He let me drive the car when I was nine. Well, I wasn’t alone behind the steering wheel when I was nine, but I certainly had my grip on it, in the ten-and-two position, turning left, then right, hand over hand, thump thump. Dad worked the pedals. It must have been a challenge with a miniature and enthusiastic body smashed up against your side, but he was highly coordinated and a picture of calm. We’d round the swerve onto Taymil Road on the way home from my piano lesson and if I were lucky, he’d lift his right arm off the wheel and give me the nod.
Each Monday at 4:25, my mother dropped me off in front of Mrs. Rubenstein’s house, a weighty 1920s stucco with a front path that shot to the door like a diving board. I ran inside, the vinyl music portfolio slapping against my leg. Sometimes, another student would be finishing. Sometimes, there was no one before me. Always, Sarah Rubenstein was waiting in a knee-length knit skirt and rubber-soled shoes. I was never early, even when I was early. Mrs. Rubenstein was a despot, an oppressor with barber-cut hair, gray with yellow edges. She yelled out commands and scrawled emphatic reminders in between the staffs, over the notes, off the margins, even, onto the actual wood of the piano’s stand. She broke nine pencil points a lesson. She ate dried ginger out of a paper bag. She said it helped her heartburn. Once, Mr.s Rubenstein became so vigorous in her translation of a particular musical phrase that sprays of the root flew from her mouth onto the keys in front of me. Tiny droplets of crystallized ginger rained down onto the baby grand. How was I to touch it, then? How was I not to touch it? Mrs. Rubenstein presented moral dilemmas for me, at nine, and onward, during the six hundred years that I studied piano in her living room. My mother told me that she was a tremendous teacher, that a girl in her second grade class performed like Shostakovich and that is why we went to Mrs. Rubenstein, even though she scared me a little and screamed up the dark staircase to Leo, her husband, who emerged only once in the six hundred years I went to the stucco house on Monday afternoons.
My dad’s Buick had a bench seat. When you are learning how to drive a car, even if you are still in elementary school, an uninterrupted sitting surface is conducive to mastering skills. If he could get out of the hospital in time, he would pick me up. It wasn’t too often, but for a surgeon, it was a lot. After my lesson, I found him in the next room, a den with beige carpeting and prints of seventeenth century quarter notes, angled where they should have been rounded, mean notes. I knew that my father wouldn’t permit me to drive the Buick Electra on North Avenue, the four-lane street that traversed the heart of New Rochelle, or Quaker Ridge Road, the less commercial but fast-flowing thoroughfare that dissected it. My opportunity came once we made the left into the residential neighborhood adjacent to ours, lush and hilly and lined with storybook tudors. I do not think that I asked to steer, that I uttered words in the form of a question. But as we approached Taymil Road, I harnessed the anticipation and hope within me and flung it in my father’s direction, across the immense girth of the 1970s sedan, past the AM-FM push-button radio and through the leathered ether of the chassis’s interior into his brain, the part of the brain responsible for decision-making, decision-making about children’s extracurricular activities, particularly driving.
You will. You can. Yes, come drive, I’d repeat in my head and paint on my face. Look, Dad. This is the face of a driving girl. A really fabulous driving girl who should be driving now, right this minute, before we pass Taymil Road and get too far, before we’re practically home in our own boring driveway, creaking on the emergency brake, halted, nipped, held back from a moment of glory and thrill.
When the arm rose, I slid across the seat and pushed myself up to the edge. Dad dropped his hands to the bottom, keeping contact with his thumb and forefingers. The dashboard could have been on the Apollo. I did not know how you could look at the road and the numbers and lights and measurers all at the same time. If you gave the equipment the attention it appeared to deserve, you would certainly crash into an oncoming bus, or at least scrape off the side of the door on the median. How did grown-up people control so many variables simultaneously, I wondered.
“Keep your eyes on the road,” Dad told me.
“Only on the road.”
I focused on Taymil Road, intently, like an Air Force pilot. Like a really happy Air Force pilot. My hands clung in the requisite formation. I was a good driver, for the most part. I made smooth turns, I kept the straight-aways steady. I crept up on the yellow line a bit, but attributed that to height, or the lack of it. Anyway, the route home from the point of takeover involved three right turns, one left curve, a left into the driveway and up the hill into the garage. Years earlier, my brother sent me down the incline in a red metal fire engine. “Pick up your feet,” he yelled, as the truck gathered speed on the descent, crossed the street and careened into the far curb. We did not consider the possibility of traffic on Rollling Way. Maybe, we didn’t think I’d really make it to the other side, physics being what it is when you are six. Fortunately, we escaped any sort of vehicular accident, though I remember banging my kneecap on the fake glove compartment that did not open. I do not remember driving the fire engine again after my brother propelled me into the road.
Dad held the wheel more securely on the way up. I angled subtly, then straightened out, positioning the Electra’s enormous hood under the shelf that held the beach chairs. Finally, I removed the key, stretched out the emergency brake and went inside to do my homework. The entire trip took only three minutes. Sometimes, I lobbied for an extra whirl around our block, which doubled the duration and added two legitimate intersections, four stop signs and one pedestrian walkway.
My mother did not like that I drove. She did not permit such activity in the Chevy Monza. In retrospect, it would have made better sense to have learned steering techniques in her car, given its tiny construction. It might have been a more suitable first car, size-wise. I didn’t always tell her that I drove home from Mrs. Rubenstein’s house. I don’t think my father did, either.