I don’t think of myself as particularly brave, but there is one exception. Just about every day, I put aside my fears, strap myself into a two-ton metal cage, unflinchingly stare death in the eye, and hurdle myself at inhuman speeds down the road, putting my life and well-being at the mercy of the reflexes, judgment, and ability to remain focused and conscious of the thousands of other drivers who cross my path.
Humans weren’t built to drive, me least of all. The blood flowing in my veins trickled down from distant ancestors who hailed from places like Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Scandinavia, and from grandparents and parents born in Chicago—all places where you can get where you need to go via mass transit or bicycle or foot.
Places, unlike the one I find myself residing in, where it’s possible to lead a rich, satisfying, well-traveled life without ever personally operating a motor vehicle. I know, because my mom didn’t get her license till she was close to 30 and had three kids.
I put off getting my license until a few months before high school graduation, which was young for my family but ancient compared to my peers, who were at the DMV the minute they were eligible to take the test. I didn’t own a car of my own till I was 35. I don’t enjoy driving but see it as a necessary evil.
My stepson is 15 now and has his learner’s permit, and his dad has been taking him out for lessons. Since he has a two-seater, I haven’t been able to accompany them. And that’s all well and good if you want the kind of driving instructor who actually enjoys driving and even prefers a stick because, I don’t know, I guess it feels even more driving-y than operating an automatic, or if you want a driving teacher who thinks it’s no big deal to navigate heavy traffic, confusing interchanges in unfamiliar cities, and/or bad weather conditions, one who stays calm behind the wheel and expertly swerves his way out of trouble when some idiot does something crazy on the road, one who regularly–of his own volition–backs into parking places.
But it occurs to me that I am uniquely qualified to teach my stepson some things about driving that he’ll never learn from his father, or from his driver’s ed manual, or from Siri. I have a vast store of secret knowledge, a mental map of hidden landmarks that seem invisible to my husband but that I can see all too clearly through my Coke bottle lenses of fear and panic. Who but me is going to reveal the many pitfalls that lie in wait as the boy embarks upon his asphalt journey? For instance, there’s:
- Deadman’s Interchange: An interstate exchange where they put the on-ramp and off-ramps really close together and you end up in these high-speed games of chicken where half the cars need to get over to the right while the other half need to get over to the left, and there’s all of like a hundred feet to do it before everyone’s lanes run out and they all end up piled together in a fiery collision where everyone may be maimed or dead, but at least they all still have their pride intact at having refused to yield.
- Slough of Despond: A road and/or specific lanes of a road prone to deep puddling and flash flooding during rainstorms.
- Pit of Doom: A pothole (or raised manhole cover or train track) that doesn’t look that bad but that, if you go over at full speed, is going to jar your vehicle to the point that bits and pieces of it may fall off.
- Mouth of Hell: Poorly designed shopping mall intersections where no one knows who has the right of way, where you finally decide it’s your turn only to get on a road thinking it will lead you out, but instead it dumps you right back into the parking lot.
- Hill of Difficulty: An intersection with heavy traffic and/or obstructed visibility but no traffic light, where attempting to make a left turn at the wrong time of day is a fool’s errand destined to end in heartache for you and the poor unfortunate souls stuck behind you and/or death.
- Valley of Humiliation: A parallel parking spot that looks okay but ends up being too small for you to maneuver into without making approximately 99 adjustments. And there are lots of pedestrians milling about to watch and enjoy your struggle.
- Labyrinth of Eternal Suffering: A parking deck designed in such a way that, once inside, you can’t tell whether you are going east or west, north or south, up or down. If you dare enter, you will have no idea how to exit and may very well live out the rest of your days driving in circles and switchbacks in a futile, ceaseless attempt to escape.
I am constantly mentally mapping these sinister places and strategizing ways to survive them or, better yet, developing alternate routes to go around them. I am willing to share this knowledge, to selflessly pass it on to the next generation. Once the boy has successfully journeyed past these dark places, I am also uniquely qualified to show him the few and far between treasures that await the brave and persistent traveler, for example:
- Land of Enchanted Animals: Specific locations where, if you pay close attention, you are likely to see Dapple, the neighbor’s outdoor cat, and/or Hot Dog and Hamburger, another neighbor’s cats who often sit in a window cut out of the porch, looking like they’re ready to take your order and ask if you want fries with that.
- Pleasant Meadow: Routes you need to take in early spring in order to see the best tulip trees, dogwoods, and cherry trees, in summer for mimosa trees and wisteria, and in fall for the most vibrant maple leaves.
- Celestial Arch of Many Colors: Tips and tricks for recognizing the optimal weather conditions for a rainbow, knowing where to look to find it, and staying in your own lane and still observing traffic laws while admiring it.
- Gate of Sweet Relief: The rest stops and fast food joints on the way to the beach, lake, and mountains that have the cleanest bathrooms for pit stops.
I’m probably the type of defensive, passive, cautious driver that makes you crazy, that brakes for squirrels, that causes your speed-demon self to curse and shake your fist when you get behind me on the road. But I’ve never gotten a speeding ticket and have only been in two minor fender benders, neither of which were my fault. And when the apocalypse comes and the power goes out and there are no working traffic lights and the rules of the road and of human decency dissolve completely into violence and chaos, you’re going to wish you had my uncanny ability to find my way home without ever having to make a left turn.
If that isn’t winning, I don’t know what is.