“Emmie, I can’t drive. I don’t know how.” I really didn’t. At sixteen, I’d already had my hands and feet on the controls of an airplane as it cut smoothly through the air a thousand feet above the ground, but I didn’t know the first thing about driving a car. My parents had never shown me. Heck, I rarely even got it sit in the front seat.
I was old enough, but there hadn’t really been any reason for me to get my license. I could ride my bike anywhere I needed to go, and if I was going anywhere much farther than school or home, I was probably going there with my parents anyway. I knew some kids at school who drove, and I knew lots more who wanted to, but I was happy to ride my bike or sit in the passenger seat.
“Emmie, really. You drive, okay?”
She smiled and sized me up, probably trying to figure out what I was afraid of. “You can totally do this, Bets. It’s fun, like riding your bike… just faster.” I made a face. “OK, it’s not like riding a bike, but it is fun.” Her smile faded a little and her voice got more serious. “Besides, with Seth gone, we need another driver. I can only drive so far each day. If we’re taking turns, we’ll get a lot farther.” I thought for a second that Emmie’s reasoning was just a made up excuse to persuade me, but I felt myself giving in, wanting to make sure that I was doing my fair share. But I still must have looked hesitant. “Come on, try it. It’ll be cool.”
I took the key from Emmie’s finger and slumped into the driver’s seat. “Yeah, cool,” I said with a sigh.
I was immediately surprised at how different the driver’s seat felt compared to the passenger seat. I felt the need to sit up straight, instead of slouching back relaxed like I was used to doing. Maybe it was the steering wheel, making me want to lean forward and hold it tightly or the pedals on the floor that seemed to be taking up all the leg room. But I think most of all, the seat felt different because everything was reversed. The door was on my left, the aisle on my right, and the view out the windshield shifted slightly to the side. It was just a few feet from one seat to the other, but the perspective was entirely changed.
I put my hands on the steering wheel and then realized I was still holding the key. I shifted my feet on the floor trying to find the pedals, then tilted my head to one side so I could take a look, only to discover there were three pedals and only two feet. I fumbled with the key, trying to insert it one way and then the other and then switching back to the first when it still wouldn’t fit. I finally gave up and turned toward Emmie with a frustrated growl.
“What do I do?” I shouted in a voice that immediately sounded too big for the inside of the VW. I tried to turn the angry face I was wearing to one that pleaded for sympathy instead, and then apologized. I wasn’t angry at Emmie after all, but I was frustrated.
“It’s cool, Bets. No worries... okay, here… put your left foot down on that pedal. Yeah, all the way to the floor. Okay, the key… put it in this way.” Emmie talked me through each step, pointing and gesturing, and doing her best not to simply grab the key and start the VW for me. Somehow it slid into the ignition smoothly with Emmie’s coaching, and turned easily once I had it in place.
The VW’s engine sputtered to life, and I jumped a little, pulling my hands off the steering wheel when I felt the vibrations in it. My foot hopped off the pedal, and it popped back into the upward position with the thunk.
Emmie coached again. “OK, Bets. Cool. You got the engine started. Now, foot back on that pedal. That’s right. Alright, one hand on the wheel, other hand move the shifter.” There seemed to be more controls than I could cover. Three pedals, a steering wheel that I felt compelled to hold tightly with both hands, and now the shifter. It stuck up from between the two front seats with a cryptic diagram of numbers and the letter “R”, far enough away that for a second I thought I’d ask Emmie to work it for me. But I knew that was silly.
I forced myself to pull my right hand off the wheel and reached out to move the shifter into the 1 position. “Good. Alright, Bets, now right foot on that pedal, no not that one. The other one.” I pushed the pedal to the floor like I had the first one, and I heard the engine scream in the back of the VW. I yanked my foot off and shot Emmie a look of angry surprise.
“Be cool, Bets. It’s okay. So, that’s the gas. Don’t push that one all the way down. The middle one’s the brake, and the one on the left, the one your other foot is on, that’s the clutch.
“It helps you shift gears.”
“Well, why do I need to shift gears? Can’t I just step on the gas?” Clearly all the time I had spent in the back seat of my parents’ car had taught me nothing about how a car actually worked. Emmie explained each pedal again and told me how I’d need to use both feet together to push in on the gas pedal while slowly letting out the clutch. It reminded me a little of putting my two feet on the rudder pedals of Miss E.’s airplane, but the memory was useless. This was nothing like flying an airplane.
I tried what Emmie told me. At first I was too fast pushing in the gas and too slow letting out the clutch. The engine revved again, and we went nowhere. Then I had the opposite problem. The engine coughed and sputtered while the VW lurched forward once and then twice before the engine stalled and we came to a shuddering stop.
At sixteen, I hadn’t encountered a whole lot that I couldn’t do. I was a good student and pretty much got all A’s in my classes. I sometimes think adults all need to spend some time walking through a high school just to see everything kids are doing. Working on math problems, experimenting in science, toss in a musical instrument or the school play, write a story in English and research in history. All in one day. Repeat five days a week. We grow up and become adults and decide we can’t do any of that stuff anymore, but for a few years at least, we feel like we can do everything, which sort of sets us up for embarrassment when we have to learn how to drive a car.
I tried again, and again. I alternated between revving the engine and stalling it, but each time I tried I came a little closer to finding that place right in the middle where the engine had enough gas to move the VW forward. Finally I found it. I felt it before it actually happened. One pedal pushed in, the other came up, and somewhere in between the VW started moving, not jumping forward and then coughing to a stop, but rolling smoothly like it was meant to do.
As soon as it happened, I panicked. What do I do next? I had to steer, and control the speed, and the VW was rolling onto the road where I’d also need to actually drive it, paying attention to where I was going and what I was doing. For an instant, I wanted to remove my hands and feet from all the controls and simply give up. Instead, I shouted at Emmie. “What do I do? What do I do!”
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