Presumably, most teenagers cannot wait to get behind the wheel and start driving. Ergo, I thought myself an oddity for cowering at the very thought. Why learn to drive when I knew two perfectly capable adults who had been, up to this point, willing (if not obligated) to cart me around?
My mother, tired of carting me around, signed me up for driving lessons when I was 17. My first lesson took place in the middle of a heavy downpour, which my mother felt was the perfect weather for me to start driving in. It was a lot like teaching a child to swim by throwing her/him into the water and crossing your fingers. I wasn’t a bad driver, but I was overly cautious and easily rattled. Of course, I was learning to drive in Miami, Florida, a place that is known for having some of the worst drivers in the country. It was sink or swim.
Hoping to supplement my lessons and facilitate my progress, which was agonizingly slow-going, my mother decided to take me driving on the weekends. My mother is one of the worst drivers I know, in that she speeds, performs questionable maneuvers, and is extremely aggressive. None of my friends felt comfortable being in the car with her, and I am certain that her having driven me around as a child contributed to my near-crippling anxiety as a teen and young adult. What I needed was a lot of structure and guidance. It was exactly the kind of thing my father would, the following year, offer to my sister, when he taught her to drive. At precisely 500 yards prior to making a right turn, my sister was to depress the brake with just the right amount of force to decelerate the car so that it would be travelling at 5 MPH by the time the turn had to be made. This aggravated my sister, who did not appreciate or benefit from my father’s strict attention to detail. I, in turn, was never 100% certain I would make it back home in one piece after my mother gave me a driving lesson.
My mother’s lessons consisted of two parts: Instructional and Practical. The Practical part was pretty straightforward: We would find an empty parking lot, where I could get the hang of basic driving skills without fear of crashing into passing traffic or pedestrians. That part was fine. The problem was that, during the instructional phase, my mother would commit various traffic violations, turn to me, and say, “Don’t do that.”
“Shouldn’t you be teaching me by example?” I asked, white-knuckled, as she breezed through a stop sign. She chuckled.
One afternoon, we were approaching an intersection that had a “No Left Turn” sign. My mother flipped on the left turning signal and asked me if I saw any police. I did not. My mother then made the left turn.
“Was that illegal?” I asked.
“Yeah, but it’s okay, as long as you don’t see police,” she said. “If you see police, DON’T DO IT! You have to always, always check for police! Just like speeding. It’s okay, as long as there is no police. You have to know where they hide.”
In fact, she drove me to one of the hospitals where she worked and, sure enough, was able to tell me in advance where to expect a patrol car to be staked out. She would adjust her speed accordingly. So, despite her red light running, illegal left turning, and criminal speeding, my mother’s driving record was spotless. My blood-pressure, on the other hand, was through the roof. I was sure that I would never be able to apply any of my mother’s wisdom, so I never fully felt capable of driving the car. As a matter of fact, I hate driving to this day.
When I finally received my driver’s license and my first car, Luci, my mother would call me to check in after I’d gotten home from school. Her first question was always the same: “How many cars did you hit?”
The first time she asked me, she followed up with arguably the best piece of bad advice she’d ever given me:
“You know what to do when you hit another car?” she asked.
“Leave a note?” I said. “Call the police? I don’t know.”
“Cristina,” she said. “When you hit another car… just keep driving!! Just drive!!”
Many years later, my friend Sandra and I were leaving our favorite Chinese restaurant when she backed into a parked vehicle. It was nighttime, and the parking lot wasn’t well lit. Sandra, who was even more nervous a person than I was, flew into a panic.
“Oh my God, what do we do now?” she said.
I didn’t know. This was the first time I had ever been involved in an accident, and, somehow, I never got around to learning the proper procedure. We were both upset, and I shouted the first thing that came to my mind: “Drive.”
“DRIVE! JUST DRIVE!!”
Shocked and not thinking straight, Sandra drove away. The pangs of guilt led me to believe my mother’s advice was less than ideal, but it was the only thing I knew.