Steering Clear

Steering Clear

By Andrea Jarrell

UntitledWhen my daughter gets her driver’s permit, I am surprised she trusts me enough to teach her.

Whether strapped into her toddler seat or later riding shotgun beside me, she has witnessed my transgressions behind the wheel. I drive too fast. I swear at other drivers. I’ve run red lights and gotten stuck in a ditch, wheels spinning. And I get lost. Horribly, utterly lost. Getting lost makes me do crazy things like jump medians.

She doesn’t know how lucky we’ve been.

“Can I drive?” she asks each time we head out to the car. Not trusting myself, I say, “No.” I heave this parental duty onto my husband’s shoulders, wanting him to bestow upon her his cool-headed driving gene and the internal confidence to always at least think she knows where she is going.

So why do I finally agree to let her drive on that Friday in late November? Perhaps it is my buoyancy, thinking of the weekend ahead. Or simple guilt after months of bagging out while my husband helps her practice.

As she reaches for the keys and turns toward the car, I feel my tether to her lengthen. I change my mind I want to say, like a child. But it’s too late. I’m the mother. I stick to my word.

She steps off the curb and around to the driver’s side, clicking the familiar singsong beep on the key fob to let me in. Bunchy in our winter jackets, we reach for our seatbelts. She pulls her long brown hair into a high ponytail, ready to get down to business. As she turns the key, the car comes alive with David Bowie singing “Golden Years.”

“Oh, such a good song.” She bobs her head to the music and I catch the edge of her smile in profile.

“Turn that off,” I say, officious.

“You’re just like Daddy,” she says. But rather than my husband, it is my own mother’s voice in my head that I hear. Whereas other women might imagine their mothers hovering over them in the kitchen, mine is always there with me in the car’s rearview mirror. Driving was one of her great survival skills. A quick downshift. A rev of the engine. All she needed, she always said as we sped away from possessive men and to a better life for us, was a good, fast car.

My daughter steers us from the curb. My plan is for her to avoid streets heavy with going-home traffic as we head to the post office and a thrift store she wants to visit. We cut through our suburban neighborhood, heading three blocks east and two blocks south. As dusk turns to evening, the car’s headlights automatically illuminate. Rather than pulling into the main post office lot—a turn that will force us across two thick lanes of traffic—I suggest the nearly empty side lot on the right.

She makes the turn into the extra lot just fine. With plenty of parking spaces, she is gliding neatly in between two yellow lines when, rather than braking, she steps on the gas. We shoot forward. Our Mazda CX- 9 plows through a rusty chain link fence and keeps going.

We dip down over a narrow grassy slope between the fence and the pavement. That’s when I see her—a woman scrambling to get out of our way as we head toward the sidewalk and the packed lanes of traffic I’d been trying to avoid.

At the exact moment the woman darts past our fender, my daughter finds the brakes. We lurch to a stop the way a rollercoaster car does at the end of the ride, leaving you breathing hard and unsure if you can find your feet to stagger away as the attendant lifts the safety bar.

We haven’t hit the woman. We haven’t hit any other cars. We are both okay.

When I turn to my daughter, her face crumples in tears. I manage not to say, “Oh my god we almost killed someone.”

I can’t remember if I hugged her, comforted her. Certainly I should have. That would have been the right thing to do. What I do remember is the intimacy of the car, our breathing heavy, and the now-dark sky closing in tighter around us as if we are in a space capsule. What I do remember is that within that intimacy I also want distance. I want what has happened not to be my fault. But as I look into my daughter’s frightened face, I don’t want it to be her fault, either. In that instant I want to swallow, to absorb, to make my own whatever she has done and the consequences.

I get out of the car, reflexively looking around to see who’s seen us. The woman we nearly hit approaches me tentatively, the way the Munchkins draw nearer to Dorothy’s house when it falls on the witch.

“Are you okay?” I ask.

Beneath wispy, dark bangs she blinks at me as she comes closer trying to see what kind of person I am. Crazy? Reckless? Unfeeling? I can’t tell how old she is. Fiftyish, like me? Is a heart attack a possibility? She is plain with full cheeks and no makeup, clutching her thin, shapeless coat close at the neck, as if it will shield her. She points first to our car and then to the bus stop a little further down the sidewalk.

“Are you okay?” I say again.

Her eyes go wild with the terror, the disbelief she felt as our car sped toward her. I realize she doesn’t speak English well. She’s come from work or the Asian market across the street or maybe the post office. She was on her way to the bus stop when she almost lost her life because of two women in an SUV who didn’t care enough to watch out for people who have to take the bus.

I want to put an arm around her but I know that’s not what you do in these situations. We are not friends. I expect her to pull pen and paper from the canvas bag over her shoulder—to take down our license plate the way another driver would—but she just lingers there as the traffic from the main road streams by. She glances at my purse.

She is waiting for me to do the right thing. I take out my phone and say, “I’ll call and report the accident.” But when I tell her I’m calling the police, she looks past me to my daughter, whose ashen face stares through the window at us. For a moment, I feel the woman and I are on the same side, protectors. Is she a mother herself? I have the fleeting thought to motion my daughter to move to the passenger seat. The woman exhales loudly, air hissing between us. Then I notice her looking at my purse again. It dawns on me then that she has been hoping I will pay her for what she’s suffered. We stare at each other a moment longer. Then she turns to go.

As I watch her move off through the parking lot, I call “Wait,” to her hunched-up shoulders. But the truth is I want her to go. As our victim, our witness, slips into the shadows, I know that we can drive away now. Other than the mowed-down old fence in this no man’s land of a lot, there is no real damage. No one else seems to have seen us. We are free to slink off without even reporting what we’ve done.

I walk back to our car and open the driver’s door. My daughter looks up at me, her green eyes searching my face for what will come next. Whether it is true or not, I believe that she will carry what we do right now, at this moment, with her forever.

I dial 911. “It’s not an emergency,” I say, when the operator answers. “But there’s been an accident.”

I imagine saying these words to my husband, my mother. He will understand but she won’t. She will think our near miss in this parking lot could have been avoided entirely if only I’d been more careful, more in control of fate. But as I stand there waiting for the cops, I feel just how far the tether between my mother and I has stretched. I trust that I have done everything right. I will never be able to explain this to her but I know it’s true. I know that sometimes you’re just lucky or you’re not.

When the officer arrives, I tell my daughter to get out of the car and take her place beside me. He listens as she explains about confusing the gas for the brake. About the woman she almost hit. We walk to the post office. We talk to the man in charge. We point to the flattened fence. The officer and the post office clerk take down our names and number.

In the months that follow, I expect a call, a bill, an insurance claim, a request to appear in court. Nothing. It’s as if our mistake hasn’t mattered. But it has mattered.

Every once in a while, my daughter and I still drive by the scene of the accident to see if they’ve repaired the fence. Each time we do, I see that woman’s face rising in our headlights. The fence, now just a wave of woven metal, lies there still: our transgression out in the open. We move on by, my daughter driving while I ride shotgun, music playing, shuddering again at our good luck, praying that it holds.

Andrea Jarrell’s essays have appeared in The New York Times Modern Love column, The Washington Post, Narrative Magazine, Literary Mama, Memoir, and elsewhere. She is at work on a memoir. 

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