At barely 13, I experienced a car crash. I thought it was a day just like any other average sunny Sunday in my bucolic Central California neighborhood. Just four smart ass teenagers up to no good joy riding in a friend’s father’s SUV.
Oh sure. We do this sort of shit all the time, I had thought at the start of that day. Only we hadn’t ever done that sort of thing. We’d just talked about it. Talked about hitting the wide open road beyond the outskirts of town, looping around cow fields while blasting music and imagining what our lives would be like once we got out of that boring little valley.
Oh to be young and free and careless. We all took turns at the wheel, kicking up a trail of dirt clouds in our wake as we listened to a tape by The Church.
Just who among us would be the one so stupid as to over-correct a slight veer to the right by jerkily turning and heading promptly into a menacing embankment? Who do you think?
It was my first turn at the wheel. All the other girls had had a turn. I didn’t really want to take a turn. But how hard could it be, right?
I crawled out of a heap of crumpled, twisted metal — bruised across the legs from where I had been tossed around the wheel — to shouts of, “This is all your fault, Amber! Why did you do this to us? Why?!”
Every time I remember that day, that song playing on the tape deck gets stuck in my head all over again.
From then on, I was infamous in my hometown. I was the girl who wrecked so-and-so’s car out there on that ranch — on a straightaway. I was laughed at, made the butt of many jokes for years to come. It’s what happens when you grow up in a small town and everyone knows everyone. What’s worse, I was ostracized for several months by all my friends. They had thought that I was trying to kill them along with myself. I never even really wanted to drive that day. After that, I never wanted to drive ever again.
But later on, at age 16, my friend Kenny somehow convinced me to give it another try in his Chevy Turbo Sprint. Despite a near-constant shaking leg and a somewhat tricky clutch, I got that thing to zoom all the way up to the 5th gear. The only problem was that I could only pull this off on the paved country road I was most familiar with, and not the stop-and-go traffic in town. The clutch would sputter, then I would panic and bolt from the car in terror.
It was another 3 years before I got behind the wheel again. This time I had begged my boyfriend to teach me how to drive in his Chevy Blazer. (There was no way he was going to let me drive his ’67 VW). Again, there was a tricky clutch involved. Again, it got poppy anytime I tried to make it glide. Only difference was this time I didn’t want to stop. I wanted to keep trying until I got it right. Only my boyfriend panicked, not me, and said that maybe we could try again another day. Before I could ask him again, his mother sat me down and told me, “Some people just aren’t meant to drive, Amber. And it’s okay with us that you’re one of them.”
I was deflated. I thought if I just kept at it I wouldn’t be so afraid of that dang clutch. I could somehow figure out the rhythm between body and gears. But I never asked him to teach me again, and he never offered. It wasn’t until after I had married and divorced him that anyone offered to teach me how to drive again.
The lessons that finally worked came from a boyfriend whose method was to yell at me constantly. He took me to a tiny California Conservation Corps neighborhood behind the college I was attending at the time and made me drive around those little blocks until he got tired of yelling at me — at least a half hour at a time every day for what seemed like an eternity. I dreaded those lessons. I dreaded the silly little mistakes that I was bound to make and he was bound to notice and pounce upon with angry fervor. What got me through each of them was envisioning the day when I could drive myself wherever I wanted whenever I wanted without having anyone else in the car to yell at me.
A year later, when I parted ways with my boyfriend, he sulkily said to me, “You’ll see. You’re going to forget all about me, Amber.”
I smiled at him and said, “No, I’ll never forget you, Bryan. You’re the one who taught me how to drive. And I can’t ever thank you enough for that.”
Then I got in my car with all of my things and drove 300 miles back home, blasting music on the radio and dreaming of the woman I would become.