rites of passage: #scintilla, day 1

They tell you not to overload your work with backstory. Nobody needs it! No1curr! But I will tell you that in the days before this story I was in Kona and Honolulu with friends and crush-objects and all that wind and sand and water and a million million t-shirt shacks. I browned in the sun for hours and grew up in ways I could never have expected. The day I came home, I slept for almost an entire day, and when I woke up my mother handed me a very official envelope that had come in the mail while I was gone.

Inside that envelope was The Card. You took the card to The Office and stood on a piece of tape on the floor, and when it was all over and done with, you had your driver’s license. It was 1990 and I was sixteen.

It took me a long time to get up the nerve to drive. My mother and stepfather both scared me for years about getting into wrecks… not so much for the damage I could do to my person, but for the expense, the humiliation, the idea that I would never be allowed to drive again if I did any damage to their cars. We had even been in a pretty bad family car accident once when I was a tween; a young woman went through a stop sign and destroyed our old Celebrity. So if they weren’t afraid of being hurt in a wreck, I was. I knew what happened when people weren’t careful.

By the time I was fifteen, though, both of my parents were ready to stop driving a carful of teenagers everywhere we wanted to go. Neither of them trusted me with their cars, so they paid for private driving lessons, during which a bored older gentleman taught me the three-point turn in a parking lot. For six weeks, I overcame the fear, driving slowly through a wealthy neighborhood with curvy, wide roads. I learned that sometimes, you hit the bunny rabbit to avoid hitting another car, and that you never forget what that sounds like. I turned sixteen in August, but I didn’t pass my test until March of the following year. I was in no rush.

When I woke up after that jet-lag coma to find The Card in its very important envelope, I pulled on a black t-shirt that I’d picked up from a tourist trap in Kona. My mother grimaced. “Don’t you want to dress up?” Her driver’s license pictures were glam, silky tops with ruffles around the collar, a blazer, liquid rouge and eyeliner and eyeshadow and earrings and tall tall permed curls. But I could still feel the ocean in my muscles and the salt in my hair. I still felt like I was in Hawaii. To appease her, I consented to a quick round with the curling iron on my bangs. (I say it again: It was 1990 and I was sixteen.)

I took the keys and drove a few towns away to The Office. It was the first time I had driven alone in my life, but no one wanted to go with me, and I’d passed my test weeks ago. I turned on the radio, used my turn signals and mirrors, melded with the flow of traffic. I felt tanned and capable and well-traveled and adult.

It was a weekday, a workday, and the street in front of The Office was a one-way with metered parking on each side. A block or so away from The Office was a parking lot, but a space opened up right in front of the building. Of course I can do parallel parking. It was on the test. I smoothly pulled up next to the car in front of me, backed into the space with grace, put the car into drive, and stepped on the gas too hard, smashing into the car in front of me.

If you have never hit another car, you are amazing. For the rest of us, we know the cold flood of panic, the way that everything stops until you’re sure of what’s damaged and what’s fine. I said “Oh God Oh God Oh God” a few hundred times. The pertinent facts filtered in: Not only had I caused financial expense, I hadn’t even gotten hurt enough to elicit sympathy and fear in my parents.

Screwed. I would never drive again.

An older woman tapped on my window. “I think you hit my car.”

Oh God Oh God Oh God.

That woman was a peach. She patted my shaking hand and then examined her scratched and dented rear bumper. “It’s not that bad, honey. We probably won’t even need the insurance company.”

I said, “I can’t give you my license because I don’t even have it yet!”

“You’re underage?”

“Oh. No. I just—” I waved at The Office and wailed. “I was supposed to go get my picture taken!”

She handed me a piece of paper with her information. “Give that to your mother.” She walked to her car and opened her door.

“Wait!” She turned around. “We have to wait for the police! We can’t leave the scene of an accident without the police!”

I wish I could remember her name, but I was still trembling so hard and all I could remember was her kindness and her patience. “We don’t need the police for a little old thing like this. Just give that paper to your mother and tell her to give me a call. Go get your picture.”

She drove away and I walked to The Office. When I looked back at the car, its plastic front bumper barely scratched, I could see that I was still parked about eight or ten inches away from the curb. And then I went inside, and a few minutes later I stood at the tape line and smiled.

I am still this bad at parallel parking, even today, although I manage to get closer to the sidewalk these days. Every single time I have to do it, I flash back to that lurching feeling as I stepped on the gas and felt a car—an expensive death machine—going out of control. But look at me. Just look at me. Even then, I knew that you could be scared out of your wits, your body refusing to listen to your mind, and still put a smile on my face.

Scintilla Project, Day 1 (prompt b): Life is a series of firsts. Talk about one of your most important firsts. What did you learn? Was it something you incorporated into your life as a result?