I curl the tips of my lanky finger-like toes around the pedal. I like to “feel” the road. Nudging my sandal to the side with my left foot, I let my mind return to my first driver’s ed class in that over-packed and under-enthused New York City classroom, our lecturer contributing to the already-somber tone of the room with his own little anecdotes of misery. We’d leave the classroom eventually and swarm into several clearly marked vehicles that announced our incompetence with superfluous lights and signs, our teacher ushering us in with a sense of urgency. With maneuvers of paramount awkwardness, three of us would fit snuggly in the back, a fourthat the wheel with one hand hovering, shaking over the gear, perhaps in fear of our instructor, who upon entering announced that he’d teach us not only about the perils of the road but also “about life.” Lesson #1: seatbelt, shoes, and shut the hell up if you’re not in the driver’s seat. What would he think of me now? Newly licensed and barefoot. But that was the city and this is Long Island, the tip of it, at least two hours away in the summer.
I’m sandy and I start to run my hand through my hair but my fingers get stuck and I’ve got no timeto break through the knots because I’ve been sitting at this stop sign for a while now and I should get moving. I know this because my passenger shifts in her seat. She doesn’t say a word but she hasn’t moved since she got in the car so I’m alarmed. I smile, apologizing, but Maggie looks unconcerned.
When I was four Maggie took me to Cooper’s Neck Beach to build sand castles. But I wanted the ocean, so I pulled her there with all my might, burying my feet in the sand. “Solamente los pies,” I promised. We’ll get our feet wet. It was a negotiation, because I had already discovered that “no” was a challenge and never a definitive. But she wasn’t my mom, she was my nanny and she wasn’t just saying no, she was nervousscared. Scared of the water, of the uncertainty, of the always-freezing Southampton ocean—foamy and aggressive and beautiful. “It’s okay,” I whispered, a confident four-year-old with the beach to herself. And as I tapped the wet sand with my toes, we braced ourselves for a big wave—big if you’re less than four feet tall, big if you can’t swim. And the tips of Maggie’s denim shorts got wet. And when we sat back down, the sand stuck to the wet rim of those shorts like salt on a margarita glass. Of course at the time all I thought of was the stickiness, the “ickiness,” like pulling on a t-shirt over a wet bathing suit, like laying a head on a dry pillow, or stuffing a wet foot into a sneaker.
Maggie shifts again in the passenger seat but I’m elsewhere a traveler on a tour of my own memory. And I realize, as I let go of the brake and roll forward, that I’ve read about driving many times before, that I’m not the only one hypnotized, but perhaps I’m just at the more-delusional end of a spectrum.
As a new driver my peripheral inattentiveness worries me. As a passenger, I never dwell on direction but rather extensively study arbitrary details of the voyage. Thus while I can describe and perseverate on specifics—such as the confrontation between that massive tree and a power line on Route 27 in Bridgehampton, and the artfully-sculpted hole that ensued thanks to LIPA, the hole that left the tree looking like a once-bitten cookie, which I’m almost positive is safety purposes but may also have been an attempt at a hackneyed metaphor for man’s power over nature—seldom can I recall a street name or a house number.
I am a wanderer, even behind the wheel, because I’m still at the age that I have the time—as if age matters, as if at a certain point in our lives we can no longer indulge in the privilege of spare moments. I used to take to my bike, peddling furiously down Meadow Lane, with its vast spread of architecture interrupted by sweeping views of Shinnecock Bay and that one shell of a house on stilts, that mysterious structure that I’d grown up seeing from the other side of the bay, after emerging from the nature walk at the end of Captain’s Neck Lane, the nature walk where my grandfather would point out poison ivy as I tiptoed on wobbly wooden boards placed in the path as some sort of a solution to the swampy footing. But one can only go so far on two wheels, and now I have four.