Big Events that we couldn't yet even imagine would transpire. Weren't our desire and longing grand enough to merit such a reward? It turns out that the most exciting result of this momentous right of passage, the procurement of a driver's license at sixteen, was that we were able to stop for coffee every day before school, and sometimes, if feeling really rebellious, return to the same coffee shop for lunch. Driving widened the circumference of our lives by approximately four miles. But, that's not what this story is about.
This story is about secrets, and what we do when we are burdened with someone else's secret. And, also about vulnerability and how blind we sometimes are to our own.
Driver's Education happened to everyone. No one complained much about it, since it shook up the regular routine, which definitely needed shaking. Plus, we could take the classroom portion of the program with our friends, provided our birthdays fell around the same time. After hours of driving observation, course instruction and countless cautionary videos—the instructor warned us of their graphic content, unaware that we'd just watched Pulp Fiction in the theater for the third time—we would finally get behind the wheel. Granted, this particular wheel would be in a car festooned with embarrassing STUDENT DRIVER signs, and the driving instructor would be riding shotgun, his foot hovering over his specially designed passenger side brake; nevertheless we were thrilled.
My driving lessons took place on summer days, which had been, up to that point, lazy. Innocence is long and unperceived. Summer upon summer, we had run between houses, scorching our young feet on burning sidewalks, feeling punished by boredom of our own making. Then sprawled on carpets and cool soft couches we would talk endlessly about life or read books side by side. Massive pizzas would be eaten, VHS tapes played. Occasionally, prodded by mothers fed up with our sloth, we fashioned half-adventures out of walks to Thundercloud Subs and trips to the mall.
So we were ready to grab at any shred of the banner of adulthood hanging in front of us, and I was hyper with excitement when I finally got in the crappy little red car for my first hour of driving practice.
After less than five minutes on the road my palms were pouring sweat, slipping too easily from the correct position of ten and two. In the back of the car were two other students who were logging their requisite hours of driving observation. Furtively, I took one hand at a time off the wheel and held them in front of the blasting air conditioner. I could feel my anxiety leaking over onto the previously calm instructor, who sat straighter and straighter in his seat. "Easy, easy," said the middle-aged teacher, poised rigidly with adrenaline, as I rolled down the street at half the speed limit. Suddenly I realized I was responsible for every single body in the car, whose exoskeleton was not enough to protect the life within—everyone needed their own, like hermit crabs.
Slow motion crashing cars from the safety videos crumpled one after another in my mind. This was too much power. I wished I was in the backseat, at the mercy of some other nervous teenager, not the one in command. A new facet of my personality blazed—I would prefer to be the observer, a position in which it's far easier to convince oneself of security, and, if forced into a position of control, I would at least like the luxury of not being watched.
Sometimes the universe answers a silent plea, and thanks to some scheduling miracle, I didn't have any more student observers for the rest of my driving hours. It was just me and my new instructor, who had recently started teaching at the driver's ed school. I was happy to have the teacher from my first hour replaced by this younger one, who was more laid-back and relaxed. He wore shorts and casual t-shirts that stretched over a big, friendly belly. He was so chill that he seemed impervious to my anxiety. In the passenger's seat he rode like a friend, his elbow out the window, and occasionally he would lean forward to turn the radio dial, looking for a good station. Every so often he'd point out where to turn, but it seemed more like a suggestion than an order. Unlike my friends' instructors, he didn't make me do anything scary like take the highway or parallel park.
It was like an episodic road trip. All that was missing from the scene was a plastic bag full of snacks from the 7-Eleven. I don't remember how many hours we logged, but even one hour is a long time to make conversation, especially when cruising slowly around wide, quiet neighborhood streets. Whereas I could talk for days to my friends, I didn't have much to convey to this man in his mid-twenties. He wouldn't understand my particular plight of itching to start life, as his had already begun. Plus, I was concentrating on the road. So, I listened and asked questions, and hour by hour, he began to reveal himself. He talked deeply about his life, his upbringing, his move to Austin, what he wanted to do, his loneliness. Just like two friends on an endless empty road.
During one of our last hours he began talking about how he had never had luck with girls.
Here we were moving into new conversational territory and I started to feel uncomfortable. The gap between our ages and genders snapped into place between us. I didn't want to hear about my friend/teacher's love life, or lack of love life, but in my hours of listening, a feeling of empathy and complicity had been growing in the car like a protective amniotic sac, and I would not have dreamed of puncturing it by changing the subject or revealing any discomfort in my face.
Girls just didn't go for him. They saw him more as a friend. Just look at him. Big and cuddly, not the kind of guy that girls want.
I nodded in sympathy, keeping my eyes on the road.
So, in the past, a long time ago, he did something he's not proud of—his throat tightened with guilt around his vocal cords--it's just he'd been alone for so long, and he was stupid, and that's just what his friends did. He would go to bars and wouldn't know how to talk to girls or even approach them. So, a few times, only a few times, he'd put a roofie into a girl's drink when she wasn't looking.
I swallowed hard. My sympathy swerved away from him toward those unknown girls being slipped rohypnol (was it even then called the date-rape drug?). I looked at the empty console and felt relief that we hadn't stopped at the 7-Eleven and no sodas sat in the cup holders.
But I listened to his confession as a priest hearing a penitent's regret—at least that's how I felt at the time—solemn, assuming a mask of compassion while, internally, compassion slithered away.
Even now, describing the moment, there's a whiff of betrayal, like I'm breaking a code of silence. And, in fact, my memory has done a partial job of locking down the secret, because, even though I remember those hours and the beginning of his revelation like it was yesterday, I do not remember how the conversation ended, which is appropriate for a story about a drug that erases one's memory.
Put a roofie into a girl's drink… and then, a blank.
Did he trail off? Did he assure me that nothing came of it? That he slipped the sedative into an unattended tropical cocktail, but then slunk away into the night without committing any further crime? I don't know. The information is suppressed, swept away under some heavy, shameful rug.
What I do remember is my own guilt, which has changed over time.
First, there was the original guilt in the moment, of hearing the secret (whose proportions also shift upon inspection; one minute I look and it's a small misdeed, the next, a grave one), of a girl who felt she had given tacit permission to accept the burden as a listener and in so doing, became a conspirer. Of disgust at my concurrent and contradictory judgment and pity of him—I understood his loneliness, but not his deception; I understood his feeling of ugliness, but not the manipulation that only magnified that ugliness.
Then, later, I felt guilty about keeping the story to myself. Even if all he had done was slip a strange girl a party pill behind her back and nothing more, should I have done something? Telling someone at the driving school, for example, was the farthest thing from my mind. But why didn't I whisper it to my friends, my partners on the long road to maturity? Was I flattered that I could be trusted with a grown man's shame, or embarrassed that I had somehow elicited this information?
I also circled back and told myself that he merely shared this story as a cautionary tale, like one of those crash videos, so that someday I would remember this friendly, lonely man when I stepped into a bar and would guard my own cocktail, covering it with a coaster when turning my back. It was a lesson from a teacher, a warning to me, his student, to stay away from guys like him.
Maybe over the hours in the car, from the passenger side, I had grown to resemble one of those girls and his remorse built until he forced himself to confess as an act of absolution. Or maybe the fellow-feeling we had conjured was a true one, the empathy real, and he simply felt safe to share.
But, what is that bond? One between a young man hired to teach left-hand turns and a fifteen year old, fresh to life, buckled in next to him for a required hour? Perhaps the same impulse that drove him to slip a pill into a vulnerable girl's drink was the same impulse that pushed him to reveal a secret to another one: a dangerous mixture of a need to control and a lack of good judgment.
Or was he just a human doing what humans do, sharing all sides of ourselves, trying to lay some of the heavy burden of being at another's feet, hoping that they will receive it with kindness?
Analysis and memory deceive. The recovered mental images skid and jump and smear. I almost remember canceling my last hour of practice with him and rescheduling with another instructor. But, perhaps that's just a redemptive wish. It could be that I drove with him one last time with a smile pinned to my face.
I had wanted to be the observer, and not the observed. I wanted to avoid the highways, but still keep the windows down and the music loud, to keep a child's feeling of safety but also experience the thrill of adulthood.
Although I didn't do much with my license once I got it, I had already gotten a taste of the complexity of the world. Even when the streets are wide and easy, twists appear, and sometimes our own minds can't be fully trusted, changing perceptions as they do over time, keeping some fragments of memory immersed while letting others drift to the surface to confound us, years later.