Driving Lesson

"I'll take the bus."

"There are no buses on Long Island."

"I'll move to the city."

"You're sixteen and you're not going anywhere I don't tell you, little missy." Mom leaned forward, her breath heating up the windshield of our station wagon. Outside it smelled like snow. It was dim and early and everything was quiet - except Mom. She collapsed back into her seat, tugging at her waistband, shuffling, grunting and settling in. "Stefanie, we've gone over this already. Put on your seatbelt."

I watched her pull the seatbelt up over her belly. I'd turn out as plump as she was. We were identical already, except maybe for twenty years: frizzy red hair, pointy chin, heavy hipped and on the taller side of short. Somehow that added up to attractive for certain people, especially my dad. We were his strawberry ladies, "I'll trade the cherry-on-top for a couple of strawberries any day," he used to tease, pinching my chin and patting Mom on the rump. He especially liked that joke in the ice cream shop, the waitresses always gave a courteous smile, never any idea what he meant.

"I said seatbelt."

The strap was cold, and stuck, I had to fiddle with it. I wasn't used to reaching back and to the left for it. Can't we just NOT do this? I knew we had to. You're handicapped on the Island if you can't drive. It's all highways. Ask someone where he lives and you'll get an exit number - 59 north, left at the light, blue house on the right. That was us.

"OK, foot on the brake" Mom was armed with the lesson voice: two octaves higher than need be, the last syllable brutally long - foot on the braaaaaake. The pedal was hard, clunking and wheezing when I pressed down on it. That would've been the right voice for Mom.

"Now, turn the key." - turn the keeeeeeeey - that voice knocked the senses out of me.

I stared straight. She stared at me. No one moved. We were parked across from the church, in the big lot they used for weddings and funerals. My own father's funeral would be held in that church just a few days later. My relatives would have crammed into that lot and I'd have watched my mother's black heels sink into the gravel, scraggly shrubs fencing us all in. But I couldn't have known that yet - I just sat in the vinyl seat, Mom glaring at me and a pressure pinching me between the eyes.

"Stefanie, would you please knock it off... C'mon, just turn the key."

I pinned the key. The dash lit up, dials jumped and the engine panted like an old man laughing.

Mom relaxed. "Alright, that's enough."

The key was cold between my thumb and forefinger. I twisted it so hard my knuckle popped, the engine continued to turn over. So did Mom's face. Her lower lip pushed down below her gums, her bottom teeth jutting out, crooked, like mine. "ENOUGH. You'll kill my starter that way."

I let go. The engine simmered to a hum. "Sorry."

"No you're not." She leaned over, switching on on the heat. The vents huffed out, first warm, then hot air, the fans whirling. Her lip rolled back up to its normal position and her tone softened. "Ok, put it in drive - pull this down and towards you." She tapped on the lever next to the steering wheel. I tugged it in and down, the orange needle on the console shifted out of P and jerked past R. I hesitated - "D1 or D2?"

"The first one. I never use the other one."

"What's it for then?"

"I don't know. Your father says it's for better traction."

"Like on ice?"

"Like on hills... can we move on?"

I dropped it into D1, the car bucked slightly - Oh God - a shot of adrenaline pierced the pressure behind my eyes, white blindness. I turned to Mom, her image pulsing into view as the pain dimmed, one throb at a time.

"Don't look at me, look at the road."

I faced the windshield again, my head swiveling like on a neck out of whack - just an empty church parking lot.

"We're not in the road."

She sighed. "You know what I mean."

"Is there a D for ice?"

"No." She blinked a few times fast, licking her finger and sticking it in the corner of her eye. Her contacts were bothering her. She was tired. She had woken up at four with Dad before he went out east to do his route. She always did. They'd sit and chat, him with his coffee, and her with her tea - "Cold this morning." "Sure is." "Watch the ice." "Always do." "You'll be late." "I better go." "Love ya Hun." "Love you too." - She never did get out of that habit, not even years after he was gone.

"So, what happens on ice then?"

"Nothing. You just have to be careful."

Dad said you always had to be careful. He drove all day on his route. People were nuts, he'd say, lunatics that should've been locked up instead of given a car. I was lucky, I thought, there were no people in the lot, just a little morning frost: D2 probably would've taken care of that. My head had calmed slightly.

"Alright, let off the brake - no gas, just no pedals."

Rolling. I'm rolling. ROLLING! - "Ma we're rolling! How do I stop? I wanna STOP."

"Relax, we're just idling. This is called idling."

I hadn't even touched the gas and we were rolling - idling - out of control already.

"OK, give it a little gas."

No no. No gas... definitely NO gas.

"C'mon. Press the gas."

My hands were glued at ten-and-two, my feet hovering, avoiding any contact with the pedals. The wheels crunched over the gravel, rattling the car. The world had gone bouncy. The pressure behind my eyes was back. It had evolved into a dull pain, a condensed ball, pushing up against my forehead from the inside. I clamped my eyes down, then opened them again.

Oh God, what is THAT? My feet pounded on the brake, the car jolted and Mom's neck snapped forward. She turned towards me, head bent and eyes glaring up through a haze of kinky red hair. "No, Honey, that's the brake. The gas is the other one ... and you need to press LIGHTLY."

A beagle?

She sat up straight and smoothed her face back out. "Alright, let's try again, give it a little gas."

"Don't you SEE him, Ma?"

"See who?"

"The DOG, Ma! God, I almost killed him." He was caddy corner to us, across the lot, sniffing through the gravel and mulling around on fat, stumpy legs. It would've taken me an hour and a half to idle my way over there. Poor thing didn't know the danger he was in.

"Stef, relax."

"NO. I could've killed him. How do I know he won't just take off bolting, right when I give it gas, and I hit him, 'cause I can't stop."

"Oh, you've got stopping down pat." She rubbed her neck and the lip headed south again.

"Dogs are FAST, Ma. I don't know how to use this damn car. It's a huge machine. It's too BIG for me, how am I supposed to control such a ... do you know how much a car weighs? Have you ever seen a dog hit by a car?"
I knew she had. I had too. Our puppy used to run away all the time. He was a hunting dog. Fast. He'd sprint through your feet at the front door and there was no way to catch him. Dad had gone out to look for him, he came home with a box in the back of the pickup. I dashed outside, mom yelling after me "You want to remember the good things, not the way he is now, all mushed up." Dad had carried me back inside and let me cuddle up to him on the couch. He told me how he drove by and saw a man carrying our puppy to the shoulder of the road. He was sorry, the man told my dad, but he didn't manage to stop in time. Mom brought us ice cream and never mentioned the dog again.

"What if I can't stop in time?"

The beagle sat still, staring at us, his two front paws spread wide around his flabby chest.

"Stef, don't you think you're being just a tad melodramatic?"

I was. I was being absurd and there was no reason for it, none that I could have known of anyway. The pain pushing against my cranium had inverted directions, yanking at my eyes. I squinted at the church. It had started to flurry. Three or four flakes had dotted the windshield, big and dry, they melted on contact.

"I can't drive in this, Ma. We'll slide all over the place."

She sighed. "Ok, I give up," the lesson voice was gone, "Get out."

I got out. The winter air bounced off the church and smacked me. A porch light turned on somewhere up the road. A car buzzed passed, too fast. Mom was squeezing past the armrest and in behind the wheel. My head felt like it was made of balsa wood. All you had to do was pinch it and it'd collapse. Mom flipped on the headlights... pinch. The dog barked... collapse. The pain tugging at my eyes dove deep into my skull, taking all reason with it.

I charged that damn dog, stomping and hollering. "Get! Get! Gweeeeeeeeeeeh GAAAAAAW!" I chased him until his fat hindquarters waddled and disappeared into the branches. A curtain across the way opened, a bored face seeing what all the ruckus was about. "WHAAAAAAAT EEEEH?!" I screamed, stumbling back to the car - panting, pink and wet - climbed in and pulled the door shut behind me. My cheeks tingled. "It's freezing out, Ma. Better be careful on the ice."

She hesitated, confused, boxy eyes studying me, then recomposed. "There's no ice yet. Maybe tonight."

She had only been part right. The hard stuff didn't settle in by us until long after dinner, but the highways out east had been frozen up all morning. Dad had just hit a nasty patch that slid his truck sideways, screaming across three lanes. It wasn't the people that got him in the end, it was the ice. The priest would say something about remembering the good things.

"Sorry, Ma."

My lower lip trembled, hers didn't budge. "It's alright."

"Mom, can we ... you wanna get ice cream?"

"Sure, Kiddo. You want a cherry on top?" She winked and I half smiled, shaking my head no.

About the author:

Born and raised on Long Island, Tara Lyn Kelly now lives in Rome, Italy. By day, Tara works in online communications; by night, she is preparing her first novel. For more information, visit www.TaraLynKelly.com.