This photograph is part of series taken by a high school student in our small town's only cemetery which dates back to the 17th century (and is apparently full). Most of the series was shot in black and white but periodically Elizabeth's party dress popped from the frame as if there wasn't any other way. Lucia, dark and moody let the last of the blue grow out of her hair and Elizabeth was days from cutting hers off at the ears. It was June of 2009 and the family toothpaste was out of the tube in a mess on the bathroom floor. It wasn't the sort of toothpaste you wanted out on the floor.
It took a while to get her out of the parking lot. I was scared. I don't know if it was my own mortality catching up with me or just the lunacy of the drivers in this part of the country, a little of both or maybe even the roads. The roads are crazy. Once you're off the state roads all bets are off. They are never straight and more often then not they're narrow as hell and full of pot holes. And the hills, have I mentioned the hills? Elizabeth noted that driving down these hills feels like skiing. I thought about that for a minute and had to agree with her. Here's the worst part, most drivers who know these roads (and that's about everyone, we don't get drive throughs off the state roads) want to drive well over the speed limit which puts the flow of traffic at about 40 mph on roads which are marked 25 and 45 to 50 at roads which are marked 30. Very few non-state roads are marked above 30. So, OK, that's fine. If you want to drive between 40 and 50 I'm not going to argue with you. There's a whole other conversation about taking out cyclists and kids but I'm not going to have that conversation today, today's only conversation is about the intolerance for anyone else doing less than that speed if they happen to be in front of you.
I was once passed by a truck had to be doing 70 on a state road known for its speed traps. I was doing 50 because I didn't have the skin that day to cope with his headlights up my ass. He honked and screamed obscenities on his way by. The zone was marked 40. I will never drive more than 10 above where I live anymore. I'm not willing to risk the ticket or the points and I'm suddenly hyper aware of so many other things that could go terribly wrong in a pool of some of the worst drivers I've ever seen. That's harsh, I know it is and we aren't all that bad, some of us are very, very good which is why our fatality rate isn't through the roof but some of us are extraordinarily bad. I rank only Long Island as scarier and only certain sections (I'm leaving Rome out of this and I can't speak for the Middle-East but I've seen some videos).
So it took me a while to get her out of the parking lot. In the beginning the best I could do was have her exit the school compound by the front entrance which required two cross walks, a four-way stop sign, a right turn at a two way wedge stop sign, followed by a right turn at a light onto a state road. At one of our major intersections she was coming the only direction that didn't require a stop. I asked her to indicate that she was going to bear right out of courtesy. After that there was one more light followed by another mile and a half of state road and a left turn onto our street. A total of just under five miles in all and while I wasn't grabbing the jesus handle, I was white knuckling the door handle hard enough my hand felt bruised a few hours later and I'm surprised I didn't put my foot through the floor. This is what we did every day after school. If we'd kept that up she still wouldn't have her forty hours.
Eventually she had one of her four two-hour behind the wheel driver's ed sessions which just happened to be at night and I had her father drop her off and pretended it wasn't happening. When I picked her up two hours later I watched her pull into the school parking lot and drive right up beside me. She grinned. The instructor smiled and gave me a thumbs up. She got out of the car and told me how good my kid did on the back roads and I stared at her in disbelief. I looked at the paperwork detailing everything she'd accomplished in two hours.
The instructor said: Get her out on the road.
And so I did. Every day, after school for two hours. We drove those back roads, we learned to maintain our speed up the hills, down the hills, to drop speed before the curve and accelerate into the curve. We learned to stare right down the middle of the road between the two lines and when to choose the white line over the yellow line and let those rocks get closer than comfortable when the road felt too narrow for two cars to pass. We hit what passes for nearly a highway with lights around here and learned about left lanes and right lanes and blind spots and hovering over the gas pedal when you approach a light. We learned about changing lanes to avoid making a forced turn when nobody really WANTS to let you in. We learned about scooting forward over the white line little by little until you really could see what was coming at you in both directions. We learned to look to the right one last time before we made that last dive into traffic. We learned what it meant to be committed. We learned how to not kill a cyclist AND avoid a head on collision at the same time. We learned to protect pedestrians from themselves. We learned to ignore the assholes behind us and also when to move over and come off the gas to give an assist when they were coming around (even when it wasn't legal). She spent an awful lot of time asking me: WAS THAT EVEN LEGAL?!!! We learned to anticipate bad behavior, we learned to collaborate. We learned when to do the speed limit and when to not necessarily do the speed limit. We learned how far you could and could not necessarily expect to be able to stretch the speed limit without ramification. We learned how to hold our speed steady regardless of terrain. Fuck finessing the gas! she yelled one day in frustration.
Eventually I had to take her into town because I realized that no matter how much defensive and offensive driving I taught her about the roads she would mostly drive, her test was going to be in town and she'd have to contend with it anyway. The first thing I had her do was take the back roads into Stamford. That was not bad. Stamford drivers are generally predictable. We went to the eye doctor and picked up my glasses and then she drove home. We drove to Stamford and back one more time before we headed into Westport.
I'd my hand off the door handle for a good twenty hours by the time we hit the Post Road. At the second stop light it went back on. It's not personal, sweetie. I'm just afraid some idiot is going to kill us. Please forget I said that. It's OK, Mom, I've got this. And you know what? She did. As long as I gave her instruction in a very calm voice she followed that instruction nearly to the letter and she self-corrected when necessary. Eventually she told me I had to stop and let her self-correct. Sometimes I closed my eyes but she told me that made her nervous. There was only ever one time she nearly got us creamed and that was making a left turn into on-coming traffic and she just didn't see it. It didn't happen for the reason my dad says it won't happen sometimes, because we are driving collectively and other people are watching, looking for what we're going to do. That made me feel a little better.
Eventually we got to road lesson three and her instructor put her on the highway which was something I just wasn't equipped to do. I don't even need to go into the highway drivers around here. Two lanes on the parkway and some of the on ramps have stop signs so you've got to go from zero to sixty ASAP. You have to do this because I swear to God, instead of coming off the gas those dick weeds in the right lane floor it. Not always, but often enough. That's all you really need to know. She did great. I haven't taken her back yet but I will.
Her fourth lesson was a bit of a hiccough. We'd had two major screw ups, one with scheduling and one with location. So she missed the fourth lesson with her favorite guy and rescheduled with an unknown. We got to the school early but the car wasn't there and eventually we realized we were at the wrong school, the right school being thirty minutes away if I drove like a lunatic. I drove, she tried to get the school on the phone but the one time we really needed them she ended up in a twenty minute queue. I kept driving anyway.
Somehow we got lucky and the instructor was still sitting there. She got ninety minutes instead of one twenty and a very different sort of instruction which threw her. At the end of the lesson the instructor told me, her parking sucks.
She can't park.
Yes she can.
Nope. She can't.
Her test is right after spring break.
Get her another lesson.
She's about to leave for Nicaragua.
Move her test.
She won't pass.
This is not helpful. Have you looked at her other three evaluations?
Yup. I have no idea how she got those scores.
This is not helpful.
We started for home. I was driving; she was traumatized.
Elizabeth, what happened?
I couldn't understand her.
What do you mean?
The instructions she was giving me to pull into a parking space, it just didn't make sense.
Couldn't you just ignore her and pull in the way you know how to pull in?
She kept stopping me and saying, just do it my way.
OK, so that's over and you know you can park so can you not worry about it?
I need to see Mr. Littlebee.
Honey, there's no time. We'll go up the parking lot where your test is going to be tomorrow and you can practice doing it Mr. Littlebee's way just so you'll feel better. Or better yet just don't think about it because you park all the freaking time and you are ALWAYS between the white lines. Every time. Elizabeth, I am not always between the white lines every time. I have to back out and correct.
OK, let's go to the parking lot tomorrow. I hate that it's really hard to see the lines.
Yeah, that's kind of stupid. You know you can use the other cars as guides, right? You just have to know how they're aligned and adjust if they're not right.
So she's going to take her test at 10 AM on Tuesday morning and she's going to be OK. We've driven the course four or five times and it's nothing but right turns with three lights and two stop signs. The only tricky part is you don't really know what the speed limit is as you turn onto those streets until you pass a rise and see the sign. I always find that sort of thing really obnoxious. So, you know, we've memorized them. But that's not the point of this post. Not really.
The first point of this post is that I've done everything I can think of to prepare my daughter to be a good driver, to be a responsible and safe driver specifically attuned to this part of the country, to this part of this state. Everything. I honestly cannot think of anything else to do other than keep riding around with her but really, it's time to let her go. So there's that. I know she's as good as could possibly be expected right now and whether she passes or doesn't pass a series of maneuvers expected by the DMV does not reflect what she can actually do. I expect she'll pass unless she gets nervous and forgets the part where we practiced doing exactly the speed limit. The point is, there is nothing left for me to do.
Yesterday I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, not giving it a lot of attention because I needed to get up and do other things when something jumped out at me. Friend of a friend post, heavy heart, huh, what happened... opened the post, expanded the comments and started reading. The comment section was a mess of emotion and misinformation of the sort you get when something has just happened, people are very upset and IM or telephone tag is happening very quickly. The only thing that made any sense was that there had been an accident involving four high school students on one of the state roads very near my house. I'm not sure I knew last night which state road (I think I got that information today) but I knew it was close. Schools were thrown around, death or deaths and the manner of death or deaths was thrown about. My daughter's boyfriend's school was thrown in there and quickly turned into a different private school entirely. I was aware that in the chaos of the communication that no one really had substantial information, just substantial heartbreak because this is the thing which contains our terror. Today there is still almost no information other than the number of children in critical condition, that there is only one vehicle, that there was a fire involved and the location. One of the curves at which my daughter learned to decelerate and accelerate. It's a bad one; it's long and drawn out.
That's the second and final point of this post.
You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube.
The thing is once you take the lid off the tube you no longer have control over how much comes out. You think you do, but you don't. You squeeze a little and the right amount hits the brush or the sink or the counter and you're all good or mostly good and you say, stop there. And you try to put the lid back on but if your eyes are open you might notice the lid is just gone. Hell, it's not even your tube. It never really was, you were just taking care of it.
And you do the very best you can until there's nothing left for you to do.
God, that sucks.
I'm picking her up at 2:30 this morning. I really wish she had another two weeks mixing cement and painting steel beams in Nicaragua because I think three weeks is the minimum amount of time this sort of thing wants but I really want my daughter. Right now.