Saturday, August 31, 2013

Student Driver

Carefully navigating the rush-hour streets of Phoenix, Arizona—coming home after a long lifetime of students—you take your position behind the guy parked in front of you at the red light.  That’s fine; you’re working on patience again.  You don’t mind sitting there and watching the world go by, for two and a half minutes, max.

You sit relaxed in the driver’s seat, all limbs splayed everywhere because you’re hot—you’ve adjusted the vents so all air blows on you all the time.  It’s been hot and humid in Phoenix, the air conditioning in your work building hasn’t been working well, plus you are just worn out.  You deserve a cool breeze, maybe more than that.  You’re pretty happy as-is though.  Just gotta get through this stoplight and then you’re home free.

Careening out of your left peripheral view comes a car with a sign emblazoned on the side: Student Driver.  You glance left from your perfectly safe spot to watch the student driver car blast through the left-turn lane as the light turns from yellow to red.  You wonder if the student will get a ticket.  You wonder if the teacher is having a heart attack.

Student drivers have been on your mind lately.  Many of your high school classmates now have teenaged kids who are beginning drivers; you see via Facebook what your parents must have gone through with you, not to mention your four older siblings.

Of course it was never your mother who taught anyone to drive; it was always your dad.


In 1984, there was a summer of student driving, not only for you, but for all of your classmates.  These were dangerous times in your small Pennsylvania town.  The year before as sophomores, you’d all been shown movies of bodies burned beyond recognition after careless driving; phy-ed time was re-devoted to drivers ed.  None of you wanted to crash and burn like that, so you kind of listened, but it did seem like overkill.  It was hard to relate to the ash people.

You remember trading off positions with one or two other kids in the student driver car that summer, mainly when you would make a mistake and the instructor would let somebody else have a turn.  You were not the most confident driver from the start.

One afternoon, probably a Saturday, your dad agreed to take you out driving.  You got in the car and made sure everybody had their seatbelts on.  You backed out of the driveway slowly, and headed slowly up your neighborhood street, which ended in a T with two choices: either turn right and keep going up the hill, which was easy to see as totally clear and safe, or turn left.  If you turned left, not only would you be crossing lanes, but you couldn’t say for sure how close any car might be coming up the hill, because that’s how steep it was. 

You floored it and turned left.

In that year, in that neighborhood, and due to your personal circumstances, no one had emphasized the word “pedestrian” yet.  Everyone was worried about crashing cars and killing passengers, but no one was really thinking about running into people who were walking.

As you quickly learned, your father was very concerned about one person walking for a longer time than his car would have allowed if you had kept going in the direction you were heading for, student driver that you were.

Jesus Christ!” your father said, grabbing the wheel about inches away from your hitting the guy walking up Montmorenci.  “Didn’t you see him!?” he said.

Of course you had seen the pedestrian.  You had just seen him too late.


You still want to get yourself places; you are an eager traveler.  But you have never rented a car.  You know that other, similar types of people are out there, but you have a hard time finding them.  You would rather walk, or be driven.  

You try not to fall back on the option of not going at all.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

An Annotated Life

You’ve been parking in your driveway instead of your garage for the past few nights because the battery in the garage-door opener finally went out.  You knew electricity was not matching up the way it should, but you’ve been so busy that parking in the driveway has meant nothing.

It’s been a little strange coming to your own front door and letting yourself in that way, rather than through the garage.  You’ve felt a little more important than you should.  When you come in from the garage, your cats always hear the garage door opening: they’re sitting inside waiting for you because they’re happy to see you.  You love this.

The coming-in-the-front-door way, your cats are not used to. You’ve been sneaking up on them.  You’ve been opening the front door locks with a key and looking into a foyer of emptiness.  No one has heard your approach.  This has been disappointing to everyone.

The confused faces that have met you at the door these past few nights have reminded you too much of the sink-my-battleship faces you have seen all summer, in the mirror.

Tonight you buy batteries at the local drugstore, where you’ve been striking up a flirt of sorts with the manager for the past two years.  Tonight he sells you the batteries and manages to tell you that his work schedule seems quite similar to your own, as do his waking and sleeping hours, and general interests.  He seems to be more familiar with your schedule than you are.

He is attentive and nice-looking, with a broad smile.  You escape with the batteries, thinking, this isn’t a bad life.  Fumbling on the way home, you insert one new battery into the garage door opener, hoping that it really is just the battery and not the entire front of the house that needs replacing.

You have never been happier to see your garage door go up.  Your cats are singing opera by the time you walk in, and--having had enough notice—they’ve also set out your dinner.  With fork in a can of tuna, you check e-mail to find an out-of-the-blue note to “My Loving Sweetheart” from the Nazi, saying adieu and something like
in the best case I would get tired of discussing and arguing about weird things
in the worst case I have to come before a court ... either way, I would have lost everything.

Your heart starts beating faster.  You've tried to make this most recent man-situation into just another broken heart, but you were afraid of him.

You are so glad you document your life.  Otherwise, you wouldn’t believe it yourself.  You've always been a little slow to pick up on the clues: always a party favor, never a red flag.

You’re glad this man’s name is a common name, so that every time you still hear it, it means less and less about him.  The meaning of the name disperses again every time you hear it into all areas of your brain and heart and soul and toes, because that’s where the effects of all men usually lie.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Wipe That Smile Off Your Face

The first time you hear the words “you better wipe that smile off your face” does not leave an impression on you.  You keep smiling.  You know of no other thing to do, because you don’t have any negative resources to draw on.  You don’t even know what you’ve done.  Maybe it’s happening to somebody else.

By the time the smile has been wiped from your face, you are gingerly frail, but you still know how to fight.  You learn to pick your battles.  You still naturally grin too much and this matures into a smirk, a little bit because your natural self sees the absurdity in situations, but mostly because you are not prone towards anger, so you laugh naturally, but not so much right now.  

The last time that your smile got wiped, you were just trying to respond to a question regarding the differences between the American educational system and the European educational system.  You knew you couldn’t do justice to that question, especially with a tough German audience not valuing anecdotal evidence nearly as much as you do anyway, so you smiled and started talking, using yourself as the working example.

You prattled on about how lucky you felt that your parents paid for your undergraduate, how much loan money you took out for your graduate, how many extra jobs you worked during both, and how excited you finally were to pay all of that off...last year.  You smile, another hopeful joke.

“I am not asking about you!” you hear thundered back from a frowned face.  “Please excuse yourself from the situation and tell me only what I ask for.”

Intrinsically, you abhor your sudden inability to use anecdotal evidence to sway your audience either way. You will never be able to win in this situation, not with your natural abilities.  He will never be able to see the best in you, and you, the other way.

You are shortly on a flight back home.


How old does a memory have to be before you can put it to good use?  

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Prague: Take One (Pavel)

Click here, then read.

It is 12:30 a.m. and you are in a foreign country.  There are twelve to forty-eight hours between any day you left behind and the day you’re having right now.  To you, it feels like 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning in childhood.  Or, it could be 4:30 p.m. and perhaps time for a drink.  You can’t be sure.
You have sensed inappropriateness and not-rightness since your arrival a few days ago—the tiny enclosed room on the sixth floor of a too-tall building, your surprising bathroom-and-shower sharing situation with the Asian doctors, the frozen egg in your sandwich.  You are a little wild-eyed but keeping composure.  All you want is an Internet connection.

You run around like the co-ed you are again, not dragging books this time but a laptop.  You need to plug in!  Excuse you!  Could anyone help you!?  You go to who you think is in charge: the guy at the desk.  You exasperate yourself in the most meaningful way you can.

You hear from this taller man with darker eyes in a steady tone, and you quote, “You have too many appliances on.

You should have said earlier.
It’s only been one day.
It’s an old building.
You should be sleeping.”

You want to throw a tantrum right now, right this instant—you have heard that Meg Ryan walks her confident walk naturally, and you want to try it out.  You think it might come naturally to you too.  You put on your best Meg Ryan:

“DOES IT LOOK LIKE I USE A LOT OF APPLIANCES?” is the only thing that retorts from your mouth.

You know you’re wild-eyed and wild-haired.  It could be a holy day.  It could be Fourth of July.  Maybe it *is* sleeping time.

You give the pursuit of staying in touch with the world one last go: you’ve heard the students here are always very nice and accommodating.  You go to the student study lounge.  You are a loud American immediately and rightfully quieted by furrowed eyebrows.  However, students come to your rescue.  They have cords and Wi-Fi connections, little stealings to get by.  You have to get a crush on the one who lends you his own cord.  

You will call to him over the next few days, you from the dorm steps up to him in the student study room, “Thank you, Pavel!”

Thank you again.