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Reflections of a Crash Test Dummy

She inches past a guy watering his grass like she’s a mobster slowing for a hit. He looks up suspiciously.

She passes and heaves a sigh of relief. “That’s my first pedestrian I didn’t hit!”

It’s been a month of inspiring firsts.

All culminating in her profound observation about learning to drive: “This is more complicated than Mario Kart.”

A video game that triggers excited cackling in her throat whenever she runs Cousin Izzy off the road.

The Sophomore is driving me east on Forest Lakes Road toward Race Track Road – our first venture out of 25 mph neighborhoods. She’s successfully keeping my heart rate under 100 bpm.

Until 10 yards before the Race Track Road intersection, when we enter the Big Brakes or T-Bone Stakes Zone.

And the traffic light slings yellow.

She has two milliseconds to choose between slamming the brakes, flinging her crash-test dummy dad against his seat belt, or slamming the accelerator, rocketing through the intersection to beat red.

Instead, she gasps. She pulls her foot off both pedals.

My spine fuses.

And her right foot demands a UN Debate.

“JUST…!” I sputter.

“WHAT?!”

She starts convulsing. She taps the brake. She taps the accelerator.

I brace my feet against the floor in a futile attempt to run away.

Her foot comes back up.

The Chinese and Russians have vetoed the General Assembly’s resolution to Just Do Something.

And the light clicks red.

“AUGH!”

“OHMIGAHD!”

I brace one hand on the car ceiling, the other against the door. We roll into the eight-lane crowded intersection – against the light – at five mph.

If this were a Pixar film, you’d suddenly notice the 8-year-old standing on the side of the road, mouth gaped in mid-lollipop lick, his saucer eyes slow-motion tracing the most ludicrous thing he’s ever seen passing by:

A screaming 15-year-old girl snail-driving through a hellaciously busy intersection while brakes shriek; her father stands completely upright inside a Toyota Corolla; and the guy selling Ruskin tomatoes on the side of the road seizes his own head to brace for impact.

We interrupt our regularly scheduled program for an important safety announcement:

Next time tell your wife to take the child driving.

Breaking news:

That’s not gonna work either.

The Sophomore blasts into the house the next weekend. “I am never going driving with her again!” She flees to her room to thrust her brain inside her iPod.

“I am never going driving with her again!” her mother, entering from the garage, unwittingly echoes.

Overhearing, The Sophomore jets back to the living room to address this outrage.

“She thinks I drive crazy!”

“Um,” I interrupt. “You both agree. Yet still you manage to argue.”

The Momster calmly points at her. “She thinks that speed limits are goals to be reached within three seconds.”

“No one ever told me they were just maximums!” The Sophomore cries.  “Mom just sits there, herky-jerky gesturing and sputtering!”

The Sophomore turns to address the woman who carried her for nine months, foregoing her Friday glass of wine and her daily morning coffee, before nearly splitting in two pushing her large, purple head out. “When we passed my friends on Montague Street, you looked like you were dancing the Robot in the front seat!” The Sophomore gestures like an out-of-control C3PO. “How embarrassing is that?!”

Her Puerto Rican mother holds up her hands. “The problem is…”

The Momster pauses dramatically.

The Sophomore and I both fall silent. Momster’s look makes clear that what she will utter will explain everything perfectly.

“…I learned to drive in Spanish.”

I realize I’m mouth-gaping like the Pixar kid.

The Sophomore is C3POing again.

“Every time she does something,” Momster says in perfect, unaccented English, “by the time I get it out of my mouth, it’s a half mile back.” She shakes her head. “You’re taking her driving from now on.”

So, two days later, we’re in the parking lot of the local elementary school, where the bus dumps all the loser high schoolers who don’t drive themselves. I’ve decided to let The Sophomore drive home.

“Did you check your mirrors?”

“Ugh!” She growls and adjusts them. “Someone keeps moving these!”

“You always need to adjust them before driving. We’re different heights.”

“Oh!” she exclaims.

The same “Oh!” she exclaimed when I first answered her puzzled query, “So, how do I get this thing to go backwards?”

“This is not going well!” her fourth grade sister announces from the back.

“Dad, can you please tell her I need complete silence?”

I turn to evil-eye Grace and find her lying across the seat in the fetal position.

“Do you really think that’s helpful?”

“I only do this when she’s backing up.”

“Dad!” The Sophomore exclaims. “I need to concentrate!”

Grace falls silent and The Sophomore heaves the van into reverse. She ever-so-cautiously creeps backwards.

A handful of juniors, the last to clear out from the bus stop, stand over by the bike rack. They watch the unfolding drama, astride their bikes, frozen until we’ve safely moved on.

Her highly complicated reversal complete, The Sophomore pauses. She rubs her sweaty hands on her shorts and clears her throat. She heaves the van into drive…

And rockets forward.

Arriving at the parking lot exit’s stop sign, she slams on the brakes. Not firmly hitched, my seat suddenly rolls forward until it catches and flings me against the seat belt.

Ka-THUNK!

It’s either the seat mechanism catching or my collar bone snapping.

“Sorry!”

She turns out of the lot and kathumps off the curb. It finally hits me. I just don’t want her to drive.

I don’t want her to climb into a thin metal can and drive out into a world where a man with Ebola lies on an immigration form and flies into Dallas. I don’t want her bee-bopping out into a county where drivers, drunk beyond reason, sail south on northbound highways.

A man spends 15 years protecting the most remarkable achievement of his life. And then, with a snap of the fingers, she begs the keys and drives off into a world he simply doesn’t trust.

While he sit there like the Ruskin tomato man.

Is it too much to expect that she just stay happily in the living room running Cousin Izzy off the road?

Yet, with her outstretched hand, she’s asking me to take the next, difficult step in a parent’s life. A process begun in June of 1999, when a delivery nurse offered an outstretched hand, where I found the scissors to cut through the thick rope binding her to her mother.

While I wept like a fool.

Halfway home from the school lot, The Sophomore pulls over to offer a friend a ride.

Specifically, she pulls entirely onto the grass and almost the sidewalk.

“What are you doing?!”

“I’m pulling over.”

“Into someone’s front yard!?”

“Is it a big deal?”

“If you’re offering someone a ride, you’re not supposed to run them down beforehand.”

She huffs.

I roll down the window. “Are you really sure you want a ride?”

“Sure!” Michael says excitedly. He’s either exhausted from walking a whole block or feels compelled to witness the trainwreck firsthand.

But she does it. She actually gets Michael home safely, slowly and smoothly and he jumps out.

“My first real passenger,” she says, forgetting the crash-test dummy beside her.

Beaming, she calls out her window to her friend. “How was it?”

Michael thinks on this. “You drive like my grandmother.”

“Thank you!” she chirps.

And The Sophomore drives off…

With the crash-test dummy clutching the door.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

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