joan didion by julian wasser, 1968
cw: sexual harassment, death, car accident
You can take the test to get your drivers permit in Florida when you’re 15 and everyone I knew got theirs on their 15th birthdays. I was in limbo six months out from my parents’ divorce, no quinceañera and with hindsight, just very depressed. My parents weren’t civil enough to help me sort it out so I got my permit closer to 16. I honestly felt alright about it because I was terrified of driving in the urban sprawl I grew up seeing from the passenger seat. I passed the written test, smirked for the photo, and stuck the warm newly printed card in my wallet. I didn’t give a shit about driving.
You have to have your permit for at least a year before you can take the road test and get your actual drivers license and no one could decide who would teach me how to drive. My mom had been convicted of a DUI in the last year and couldn’t teach me with a suspended license. My dad couldn’t teach me because my mom didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of being able to be the parent who taught me anything. My grandparents steered clear of the argument to try and keep the peace. My aunt wanted to teach me, and she did once I was actually licensed, but my mom initially shot that down for controlling reasons too. Instead they paid a driving school to teach me how to drive.
It would take multiple Saturdays to complete the course and the instructor was late the very first day. I was almost 16 and had just gotten my braces off but I still hated the way I looked. The instructor was maybe 25 and had too much gel in his hair. He held the driver’s side door open for me in my grandparents’ driveway and I got in; he sat in the passenger seat next to me and gave a little wave to my family. He told me how to reverse out of the driveway and drive down the street and I did. A car never feels bigger than it does the first time you drive. You’re so aware that you’re operating machinery in a way that seems to fade every single time you drive until you just don’t think about it anymore. We drove down the main stretch of street, making our way through suburbs little by little. I was really nervous about turning left and so we just kept driving south. It felt like I had just pulled out of the driveway but soon we were at the turn off for I-595; my palms started to sweat.
“Go ahead, get into the left lane,” he said as he scrolled through the radio stations. “This is the best way to learn, just get right in there.”
I was terrified to drive on the highway but I didn’t really know what other choice I had. I merged onto the highway with my heart in my throat and stayed in the right lane.
“Speed up, you want to stay with the rest of traffic.”
I could feel him looking at me as I drove but I kept my eyes forward. He asked me how old I was, where I went to school, if I had a boyfriend, what I did for fun, if I went out with my friends anywhere. I answered politely but didn’t want to give too many details. I told him again and again I was just boring and into school but he wasn’t convinced. The exit for I-95 was coming up and I tried to guide his focus to that.
“Go south,” he said.
I was extremely bad when it came to directions back then but even I knew this wasn’t the right way; south was Miami and I lived in the opposite direction. But I didn’t know what else to do: driving for the first time, on one of the busiest highways in the country, with a person I didn’t know but who very much wanted to know me in a way that felt really bad in the pit of my stomach. I didn’t really ever use my cell phone but I wished I had brought it with me. I wasn’t sure how I would even call someone while driving but I wanted the option.
We drove for a long time, eventually getting off the highway, and driving in circles through different neighborhoods I didn’t recognize. He kept saying I should come to a club in Miami Beach with him, that he could get me a fake ID. It was the last thing I wanted to do but I knew better than to say that out loud.
“Maybe.” I was non-committal but positive. I needed to keep him calm.
After a few hours of this, his phone started to ring. He ignored it the first few times but finally answered when the same number kept calling again and again. I only heard his half of the conversation but it was his boss and she was pissed. Whatever his boss said must have scared the crap out of him because he guided me back to I-95 heading north this time. Within an hour, I was pulling back into the driveway at my grandparents’ house where there were police waiting to talk to my instructor who had illegally taken a minor over county lines. I was mortified by everything going on and just wanted it to be over. I begged my grandparents to not press charges and just forget the whole situation. The cops and the instructor left and my family didn’t really talk about that day ever again.
They did ask my aunt to teach me to drive but it took less than one lesson for her to realize that I had learned everything I needed to know that one Saturday where I was technically kidnapped.
There was this day when my college girlfriend called my house and told me to come outside. She was in my driveway in a gleaming new car. I sat in the passenger seat and inhaled the new car smell.
“Did your mom get it for you?” I asked. We were in college and there was no way she could afford it on her financial aid alone.
“No, an insurance settlement I was waiting on came through.” She pulled out of the driveway onto the main road. “Let’s go to dinner. Anywhere you like.”
“Ok.” I put on my seat belt. “What was the settlement for?”
“Don’t worry so much,” she said as she squeezed my thigh with one hand.
Two months later, she was suddenly worried. She showed up to lunch looking green. She told me the police in Miami had called her and wanted to talk to her. She started to cry.
“What do they want to talk to you about?” I frowned.
She told me about how she got that car, how she would get into car accidents on purpose to collect on the insurance. It was a whole ring that her friend’s mom organized. The jig was up and they were all going to be arrested. People at the restaurant stared at us as she openly cried.
I had no idea what to say. I was a coward and mostly relieved that if she went to jail, I wouldn’t have to actually break up with her face to face. I told her to find a lawyer. I thought about the car accident I’d been in where I heard my boyfriend’s ribs crack. I didn’t hate her for what she had done, I just didn’t feel anything, especially not her hand on mine.
She turned on her friend’s mom and didn’t end up getting charged. She was ecstatic until I broke up with her a few weeks later. I felt nothing but relief. I saw her behind me at a red light a year later and waited to see if she would hit me. I looked back and she saw me. She turned right and I never saw her again.
Somewhere in the five years before my mom died, she was in a car accident and won a $50,000 settlement. My family who lived with her never even knew she was in an accident and they certainly didn’t know about the money. Ian and I found it in her papers after she died.
“She couldn’t have spent it all on alcohol, could she?” We asked each other this as we thought about it, turning it over in our heads.
The money was gone, my mom was gone; as always, there were more questions than answers.
A month after my mom died, Ian and I were driving on the Gardiner Expressway here in Toronto, leaving the city for Thanksgiving weekend. We were moving with traffic when suddenly Ian realized the car in front of us was stopped despite having no brakelights on. I pressed the brake pedal but I could feel that I wouldn’t be able to stop soon enough. We crashed into the back of this car and the air bags deployed, dust and smoke everywhere. The impact felt massive and I opened my eyes thinking I was dead. I started screaming and couldn’t stop; now I realize I was having a panic attack. Ian helped calm me down but I refused to move. He got out of the car to look at the damage. I didn’t even ask because his face said it all.
The people in the car we hit were thankfully fine but the paramedica still had to come deal with us all. I remember Ian collecting all of the change out of our car’s cup holders as we waited for them to arrive. When they finally got there, I refused to get out of the car. I held onto the steering wheel and just kept saying I was fine where I was. I think a part of my brain thought that if I didn’t get out, if I didn’t see the car, if I didn’t feel the cold evening air on my skin as I stood in the middle lane of an expressway, it wouldn’t be real, it wouldn’t be happening.
Eventually I got out of the car and we both got checked over by the paramedics. We seemed fine, we were walking and moving, and we rode in the tow truck to wait for our rental car to be dropped off to us. A few days later, I would develop a deep hematoma on my abdomen and pain throughout my body. A few weeks later, the one scrape Ian took on his shin in the accident would transform into a dangerous infection that required months of care and still is an issue to this day. A year later, I started having the symptoms of the degenerative chronic illness I now live with. A few months after that, Ian was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor that developed in the part of his chest that took the brunt of the impact from the seatbelt. One of my specialists thinks all of this is connected to the accident but I’m not sure if that’s true or if it even matters. All I know is that people are as dangerous as cars but only one of them requires you to take a test to be able to handle them.