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Conquering The Driver's Test
“Okay,” the examiner said. “Please put it in reverse, and leave the parking lot.” I put my shaky, lifeless hand on the gear shift and managed to push it into reverse. I neurotically checked in each of my mirrors, looking back and forth like a scared rabbit. I took a deep breath and took my foot off of the brake in the same way someone picks up a block of lead. I turned around, put on my blinker, and left the parking space. The bright sun shone through the side window as I drove out, and I felt like I was going to melt, although I’m wasn’t sure if it was because I was nervous or because of the August heat. Perhaps both, since I decided not to open a window in my car because I didn’t want any outside sounds to distract me. Driving from the parking lot at the Dummerston DMV to the parallel parking area would take a normal person a few seconds, but it felt like hours for me—I had been practicing for so long, I had to pass the test, and I had walked into the DMV feeling like I was on death row.
In the time it took me to get to the parallel parking area, I thought about a lot of people—I thought about my mom, who had spent hours sitting in the passenger seat trying to teach me how to parallel park until I had it down cold. I thought about my girlfriend, who had been constantly pressuring me to get my license so I could see her more. I thought about all of my friends who I had bragged to, promising them I would have my license when I next saw them. I thought about my menacing driver’s ed teacher, who had helped create my antipathy for driving by screaming at me from the passenger seat, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? WHY ARE YOU SLOWING DOWN?” And then I thought about the examiner sitting next to me in my car, and I remembered that I was still taking the test. I approached a van in the parallel parking area. The van. The evil hunk of metal that every teenager in the area had to defeat to get that little plastic card that would change their life forever. I wanted to open the car door and puke all over the pavement, but a little voice in the back of my mind told me that if used common sense and relaxed, everything would be fine.
“Please parallel park behind the van,” the examiner said. Oh god, I thought. I can’t do this. I took a deep breath. I have to do this, I said to myself. I stepped on the gas far too quickly and pulled up parallel to the van, about seven inches away. Too close! I wanted to slap myself in the face. But I can make it, I just have to stay calm and not do anything stupid. I looked in my rearview mirrors and backed in carefully behind the van, like a gopher that pops their head out of the ground and gingerly surveys the area before leaving. I was okay. Very close to the curb, but okay. I gave a sigh of relief and put the car in drive to pull out of the parking space. Then I stomped on the gas. I could spend the rest of my life coming up with lame excuses for why I did not back up first, but I’m still not really sure what I was thinking.
Did I imagine that sound? I must have imagined it. Cars aren’t supposed to make that sound when they’re driven out of a parking space…unless they hit the car in front of them. Which I didn’t do. Only bad drivers do that. I looked over at my examiner to see what his explanation for the unusual sound was. My knuckles turned white, and I thought I might pee my pants. He shuddered and buried his face in his hands. Why is he doing that? I wondered. He picked up his exam grading sheet, and put a check in the box that read, INSTANT FAILURE: ACCIDENT.
No. I said to myself. That can’t be right. That couldn’t have happened after all the hours I spent with my mom, all the hours I spent in this parking lot practicing. I’m imagining this.
I wasn’t imagining it. “Please turn the car around and drive back to the parking lot,” the examiner said.
I bit my lip. What was I going to do? What was everybody going to think? I must have told everyone I knew that I was taking the test, and I shuddered at the thought of explaining the outcome to them. I parked, got out of my car, and as I followed the examiner back into the DMV where my dad was waiting for me, my fear turned to anger. How could that have happened? I wondered. I did my best not to explode. We walked into the back room, and the examiner explained to my father what I did wrong.
“Well, you know, I’m not sure he was really ready to take the test. He hit the van while he was coming out of his parallel park,” he stated. Not ready? I thought, gritting my teeth. NOT READY? I hate him. I hate him!
“He also forgot to put on his turn signal when going into the parking space.” Turn signal? I wondered, scratching my head. Turn signal? I did forget to put on my turn signal, didn’t I? The scratching at my head quickly became pulling at my hair, and before I knew it, I was angrily uprooting hair from my head. How could I forget to put on a turn signal? HOW?
The examiner said other things, but the screaming inside my head grew louder and louder, and eventually his words were just background noise, the same way a crying baby is background noise when you’re listening to music through headphones. I waited forever for the examiner to finish talking to my father. I had such an incredible urge to get out of the DMV, I was practically a toddler at my father’s waist again, tugging on his belt loop when I wanted to go home.
After what seemed like an hour, I left the building, and walked back to the car, across the black pavement that sucked up heat like a sponge, taking angry T-Rex steps. I opened the passenger door, and got in my car. For a moment, my dad leaned back in the driver’s seat, and I leaned back in the passenger’s seat, staring out the windshield at the blue, cloudless sky. The burning sun that shone through the window cooked me like a piece of cheap grocery store chicken. I chewed on my tongue for a moment, and then turned my head, staring at my dad. “That,” I said, “was the worst experience of my entire life.” He bit his lip but didn’t say anything. I was a volcano, and my angry lava was slowly building up. I squeezed my fists together, practically crushing my own bones. Suddenly, I couldn’t take it any longer. My dad seemed to realize this, quickly turning the car on and backing it up. As we were leaving the parking lot, the volcano erupted. “What the ----?” I screamed. “WHAT THE ----? How could this happen? How could this happen?” I pounded the dashboard with my knuckles and let out a scream that I’m sure passing cars could have easily heard. “ I can’t believe this happened! How could this happen? How could I fail that test? I PRACTICED SO MUCH. I hate everything!” Then I started slamming my forehead on the dashboard repeatedly, but my dad made no effort to stop me. “I am a loser. I can’t even pass a driver’s test,” I moaned. “I am never going to do anything in life! How can I, if I can’t even pass the driver’s test, the easiest thing of all time? NO!” I howled. I remembered all the time I had spent practicing, all the time I hadn’t hung out with my friends to practice parallel parking in a lonely, abandoned lot. Months. I had been driving for a year. How did that happen? Why did that happen? I closed my eyes.
“Listen Marty, I’m going to take you home,” my dad said. Normally, in the afternoons, I would go and work at the factory my parents owned. He sighed. “I’m not quite sure what to tell you that will make you feel better. That really sucked. All I can say is that I failed the test the first time I took it.”
“You were 15!” I yelled. “And besides, you didn’t hit the ----ing van! I’m a loser.”
“Marty, you’re not a loser,” he said back, practically chuckling, “This is just your driver’s test. You just—”
“No. Call it what it is. I’m a loser. And this isn’t just about my driver’s test. This is my life. How am I ever going to succeed at anything if I can’t pass the easiest test ever?”
Let me add a note of clarification—I am not someone who fails often. I succeed in almost every thing I do, mostly because if it looks like I’m going to fail, I give up early. But this time I didn’t give up early, because I was sure I was going to pass the test. Over and over again, I had imagined the scene—I get my license, walk out of the DMV into the parking lot, and the frame freezes as I throw my fist into the air like Bender at the end of The Breakfast Club. I get in the car, which of course, I am driving, dial my girlfriend’s number, and yell, “GUESS WHO GOT THEIR LICENSE?” She proceeds to tell me how amazing I am, and the fact that I passed the driver’s test the first time makes me a visionary, a prophet, right up there with Albert Einstein, Jesus Christ, and the guy who invented electricity. I would go home, where my mom would be waiting for me in a scene from some 50’s sitcom like Leave It To Beaver.
“How did you do on the test, honey?” she would ask with her hands on her hips.
“Swell! I PASSED!” I would say.
“Why, honey, that’s wonderful!” she would exclaim.
My little brother would walk into the room, and say, “Golly gee whiz! You can drive a car!?” I don’t actually have a little brother. But that is not of concern.
My 50’s mother would put on an apron and proceed to bake me a cake, and my family and I would celebrate long into the night, drinking glass bottles of Coca Cola.
Instead, there I was, repeatedly smacking my face on the dashboard.
When I got home, I curled up on the couch in the fetal position and moaned like I was giving birth. After feeling sorry for myself for about an hour, I stood up and looked in the mirror with disgust. “Look at you,” I said to myself. “You’re ugly and skinny. You’re stupid. You’re a hopeless loser. You can’t even pass the driver’s test.”
Even though it came from me, that ridicule was enough to send me back to the couch. I thought about all the people I had let down. My mom. My girlfriend. All my friends to whom I had bragged. Maybe my driver’s ed teacher was right. Maybe I wasn’t meant to drive… My thoughts were interrupted by the phone ringing.
“Hi Marty,” she said timidly. I recognized my mother right away. She isn’t at all like the mom from Leave It To Beaver. “I’m really sorry,” she said.
“I hate myself,” I declared.
“Marty, it’s not that big of a deal. Why are you making such a big deal out of failing the driver’s test?”
“I don’t know. I’m not used to it. I’m usually never a failure.”
“That’s because you don’t try things when you’re not sure of yourself. I’m proud of the fact that you took the driver’s test even though you weren’t sure you’d pass.”
“I was sure I’d pass. I told everyone I was going to pass.” I scratched my head.
“So what? It’s not that big of a deal,” she said.
“I just can’t stop thinking about all the people I let down.”
She sighed. “The people will get over it. They might be laugh at you a little bit, but they’ll forget about it quickly.”
“I’m so depressed,” I moaned.
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself. You can either spend the rest of your life lying on the couch in the fetal position,” (How did she know? I wondered.) “Or, you can pick yourself up, and sign up to take the test again.”
“But I won’t be able to retake the test for like, 3 months. It’s probably booked.”
“Sign up to take it in another town. You can take it again in one week.”
I sighed. “Okay, whatever.”
“I have to go back to work. I think you should relax for an hour or two, and then call the Vermont DMV and schedule another appointment.”
I sighed again, said bye, and hung up the phone. I went back to lying on the couch, with no intentions of making another appointment for a long, long time. I closed my eyes. I’m almost eighteen, and I’m freaking out over something stupid like failing my driver’s test, I thought to myself. I was finally starting to feel like I was growing up. I guess not. An adult would pick themselves up and try taking the test again. But not me. I closed my eyes, and I soon fell to dreams of the mom from Leave It To Beaver shooting cakes at my car with a catapult while I was trying to parallel park. After about an hour, right when she was loading an especially rich cake onto the catapult, my eyes snapped open. I sat up, and threw my fist into the air. “I AM GOING TO PASS MY DRIVER’S TEST!” I declared. I lept from the couch, grabbed the phone book and the telephone, and after few minutes of listening to that sickeningly mellow music you hear when you’re on hold, I had an appointment to take the test in Bennington.
A week later, I smugly walked out the door of the Bennington DMV and threw my fist into the air like Bender at the end of The Breakfast Club. I smiled. I was now a licensed driver.