Caution: Student Driver
Can I learn how to drive a stick shift?
Farrell remained calm as he gave me directions, sending me ever further into traffic. At one point I found myself in the left-turn lane in downtown Silver Spring, Md., when the light changed. This time the car didn't stall, and I was so excited by this accomplishment that I drove forward into oncoming traffic. Farrell dove across me and turned the wheel just in time. I wanted to ask him if he'd ever been in an accident with a student, but forming the words seemed tantamount to calling down the evil eye.
I kept following his directions, and before I knew it I was on an unfamiliar expressway, Old Columbia Pike. Semis were whizzing by and my stomach felt as if I'd just swallowed a vial of Helicobacter pylori. At one point, while attempting to get into fifth gear, I accidentally shifted the car into neutral. Another time, trying to go from second to third, I mistakenly put the car in first and it did a cartoonlike shimmy. But the only time Farrell lost his sang-froid was when he told me to make the light on a left turn off the highway. I choked and stopped on yellow. The woman behind us screeched to a halt, inches from my Student Driver sign, and started honking and gesticulating. Farrell waved pleasantly to her and explained to me that he had seen that she had been about to rear-end us and asked if I would please do what he said.
We were now worrisomely far from my house, but he said we were picking up his next student, who would drive us back. We pulled up at a high-school parking lot, and the student, with a ponytail and braces, climbed into the front seat while I got into the back. Her name was Vanessa and she was 16.
"She doesn't have any fears," Farrell informed me as Vanessa smiled confidently. For that I envied her, though it didn't make me want to drive with her. Vanessa pulled onto the street and Farrell gave her a running stream of suggestions, "Look far ahead." "Slow down." "Merge. Merge. Merge!" Then Farrell told her to take a right; it turned out Vanessa did have fears.
"But Mr. Farrell, that's the ramp to the Beltway!" she cried.
"Yes. Take a right," he replied.
"Not the Beltway, Mr. Farrell, please not the Beltway!" she said as she made weeping sounds. To most of the country the Beltway is the place inside of which rapacious lobbyists rob and pillage. To me it is a 64-mile asphalt loop of dread. As Vanessa took her first on-ramp onto the Beltway, I thought there was a strong possibility I would be squashed in this tin can with a 16-year old at the wheel. I also thought, "Hooray, I'm not driving!" and happily closed my eyes. She gained confidence as we sped along and, taking the exit nearest my house, and with only a few bouncy shudders of the car, deposited me at my front door.
When my husband and I went to Italy on our honeymoon, he had to do all the driving because we could only rent a stick shift. I was hoping that I could learn to drive one, so I could relieve him if we went back on a second honeymoon. But neither Italian-American relations, our marriage, nor we would survive my driving a stick shift on the autostrada.