July 1, 2011

Big Vermont Drive

We were having weather. It delayed my flight to Burlington where I was to begin a summer of quiet reflection and lamentation, and where I would continue to maintain an uneasy relationship with the locals, poorer now, and scarier.1 We left hours late and I got to Burlington at 9:30. I hate getting to where I’m going in the dark.

David is forced to drive. Again.

Jen, as usual, picked me up at the airport. On our last adventure together, she had passed out at a wedding, forcing me to assume the “driving” duties. Hilarity ensued.

“Yo, get in, motherfucker.”

There she was. The gorgeous, irresponsible, irrepressible Jen. The mystery has always been why she bothers to spend time with me at all, because I’m pretty much a wet blanket and she’s pretty much out of control. And then there was Jen’s car, the signature red Subaru wagon, decked out like a trashed harem. Beads and wooden talismans hung from the rear view mirror; essential oils perfumed the air; feathers decorated the sun visor.

“Okay, look David,” Jen began. We don’t bother with the clichés of greeting anymore. She had warned me in a call from her car just before she got to the airport that she had gained ten pounds. She always did that. Not gain ten pounds, but warn me about it. “You’re really late and I’m meeting my girlfriends tonight for drinks, so I’m giving you my car and you’re just going to have to drive it to your house yourself, okay?”

There’s a special kind of humiliation reserved for those who must meet a challenge but are too cowardly to attempt it. So self-aware are they about their cowardliness that they seek to medicate themselves with what turns out to be the further humiliation of admitting their embarrassing shortcoming in front of a much tinier, younger person. Driving is one of those humiliations. And Jen is the tinier, younger person I bare all my shortcomings to.

“Me drive? No way. Look, just take me.”

You can do it, David. See how much faith I have in you that I would let you take my car?”

“But it’s nighttime. It’s late. It’s dark.”

“David.”

“I haven’t driven in a year. And you want me to drive through a city? Well, almost a city.”

“David.”

“You’re going to have to show me exactly how to get there. Except I’m not doing it.”

“But first you’re having drinks with me and my girlfriends. Janice will be there. The one who got married? The wedding we went to? She loves you.”

“Wait, drinks? Before I drive?”

“It’s as though you’re from another planet and I must teach you our ways.”

I knew I wouldn’t win either of these battles — I would drive to the house where I now reluctantly spend my summers and I would be drinking before I drove to the house. A doomed enterprise, ineluctably proceeding apace.

“Oh, and if a cop pulls you over, hide those feathers.”

“What, why?”

“They’re hawk feathers I found. It’s against the law to have hawk feathers in your car.”

We got to downtown Burlington and met Jen’s friends on Church St. where they sat outside drinking Coronas. I took a moment from the despair to marvel at my good luck. There I was, the old man, once again at a table of young ladies, hippies all.

“Sorry to interrupt girls night out,” I said, promisingly.

Soon, I had them all talking about my predicament. 25-year-olds helping me, 45 — okay, 46 — to figure out how to drive a car.

I ordered a Malbec. This generated laughter. A friend in New York once mocked me for ordering Malbec, claiming that it is a girl’s wine, though I have found no evidence for this. Pinot Noir, on the other hand, that I can see. But these ones were laughing not because of that, but because I hadn’t ordered beer.

“So,” I asked, “the headlights. How do I switch them on?”

“The stick on the left side of the steering wheel. Turn it.”

“It looks like it might rain,” said one of them.

“Oh, so how do I turn on the wipers?”

“The stick on the right.”

“I see, I see.”

They offered advice, guidance, and encouragement. Embarrassing, yes, but at the same time, a tad comforting. This is how old men must feel like when their children begin to take care of them. Another good reason to have a kid. This led me to thinking about Clarissa. And that led me into a low-grade nostalgic depression, unnoticeable to others but disconnecting, like a prolonged feeling of dread detaching you from the world.

“I’ll tell you a story about David’s driving,” said Jen.

I said, “Oh, here we go.”

“You know, I just love you New Yorkers,” said Janice. “The way you talk. You just say it. You don’t mess around.”

“No one will pay attention to you otherwise.”

“So David’s driving story,” Jen said. “This was years ago when he was just learning and I was letting him practice with my car.”

“An SUV, by the way.”

“Whatever. So we’re getting to a turn–”

I remember it well. We got to an intersection on an old road and I was supposed go right. I began rotating the wheel the way I thought you are supposed to. (Jen elaborated: “He was just turning the wheel a tiny little bit, like an old lady.”)

“David, turn!”

“I am!”

“Turn the wheel!”

So, I went at it hand-over-hand and we barely made it. The tires screeched, the car shook angrily.

Jen acted out the turning of the wheel in front of her friends, saying, “And then after he stopped the car to throw up, David said, ‘Wow, you really have to turn this thing, don’t you?’ ”

The table laughed.

“Funny,” I said.

Funny was that I made it to the house in one piece, after traveling for an hour on a road with no lights, slowing when I was supposed to, turning properly at the designated intersections, expertly switching between the high- and low-beam lights, and avoiding the dead animals. I got to the house after midnight. Miraculously, a bottle of wine waited for me, as though someone had thought to provide me with a reward.

Not funny was that earlier, when I began to head out of Burlington after finishing only half the glass of Malbec, I noticed that, on top of the countless bikers cluttering the road tempting death, I couldn’t see the dashboard — it was darkened. Who knew how fast I was going? So I pulled over and called Jen.

“Jen.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing yet. But I can’t see the dashboard.”

“Oh. It’s the stick on the right.”

— Vermont

 

1 This summer, I won’t dress like them. Usually, I parrot the blue hoodies, the dingy shorts, the raggedy t‑shirts. It never worked. They still saw me for what I am: a liverish New Yorker who can barely pilot a car and can’t even name by sight the commonest trees.  This summer I’m going to dress New York and see how it sugars out. I mean, plays out.