Until this summer, I had never operated a standard commercial motor vehicle. I was scared to death of driving. Some see the driver’s seat as a gateway to freedom and independence, but I only ever saw an adjustable, plush, polyester-covered ticket to the afterlife. Every squirrel daintily skipping in the distance was a grim reaper in disguise, waiting to send me careening into a ditch. Every approaching car may as well have been my own hearse.
I’d sit in the back seat, thank you. After finishing up school in New York, I’d get a dreamy flat in Williamsburg, and I’d never have to go to the DMV for the rest of my life.
And yet, there I sat in driver’s ed, surrounded by dozens of 15-year-olds and their tinny Lil Wayne ringtones. I’d decided to finally humor my parents. In the classroom, we spent more time discussing the dangers of drunken speeding than we did actual driving techniques. Apparently we were expected to hit the roads, guns-a-blazin’. Such is youth. When no fewer than three of my classmates propositioned me to walk up to a nearby gas station and buy them Black and Milds, I realized that my own youth was fading fast.
My dad took me out on the road to perfect my skills, after a trip to the bakery five minutes from my house left my usually calm-and-composed mother gasping for air like a beached fish and shouting, “Slow down!” My dad was more than happy to take on the role of instructor—it’d give us some nice quality time together, and he had no other plans for that summer aside from watching Real Housewives reruns. Taking those trips out on winding country roads in our beat-up Prius became a type of therapy for me and, gradually, squirrels and approaching cars ceased to become harbingers of doom.
I barely passed the test, but I got my license on Aug. 3. I drove the Prius only a few times, since my 25-year-old brother also needed to practice for his driving test, but I was happy to know I would be heading back to Barnard a lean, mean driving machine. On top of all that, I was in the blissful early days of my first real relationship, and I was earning plenty of money for school working at a public interest media center in Washington, D.C. That plastic card from the Maryland Motor Vehicles Administration was proof that I’d abandoned the awkward twilight that precedes adulthood.
Then the summer took a hairpin turn. Over the course of seven days, I had three more firsts.
I contracted a full-blown kidney infection; the most alarming symptom of which was an inability to move without the most searing pain imaginable. I distinctly remember my fever dreams: Night after restless night, visions of losing control of the steering wheel and veering into bottomless pits danced in my head. A few days later, my girlfriend and I split up, and the same night, a close family friend passed away from lung cancer. First serious illness, first real breakup, first funeral. One, two, three.
I had tried to avoid pain and uncertainty, but it found me, and all I could do was grit my teeth, grip the steering wheel, and hold on for dear life as all three events began to coalesce into one big sloppy mess. It was a strange juggling act: keeping up on a strict regimen of antibiotics and painkillers, dealing with the creeping dread of the fact that I’d probably never see or speak to my ex again, and worst of all, processing the loss of my god-grandmother (yes, I know it’s weird—Greek Orthodoxy has its quirks), a woman who brought so much joy into the lives of my family, and who was so sweet and loving that, from a young age, I’d taken to calling her “darling.”
As my mother followed the rest of the funeral procession in a long, winding drive to the cemetery—license or not, if she didn’t feel comfortable with me driving her around the block, she definitely didn’t want me behind the wheel in a 15-plus-car-long procession—things began to sink in. Yes, the past several days had been horrific, and yes, it would probably take a while for me to revert to my usual, puppy-like cheer, but it wasn’t too far from a harrowing drive I’d taken a few days after getting my license.
On my way home from picking my brother up at the train station, Mother Nature had decided that it wasn’t just time for it to rain, but it was time for a deluge of cataclysmic proportions: sideways rain, wind, the whole shebang. I’d never driven in rain before, and I made sure my brother and father were well aware of this fact. “Stop whining, turn your wipers on, and get over it!” my dad had said. Two minutes later, the rain stopped, the sky cleared, and I let out a deep exhale. Obviously, death, illness, and personal misfortune are a little more serious, but the logic is the same: shut up, deal, and focus on making it through.
I won’t be trying to pull a Speed Racer on the streets of New York this year (have you SEEN the way those cabbies drive?). Still, even if I don’t plan on getting behind the wheel for a while, I’ll always associate that piece of plastic with something more than driving. It’s a reminder of the summer where I stopped running from everything, bucked up, and grew up for once. I’ll consider these past few months a moving violation—one that moved me.