I have no recollection of what kind of car we were in that day, but I clearly remember what I saw through the windshield: a narrow, rutted, dirt road stretched out between two fields of tall grass and a bright blue sky that seemed bigger than the one we’d left behind in Missouri. The next image I can picture is my stepfather’s arms, in short shirtsleeves, reaching across me and grabbing the steering wheel as he shouted, “Stop, stop, stop!” I don’t recall what else he might have said. In hindsight I know what I’d have been saying if I’d been in his position, but the man I hadn’t yet started to call Daddy didn’t like cusswords and didn’t use them.
That was my first driving lesson. Last one, too. Mother had remarried weeks earlier and moved my sister and me to Texas. The plan was to get a house in the town of Orange before school started, but until then we were staying in nearby Bridge City, all of us crammed together in my stepfather’s rented garage apartment, where the sweltering August heat rose up into the two rooms plus kitchenette and the ancient window air conditioner chugged for all it was worth but didn’t stand a chance.
I don’t know whose idea it was to teach me to drive. Not mine, I’m pretty sure. Maybe my new daddy thought it would be a bonding experience. I was 14 years old, and in Texas that was old enough to get a learner’s permit. Which I never did get. My main problem--the one that scared the dickens out of Daddy--was a tendency to oversteer. When a bump in that country road had made the steering wheel jerk a fraction of an inch to the left in my hands, I’d held on tightly and steered to the right, way too far it turned out, then tried to correct that with a forceful turn back to the left, then back and forth, back and forth over the ruts, my foot on the gas pedal the whole time. After the hollering and steering-wheel grabbing, I got the car stopped, and the very short driving lesson ended. Daddy got out of the car and started walking around it, so I knew I was supposed to do the same. We traded places and he drove home. By then I knew what I’d done wrong, but I never got another lesson, so I couldn’t prove it. Not that I ever asked for a second chance; I’d scared myself as much as I’d scared Daddy.
All through high school, neighborhood carpools delivered me safely to school and back, but I had to bum rides from friends for after-school events like choir practice and play rehearsals. After graduation, when I got my first job, Mother scouted around and found a neighbor, Mary-something, who worked across the street from my office and was willing to take me to and from work for a dollar a week in gas money.
I never told anybody, but I did drive one time that first year after graduation. I went with a guy named Ted to meet some friends and go swimming (another thing everyone but me seemed to know how to do). Ted and these other people were not kids I’d known from my school in Orange; they were my best friend Jude’s friends from her school, a wilder bunch who’d gone to West Orange High. They smoked and drank beer. I’d tried to smoke but had given it up after two weeks and one pack of Kents, and I thought beer tasted nasty, so I didn’t drink it. Ted apparently liked beer a lot. When it was time to go home at the end of our date, he handed me the car keys. I looked up at him, surprised, and told him I didn’t know how to drive. He said, “There ain’t nothin’ to it,” gave me a minute’s worth of instructions and fell asleep in the shotgun seat. I drove us home.
The next time I drove I was married and living with my new husband, Bill, in Bryan, Texas. Bill had bought a little piece of land that he called “the farm” in Iola, northeast of Bryan. We’d go there sometimes on a weekend day. Two animals had come with the farm, a friendly, pregnant cow named Hoover and a mean Shetland pony called Silly. If the animals needed shelter, they could find it in the wooded area at the rear of the property or else under a rickety, wooden structure that was nothing more than one wall and a roof held up by a couple of posts. I liked the woods better myself. I’d take a book back there, sit on the ground with my back against a tree and read for hours while Bill did whatever he wanted to do. The only time I knew for sure what he did was the day he borrowed a tractor from the farm’s nearest neighbor so he could mow. When we picked up the tractor that morning, Bill said he’d drive it and I could follow him in the car. The route to the farm was a straight shot on a paved road, so the drive was an easy one.
When the mowing was done, we reversed the procedure. Bill pulled the tractor through the gate, turned and parked it beside the road, then told me to go on ahead while he locked up. He said he’d meet me at the neighbor’s in a couple of minutes. I drove our big, bulky Buick (or whatever it was) through the gate, made the tight right turn, and kept my eyes on the road ahead. Once at the neighbor’s, I waited for a long, long time. It was almost dark when Bill got there. He said I’d bumped one of the big tractor tires when I pulled out, bumped it hard enough to nudge it into a slide. I told him truthfully I’d never felt a thing, but he said the tractor was just slipping into the bottom of the ditch when he turned around after locking the gate. He said he’d stood in the road behind me and waved and waved, but I never even looked back.
By the time I drove again, baby Kim had arrived, and the big Buick had been replaced by a Volkswagen, a much smaller car that had its engine in the back. Kim was asleep and Bill wished he was, so when I mentioned that we were almost out of baby formula, he said he thought it would be good practice if I went the few short blocks to the store by myself while he stayed with the baby. I drove there tentatively and had no trouble until I’d bought what we needed and started for home. Still in the parking lot, barely moving at all, I gently eased the car backward right into a concrete pillar. A close inspection showed not even one tiny scratch on the car and too many scratches on the pillar for anybody to pick out one specific one that I’d caused. On the way home I decided there was no need to mention what had happened. It must have been a week later when Bill asked me if I’d hit something with the car. I confessed immediately and asked, “How in the world did you know that?” He said he’d tried to check the oil but couldn’t raise the hood because the bumper was pushed in about two inches.
After our second daughter, Kelli, was born and my days got busier, it soon became clear that I needed to stop relying on other people for transportation, so I drove a lot more often. I steered mostly with my left hand so I could fling my right arm across the two tiny girls bouncing around on the bench seat next to me and protect them from sudden stops and bumps. Somewhere in that time period I got a driver’s license, but I don’t remember doing it.
When Kim was five and Kelli was three, Bill and I divorced. I was working then, driving every day in a little yellow Corvair Monza convertible, shifting its four-speed transmission with ease, carrying those little girls around with a measure of confidence that didn’t accurately reflect how much I still needed to learn about driving. All I can say is we were lucky.
Then came Richard. He was my second husband, and he cared enough to pay attention to a lot of things, including how I drove. He gave me driving tips, not in a lesson, but one at a time over the course of several years. Once, when he realized that I leaned slightly forward while I drove, he figured out that I was keeping a close eye on the forty- or fifty-some-odd feet of road directly in front of the car. He explained that I needed to focus farther away, far enough down the road that I could spot a hazard before I was right up on top of it. That one change made driving a lot less scary. Another time he noticed how carefully I watched the edge of the road and the centerline to make sure I stayed between them. He suggested that I stop worrying about the edges and line myself up over the dark, oily swath that runs down the center of each lane. He said as long as my wheels straddled the greasy strip, I’d be fine. I‘d always been careful to slow down on a curve, but Richard told me I’d have better traction if I’d slow down ahead of the curve, then accelerate slightly as I went into it. He was right, and I’ve done it his way ever since. One night I asked him about the blue light that mysteriously showed up on my dashboard from time to time. I felt silly, but also quite pleased, when he told me the blue light meant that my bright lights were on. Up until then the only way I could ever be certain about the brights was to test out the headlights on a dark road or the side of a building. I’m just guessing, but the blue-light incident might have been one of the times Richard hugged me close, chuckled in my ear, and called me his “dumb blonde.” He could get away with that once in a while, because I knew that he knew I wasn’t actually dumb. Or blonde.
I’ve driven many miles between then and now, on cross-country family moves, dozens of job-related trips between Baton Rouge and Houston, daily commutes to and from work in heavy traffic. These days I don’t drive a lot. Daytime traffic is hellish, and night blindness shakes my confidence after the sun goes down. Also, I don’t know whether it’s a consequence of aging, long-term trust issues or the fact that so many people can’t seem to put their dad-gummed cell phones down for even a minute, but something has happened in recent years that makes me question the skills and good sense of every other driver on the road.
Even so, there are still times when I’m driving along and it occurs to me out of the blue how much I’m enjoying it. When that happens, when it’s a clear, sunny day and I’ve started out early and I’m on a pretty, tree-lined road where there isn’t much traffic, I get the feeling that I’d like to just keep on driving, keep on going and going until I end up someplace new and different, someplace where I can see new scenery, new faces, and have a little adventure of one kind or another. I think about how freeing it would feel to be that spontaneous. I think about how it would be such a gratifying experience that it probably wouldn’t take more than a day or two before I’d be full of it, ready to turn around and head back home to what’s familiar, what I love. I think how someday I’m going to do that, just drive away and follow the road wherever it leads me. Someday. But not that day.