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The Driving Test

"I know you were very nervous, but you really need to watch the right turns," she says, looking at me. At least, I think she is looking at me; I can't see her eyes behind the mirrored sunglasses.

I never learned to drive until two weeks ago. In my native country, you need to be eighteen to take the driving test and since I was already in the US for college, I never took the test at eighteen. The summer of my twentieth birthday, my mom asked the driver to give me some lessons and made me work for the written test.

The written exam is very complicated in Turkey; you have to answer questions about traffic, engine and first aid. The driving exam, on the other hand, is a joke. You get in their car, go straight, make a U-turn, pull over and you've passed. It's not a huge surprise that Istanbul is full of bad drivers. Before the exam, the driver and I practiced a bit and I drove on my own around the block one time.

So, at twenty, I had a license. I went back to college in Pittsburgh and did not drive. I graduated and moved to New York City and continued not to drive. When we decided to move out of the state, seven years later, we bought a car and I promised Jake I'd drive as part of our all-summer cross-country trip.

And I did. I drove for twelve hours on my first day. The car was swerving a lot, but mostly under control. At the end of the day, my muscles were tight from stressing and my hands hurt from gripping the steering wheel. I drove several more times during the trip, in the farm roads of Texas and highways of Montana. All in all, I drove maybe for ten days.

California State allows a foreign licensed person to get a temporary license until she passes the driving test. I took the written exam with Jake and scheduled my test for two and a half weeks later. I told him that I would do the driving since I needed the exercise and I almost killed us on the ramp to the highway.

As we were getting on the highway, I was on the left lane and wanted to switch as my lane was ending but just as I was going to make the move, I saw a car to my right and so swerved left, almost hitting the guard rail. I got really upset and wanted to stop driving but we were now in the middle of the highway. I took the first exit, which turned out to be the entrance to another highway, driving away from home. I drove for another ten minutes, panicking the whole time, before I could relax enough to pull over and let Jake drive. We decided it might be best for me to take a few professional classes.

I opened the yellow pages and started with the biggest ad. "I'm sorry, we're completely booked right now. The first day I could give you is the 29th," said the woman.

"That's the day of my exam."

"Oh, I'm sorry."

I thanked her and called the next biggest ad. After three more calls, one person told me that I could have a class the next day. "2p.m. Your teacher will meet you there," she said. She also told me the name of the teacher but I couldn't understand it at all.

Jake drove me down to Chula Vista for the lesson. The doors to the school were locked and no teacher in sight. Ten minutes later, a car parked next to us and a short woman came out. I got out of our car and introduced myself. I got into her car and started driving away. She talked often, correcting my turns, quizzing me about the types of intersections, reminding me to keep an eye on my speed. Each time she taught a skill she asked me if I got it.

I nod.

"Thank God," she says and moves on to the next skill.

I'm nervous and she can tell. She is short with me, and sort of condescending. After ten more Thank-Gods, I'm ready for the two hours to be over. She goes down the list of the skills tested on the exam and makes sure we learn each. I ask her for advice as we roll back into the parking lot where Jake awaits. "Practice," she says, "Practice everything." I realize I just had my very first real driving lesson.

I go home and start a calling frenzy. I make two more appointments and phone the school with the biggest ad, begging them to put my name down in case there are any cancellations. "My biggest problem is that I'm nervous," I say, "so I need someone who's really nice."

Jake and I go driving in the neighborhood. We're not very familiar with it and neither one of us has a route planned. We sort of get lost and, at one point, I panic in the middle of a U-turn and instead turn left onto the left lane of a two-way street with no cars. Rightfully, Jake gets scared of the stupidity of my mistake and tells me to pull over to the right side of the road. I am really shaken up once again and refuse to drive.

Two days later, we have a route planned and Jake drives down it to a residential area. I get in the car, and drive around the neighborhood. He is surprised at how little I retain of my path. I can go down the same street four times and I still don't remember being there before. I am still really uncomfortable behind the wheel and it shows.

The next day, we practice the same route and Jake's amazed I don't remember any of it. I really don't. I have to concentrate so hard on the driving itself that I pay no attention to the street names or where I have to turn right or left, I count on Jake guiding me. It seems I can only do one task at a time. The good news is, on this day I seem more comfortable behind the wheel. I am not gripping it so hard. My turns seem smoother. I get what the teacher meant when she said to slow down, and then cover the gas as I turn. We drive the whole route with no mishaps and I feel good for the first time in days.

On the way home, the school with the biggest ad calls. There has been a cancellation and I have a lesson in two days with some guy. An hour after we get home, the guys calls me on the phone and starts harassing me for having only scheduled two hours. My efforts to explain that the school claimed they had nothing else available fall on deaf ears. I happen to mention that I have lessons with other schools scheduled and apparently that is a mistake because the French guy gets so flustered he can't even speak English anymore. He says he refuses to teach people who have lessons with other schools scheduled. I tell him, fine, and I hang up. I call the school and leave them a message that the teacher is a jerk and we no longer have something planned, I would like them to call me.

My next lesson is with the owner of a different school. He shows up at my apartment complex and I get in the car. We drive all around while speaks on his cell phone, signing up new clients. He makes some hand signals to guide me as he speaks. I feel ok, though, because I am not freaked out and I know I am driving well. The fifteen minutes he spends off the phone, he puts down the other driving schools and tells me that many have teachers who just sit in the car and don't comment. On the way back, as he asks someone on the phone where they live, he grabs the wheel off my hands and decides to make a sharp right turn without warning me. The car swerves and he yells at me for having my foot on the break. I give up. I am ready to go home. I congratulate myself for driving well, despite the constant distraction of the yammering teacher.

I call the school with the biggest ad back and they apologize for the guy and tell me they have a really sweet woman scheduled for me in two days, I smile and hang up. Jake and I practice daily. I have finally managed to memorize the route and it's smooth sailing now. Two days pass and the woman calls me to tell me she's outside. I find her at some back street on one of the side entrances to my apartment complex. She spends fifteen minutes talking to me about why she wasn't at the main entrance. She finally gets in the car after I suggest it and talks for another fifteen minutes before I get to drive. She talks non-stop. She's talking so much that I can't hear when she tells me to turn right or left. I have no idea what she's saying so I try to tune her out. She guides me to several streets that don't go through so we have to turn around in circles. At each stop, she steps on her break before I even get to. She's stepping on it so often that I just give up. I am about to burst into tears from frustration. I drive badly. So badly that by the time we get back to my place, I am a basket case, convinced I will fail the exam.

I decide that the first teacher, mean as she was, knew the most and actually instructed me, so even though I have one more lesson scheduled, I call her to ask if she'll give me another lesson. We schedule one for two days before my exam and I sleep the rest of the day off.

The next teacher turns out to be the best. He's calm. He's patient and points out my mistakes without demeaning me. He says I should do fine on the exam, I have no reason to fail. I feel much better. I'm even excited when I see the first woman the next day. She's much nicer this time. She cheers my turns. She makes me practice and then gives me a fake test. I hesitate too long at two stop signs and she says she would have failed me right there. I feel like crap once again.

Jake and I practice for an hour the day before my test. I spend half the night reviewing all I've learned in the last week and the other half worrying. I don't even want to think of the lessons I'm going to have to take if I fail this exam. Ten more minutes with any of these teachers would be enough to drive me to insanity.

We get down to the DMV two hours early. Jake makes me drive around for a while so I can get to know the neighborhood. I take a short nap at the parking lot and then it's time. As I pull into the line I notice my stomachache has gotten worse and doesn't feel like nerves any more. Much to my horror, cramps start taking over all of my lower body. A week early, just to make this day even more fun.

I sit in line and look at the teachers coming out. A sweet woman gets into the car waiting in front of me. A smiling guy gets into the one to my right. Next comes out a tall, blonde woman, chewing gum with her mouth open. She approaches the car to my left and asks the girl if she was there the previous day. The girl nods. "Did you fail the test twice?" the woman asks. The girl replies that it was just one time and she's back to take it again. The woman asks for her number and says that she'll take me since my number is lower than the girl's. I am dejected. I wanted someone kind and patient and I wouldn't exactly describe this woman in those words.

She gets in the car, gives me directions and tells me to drive. My heart is beating so loudly that I am worried she will hear me. If she does, she chooses not to comment on it. I drive fine for a while but my second right turn is way too fast. She tells me to turn right again and this one is even wider and I am really scared. I blurt out, "Oh my God, I am so sorry. I am really nervous and I just got my period four minutes ago, I am so sorry." She tells me to calm down and drive on. I do.

Back at the DMV parking lot, she is berating me about my turns as she adds up my points. "But you did pass," she says finally.

I could kiss her. "Thank you so much," I say. I notice I am still shaking. "It's my first driving test ever," I say.

She smiles politely but it's obvious she couldn't care less. She notes the wide turns on my score sheet and gives me the paperwork to go inside as she walks out. I run out of the car and hug Jake.

"I passed," I scream, "I never have to do this again!"

We file the paperwork and he drives us home. I know this means that I'm still going to have to practice a lot more. But not today. Today, I am spending the day at the zoo.

August 31, 2003 | link | share[]