to drive. It took me three tries to pass the driving test, and I was shocked when I did. I felt like a fraud.
I forced myself to drive the car for practice, once getting stuck in traffic for five hours, my ass turning numb. But at last I was able to drive my son, like a proper mother should. He had, meanwhile, turned 18 and gone away to college.
When it was time to bring him home after his first year, I started out early to beat the traffic. When I got there he hadn’t gotten up or packed. That took us a couple of hours. By the time we finally started back, I was already exhausted and missed a turn without noticing, heading in the wrong direction. I was also hearing a strange noise coming from the car and I realized, turning cold inside, that when I’d parked on a slope in front of the college I had halfheartedly tried to pull the manual brake and then forgot to release it. The brake had been scraping against the wheels all this time. I kept that to myself as my son was already apprehensive about my navigation and driving skills. Instead of saving his life with my driving, I was putting it in peril. I was a fraud.
Once I found our way back, though, he promptly fell asleep, sitting shotgun with his guitar between his knees, the small car stuffed with his clothes and furniture. I got us home, but not before once nearly fatally forgetting to look back into my blind spot before changing lanes. The car next to us moved over to avoid collision, while my son stayed asleep.
Years later he would laud me for that trip, saying what a trooper I was. My son never got his license. He was scheduled to take a driving test the morning he died. He had the same aversion to driving that I do, that my mother did. I must have passed it on to him in the womb that night when I first felt fear for him, for us. Now I have no fear. And I have no reason to drive.