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« In Which This Was Before We Knew We Should Hate Kerouac »

Three Times a Permit


I have two party tricks: the first is that after two glasses of wine I fall asleep in the middle of the floor or on the couch during a conversation. The second is that I admit to not having a driver’s license at the ripe old age of twenty-six.

While the first trick paints me as an endearing lightweight, the second makes me look pathetic, something I did not realize until I became the butt of others’ jokes instead of the punchline in my own. It was winter, the worst in anyone’s memory. I couldn’t imagine executing the tire-squealing left turns that are necessary in Chicago on streets slick with black ice and pockmarked with potholes. By March 5th, winter hadn’t subsided, but I had been twenty-six for a full twenty-four hours. I had already missed a full decade of road trips, so I took two buses and tramped a mile through the snow to the Illinois Department of Motor Vehicles, certain that this meant I wouldn’t live to see twenty-seven.

At the counter in front of me, a Middle Eastern gentleman and his wife smiled at a blonde who looked like she had turned away more hopefuls than the immigration officers at Ellis Island. She thumbed through their three pieces of mail and yawned, “Does your wife speak English?” The gentleman shook his head. I wondered how his wife — a small, veiled woman — planned to take the test since translators, like cell phones, were certainly prohibited, but the blonde handed them a number and they took a seat in the waiting area, where at least half of Chicago’s population sat scratching their chins or swiping screens or screaming at toddlers. A lone teenager, white male, flipped through the driver’s handbook with a nonchalant look. He was wearing board shorts and didn’t seem appropriately nervous at the prospect that he was about to be handed the keys to a compact bomb with great gas mileage.

It has never made sense to me why you’re allowed to learn how to drive before you’re allowed to go to war or to start drinking. There you are, sixteen years old, and you are legally permitted to strap yourself to an explosive from which only your underdeveloped motor skills and questionable common sense can protect you. One wrong turn and it could be the end of you. It occurred to me, as Board Shorts pulled his iPhone out of his pocket and let the driver’s handbook drop to the floor, that youth is the only reason anybody would ever start driving in the first place. You believe yourself to be physically invincible, something that a few fender-benders and later, tequila, take away from you all too quickly. A belief that I’d never had in the first place. I slumped further into my seat and tried to determine which of the desk attendants was least likely to laugh in my face.

“Hi Kara, how can I help you today?” they’d say. “Or should I call you ‘Grandma’?”

I ended up with a young man who, with his long black ponytail and wispy mustache, looked like he was barely legal to drive himself. He smiled — dawn breaking over braced teeth.

“So, Miss VanderBijl,” he said slowly, looking at my forms, “this will be your third time taking the written test?”

“Yes,” I mumbled, ducking my head.

“And you’re sure you don’t have a driver’s license?” He stamped a form. He smelled like the sidewalk just outside a suburban Abercrombie & Fitch.

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that on my first try, I didn’t even make it to the learner’s permit. It was Valentine’s Day, freshman year of college, the sort of warm February day that makes you glad to live in Southern California. Cole, the boy I liked, had offered to take me to the DMV. He was from Texas and drove an old Buick, and we had met in the haphazard way you do when you go to a small liberal-arts school and you’re both English majors: over a chance three-hour discussion about books. One night, early on in our friendship, I was walking back to the dorm from the science building at dusk when he drove up. Pavarotti spilled out of his window as he rolled it down. The streetlights glinted off his glasses.

“I like your trench coat,” he said. “Want a ride?”

He’d been drinking Dr. Pepper (there was a half-empty can in the cupholder) and I had to move a dog-eared copy of Kerouac’s On the Road before I could slide into the passenger seat. He grinned when I held onto it for a moment before throwing it in the backseat.

“I haven’t finished it yet,” he said, “but I already know it’s going to be one of my favorites. There’s this part that reminds me of you.”

This was long before I knew I was supposed to hate Kerouac. I was hooked. Over the next week, I waited impatiently for him to finish the book, wondering if he’d reread the lines about me until the page was soft and creased. He found me shelving books during one of my shifts in the campus library, and held Kerouac in front of him at 10 and 2 with a grin.

“I can’t wait,” I whispered.

“No return date on this one,” he said. “Tell me what you think.”

I thought it was pretty lucky of Kerouac that endless roads unspooled before him as he chased meaning or women or whatever it was that he wanted across the amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesties. I also thought it was pretty lucky of me to have found a cute Texan who found me enchanting, even though my idea of fun was sitting on his kitchen floor reading French poetry out loud and drinking tea. Those were my college party tricks.

Cole could have had his pick of any girl, that was certain; he was charming, and his eyes had a way of crinkling behind his glasses while he smiled that made you feel like you’d just performed serious magic. I considered myself magical only to the extent that I no longer wore braces, and had lived in France. These were good hooks, but I had no idea what I was going to do with him once I reeled him in. Surely this was something we could figure out as the carpool lane unspooled before us on the 405.

I snuck a few glances at him as we waited in the tiny Santa Clarita Department of Motor Vehicles. He’d brought a book, and was quietly reading while I thought about what I weighed (it had been several months since I’d even seen a scale) and the color of my eyes. I wondered what he thought of me, and for the first time I allowed myself to believe that he liked me back. I was about to start driving, after all, and the only thing more perilous than seatbelting yourself to a bomb is tying yourself to another person. It was a day for embracing danger.

“Have you ever committed a felony in California or any other state?” asked the woman behind the desk. Her glasses hung from a gold chain around her neck. “Step up to the line for your eye exam, please, and read the third line.”

The lights flickered momentarily, and then with an electronic sigh, all the computers in the DMV went blank.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Our computer system is down,” she said. “It’s too bad. You can wait, but it might be better to come back and finish the process another time.”

“What if this is some sort of sign?” I asked Cole as we left the building. Relief washed over me in waves. “Maybe I’m not supposed to drive.”

He laughed and slid his arm through mine. “Happy Valentine’s Day.”

That night, he took me on a walk down a deserted road and asked me to be his girlfriend. Maybe I wasn’t ready to drive, but this, whatever this was, I could figure out. Cole took me back to the DMV two weeks later and, when I passed with flying colors, we left the city limits for brushy back hills, where the roads curved around old cattle ranches and classic Western movie sets. On the shoulder, we switched places. The car felt soft under me  all rubber and leather, wide. It was a car for the elderly. I took my foot off the brake. We rolled forward, slowly, then gaining momentum. Cole touched my arm.

“Penny for your thoughts,” he said.

“I’m not thinking about anything important,” I said, hands gripping onto the steering wheel like a lifeline.

It felt unnatural to be driving, after sitting in the backseat for so long. I hadn’t chosen a passive life (it had been given to me) and I was just starting to understand the ways in which I was allowed to take control. But this frightened me, watching the speedometer creep up past 20, then past 30, to hover at a limit that someone had once decided was safe for such a road. Sitting here with Cole felt strange, wanting to be with him felt strange, when I knew better than anyone else that it is never long before life takes you down different roads. I had wanted to be ready for this, and would readily pretend to be ready, if it meant finding some sort of meaning, even a meaning to work off of, like a wrong turn that brings you back within the confines of a map.

“What are you doing?” Cole cried.

I’d turned sharply into the brush on the side of the road, and braked. The front of the Buick crushed desert-dry shrubs and I said, “I think you need to drive now.”

As it turns out, I’d driven over a big rusty nail, and his car went to the shop. After they replaced his tire, they told him that gasoline had been leaking into his engine, effectively transforming his car into a bomb. One wrong turn could have caused it to explode.

After that, we didn’t do much driving. We moved at different rhythms when we weren’t on the road. Even after he’d kindly and firmly broken up with me, I found it hard to move forward at the required speed. By the time I’d gotten over him, Cole had already moved back to Texas and my learner’s permit had expired. I found myself sitting in the backseat of my friend Paula’s little car, singing along to moody playlists at the top of my lungs.

Paula drove with her left foot propped up by the window, a silver ring on each bare toe. She liked to drive, so it never took much convincing for her to take Hailey and I on late-night jaunts to Denny’s (the only thing that stayed open past 9 p.m.) and into the hills behind Santa Clarita. I stretched out in the back, head against one door and feet against the other and looked back at where we had come from, at the distant glow of Los Angeles.

Objects in mirror are closer than they appear. We all have a fantasy self, an image we conjure when we’re feeling insufficient. Mine is a witty girl who brings down the house at any party and never gets a ride from anyone. She’s in charge of her own destination and isn’t willingly relegated to the backseat. Paula and Hailey were the sort of friends who gave me license to believe these things, just as I gave them license to believe in their own fantasies. Within the next couple of years Hailey would be dead, Paula would move back to Arizona and I’d be in Chicago. But during those long drives our futures, and our beliefs about ourselves, were suspended. Nothing mattered but the next line of a song or the neon sign of an approaching fast food restaurant. We had come to college to make something of ourselves, but we did the real work in that car. On the road, we made our peace with what was possible.

Within weeks of moving to Chicago, I applied for a driver’s license. My aunt and uncle let me drive their red PT Cruiser to the grocery store for ice cream after their kids had gone to bed. The hills of Los Angeles couldn’t compare to the six-cornered intersection at Fullerton/Elston/Damen, where I regularly drove over the curb trying to make sharp, timely right turns with a legion of cars honking behind me. Soon I found a full-time job and moved out of my aunt and uncle’s place. My first Chicago winter was beginning. Even though both of my new roommates had cars, I let my permit expire once again.

As far as cities go, Chicago is relatively friendly to both drivers and non-drivers. It became second nature to me to add ridiculous cushions of time to the front and back end of events, calculating how much time and how many trains it would take me to get somewhere. I’ve been commuting long distances my whole life, so nothing made more sense than the steady rhythm of the train rocking down the elevated tracks toward my job downtown. I made friends with fellow non-drivers, and we laughed at the people we knew whose lives revolved around their cars, and where they were going to park them, and how much traffic they’d get caught in at rush hour. I felt like a true Chicagoan blundering around outside in subzero temperatures, instead of complaining about the weather from the heated interior of a car. The city was good to me, giving me trains that came on time and buses that stopped for me and friends who rode their bikes with me to Montrose Beach in the summer. Each time, it felt like a friendly nudge in the shoulder telling me I’d made the right choice.

In Illinois you’re allowed to get seven answers wrong on the written driver’s test. I’ve always had trouble identifying signs  last time I didn’t even recognize the universal sign for railroad crossings  so I spent a lot of time thinking about each one, their color and shape. It’s easy to get comfortable with a thought, until it comes time to put it into practice. I have never been nervous about the written test, just what it means  that the road is open to me, now, and I have to take it. On March 5th, I got five answers wrong, four of them signs. My new party trick is that I can’t identify upcoming railroads.

I’ve been driving outside the city in my boyfriend Jens’s Mazda, making too-wide turns and nearly crashing into other cars in the Home Depot parking lot. I am always terribly nervous when Jens turns to me and asks, “Do you want to drive?”, but he has a wonderful way of making me want to be brave. We stop at a gas station. He goes inside to buy a cup of coffee and I slip behind the wheel.

I move the seat up and adjust my mirrors. I put on my glasses so that I can read the signs. I am good at braking  sometimes I think stopping is the only thing I know how to do well  but I am getting better at moving forward, too. Sometimes I’m sure that I am following closely on the wheels of that fantasy girl who’s been my chauffeur for so long. Maybe this time I’ll overtake her.

“There’s no reason for you to drive so closely behind that car.” I catch Jens smiling as I turn to look at him for a split second before gluing my eyes to the road ahead.

Next time, then.

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about FX's Fargo. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing for This Recording here.

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