2011 Essay/Memoir Contest: 3rd place
Published: June 18, 2012
Learning to Adjust
by Caitlin Leffel
(New York City)
“Can we talk about the mirrors?” I ask my driving instructor one morning as I buckle my seat belt. “I still don’t understand what I’m supposed to see.”
“You want to see everything that’s behind you.” Melvin’s tone is as if I’ve asked a good question that only an experienced student would come up with, but his answer sounds like a Zen koan. Melvin and I have been driving together for nearly a year, and since, unlike the rest of his students, I already have a driver’s license, our relationship has become a bit uneasy. At nearly fifty bucks a lesson, I have already invested a significant sum to relearn something New York state has no problem with me doing, with or without my glasses, and both Melvin and I were starting to realize that I might be after a knowledge that goes beyond the scope of his professional capabilities. Today, however, I was about to do something which I believed would, in place of a road test, signal to both of us that I was getting somewhere: I would drive on the treacherous, shoulderless highway that runs along the East River of Manhattan, the FDR Drive.
Both times I’ve learned to drive have been in New York City. The common assumption is that New York is a terrible place to drive, and because of this, it’s a terrible place to learn to drive. I have problems with both parts of this corollary, the most practical of which is that Manhattan is where I grew up and currently live. Where else would I go? And I’ve found that in the context of a driving lesson, familiarity has advantages. I don’t need a destination to know how to get somewhere.
Yet driving also heightens the significance of periphery, and mutes the distance between settings for events in my life that are blocks and decades apart. I think this is why I find the mirrors so tricky. I get confused by how they distort shapes and distances I think I know. When I learned to drive the first time, a dozen years ago, the normal way (at sixteen, through a driver’s ed course), my instructor was no Zen master. Miss Johnson frequently told my friends and me that we’d fail our road tests, and screamed at us for things like running over plastic shopping bags that blew into the street. “You’re too wide!” she shrieked as I inched past double-parked cars. I always left too much space on the passenger’s side because I was sure I’d knock my rearview mirror off. I’d forget that I needed space on the other side too, that I was trying to strike a balance, and more wasn’t always better, or safer.
After a few minutes of my fiddling with the car still in park, Melvin acquiesces. “You can’t count on the mirrors to show you everything. Sometimes you need to take your eyes off the road to see what’s behind you.”
When I was two-and-a-half and my brother was six months old, while backing onto a road in East Hampton, my mother got into a small accident with the two of us in the backseat. No one was hurt, and the damage to the car was minor, but she never drove again. She used that episode as an iron-clad defense: the fact that there had been children in the car was rebuttal-proof.
But she still had opinions about driving, even though she didn’t do it herself. One was that parents shouldn’t teach it to their children. She believed it was bad for the relationship, probably because she had been taught to drive by her mother, after her father died when she was fourteen. I don’t know much about my mother’s relationship with her father, but I knew my mother and grandmother well enough to guess that even in 1961, the front seat of a car would have been too confined a space for the two of them to have peacefully maneuvered in. My father drives, and he drives like he is, which is to say thoughtfully, with more attention to rules than situation. If you are in a car with him, you should feel safe. I always do. But you should not assume that you will get where you are trying to go, no matter how clear the directions are, or how many times he’s driven there before. If I’d had a different kind of childhood—if I hadn’t grown up in a city, and had a less opinionated mother—he probably would have taught me to drive. But instead I was presented with driving as something requiring formal instruction, and it’s occurred to me that I still drive like a student, trying to succeed rather than just get the hang of it.
On the FDR, Melvin encourages me to take my eyes off the mirrors and make quick peeks over my shoulder to see the traffic behind me. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the hospital I was born in, and a second later, the office of a gastroenterologist I visited alone twenty-four years later to diagnose stomach problems I developed after my mother died. On foot, these places are twenty blocks apart; even at my fastest pace, it would take me nearly half an hour to walk between them. They are affiliated with different hospitals, and until that drive, never seemed close to each other. One I knew from stories and pictures; the other I remembered precisely, with unpleasant sensory details.
Since that drive, I’ve wondered about the unexpected connections the compression of distance broaches. I think it’s our prerogative to choose whether to find meaning in the different ways we’re shown the world. But I can’t shake the confusion I feel whenever I try to adjust the mirrors—overwhelmed by the density of false proximity, yet also convinced that I am missing something I’m supposed to see.
I have two lessons left in my five-lesson package (a misnomer, I think, because you don’t get a discount for buying them in bulk). I’m not sure if I’ll sign up for any more. When I ask Melvin how I’m doing, he always tells me the same thing, the only thing that, absent a road teat date, he can say for sure: that I could probably use more practice. And he’s right. Actually, I don’t think I’ll ever really know how to drive until I stop driving like someone from New York, by which I mean both that I need to get comfortable driving above 20 miles an hour, and that I have to start thinking of driving the way people do everywhere else: as a way to get somewhere, rather than a way to look at where I came from.
About Caitlin Leffel
Caitlin Leffel is an editor at Rizzoli International Publications, and the co-author of two books about New York. She holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her essays have appeared in publications including Hunger Mountain, Drunken Boat, The Southeast Review, and Vice-Versa.