I wrote this back in September 2014. xo, h.
It was raining when he picked me up. I dashed through the steaming air and bounce-slam into the back seat behind Jean. Jean was tense, her shoulders riding high and her chin tucked in.
“Hi,” I chirped, settling into my seat. Her dad looked at me in acknowledgement, but didn’t say anything as he put the car in gear and backed out of my family’s driveway.
“Hi,” said Jean, glancing back at me like a timid rabbit. She giggled.
“Excited?” I asked.
“Are you kidding me?” she said. “I’m terrified but I can’t wait to have my license.”
“I’m really glad we’re taking a class. My mom’s too stressful to drive with. Can you imagine doing this at home?” I leaned forward and put my chin on the shoulder of her seat.
She giggled again. “Yeah, my mom is just INSANE to drive with. She just throws her hands up and screams or grabs the steering wheel and tries to grab the keys out of the ignition.” She glanced at her father, unmoved.
“Dad’s so much less stressful to drive with, but he just doesn’t have the time,” she finished.
I nodded. She pulled out her book. “Have you read this yet? You have to.” She lifted it up: Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “It’s SO good. Seriously hilarious.
“No, I haven’t, but I will!” I said. “I’m reading The Black Arrow again right now.” I pull my book out of my bag and we fall apart and become quiet, cocooning for the ride in our separate worlds.
This is our default, if we’re not in the woods or on the ball field or watching Homestar Runner clips after chemistry class together. Books are our native world. Here we retreat from our separate personal insanities and find stability.
My world: age 16, oldest of 7 kids, part-time surrogate mother to the youngest, infant twins, and self-taught homeschool high schooler. Home is 4 bedrooms and 9 people and perpetual cries for all hands on deck.
Her world: age 16, one of two daughters, self-taught homeschool high schooler. Mediator between an emotionally distressed mother fighting brain cancer and an angry and withdrawn younger sister, and a father who, to me, was a mere question mark of intense, quiet social presence.
Both of us were sold out for Jesus, youth group junkies in our local cult, distressed at the appearance of of our new boobs and hips, struggling to distinguish ourselves amid our peers, who seemed to us like peaches and cream southern belles dreaming of secretarial positions, prince charming, and motherhood.
She wore a lot of neon orange and combat boots and she had a pixie cut. Sometimes I called her Ivan. I wore overalls and the smell of baked goods and always had charcoal on my hands, and I put my hair up in a bun with a pencil.
Her dad dropped us off at the classroom for our driver’s ed, housed in a refurbished house-turned-office with a familiar (and terrifying) local pastor’s name on the next-door office space. We entered the classroom, the first ones there, picking middling seats together at the plastic tables. Neither of us had been in class with public schooled kids before, and we were strung tight and hyper-attentive as the other students filed in, jostling and laughing and damp from the rain, exuding largess as they spread themselves out at their spots.
One of the guys announced to the class that he’d taken this before in another state, but didn’t finish because his parents moved, but that he couldn’t WAIT for the video portion, because they were “just sick” in how gruesome they were. He glanced at the girls as he said this. Jean and I looked at each other, eyebrows cocked. This was going to be interesting.
The teacher walked in, a short soft woman with cropped greying blonde hair and wearing khaki pants with a white polo tucked into a thick belt. She shut the door behind her and faced us, clearing her throat. “Hello class,” she said, her voice buzzing with years in the south. “I’m Mizz Ferris.”
The door behind her swung open and a girl in a black t-shirt and a sparkly pink skirt and red heels walked in. “Hiiii y’all sorry I’m late!” she cooed, scooching into a seat on the end, her backpack tumbling open on the table in front of her. She set her phone on the table next to her travel mug. Both were bright pink.
Ms. Ferris nodded at her. “I’m Mizz Ferris,” she repeated. “And I’ll have you go around and introduce yourselves in a minute, but first I want y’all to know one thing: I have a concealed carry and I’m happy to use it. And no, I will not tell you where I wear it.” She eyed the boys, daring them to give her body a second glance.
“Now,” she gestured to the girl at the end. “Why don’t you start off and introduce yourself to the class?”
The girl sat up straight. “Oh, okay!” she said. She looked around the room. “I’m Princess Jordan!”
“Princess Jordan?” Ms. Ferris raised her eyebrows.
Princess Jordan pulled a plastic tiara out of her backpack and placed it on her shiny brown hair. “Princess Jordan,” she repeated. “I do pagents. I’m a role model for the community.” She applied a bit of extra lip gloss with precision.
One of the boys let his hand drift to his mouth, hiding a smile.
“Okay, then, Princess Jordan, everyone,” said Ms. Ferris.
Princess Jordan angled her chin in the air just so and smiled down on all of us. The boy who had talked about the gory videos (we later learned his name was Cody) snorted. Jean hid a smile. I kept my face blank, but in my mind I mocked her—how could she want to be so girly? Didn’t she realize that no one could ever take her seriously if she acted like that?
The rest of the class introduced themselves, and we settled in to listen to the rain and Ms. Ferris tell stories of her days as an EMT and why defensive driving could save your life.
Waiting for my mom to pick us up after class, Jean commented that she wished her dad was getting her instead. When I wondered why, she just shrugged and said she didn’t see him much with his new job—and with the side effects from her mom’s cancer, it was a nice break from her constant anxiety. “Maybe I can get him to take me bass fishing this summer,” she said. “It’s been far too long.”
At the end of the class, Ms. Ferris’s husband and business partner walked in and she introduced him. He was the foil to her bubbly and intense personality, reserved and understated. He matched her outfit—white polo shirt and khaki slacks—and sipped his Wawa coffee while she chattered, his bald head shifting its shine with each sip under the florescent lights. His quiet presence and his shaved head reminded me immensely of Jean’s dad, but I didn’t realize this until we were on our way home, telling my mom about our first real-life classroom experience. Jean volunteered, “I really like Mr. Ferris. He seems really cool.”
“I like him, too,” I said. “The in-car portion should be really low-key with him.
“He doesn’t seem like he’d be the sort to stress out a lot at you,” she said.
We were right—the in-car portion of the class was intense, but Mr. Ferris was placid and stern, so long as he had a fresh cup of Wawa coffee to keep him company. We mapped our driving routes all through Richmond by way of a compass rose delineated with all the Richmond Wawa stations. Most of our rides involved two of us in the car, plus Mr. Ferris, and a few times we had three students to a drive.
One hot July day saw me, Princess Jordan, and Cody in the car together. Princess Jordan was driving (she was an unremarkable driver and we were thoroughly bored), and she stepped out of the car to use the bathroom during one of Mr. Ferris’s Wawa stops.
When she got back in the car—which we had kept running to keep the AC blasting–with Mr. Ferris, the AC must have hit her hard, because Cody laughed to himself. When I raised an eyebrow at him in curiosity. He muttered “she’s cold, ha,” and nodded his head at Princess Jordan (who was being instructed on “disco driving” as a method for backing out of a space smoothly by Mr. Ferris.
I shivered and didn’t respond, suddenly thankful for the layers of coverage provided by my thick cotton sports bra, t-shirt, and overalls. I glanced at Princess Jordan, wearing her black Playboy pajama pants with a cheap cotton top that clung to her round shoulders and large breasts, the rhinestone letters marching across the shelf of her chest. I couldn’t see anything, but I was also sitting directly behind her.
I’m glad I’m not allowed to wear anything like that. Causing boys to stumble is so repulsive, I thought, slumping into my shoulder blades a little bit more, making my own small breasts even more hidden.
Jean and I both passed our driving tests with top scores by August. In our last class, we gave presentations about something related to what “safe and responsible” driving mean to us. Princess Jordan handed hers in to Ms. Ferris and refused to present it, saying it was “too personal.”
And then we were done and had our licenses. My mom breathed a sigh of relief and I was integrated into the family grocery shopping and swim team carpool rotation. Jean was given an old white Taurus for her first car. I negotiated for turns with my family’s rusting blue minivan.
Her dad never took her bass fishing. I pushed my mom to let me take more “out” classes that fall, but lost the battle. She took only out classes that fall, and her dad took another night shift job and her mom went under the surgeon’s knife and was declared cancer-free. I carried my baby siblings around after church every Sunday when the AC was too chilly and had my dad double-check every outfit for modesty approval, all in an effort to be unnoticeable. She wore Demon Hunter t-shirts and belts with studs and kept her hair short and played basketball fiercely and watched all the movies the guys liked in an effort to be unnoticed. She became one of the guys. I became a shadow.
Years later, when she was engaged for the second time and planning her wedding after cutting her dad off for physical abuse, and I was stunned at being newly divorced and reeling from the new freedom found outside of the cult, Jean and I reconnected. She told me that she was now using gender neutral pronouns. I told them I was using a last name other than my father’s. We cursed father’s day when we were both too tired to cry about it anymore, and I Snapchatted them my first timid forays into wearing crop tops. They Snapchatted me their femme days with bright red lipstick and their Ivan days of fauxhawks and binders. We talked about polyamory and consent and body image.
I still think about disco driving and Wawa coffee every time I parallel park (which is basically twice a day, here in LA). The Ferrises taught the next two of my siblings how to drive before moving to the deep south for their retirement. Now when I visit, we parallel park in Carytown in Richmond, and head to the Galaxy diner. My brother and I split deep fried oreos and Jean has a beer, and we make jokes about Hitchhiker’s.
And I scroll through Tumblr and wonder, what happened to Princess Jordan and her fuck-you-I’m-into-pink attitude that paralleled Ms. Ferris’s fuck-you-I-like-guns stance? Is she posting fatspo fashionista selfies in crop tops and red lipstick? Does she sing ***Flawless by Beyoncé when she’s in the car? Does she still do pagents and make her own way in organized settings? Or did the guys like Cody get to her, and did she end up losing her size 20 and her glitter to shrink herself into the life of some boy? I sure as hell hope not.
And I wonder, what other lovely pieces of life and human connection have my pride and privilege caused me to miss? How can I ever learn to truly see someone from where I sit?