The Passenger

One winter I rode to weight lifting with Lisa, who worked in the business office. I had stopped driving after the car accident that spring, and needed a way to get to weight-lifting class. I would change from teaching clothes into workout wear in the bathroom, which always stank and had water on the floor. Then I would trudge, head down against the wind, across campus to Lisa’s building. Lisa’s office was hot, and she had large legs and an old car. Lisa told stories about when she was a young married mother living in Paris. She would take her little baby on cheap flights to Scotland or Italy, just because. Her baby girl grew up and went to Brown but didn’t like it, so now she was living at home.

During the weight-lifting class picnic that summer, I said how delicious the food was, and Lisa said, “Well, you’re sure eating enough of it to know.”

I had stopped getting rides from Lisa at that point, anyway. By then, I rode to class with a woman named Chris. Chris worked part time at a power plant. She and her husband lived in a funky log cabin with metal yard decorations and colored garden balls everywhere. Chris dyed her hair red and wore overalls. Getting pregnant and married at 17 was the best thing that ever happened to her, she said. She asked me how much my husband, Nick, and I paid for our house, and I told her.

Sometimes I would have days where I could drive. Never far, but the two minutes it took to get downtown or to the Kroger. It was so freeing, it was like I had taken a drug, like I was just living in the now, that nothing else mattered, and I was happier than I’d ever been. But that feeling would evaporate. All it took was one second of my foot not finding the brake pedal, or hearing a horn, and then I couldn’t sit in the driver’s seat without shaking. Then it would be back to square one.

After Chris, for years I rode to weight lifting with Eileen. Often, Eileen needed to go by the grocery store after class. Sometimes we would go to the co-op that had kale salads to-go, organic beauty products, and wooden earrings. Eileen would insist on buying me a coconut-milk ice-cream sandwich, Eileen’s favorite treat, and I would happily protest and then give in.

When I would talk to my mom on the phone and mention I wasn’t driving, she asked questions I didn’t want to think about. “What will happen when you have kids? You’ll have to drive them around every day,” she would say.

“I could move to a city,” I said. “Lots of people there don’t drive.” I can’t remember her response to that.

The worst ride home was from a night class in graduate school from a classmate’s boyfriend who was stonily quiet. There were many times I couldn’t get rides to things like birthday celebrations at bars on the weekend because it was too unpredictable as to how I’d get home. This was pre-Uber. Nick traveled a lot for his job, and sometimes I was too shy to ask a friend, or just didn’t feel like it. I got to know friends’ cars so well, ones with no air conditioning and rearview mirrors decorated with leis.

The accident could have been so much worse. I was t-boned at an intersection, but didn’t get a scratch, nor did the other person. My car was totaled, but I got a new one. So what? People get in accidents all the time much worse than that and drive again the next day. What was my problem? Nick gave me rides to school, and he always drove when we went anywhere, so maybe that was part of the problem. I didn’t have to immerse myself in getting over my fear of driving because I had Nick to help me, so I didn’t. That was probably a mistake.

Through practice, very early in the morning before anybody was on the roads, I was able to drive slowly to my school’s parking lot and the gas station. Time passed. I had one baby, then another one, and I drove them around our town. But I never got on the highway, and I only drove when it couldn’t be avoided. I was always aware of my fragility.

I got a new job, and it was in a neighboring city. I looked online at Rideshare for carpool options. Anyone could place an advertisement, saying what they needed. Most people had to get to work, others, something else:

“Needing a ride to Utah or NV at the end of July,” or “Headed down to Louisiana at the end of July. Looking for a ride along.” or “A ride to go to Cali,” and one alarming, “Ladies, need to get out of town?”

Some people had very detailed entries, and stated their best qualities, type of humor, and romantic situation—“In a carpool, I’m a good listener! My sense of humor is campy/cheesy! I’m single!”

Some were very brief: “I sleepwalk and am unable to drive for the next 6 months.”

I just couldn’t do it. Instead, I asked the receptionist at my new school if anyone else at the school carpooled, and she got the name of a social work professor who lived in my town.

Our pick-up spot was a parking lot of a call center close to my house. I would always arrive early so I could jump in her car with my messenger bag and canvas lunchbox, causing her as little inconvenience as possible. On the first day, the social work professor told me about her Weight Watchers meetings. She had a metal to-go cup of flavored coffee and a chocolate breakfast bar. A few days in, she said that although she barely knew me, she had a crisis going on and needed someone to talk to. It was quite a drama, complete with her boyfriend’s ex-wife behaving badly, his son moving in with them, the legal system, the police, and the local news. It went on for weeks and weeks, and then months and months. It was all we talked about to and from work.

I tried once to drive on the highway. Nick’s mom was visiting and watched our children. He and I got in my car, he in the passenger seat, and I drove us to the nearest on-ramp to the highway. I hated it. Everything was going too fast. “Is my car shaking?” I yelled to Nick over the noise. “No, you’re doing fine,” he said. “Try to relax.” But I got off at the next exit, and that was it.

As the social work professor and I were driving home from work one evening, she was talking to her boyfriend on speakerphone. I sat silently, as she always did when they spoke on speakerphone. The boyfriend did not know about me. This was during the time when the police were getting involved in the scandal with his ex. He said to the professor, “This is the worst day of my life.”

We ended up moving so I wouldn’t have to carpool anymore. At least I that’s the answer I tell people when they asked why we moved. And that’s what I tell myself. But what does that mean? The issue is far from resolved. I drive myself and the kids all over our town, even during the busy times of the day. I break the rules on websites about safe driving: I listen to the radio and sip drinks, I even snack. But I know I could be relegated to passenger stance easily. I came close just the other day, driving my daughter to a ballet lesson. I sideswiped a car and bent my side mirror. I thought about stopping, but knew that the car owner would look at my un-matching eyes and paralyzed face, and I was afraid of what they would say. Would they say I shouldn’t be driving? What if they were right?

When I told Nick about it that night, he drove by the other car, parked in front of a house a few streets down, wanting to see if there was any damage. When he came through the back door, I was anxiously waiting in the kitchen. “Police everywhere,” he said. “What did you do?” Then, “Just kidding.”  

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