The keys jingle in my trembling hand as I reach over to shut the door of The Tank. I have to lean my body almost all the way out of the car in order to accomplish this task. Safely ensconced in my parents’ 1973 Chevy Impala, I turn to Asif with wide eyes.
“So…turn the key in the ignition?”
Asif trains his ominous eyebrows on me. “Do you notice anything wrong?” he asks in an inexplicably calm voice.
I glance around me. The steering wheel does seem a bit far away. In fact, I can barely reach it.
“There should be a lever somewhere to adjust it. Check under the seat.”
I dig around underneath the massive leather couch-thing we’re sitting on. On the phone, Asif had explained that he normally conducts these lessons in a special car with extra brakes and a giant “STUDENT DRIVER – GET OFF THE ROADS NOW!” sign on the roof. But Dad said that a little Scion like Asif’s was a “death trap,” emergency brakes or no.
“Did you find it?”
Yanking on the lever, I lurch the seat forward. Asif’s chin almost slams into the dashboard.
“Good,” he says. Calmly. He struggles a bit to get the words out, since his chest is crushed up against the dash. “Now, using the same lever, simply adjust the seat to a comfortable distance.”
“So…” I say again, once we’re properly adjusted. “Turn the key in the ignition?”
“No. What else did you forget?” Asif speaks mostly in serene-voiced questions, sort of like if the Spanish Inquisition had happened at a yoga retreat. The interrogation continues until I’m properly adjusted, mirrored, and strapped in for dear life.
“Okay.” He gestures grandly toward the steering wheel, nodding his head. “Now you may turn the key.”
I figure The Tank must need an awful lot of power, so I crank that sucker as hard as I can.
The English language has no words to describe the bloodcurdling scream that issues forth from the bowels of the beast. Imagine if Edward Scissorhands had 500 brothers and sisters, and they’re all scratching their nails down a gigantic metal chalkboard while four people scream “STOP! STOP! FOR GODSAKES, STOP!” at the top of their lungs.
Slowly, I turn my head as far as the shaking, twitching muscles in my neck will allow. Asif’s ashen face stares back at me, a mask of trauma. My head jerks a few more notches to the right. Behind me, three gigantic pairs of eyes gawp at me from the back seat: Dad’s, Mom’s, and Nicky’s.
Oh, I forgot to mention. They all came along for the ride.
The Tank strikes fear into the hearts of little old ladies on their afternoon walks, and as it rolls down our street, they grab their terriers and Chihuahuas and flee.
Dad, wedged into the middle seat (the one with the “best view”), interprets this terror as a reflection of his own mortal danger. I can feel his fingers digging into the back of my seat, his arm twitching uncontrollably with the suppressed urge to reach over me and grab the wheel.
“Now,” Asif instructs. “Driving is really very simple. There are three rules you must remember. Don’t hit, don’t get hit, and don’t break the law.”
“Are you getting this, Nicky?” Dad asks, turning to my little brother. He's only thirteen, but by bringing him along, Dad decides he's getting a two-for-one deal.
Even though I've barely had a chance to memorize which pedal is which, Asif gets the brilliant idea that we should go on the actual road. We're going to the strip mall down the street, about a mile from my house.
“Put on your left turn signal,” Asif says when we get to the stop sign at the end of my street. I flip on the blinker.
“How do I know when it's safe to go?”
My foot is shaking so much I'm not sure I can control how hard I'll push the gas.
“Not now!” my mom involuntarily shrieks.
“Calm down, Dear,” Dad says, though his own voice sounds anything but calm. “She's just asking a question.”
“Go now,” says Nicky. A garbage truck is barreling straight at us.
“Not now!” Mom has been reincarnated into a parrot with panic disorder.
Asif is unruffled. “Don't look at the cars,” he says. “Look at the gap.” I have no idea what this means, but I try to follow his advice and ignore the cars.
Eyes fixed on the gap in the road, I let my foot twitch over to the gas. The entire car, sans Asif, screams in unison. Luckily, the school bus driver has excellent reflexes.
“Oops,” I squeak. Even though it's June, I can hear teeth chattering behind me.
Asif smiles. “Did you see the school bus?” I notice that Asif's teeth are inhumanly white. Maybe he's really some kind of alien.
“Traffic light!” the parrot squawks. “Traffic light, traffic light!”
“Don't confuse her, dear! That light is-”
“Hit the brake! Brake brake, hit the brake!” My foot twitches.
“Dear! By the time she reaches it, it'll be green. You can't brake at a green light! For godsakes, do you want to get us all killed?”
“Your dad makes an important point,” says Asif. He speaks slowly, but emphatically, like one of the self-help gurus Dad listens to on his way to work. “You've got to look at the beeg peecture. You've got to look far. Always anticipate what you need to do next.”
“We're gonna die,” my mother says in a half-sob. She starts to say her Hail Mary, but can't seem to get out the part about 'blessed is the fruit of my womb.'
“Dear, you're distracting her! She needs to focus on Asif's directions.” He leans closer to me. “Look far, OK? You're doing fine. Just look far.”
“Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death...”
“Oh my God, where? What deer?”
“No deer! Just drive!”
“Look far,” Mom mumbles behind me. “Look far, look far, look far.”
I look as far as I can, so far in fact that I almost miss the strip mall.
“Turn!” Dad cries out. I'm not sure if he's actually afraid I'll miss the turn, or if over the course of the last ten minutes, he's undergone a reverse puberty, and his voice has changed into a permanent shriek of terror.
Frantically, I swerve into the parking lot, on the wrong side of the divider. A mariachi band of blaring horns surrounds us, harmonizing with a chorus of obscenities. No problem. I correct by mistake by rolling over the divider, the Tank bouncing several times upon landing.
Once we've safely found a parking spot—actually, I'm so good at parking that I park it in two spots!—I turn around to face my dad.
“How did I do?”
“I need some air,” he gasps. Mom gets out so he can stand up, but he sits for several minutes mopping his brow with a Kleenex. Finally, he unpeels himself from the seat with a loud rrrriiiip!
“I don't think you're looking at the beeg peecture,” says Asif.
“That was awesome,” says Nicky.