Scene 5: Driving
At last, the day came. Karen had her learner’s permit, and she was ready to drive.
Mr. Dominguez led her and her three classmates out of the classroom into the hot California summer sun. There, parked in front of the school, was the car. It was a new Plymouth Fury, a beautiful white four-door sedan with a V-8 under the hood and an automatic transmission. It had power everything—brakes, windows, and steering. The gray steering nob bolted to the wheel at twelve o’clock was just like the simulator. This car was exactly what she needed, and she felt it, deeply, as she opened the driver’s door and snuggled into the hot, muted gold upholstery of the driver’s seat. She inhaled. Even the hot vinyl smelled good. This was her Driver’s Ed car. The tension in her stomach went away. Learning to drive was a gigantic step toward independence. She had found the courage to sign up for the class. Now, her heart swelled with the courage to drive.
Karen’s three classmates crammed into the back seat. Mr. Dominguez opened the front passenger door and slid in. He looked around and said, “Down here by my feet, I have a brake pedal I can use if there’s an emergency and Karen doesn’t react fast enough. That’s for safety, but I hardly ever have to use it. Now, what’s the first thing you do when you get in a car?”
“Fasten your seatbelt.” Karen and the kids in back all said at once, and four seatbelts clicked shut.
“Start the engine.” They all said it together and laughed.
Karen swallowed hard and reached for the ignition key. She felt Mr. Dominguez and the other kids watching her strong right hand as she turned the key and the engine roared into life. She had done it. “Now I check my rearview mirror and look all around before putting the car into drive, right?”
Mr. Dominguez said, “You know the steps, Karen. Do them in order, and everything will be all right.”
Karen checked the mirror and looked around. She put her strong right foot on the brake pedal and pulled the transmission lever on the steering column into drive. She released the parking brake and eased off on the brake pedal. The big car rolled forward. Mr. Dominguez had her practice driving around the school parking lot, using the turn signals, backing and driving forward, and parallel parking.
After a few minutes, he said, “You’ve got it, Karen. Let’s see how you do in traffic. Do you feel ready?”
“Yes, sir! I am ready.”
He grinned at her and said, “Turn left when we get to Grand Avenue. It’s not busy this time of day, so just take it easy and let yourself get a feel for driving.”
Karen let the car idle across the lot to the stop sign at the end of the school driveway. She looked both ways. No cars. Nobody on foot. Nobody on a bicycle. She pushed the turn signal lever down with her left hand and began her turn. In a few seconds, she was out on the road and driving thirty-five miles per hour with the traffic flow.
She drove with ease and confidence. After the many weeks in the simulator, she had now taken the wheel of a real car.
After three or four miles, they were heading toward downtown. Suddenly, a big orange and white transit bus pulled out from the curb, right in front of her. No signal. No warning. She slammed on the brakes so fast that Mr. Dominguez did not have time to use his emergency brake pedal. The other students shrieked in terror, and Mr. Dominguez grasped his chest.
“Are you okay, sir?” Karen asked.
“Yes. I’m fine. I have a heart condition, but I’ll be all right. That bus could’ve killed us all. Your fast reflexes saved our lives.”
He raised his voice and said, “This is a good example of how dangerous driving can be. It’s a combat situation. Drive defensively, like Karen. Then you will be safe. Now, who wants to drive next?”
The car was silent. Karen glanced in the rear-view mirror at her classmates. They burst into giddy laughter. One of the boys said, “Can this just be Karen’s lesson? She’s doing a great job, and I’d kinda like to wait until tomorrow.”
Karen took a deep breath, and her heart expanded with gratitude and pride. She loved driving.
Original text ©2023 by Karen Lynn-Chlup. All rights reserved.