In the hallway of the driving school that I attended at sixteen, there was a poster that said the school’s hope for their graduates, with their newly gained knowledge and skills, was for them to be accident free until twenty-five. “Accident Free ’Til 25!” Which was a funny way to put it — I know what they meant, but it also kind of sounded like they wanted me to get T-boned on my twenty-fifth birthday. Maybe I can avoid it.
My driving instructor Stew had spindly fingers and wire framed glasses. He had a moustache and a slouched posture. He was forty years old, or around there. He taught us twenty students first in the classroom, then on the roads. I liked Stew, he was a kind man, generous with his time. He was calm. In the car, no matter what may have been going wrong, he kept a level voice, advised you plainly to the right course of action. I asked a lot of questions and he never got impatient with me.
It’s neither here nor there, but Stew cracked his knuckles incessantly — his fingers were rubbery, and when he pointed over the dash to tell me where to turn, I could see his digits arched slightly upwards, the joints of them resting in a hyperextended position. It’s a real shame — because he was such a genuine role model — that if I were to ask you pull an image of a predator to your mind, that man would be almost identical to Stew. Again, it’s neither here nor there. What matters is that he was a good guy and he was a good teacher. One day in class, he gave us his cell number so that we could arrange driving lessons and told us to feel free to text him if we needed him. He said that if we were ever at a party and had no way home, that we could text him and he would pick us up. It was sincere and comforting; I could tell that he meant it. Stew made me want to be a good driver. At the end of our time with him, he reiterated what the poster in the hallway said: that he wanted us to remain accident free until twenty-five, that if we could make it that far, we would have a long and safe driving career ahead of us. I’m writing this because, now twenty-four years old, I’ve let the school down — worse, I’ve let Stew down — four times. And I want to confess.
My first car — and by that I mean the car I first drove by myself, not the car I first owned (I’ve never owned a car, not really) — was a 1996 Subaru Outback hatchback, standard transmission. It was a tough car to learn on, but worth it; any car that I’ve driven since has been elementary to operate by comparison. It was tough to find third gear, reversing was a challenge, and the clutch was unforgiving.
Few of the friends in my friend group had cars right away at sixteen, but I did, it was my brother’s, and I was expected to drive us places. One day, in late grade ten, or perhaps early grade eleven, I drove myself and four others to Subway for lunch. It was less than a kilometre away. We got there without issue, except that, after all of the learning by myself, in a car with just me and a silent instructor, I found I hated my buddies’ berating and backseat driving. We ate and loaded back into the Subaru. I had to reverse out of my parking spot. Back we went. More pestering from my friends. “Do I have enough space?” “You’re fine.” Behind me was tight. I had enough space in front. More pestering from my friends. I turned all the way left to leave, and as slow as possible as I went, I watched the front right corner of my bumper scrape along the rear left bumper of a white minivan beside me. “Ohhhhh. You fucked up.” My friends. I got out of the car. His bumper was okay, some trading of paint. My bumper was worse… an indent the size of a toddler’s head was present where it wasn’t before. I was sweating. My heart rate was high. A friend got out of the car and pointed out that the mark on the minivan was nearly unnoticeable — it was a rusted, stained old van. “He might not notice,” my friend said. We looked at each other, then we looked around. The driver was probably in the Subway. I made eye contact with a man in the window. I decided not to run. Instead, we all got back in the car and parked a few spots down the row. Five of us huddled up, and waited. If the minivan owner didn’t notice the mark when he came out, we’d leave — if he did, then I’d get out and own up to it. That was the plan.
A few minutes later, a father and his daughter came out and walked towards the white van. We held our breath as he opened the rear door and put his daughter in the back. Then he came around the van, past the mark, and got to the driver’s door. My friends were telling me that I was in the clear, that I should drive away, but I had my eyes on the man in the window who was just standing up from his table and making his way into the parking lot. The man who was going to ruin me.
I intercepted the minivan owner before the man made it all the way to us. I told him, shaking, that I had hit him on his rear bumper and that I was so sorry. “Where,” he said, “— here?” and I nodded. “Oh don’t worry about it, you can hardly tell with all the bumps and bruises on this thing. Don’t worry about it, kid.”
I’ve done a lot of dumb things for girls — lots of dumb things — but because of the following incident, the worst of them was losing sleep.
It was summer and I was at my favourite place on Earth, my cottage. I was at my friend’s place on the lake and we were playing drinking games and I was enjoying the company of my friend’s friend — a girl who had been the subject of my idolization for three summers by that point. It was late, and I had work in the morning, but I didn’t care. I wanted to stay as long as I could in her presence. Nothing came of it — that wasn’t the point — the point was just to remain. Stay there, and admire.
That summer I was working at a grocery store that was a forty-five minute drive from my cottage and a two-hour drive from my home in Barrie. My family left the morning of my shift, and I went to work; I was to join them at home that night. I wasn’t hungover at work, I was just tired. The late night and the early morning, the eight-hour shift stocking produce and the lack of sleep. It all had me feeling very tired. I had to drive home around 6:00 PM. At that time, my vehicle was a 2002 Toyota Sienna minivan — the people mover. I loved that car.
I drove southwest with the music blasting and the sun on my face. I cruised in the forested landscape; after a summer of commuting, it was a drive I was very familiar with. The setting sun filled the car with a delectable warmth. The drivers seat became intoxicatingly comfy. I blinked… It was too long. Why did it take my eyes so long to open during that blink? My adrenaline spiked when I realized that I’d just closed my eyes on the windy, hilly cottage road, when I realized that I was still driving a car at eighty kilometres an hour. I didn’t know what to do. I turned up the music, I tried dancing and singing along. Could the seat have been any more comfortable? Could the gentle rocking of the car be any more sedating? A few minutes later, I didn’t blink. I’m sure of it. I didn’t do anything.
One of the loudest noises in my memory woke me up. My driver’s side mirror connected with that of an oncoming car’s after I had drifted over the yellow line in the middle of the road. It sounded like a TV dropped from a skyscraper and hit the pavement — all the while their horn was blaring. My hands still held the wheel, and I corrected back to my side of the road. I drove and slowed down and pulled over at the next driveway, just around the bend. I came to a stop and I was barely there. My body was still so comfortable. My mind was not.
To my parent’s credit, they cultured a relationship with me that when I made a mistake of that magnitude, my first thought was not “Oh shit, what are Mom and Dad going to think?” — it was “Oh shit, I have to call Dad.” So that’s what I did. And he told me what to do and made sure I was okay, and I drove back up the road to the other car and I apologized and they were okay. Their mirror was gone, so was mine — other than that, both cars were pretty fine. I took photos and I got their information. They had called the cops because they thought I had hit and run. They called them back and cancelled the request. We would be paying for the damages.
No prelude on this one: it was winter and I dropped my girlfriend of the time off at her house in my family’s 2014 Subaru Impreza hatchback, standard transmission. I watched her scurry up the shovelled driveway, nearly slipping on the compacted snow, and watched her get up to the interlocking stone porch where she turned back to me. I watched her wave and turn to go inside. I waved back and, still looking at her departing figure, began to drive off. I immediately accelerated at an obtuse angle into the frozen snowbank ahead of me and crushed the front bumper in. I called my parents once again, they came and got me. This time, I would be paying for the damages.
I was back on the cottage road. It had not changed from four years earlier — it was still windy and hilly. The speed limit was still eighty kilometres an hour. My girlfriend then, the same one from three years earlier, sat in the passenger seat of a Mercedes Metris passenger van. It was a company car, the air compressor manufacturer that I worked for, and I was driving it on a Friday evening.
My girlfriend and I were in an uncomfortable conversation. I was trying — failing — to comfort her after someone close to her had insulted her. I was mumbling over my words, I was holding her hand, and she was talking through her tears. I was looking at her, not knowing what to say, when, while in the process of moving on from the subject, she screamed my name. My head snapped back ahead and in front of me was a minivan at a dead stop in the middle of the road. This one sucked.
I braked first, and slowed, but it wasn’t slow enough, so then I swerved to the left, thinking, in the quiet road, that I might be able to avoid a collision by moving into the oncoming lane. It was close; I want to say I almost made it, but close is an abstract term and it doesn’t count for shit. The front right corner of the Metris slammed into the rear left of the minivan stopped in the road. My body jolted against the locked seatbelt. My arm reached out for my passenger. She jolted too. The airbags didn’t go off — no windows broke. I wasn’t hurt, my girlfriend wasn’t hurt, but the cars were. We got out and checked with the people in the van, they were okay. They had stopped for a beaver. The beaver was unharmed.
Again I called my parents, and this time the cops. We held up traffic because we blocked both lanes. Tow trucks came and took away both cars. Both drivers were found at fault. The company’s insurance paid the damages. My girlfriend and I could have cared less about our uncomfortable conversation at that moment. I think that accident brought us closer together.
I felt immense shame after each of those incidents. I still do. I feel bad for myself, for the people involved, for my parents, for the money necessary to resolve each case. I was embarrassed to talk about them with my friends because they never knew when their ball busting became hurtful. They wouldn’t stop. I hated driving with them because many of the them would use the knowledge of the first accident against me and more harshly judge my driving. Eventually, I started to stand up for myself; I would threaten to kick people out of the car if they said anything, and they slowly got the hint. I vowed to never say anything critical of someone driving me around. I recently joked with a buddy who was giving me a lift and almost didn’t notice an oncoming car that I would rather say nothing and get hit than correct someone else’s driving. He reassured me that that was a dumb way of thinking.
My terrible track record turned this great thing — driving — once tied to freedom and independence, into an unfortunate necessity, and act I’d have to perform if I wanted to get around. At some points, I’ve thought of giving up driving altogether. Other times, I’ve considered continuing to drive only if I am alone. But ultimately I’ve not gone forward with either of those decisions. I still drive. I still don’t have a car.
Sometimes I’ve tried to make myself feel better by telling myself that I was spending so much more time on the road at that young driving age than my friends were; I was driving to the cottage and back, to swim practice and back, spending more hours behind the wheel than any of my peers in those first couple years of driving. I don’t know if that was true. I do know many of my peers have also been in accidents. One friend backed into a poll in a parking lot with her dad’s truck, another slammed into one head first on a back road and got a bad concussion; once my dad was hit by a city bus in slippery conditions, and more recently my brother flipped his truck on black ice and it was totalled. What inspired me to finish this piece was when only a few days ago, a new acquaintance told me that she had hydroplaned and crashed her car on a bridge in Vancouver. She was expressing how angry she was — she didn’t know what happened; “I am a good driver,” she kept saying. “It was so stupid. Now I don’t want to drive.” And her words brought it all back. The guilt and frustration, the change in how people look at you when they hear. Was it your fault? they are thinking. They want the all details, to know: was it really an accident?
I want to speak to Stew — Father Stew sitting quietly behind the latticed divider in the confessional, looking straight ahead, interrupting my words with only the subtle cracking of his knuckles: Forgive me, Stew. I have failed you. Was it my fault? Can I continue on? Tell me how to repent. I’m praying for the self-driving car and it has not come. O Stew, can you forgive me?
He would push his glasses to the bridge of his nose. He’d clear his throat and speak plainly: “You’re fine, Benny. You’ve learned from your mistakes, haven’t you? That’s penance enough. We taught you as best we could, but still we launched you — not into the deep end — no, further… We set you out in the sea, during a never-ending storm. And we hoped for you, but it didn’t happen, and that’s okay. You’re forgiven.”
He’d say something like that. I really hope he would.
Always look where you’re going,
B.F. Greeno, aka
Two and ten and time will heal all wounds