Essay : Driving test day
"Okay, just be aware of your blind spots and use your signals. They give them to you for a reason." My daughter nodded. Wedged behind her in the back seat of our Camry, I said nothing, as I was instructed to do, but my mind was racing. This whole day was marked by blind spots and signals. "Well then, let's begin."
Lyla was about to take the road test for her driving license. Her driving permit was due to expire in two weeks. If it did, she'd have to retake the written test. Her driving instructor, Mrs. Thibodeau, urged her to give it a try. If she failed, there was still one more opportunity to retake the test before the permit expired. What was I to make of this advice? Did this mean she was ready?
Learning to drive had gone in fits and starts for Lyla. She hadn't been that eager to learn and at times seemed downright afraid. Should I push it or let it go? Over the years she'd had her permit, I'd done variations of both, with mixed results. Now that she was finally taking the test, it felt sudden.
I decided we should clean the car out and give it a good washing before we showed up at the registry. The car isn't new, and the emergency brake works, but the brake light is always lit up on the dashboard, whether the brake is engaged or not. This was the only car Lyla had really driven, and switching would be a stressor. My reasoning was if the car weren't such a trash heap, perhaps the tester would overlook this detail.
When I picked Lyla up early at the high school, we were both tense. We'd heard about two girls who had flunked because they failed the parallel parking part, and Lyla had only practiced parallel parking once. We changed places, and she got in to drive, but it wasn't without some sparking and bits of fur flying. Whatever I said was wrong.
Maneuvering into the Airport Mobil involved a tricky turn and a tight back-up to the pump. In a froth before we'd even begun, I tried to breathe deeply. It didn't work. We made our way to the vacuum pumps. Dropping quarters and pieces of trash on the pavement, we finally got the power vac going. In a few minutes things were looking much better. Not only did we have a full tank of gas, but a clean interior.
As Lyla drove over to the car wash entrance, we wondered what we had done to make the car suddenly start squeaking so much. We ignored it and focused on lining the tire up to the channel leading into the car wash. Not easy. Then Lyla realized the emergency brake was on. That explained the noise. Phew.
I panicked as the car, in the groove after six tries wouldn't go forward. I stood by the car and kept typing in the code but we were completely stuck. The car was broken. I knew it. As I walked off to get help, the car lurched forward. Lyla had had her foot on the brake. I jumped back in the moving car, and we sailed through the car wash, laughing and finally having a little fun. She'd still have some time to practice parallel parking, and the car was looking really good.
Except it wasn't. As we were spat out from the drying hoses into the parking lot, my heart stopped. The check engine light had come on. This is another of our car's quirks, but it hadn't come on in quite some time now. When it does come on, you can be barreling down the highway and suddenly the speedometer plunges to zero. Surely if the speedometer doesn't work, the tester will have to flunk the car. Now what? My brilliant plan of a clean car had gotten something wet and triggered a nightmare.
We put in an emergency call to my husband at work, who infuriated us by laughing - at the absurdity, or the irony, of our predicament, I suppose. Ha ha. I wanted him to appear with a new car, or just fix the problem - now, somehow! This was not funny. He suggested we drive fast, to dry out the engine compartment, turn the car off, and wait. Lyla wanted to practice parking. Now we only had about 15 minutes. With no speedometer and the check engine light unrelenting, she practiced. Not badly, either. Sure, she hit a cone once and perhaps was a bit in the street, but not bad. We took a lap to speed up and nothing happened. We turned the car off, then on. The check engine light did not blink, but, eureka, the speedometer kicked in. Lyla parked outside the registry and went in.
The tester was friendly but strict - there would be no favors. "As long as the car isn't smoking and it's safe, I'm okay with it," she said. Wow. This might actually work. It isn't smoking yet. "Go outside and get in the car and practice using all your signals. They give them to you for a reason. Mom, you sit in the back seat behind the driver and keep quiet." I could do that. Lyla got behind the wheel and practiced turning on the blinkers, the lights, the emergency flasher. She ran through everything twice and appeared to have it nailed. The registry inspector was with another kid, so we could watch the process a bit while we waited. This was starting to look like a piece of cake. Then, the car locked itself down.
The wheel wouldn't turn. The key wouldn't turn. The brake was frozen. The gear shaft didn't budge. I know this has happened before, but I couldn't remember what to do. "Call Dad again," I yelled. "Are we going to have to ask her to turn the car on for us?" Lyla tried again. My husband laughed again. "It's not funny."
I came up front and tried. Nothing. Thank God the inspector was doing the driving part and couldn't see us.
"Mom, let me try once more." Lyla jostled the wheel, turned the key, yanked the wheel. Nothing. Deep breath. Uh oh, the driving tester was back, and in the car next to us she's giving a speech but facing our way. Does she know what trouble we're in? Jiggle, twist, click. She got it. Unbelievable and just in time. The tester was in front of our car asking Lyla to put her left blinker on.
All was well until she asked Lyla to put her foot on the brake, put the car in reverse, and put the emergency brake on. Our car won't go in reverse unless the car is on. I explained to Lyla she'd need to turn the car on. She did. "No, I didn't tell you to turn the car on. I don't want you to run me over." Had Lyla flunked already? I know I'm not supposed to say anything, but I explained our car wouldn't do that. Mystified, the inspector said she's never known a Toyota that wouldn't do that. Figures. "Your car is so old, perhaps they did it that way that year."
Another malfunction overcome, Lyla began the driving part of the test. I kept repeating under my breath, "You can do it." Parallel parking was first. Uh-oh. Lyla was a bit far from the curb, but she's in there. She backed up, turned, parked on a hill. Answered questions. In a few minutes, the test was over. Lyla, nervous and relieved to be done, pulled into the parking area almost straddling two spaces akimbo. I had no idea if she passed or not.
The inspector began to review the test. Her attentiveness was impressive. She commented on the qualities of each element of the test. This must have been the part she was doing when we were trying to get the wheel unstuck. Lyla listened intently. In the midst of the review, I noticed there was a woman next to us with long dreads sitting in her car smoking a joint. Every few moments my husband's head popped out from behind her car. He'd left work and come to check on us. He wasn't laughing now...finally.
I wondered if the inspector could see the joint smoking and if she'd do something about it. "Don't you want to know if you passed or not?" "Yes" "Well, your parking needs practicing. You need to be able to stay better within the lines, but you've passed. You may go in and get your picture and your license. Fill out the yellow form."
I was able to give my husband a thumbs-up the next time his head appeared. It was his birthday, and this rite of passage is quite a gift. Now, all that remained was to go inside, take a number, fill out the form, and wait. Two pictures and two signatures later - both kept going out of the lines, too - and Lyla was done. Unbelievable.
"Did you think you'd made it?" I asked on the ride home. "Yes, I mean if you were doing that job, what could make you happier than putting a smile on someone's face?" She dropped me off at home and headed out. Watching her drive off, I realized what had really happened, and that the real worrying had only begun.
Laura Wainwright, a freelance writer, lives in West Tisbury.