Driver’s Seat

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BY KENDRA LIEDLE

Tisha had been staring straight ahead, her hands clasping the steering wheel, when she felt a sudden jolt.  The Chevy Malibu lurched forward and came to a complete stop before she fully realized that it was Ron, her driving instructor, in the passenger seat beside her, who had slammed on his brakes.  Tisha had forgotten that he had a set of brake pedals on his side, too.  In case of emergency.  Apparently, this was such an emergency.

“What are you doing?!” he asked, clearly exasperated.  “That could’ve been a head-on collision.  A fatality.  Maybe even more than one had there been another car.  Or pedestrians, God forbid.  Pay attention!”

At which point, Tisha started crying.  She couldn’t help it.  She looked ahead toward the desolate road – not a soul in site.  Not a car, certainly no pedestrians.  There’d be no reason for anyone to be this far outside town.  No good reason anyway.

“Are you listening?” Ron asked.

“Yes, Sir.”  She wiped her eye with one hand and looked over at Ron, but her mind was elsewhere – in another time, but very much the same place.  She thought of a tube of lipstick, and watched it rolling, rolling out of control down a hill.

“Pull over at the next opportunity,” Ron said, shaking his head in frustration.

Tisha said nothing and did as she was told, pulling off to the shoulder at a safe distance down the road.

“And turn off the motor.”

“Here?”

“ Just do it, okay?”

Tisha put the car in ‘park’ and turned off the ignition.  The motor reduced to a hum then fell silent.  Ron paused for a moment.  He was an older man, well into his sixties, and had been a driving instructor for a long time.  It was not something he particularly enjoyed, but it certainly beat selling cars— something he’d done for a good ten years prior.

Tisha watched him as he reached into his pocket to grab a handkerchief.  He dabbed his sweaty forehead with it, then turned back toward her.  The air became still, the car silent.  Tisha’s fingers clutched the steering wheel, her eyes still wet with tears.

“Let me ask you something,” Ron began. “How long would you say you stopped at that stop sign back there? “

“I don’t know.” Tisha shrugged her shoulders. “ Five seconds?”

Five seconds?”

“Uh-huh.”

“A complete stop. For five seconds?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And you looked both ways before proceeding?”

“Yes.  I think I did.” She flexed her fingers away from the wheel and looked to the floorboard.

“First of all, no. You did not come to a complete stop.  If you had, I couldn’t have slammed on my brakes now, could I?”

“I guess not.”

“Always come to a complete stop.  Look both ways to scan for potential hazards and then cautiously proceed.  Do you understand?”

“I stopped,” Tisha said in a tiny voice.

“No, you didn’t.  Not completely.  Not sufficiently.  And had I not been here, you could’ve harmed someone or yourself.  This is farm country.  People speed down these roads.  Deer cross here.  You want a deer to slam into your windshield?”

At this, Tisha slowly peeled her fingers away from the wheel and placed her hands in her lap.  This, she knew, would stop them from shaking.  When the anxiety was at its worst, her hands had a tendency to shake uncontrollably.

“Listen,” Ron continued.  “What have I told you?  Your eyes should always be moving, scanning.  You should constantly be looking for roadblocks, glancing in your rearview mirror, your side mirrors.  Always aware of your blind spot and always focused on the road, okay?”

Tisha nodded and stared at her hands, now interlaced in prayer mode in the safety of her lap.

“I’m sorry,” he said calmly but firmly. “It’s been five weeks now and you don’t seem to have a handle on these basic concepts.  I know you’re a little older than my average student, but I’m going to have to recommend you come back in the summer for further instruction.  I can’t in good faith give you a certificate of completion.  You’re just not ready.”

Neither of them said anything for five seconds or maybe three. It could’ve even been a minute or more because time has a way of stretching itself in moments of extreme discomfort.

Ron leaned over and unbuckled his seatbelt.  “Switch seats.”

Tisha didn’t fight this.  She didn’t feel like fighting for anything at the moment.  She rose

from her seat, got herself out of the car and proceeded toward the passenger side, passing Ron without saying anything more.  He was now in control; he always had been.

Tisha had been looking forward to getting that certificate today, to being done with all this, done with Ron.  But none of this would come to fruition, not today.  As she settled into the passenger seat, her body visibly softened, like a worn-out stuffed animal.  She sat there, still enough to hear her own heartbeat then turned to look out the window.

When the Malibu finally arrived back at the parking lot of Ron’s One Stop Driving School, another student was already seated on the curb waiting for her lesson.  The petite blonde, Tisha noted, was probably all of fifteen.  No doubt, getting a jumpstart on her learner’s permit.  As soon as they’d driven past, the girl looked up from her phone, stood up and started walking toward them.

Ron parked the car and Tisha immediately jumped out, relieved to be free.  Even the blonde-haired girl noticed Tisha’s anxious energy.  As the two passed by each other, their eyes met ever so briefly, each exhibiting a flash of curiosity in the other.

The blonde eagerly took the car keys from Ron’s outstretched hand and jumped into the driver’s seat, ready to take on the world.  Tisha could never be like her.  At 21, Tisha was officially an adult, yet the truth was, she’d already been an adult for longer than she’d thought possible, longer than she’d ever been prepared for.  The blonde didn’t know what this was like yet.  Maybe she never would.  As Tisha watched the car drive away and the distance grew between them, she couldn’t help but think about how they were nothing alike, born into different physical bodies, different scenarios, meant for drastically different futures.

Tisha was of average height and weight.  Pretty in a plain way.  Black.  One would think that being African-American shouldn’t matter much these days, but it did especially in a small town.  Tisha would always feel as though she were a few steps behind the blondes of the world.  But this was the lesser of the obstacles she had to overcome.  She’d made mistakes in the past that haunted her.  They faced her every day, colliding into her life in the present— just like the head-on collisions Ron convinced her she’d cause if she were allowed in the driver’s seat alone.  One tiny mistake can cause devastating consequences.  Tisha thought about this daily.  Tiny mistakes, devastating consequences.

That summer came quickly, primarily because Tisha hadn’t wanted it to ever begin.  May turning to June meant many things to different people.  Mostly good things.  The beginning of baseball season.  Summer camp.  BBQs.  Leisurely afternoons spent at the public pool.  As Tisha stepped off the bus on Mason Street on June 2 though, it only meant one thing:  Ron’s One Stop Driving School.

She took one last look at the bus as it pulled away, then walked up the curb, feeling a gentle breeze on her shoulders.  She wished she could fly away with the breeze.  Instead, she had to contend with Ron.   Just seeing the driving school sign was enough to give her the first twinges of a headache.  The summer sun didn’t help matters.  It was barely June and already it was nearly 85 degrees.

Tisha stood at the edge of the parking lot and scanned the lot for the Chevy Malibu she’d grown to both loathe and fear with equal passion.  She knew that it wasn’t the car nor was it Ron that brought about her deepest anxieties.  It was herself.  She needed to be able to function in the present, to live her life as a normal person or at least a good approximation of one.

Tisha fished her polka-dot sunglasses out of her purse and put them on.  These are probably sunglasses the blonde would like, she thought.  But they’re mine.  She smiled slightly at this—an imaginary triumph of tiny proportions.  She glanced at her watch, spun it around on her wrist and wondered where the hell Ron was.  She looked out at the parking lot again.  It was nothing but parked cars and asphalt.  Finally, a green Nissan Versa pulled up beside her and stopped.  A guy with dirty blonde hair got out.  He was wearing an ill-fitting, short-sleeve plaid shirt and loose khaki pants.  He appeared to be in his mid-thirties.

“Trisha?” he asked, glancing at a clipboard in one hand.

“It’s Tisha.”

“Oh, sorry.” He scratched his temple and made a quick correction with a pen.  “I can’t read my dad’s handwriting.”  He looked up at her and smiled.  “I’m Ron’s son, Patrick.” He stretched out his hand.  Tisha shook it.  “Good to meet you,” he said.

“You too,” she responded with a bit of uncertainty.

Patrick pulled some car keys out of his pocket and dangled them in front of her.  “You ready?” he asked.

“Huh?”

“Your driving lesson. Your Ron’s 2:00, right?”

“Yeah…”

“Sorry, Ron decided not to do the summer session.  So, you’re stuck with me.”  He gave her a crooked smile and tousled his hair with his free hand.

Tisha almost found this gesture cute, bordering on the lines of flirtation.  There was something both calming and inviting about him all at the same time, even given his obvious lack of fashion sense. Tisha’s initial uncertainly began to slowly transform into a vague sense of relief.

“Come on, hop in.”  He jangled the keys again.

Tisha moved forward and grabbed them.  Once they were both safely strapped in their seatbelts (Ron’s rule number one), Tisha consciously looked at the rearview mirror to check its positioning.  Then, she adjusted the side mirrors and moved her seat forward slightly.  Patrick leaned over and flipped the sun visor up.  Then, he watched for a few moments feigning patience as Tisha continued to acclimate herself to the vehicle.  She stood up straight, her back awkwardly hovering a few inches from the seat and put the keys in the ignition.

“Do you always drive like that?” he asked, noticing her rigid posture.

“Like what?”

“With your back stiff as a board,” he said motioning toward her. “You can sit back and relax, you know.  I’m not my dad. Or yours.” An awkward chuckle came stumbling out of his mouth.

Tisha gave a slight smile and started the ignition, but her back remained straight and rigid. Before long, they’d cautiously exited the parking lot and hit the open road.

“At the next stoplight, you’re going to make a right,” Patrick told her.

Tisha nodded and proceeded straight ahead.  As she approached the stoplight, she seamlessly changed lanes and flicked on her right turn signal.  But when the light changed to yellow unexpectedly, Tisha suddenly panicked.  She pumped the brakes, then slammed on them hard, causing the car to sputter.  Another driver honked and glared at her as he sped through the intersection.  Tisha gripped the steering wheel tighter and sat up even straighter, her heart racing.

“I never know whether I should rush through a yellow or stop right away,” she said speaking faster than she could think.  “ I just freak out.”

“You certainly shouldn’t panic,” Patrick said.  “ Especially if there are drivers behind you.  If you can stop safely, then stop but if you can’t then just keep going.  Depending on the circumstances, of course.”

The light changed green.  Tisha looked both ways, then turned right and continued driving, intensely focused on the road.  Patrick could sense Tisha’s uncertainty in her own abilities.  For awhile, they drove in silence, with Patrick giving direction only when necessary.

“I don’t know what my dad was thinking,” he said later. “ Your driving is fine.  You just need to practice and learn to relax into it, that’s all.”

“What’d he tell you?” Tisha asked with nervous curiosity.

“Just that you need extra attention.  A bit more experience.”  He paused. “Up here,” he pointed, “I’d like you to make a left and merge onto Highway 2.”

Tisha’s eyes widened.  She looked at Patrick stone-faced.

“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine,” he reassured her.

Although she didn’t entirely believe him, she did manage to merge onto the highway with relative ease.  They drove a little while longer until they reached the edge of town, where the buildings gave way to soybean fields and cow pastures.

“Why’d you wait?” Patrick asked abruptly.

Tisha wasn’t sure what he meant.

“Forgive me for saying this,” he continued. “ But it’s obvious you’re not sixteen so why’d you wait?”

Tisha shifted uncomfortably in her seat.  “I wasn’t ready.”

Patrick nodded. “Do you feel ready now?”

“No, not really.”  Tisha could feel her eyes starting to water.  Then, she thought about the one thing she tried very hard never to think about.

Noticing this, Patrick reached over and touched Tisha’s shoulder.  “You’re ready.  Just need a little more confidence. That’ll come. You just have to trust yourself.”

“Sometimes I wonder if people like me should be on the road.”

Patrick noted the far-off distant look in her eyes as she said this, her increased concentration on the road.  The immeasurable sense of sadness.

“Go easy on yourself,” he told her.  Everything takes practice. And experience.”

Tisha imagined the blonde driving along the highway without a care in the world.

“I know it’s stupid.” Tisha sniffled and tucked her hair behind her ear.  “It was a mistake.  My parents don’t blame me.  No one blames me, but… I can’t forgive myself.  I can never forgive myself.”

At this, Tisha could feel her heart beating faster, her fingers starting to tremble, and the tears starting to fall.

“Did something happen to you?” Patrick asked.

Tisha wouldn’t look at him.  She adjusted her body and gripped the steering wheel, like it was a life preserver and she was in danger of drowning in the depths of her own sadness.

For the safety of them both, Patrick instructed her to pull off to the shoulder as soon as it was safe. Tisha didn’t hear him say anything at all, but a moment later the car glided to the shoulder and came to a gentle stop, almost of its own volition.  A few motorists sped by.  Inside, the car was silent.  Tisha took a deep breath and tried to relax her shoulders.  Then, she waited.  Waited for Patrick to say something, anything.  But he said nothing at all.  In those few moments, the silence became noisier than anything Tisha could’ve ever imagined.  Noisier even than all the thoughts swirling though her head.

You can’t cry with elegance, she told herself.  You can’t scream with poise.

The images were etched in her mind.  Her mother running outside, a look of shock upon her face.  The purse falling to the pavement.

Tisha floated through her own consciousness, her memories of that day.  The details she’d never told anyone. And then, Tisha let go.  She let go of the steering wheel that was her safety, the life preserver keeping her afloat.  And as soon as she’d lost hold of it, she found the courage that had eluded her.   It was then, and only then, that Tisha spoke, proceeding with caution at every word that collapsed out of her.

“He was three weeks shy of his 5th birthday,” she began.  “My mother only left for a second.  It took only a second for me to change our lives forever.  She…she’d forgotten her purse…”

Tisha gazed straight ahead and as she spoke, Patrick’s presence faded into the background, melting into the safety of the seat cushion as he listened.

“We were in the driveway, the motor still running.  She opened the garage.  I remember hearing the sound of it and seeing the back of her figure rushing inside.  Just before, she’d turned and yelled at us, ‘No horseplay, you hear me?!’  Then, she disappeared.  I didn’t listen, what kid does?  I was seven. I started messing with the electric windows, pressing buttons, up, down, up down… trying to get the window all the way down, but my mom had the child safety activated so the windows only went halfway.  My brother Sean was giggling and squirming in the backseat.  I turned around and started tickling his feet.  He unbuckled his car seat and opened his door.  He was getting too big for his car seat. His legs were sooo long.  I heard the back passenger door open, but I wasn’t paying much attention.  I’d climbed over the center console and into the driver’s seat.  I pretended I was my mom, that I was the driver.  That I was in control.  I pretended I was taller.  That I was an adult. I punched all the radio buttons.  Then, I switched gears.  My little hand pressed a button and shifted down, one click.  The car started rolling back, slowly at first.  I panicked, scrunched down in my seat to try to reach the pedals.  But they were too far away…  I couldn’t reach.  One Click.  The car sped up and kept moving.  It just kept moving.  I never heard Sean say anything, no words anyway.  I only heard the shriek.  When I turned around all I saw was a little hand as it lost hold of the back car door.  I couldn’t see his face.  He disappeared underneath somewhere.  I don’t remember breathing.  I think my heart stopped.  Time stopped but seemed to go on forever— spinning around my head like a merry-go-round that doesn’t stop until you have to throw up.  But I couldn’t throw up; I couldn’t think straight.  Sean was gone.  The car kept going with me inside.  It peeled back and hit our neighbor’s wood fence, took it out.  That’s where the car finally came to rest… In a pile of wood planks and twisted tomato vines.  My mom had heard the shrieks, recognized the voices.  I must’ve screamed too, but I don’t remember.  Everything, just everything came to a halt.  My mom came running out.  I got out of the car crying, seeing Sean laying there on the driveway, as tiny as could be.  I stood there motionless, watching as my mom’s purse fell to the pavement, spilling all its contents.  A tube of lipstick went rolling, rolling out of control and into the street.  It stopped inches away from my feet.  I can still see that lipstick.  It’s like seeing myself in that moment—spinning out of control and coming to a stop in the middle of the street, forever changed.”

Tisha exhaled deeply and looked over at Patrick.  He was speechless and paler than he’d been just moments earlier.

“I don’t know why I told you all that.” Tisha said in a whisper.  “I haven’t told anyone that story. It just lingers, you know.  Like a horrible thing I made up. But I didn’t make it up. It’s in my mind forever.”

Patrick stared straight ahead.  “I’m so sorry,” he said.  He placed his clipboard on the floor and turned to look at her. “I’m glad you told me.”

The two of them sat there and listened to crickets chirping as the sun started descending toward the horizon.  After a long pause, Patrick finally spoke again.

“Shall we head back?” he asked.

“Yeah.  Suppose we should.” Tisha said. “I gotta catch a bus.”

“I can drive back,” he offered.

“No,” Tisha said.  “I’ll drive.”  She pulled the sun visor down, settled into the seat and started the ignition.  “I’m ready now.”  She placed her hands on the steering wheel with confidence as the car peeled away from the shoulder and started heading down the road.

Patrick smiled and in his mind, he checked a box and imagined signing a certificate with Tisha’s name on it.  She wouldn’t be needing to take the bus much longer.  She’d earned this far more than anyone.


Kendra Liedle holds a journalism degree from the University Of Nebraska-Lincoln.  Her writing has appeared in Chicago Literati, The Gambler Magazine, Nebraska Life Magazine, and The Grief Diaries, among others.  She is the author of ‘The Best Days Of Mabel Gordon’ and ‘This Is How We End’ (available on Amazon and Kindle) and is a contributor in a forthcoming anthology published by Vine Leaves Press.  She lives in Los Angeles, CA where she works in the entertainment industry.

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