Friday, September 08, 2006

Driving Miss Jamie

On the morning of my 16th birthday, I was up with the birds (you know, at the crack of dawn...or before any rate, early).

I tousled my short reddish hair, arranged my bangs ever so attractively across my forehead, put on a pair of cutoff shorts and a red and black striped t-shirt that I'd pilfered from a friend who was going to throw it away. I can only assume that at some point I looked into a mirror, at my un-shaped man eyebrows, my crooked tortoise-shell glasses, my pale complexion unaided by even so much as lip gloss, and thought, whew, I look good.

It's been nearly a decade since that image was captured forever on my fabulous Ontario driver's licence; years of cringing each and every time I've had to hand it over for I.D. Even just a year or two after it was taken, I often contemplated leaving the liquor unbought if someone were to card me. I've made a lot of money off my licence: time and time again, I have won the coveted 'Worst Photo Ever' award, and collected on many bets. Usually a flash of this photo garners me pity, sometimes laughter. At best, someone will refuse to believe that the picture can possibly be of me. Oh, how I wish that were true, but alas, it's authentic.

Just think how you would feel if the only form of photo I.D. you carry is a relic from your "what was I thinking?" days of high school.

It's been painful, excrutiating at times, but it persists.


Because I don't drive.

And they won't update the photo just for the sake of vanity.

It's a sad state of affairs, really, especially considering how hard my licence was to come by in the first place.

Oh, my mother was all too happy to bring me to the office the day I turned 16, she watched me take the written test, watched me have the Worst Photo Ever taken, even gave me a small box as a gift that contained a red corvette-shaped keychain with a gleaming car key attached...the key to her rusty old Ford minivan.

And that's where it stopped.

She would never take me out for lessons. She never let me drive, not even around the neighbourhood, not even in a parking lot, not even to the end of our driveway. Never.

So I sat through the embarrassments of driver's education. My grandmother would pick me up after school, with some cookies in an old prescription paper sack, and some lemonade in a mason jar for refreshment. I sat through the theory and then nervously got behind the wheel of the instructor's car, week after week being berated for not practicing enough (I never corrected the instructor, but actually, I wasn't practicing at all). I drained my bank account, 16 years worth of babysitting, lawn mowing and birthday money, to pay for driver's ed. But I never did get to practice.

But then one day, something astonishing happened. It was my father who offered me the wheel.

Maybe if I had stopped to think about it, I would have remembered that I hated my father, that his temper was non-existent, and that he was the last person on the face of the earth for the job. But I was excited, my first real drive! I ran inside to get my purse (the one I had begun carrying 6 months before just for such an occasion - as of yet, it contained only my license and a pack of gum, the gum being just for show, really) and then I performed my pre-drive safety check, kicked the tired, adjusted the mirrors, slid the seat up so that I could almost see over the dashboard, and like a brilliant flash of light (the kind of light that travels at no more than 25 km/hr), we were off!

Looking back, it seems inevitable that the soundtrack to this 6 minute drive would not be the poppy 90s music on the radio, but my father's screams. I remember being proud of how smoothly I handled the road, just as my instructor had shown me, and how my father found fault in it just the same. How could I have possibly expected any less?

Six minutes in, the screaming, the punches to the arm, the grabbing the wheel from my hands, it got to me. I still remember the exact spot where I pulled over, and my father yelled at me for that, too. He screamed for me to continue, but I got out. In the growing dusk, I cried as other cars zoomed by, flashes of pitying faces as my father yelled at me from the curb. I remember thinking I hate driving.

My father eventually got back in the car and finished the drive to grandma's house.

I walked.

And I gave up driving altogether.
I was the only 16 year old in my rural community without the hallowed permit. I pretended not to care.

In the next months, my mother finally admitted that my father was an asshole, and she left him. Thank god.

And she began to realize that perhaps if there was a second driver in the family - say, me - then she wouldn't have to get up before the sun to drive one sister to work, and another to hockey, and another to a sleepover, then pick the first one up from work, bring her to the mall, get the second from hockey, and bring her to the library...and so on. So she encouraged me to make an appointment to take the driving test.

And I did.

The date of my test got closer and closer, and I hadn't driven in over a year. I pointed this out to my mother, and she would only shrug. She never did take me out driving, not once.

The morning of my driving test, I was shaking, probably less with anxiety and more with fear - real fear of revisiting the screaming scene I had tried my best to forget. It was a friend who came to my rescue that morning, a dear friend, who cut school to give me an illegal driving lesson in the 20 minutes I had before my test.

It was thanks to her, and only her, that I passed.

I was 18.

I remember walking in late to my third period class that day - Mrs McM's history, I think - and the class applauding my late-blooming success.

But I always hated driving, and did so only when absolutely necessary.

A year and a half later, I moved to downtown Ottawa where I very happily gave up driving, and let my licence expire.

I am a non-driver, and embarrassing I.D. aside, it hasn't bothered me much.

But in the near future, Jason and I will no longer be living together. With him goes the car, and his licence. With him goes my mobility.

Like it or not, I may soon have to get back behind the wheel of a car. And it's not going to be easy.

In Ontario, we have what is called 'graduated licencing', conveniently implemented like, 30 seconds before I turned 16. It means there are actually 3 steps (and 3 long waiting periods) before becoming a "full" driver - not to mention 2 written and 2 driving tests to be passed, and paid for.

During the first phase, I can only drive when an "adult" is in the car with me, and I can't drive at night, or on any highways (hello, I live in Toronto! I can't really back out of my driveway without hitting a highway). If I was a shaky, hesitant driver before, I doubt that 10 years of being a passenger and pedestrian has made me any better.

But I just keep telling myself that if it means a new picture, then it will all be worth it. Right? Right?

Oh, and also: I need to learn to parallel park. Any takers?

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