Learning to Drive by William Hoffacker

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hands on steering wheelSitting in the backseat of my parents’ forest green minivan, I stared at the window, paying no attention to what lay beyond it, just watching one raindrop at a time, picking one from the top and watching its path downward as it absorbed or skirted around all the others in its wake. Sometimes I chose two raindrops and imagined them competing in a race to reach the bottom. I had no sense of what was going on outside, how fast the windshield wipers moved, how slippery the roads must have been. I had my own window, and I watched the water as intently as my father watched the road.

* * *

I’m about nine years old, and we’re on our way home from a night game at Shea Stadium. Rain taps on the roof of the car and runs down the windows in drips and streams. My dad is driving, stuck in a long line of cars as they leave the parking lot and inch toward the highway. My cousin Kristen, going on twenty, sits shotgun. Her teenage brother, Matt, sits in the back with me. They talk about the game, whether or not the Mets stand a chance this season, while I stare out my window and watch every streetlight and billboard go by.

As we merge onto the highway, I tune in to the conversation as it turns away from baseball and toward summer vacation, places our family has been and places we’re going. We’ve all been to Cooperstown, and my father compares stories with Kristen and Matt about what they’ve seen. As they talk about the Baseball Hall of Fame, I look out my window for cars going by, search the license plates for something that might spell a word, and recognize the familiar sign for the Whitestone Lanes bowling alley as it whizzes by.

“What about the Hall of Mirrors?” Matt says. “Have you been there?”

“No,” my dad says. “We must’ve missed that.”

“Hall of Mirrors?” I ask. “Why didn’t we go there, Dad?”

That sounded so cool. A real life Hall of Mirrors, the kind I’ve only seen in cartoons. I’ve stepped between two mirrors whenever my mom takes me to the cleaners, seen how it copies my image out into infinity, pretended there were really that many of me stretched out like a line of dancers. I can’t imagine what a whole Hall of Mirrors would show me. And I could have been there when instead my parents brought me to a stupid, boring baseball museum.

“Sorry, Will,” my dad says. “Maybe next time.”

“No fair,” I say, and without even thinking, I reach for the brim of my cap, pull it off my head, and fling it at my dad. As it brushes against his shoulder, his left hand comes off the steering wheel, grabs the hat, and whips it down to the floor.

“Don’t ever distract the driver like that,” he says. I’ve never seen him so mad. “That was dangerous and stupid. We could’ve been killed. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” I say, looking at my knees. There’s a long silence, and I’m not sure what makes me want to cry more, the yelling or the quiet that follows. I concentrate on sitting still in my seat and not crying, distracting myself with the blurry yellows of streetlights flying by my window. Soon my dad and my cousins start chatting again, even laughing with each other, like nothing happened, like I hadn’t brought us near death. My dad’s outburst stunned me; I’d never thought a simple car ride could mean danger. I stay quiet the rest of the ride, glancing back and forth between the night outside and my crumpled cap on the floor.

* * *

In the backseat, often I put my hands in my lap and looked at their reflection in the side window. In the distorted image, my fingers ballooned up to thick, wide sausage links, and I wiggled them on my knee to see how their monstrous reflection followed suit. When I was little, I liked the way the window made my hands look because I imagined I had big, grown-up hands, or I was transforming into the Incredible Hulk. Later, in my awkward, chubby preteen years, I hated that fun-house mirror image, worried my fingers would really end up looking like that.

* * *

I’m about thirteen, and again my dad is driving. I’m in the passenger seat of my parents’ Hyundai, and we’re going down Northern Boulevard on our way home from my uncle’s house. I’ve gotten used to my new point of view in the front seat, looking out through the windshield more than the window beside me. I’ve inherited exceptional height genes from my parents, and since I recently grew taller than my mom, she has let me ride up front, even when all three of us go out together. Cousins and uncles bust my chops about it, as if I make her ride in the backseat, like I’m forgetting my place as baby in the family.

I look over to my father’s seat, trying to see where his foot meets the gas pedal. His shorts end just above his knees, and his legs are covered in fur-like hairs that my own legs have only begun to sprout. My eyes move up and I scan his arms in order to judge just how far he has to reach to grab the steering wheel. I’m wondering how big you have to be before you can drive a car. My mom, and loads of other people shorter than her, drive cars every day.

“Dad, how come I have to wait so long to get a driver’s license?” I ask him. “I’m tall enough, aren’t I?”

“It’s not all about how tall you are,” he says. “It’s about brains.”

Yet another area I’ve already got covered, I think. “But I’m already really smart. I’m like the smartest guy in my class, you know that.”

“The point is, behind the wheel you always have to be alert. It requires a lot of focus. So much can go wrong,” he says, and meanwhile I watch store after store go by on either side of us. The flashy colors of a cards-and-comics store catch my eye, with its posters for Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh collectibles in the window.

“For example,” my dad says, “you can’t turn your head to look at every Yu-Gi-Oh sign you pass by. You have to keep your eyes on the road.”

I have no reply because he caught me, he’s right. I didn’t know he could tell what I was looking at, never thought he’d use such a thing against me. But then I wonder how he called me out so quickly unless he wasn’t entirely focused on the road himself. He was so spot-on, could it really have just been his peripheral vision? I’m too embarrassed to point it out, though. We don’t speak to each other for the rest of the ride home.

* * *

On a long road trip, sometimes I brought a book, whichever Harry Potter novel or X-Men comic I was reading that week, but soon I discovered that reading during the drive always nauseated me. I had to put the book in my lap, my index finger stuck in the middle to save my page. The only cure for my sick stomach was to stare out my side window and watch houses and cars as they whooshed by, embracing the ceaseless movement instead of grounding myself in the static words on the page.

* * *

Now I’m 20 years old and in the driver’s seat, where I’ve been for almost a year. My hands grip the ten and two o’clock of the steering wheel of the black Honda Fit my parents bought me last summer. This summer I’m in Pennsylvania, staying on campus near my girlfriend, Dana, who rides in the passenger seat. It’s a warm July night, around 10 p.m., sun long gone and replaced by a skyline of stars that shine so clearly in these parts.

There aren’t any streetlights on this road, not many lights at all, aside from my car’s high beams illuminating the trees lining either side of the back road until I switch them off for the occasional car passing the other way. I should be on the highway, but I could hardly see the ramp to turn onto I-81 and I missed it. I’m on edge because I’ve never traveled this way before.

I remember what my dad told me about driving down a dark road at night, how he always likes to have a car in front of him so he can follow its taillights, a comfort I can’t find on this deserted road—until we come to a miniature traffic jam, a small line of cars waiting for a go-ahead signal from the cops on scene. The flashing lights of the ambulance signal the accident that just happened here.

Minutes later the police officers wave the line of cars past, and one-by-one they disappear in blazes of speed or turns off the road until we’re alone again. In a few minutes we find a patch of civilization, streetlights and stores on each side and a traffic light ahead. The GPS tells me to turn left at the stoplight, but in the turning lane, waiting at the red light, I see a maroon SUV with flashing yellow emergency lights atop it, and in the left lane, facing the other way and just sitting there, a police car with its lights flashing, too. “Um,” I say. I figure the SUV is waiting at the light and meanwhile the driver must be talking with this cop. I pull into the turning lane, behind the SUV, and wait for the light to change.

The traffic light turns green and the SUV doesn’t budge. I want to go around him, but I’m not about do that right in front of a cop. Then I realize the SUV has started moving. Backwards. Accelerating at an alarming rate, and I don’t know if I screamed, because all I remember hearing is the slam of bumper hitting fender and the crunch of the glass and the sound of my horn which I pressed down on seconds too late, far too late. No airbags deployed. Should I be relieved or terrified by that? The driver gets out of his SUV, and the cop gets out of his car. I stay in my seat, roll down the window, and am hysterical. “What was that? What the fuck just happened?” I say. The cop, pudgy in his uniform, with a receding hairline, tells me to calm down and pull over to the side. I can’t get a good look at the SUV driver, but I hear him saying, “I couldn’t see you. What were you doing back there?”

I back up and pull over, then turn to Dana. “Are you okay?” I ask her.

“I’m fine,” she says in a rattled voice. “Are you?”

“I’m not hurt,” I say.

The cop comes to the window and says he’ll handle this, that they’ve had a hell of a night, that there was an accident about a mile back and they’re trying to block off the road, that he needs to see my license and registration. I’ve been dreading this moment since I started driving. My license I keep in my wallet, I see it all the time. The registration, I’m not sure I’d know it if I saw it. From the passenger’s seat Dana looks in the glove compartment. We search through every manual and booklet, holding up each slip of paper to the cop, asking, “Is this it?” and he says no, no, no. He’s good-natured, obviously trying to keep me calm, and eventually he settles for an insurance card. He leaves to write down my information, and I start sobbing.

The moment he approaches the window again, I wipe away my tears and take deep breaths. He asks more questions so he can fill out the accident report. “What’s the make and model of the car?” he asks.

“It’s a Honda Fit,” I tell him.

“A Honda what?” he says.

“Fit. F-I-T,” I say.

“Heh, not anymore,” he says with a smirk. I could reach out the window and punch him in his smug mouth, but I only heave a heavy sigh. When he’s gotten all his answers, he gives me a copy of the report, with the insurance information I need from the other driver. “Now, I could cite you, because pulling up close to an emergency vehicle with its lights on is an offence,” he says. “I could even arrest you, but I’m not going to do any of that.”

“Are you serious? This wasn’t my fault. You should be arresting him,” I want to say, but don’t. “Thank you,” I do say. “Would you mind if I get out and look at the damage?” He tells me to go ahead, so Dana and I step out and stare at the driver’s side of the front fender where the SUV’s bumper smashed into it. Fender dented in, hood scraped up, glass around the headlight shattered, yet the light itself still shines, but droops a little. I keep telling myself, It could’ve been worse. But my parents paid good money for this car, and now they’ll have to pay more to fix it. I hope they’ll understand this wasn’t my fault, and I worry my dad will be disappointed. Since I got behind the wheel, I knew this day would come. Everyone has a story like this, or more than one, but I wish it hadn’t happened so soon, after only a year of driving, because I’ve got the rest of my life for a next time.

* * *

I used to think there were people who manually changed the colors on traffic lights, like instead of being on a timer, all the stoplights were controlled by workers in an office building whose job is to sit and watch a bunch of intersections on screens and switch between red and green when there are enough cars lined up and waiting to cross. I’d kick the seat in front of me, growing impatient whenever we had to sit at a red light even though there were no cars crossing in front of us, thinking: What the heck is taking them so long to change this light?

* * *

The summer after my first year in college, my parents sign me up for driving lessons. I could’ve gotten my license sooner, but growing up in New York City I didn’t see the need. When my friends in high school started taking driver’s ed, I made fun of them for having to stay in school later. Now, twice a week for a month, I force myself out of bed three hours early to meet the instructor who pulls up in front of the house in a small, white sedan with a yellow sign on top that reads “Mercedes Driving School” and the “Student Driver” bumper stickers on the back. Getting my permit was the easiest test I ever took, ten questions simple enough I could’ve answered them correctly even before I stayed up studying the night before. Putting those lessons into practice proves more difficult.

For my first lesson, I’m sure the instructor can tell I’m nervous by my rigid posture and how I hold the steering wheel too tightly. The compact car is hardly comfortable for someone of my size, now about six feet four inches tall, and the car’s musty smell of age only adds to my uneasiness. The instructor says he has a few questions before I can take control of the car and start moving.

“There are three kinds of lights on the back of a car,” he says. “What are they?”

“Red are the brake lights, and yellow are the blinkers.”

“What about the white ones?”

“I don’t know,” I say, wondering how unprepared I am for this, worried I should step out of the car now before someone gets hurt.

“White ones mean the car is in reverse,” he says.

“Right, of course,” I say, as if I knew that one already, right on the tip of my tongue, when really I had no clue. Why wasn’t that on the permit test? What other basic knowledge don’t I have?

“When you come to a stop sign,” he says, “and you look both ways, which way do you want to look last before you pull forward?”

“I don’t know,” I say again. “Does it matter?” Maybe he’s the type to throw in a trick question. I hardly know the guy; I can only judge by his old t-shirt, his baseball cap, and the stubble on his face that he seems laid back, like he might joke around on the job.

“Well, just think, if you were out walking and crossing the road, and you were gonna get hit by a car, which would hit you first, a car coming from the left or from the right?”

I imagine myself standing on the sidewalk at the right hand side of the intersection, where I used to cross the street as I walked to my grade school only two blocks from my house. “The right,” I say.

“No, see, you’d get hit from the left first, because the cars coming from the left are closer, and that’s why it’s better to look left last when you’re crossing the road.” I can’t tell whether I was over-thinking or I’m just slow. I’m glad my dad wasn’t around to hear that one from his son who was once so proud of being the smartest kid in his class.

Before I can offer some excuse for my mistake, I find myself lost in a very old memory, a childhood scene that has lost all context, so it’s just a passing moment and a feeling. In it, my dad has taken me shopping at a shoe store, or maybe a sporting goods store. While he’s talking to someone at the counter, I find a little road on a thin mat stretched across the linoleum floor, an imitation of long, black pavement with two solid, yellow lines painted across the middle. I stand at one end of this road, and in my boredom I want to play pretend and imagine I’m a car.

“Daddy,” I shout. “What side of the road should I be on if I’m going this way?” I ask as I point out the way the road leads.

“The right side,” my dad says. “Doesn’t matter which way you’re facing, you always wanna be in the right lane.”

I’m sure that can’t be true. While we travel on the right side of the street going one way, the cars going the other way always stay in the left-hand lane. But that’s when I realize I can’t remember ever riding on the left side, and it can’t be that we’ve always moved in the same direction everywhere we’ve gone. When I try to imagine sitting in a left-lane car going the other way, I realize that magically I’m still riding in the right-hand lane. Perspective, points of view, and the relativity of left and right are crystallized for me, and I don’t feel dumb for not having known it before. I’m happy I learned something groundbreaking, one step closer to thinking like a grown-up, knowing all that they know. Beaming, I stay to the right as I make “vroom” noises and race across the shop floor.

* * *

During those backseat years, things outside seemed to fly by far more quickly if I looked out my side window instead of the front windshield. On a highway or a parkway, I kept my eyes on the guardrail at the edge of the road. Through the windshield I saw every post in the ground holding it up, but out my side window the posts disappeared in a blur so it looked like the long, grey steel was suspended in midair. On local streets I hated how much my mom slowed for a speed bump or when she stopped at a yellow traffic light.

Today, when I drive, I fear the speed I once longed for. Behind the wheel, all my anxieties paint me as a frightened child, even though they never bothered me in the backseat. I’m afraid of pedestrians, other drivers, flashing lights, sudden movements, distractions of all sorts. I’m afraid of every bump in the road. I’m afraid of falling asleep. I’m afraid of the dark. In the driver’s seat, I’m even afraid of the rain.

William Hoffacker graduated from Susquehanna University with a B.A. in creative writing. Currently he is an M.A. candidate in creative nonfiction at Ohio University. He is originally from Queens, N.Y., and he writes essays about growing up Catholic and riding in cars. His work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Emerge Literary Journal, The Susquehanna Review, and The Monarch Review.

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