Getting better

There are plenty of empty seats, vinyl and chrome, at the DMV. It’s a slow hour and a small town, so we don’t have long to wait. My daughter has an appointment for a driving test. She’s the first of my ten children to take the test, not so many years after I first got my own license. I know she is ready; I taught her myself. It will be different for her than it was for me. It has already been different.

I choose a spot and open the novel I am reading to review; but soon I fold down a page corner and settle in to judging everyone who comes in the door.

Here’s a couple who carry such a powerful stench of stale Marlboros, I want to invent a time machine just so I can go back to 1992 and kick my own ass for ever having been a smoker. I started smoking mainly to annoy my father, only to fearfully keep it a secret. But for heaven’s sake, I must have smelled. He must have known.

The man in line has a classic New Hampshire wood stove tan, which you get when you go all winter without hardly bathin cause it’s too damn cold, an the friggin wood stove keeps fillin the house with friggin smoke. So by January, all the pores you leave exposed are full of soot. It’s been a mild winter, though, so who knows. 

His companion, a silent woman the shape of a fire hydrant, wears pajama bottoms and a slithery blue jacket from an excavation company. Her hair is a pelt. They are here to straighten out some trouble involving the hasty purchase of a dirt bike by a nephew who’s since gone upstate. The paperwork went bad somewhere along the line, and all the desk clerk can advise is that the man put all his scenarios together on a piece of paper, come back again, and hope for the best. Impassive, he drops his crumpled number in a basket and they shamble out, empty-handed.

Once the heavy glass doors have closed behind the pair, the three front desk clerks confer with each other like the fates. It’s still quiet at the DMV, and as the waiting room monitor chatters on about how to get the new “Real ID,” they have the leisure to chat about how anyone might alter the fates of the man, his fire hydrant wife, the upstate nephew, and the illicit dirt bike. They all agree there is no hope. Any talk of scenarios and verifications was a fantasy, a dead end. The nephew is doomed. 

They also frown over the case of a mechanic who came in earlier. He wanted credit not only for his unused 2019 inspection stickers but also for his unused 2018 inspection stickers. He didn’t even friggin care if he got his money back, he said; he just friggin didn’t want them on his hands no more. One clerk, Angie, mentions what he does not: That the reason he’s there is because the police stopped by his shop, hunting down the missing stickers. The others are surprised that they would bother; but Angie briskly notes that someone has to keep track of these things, get people to do what they need to do.

Angie, who wears the loudest shoes, is knocking jobs off her list like a maniac. The others remind each other that she’s always this way after she goes up to Concord. They have recently discovered that Concord is watching them on the monitor, so every time Angie comes back from Concord, it’s like she’s in a friggin frenzy, gettin stuff done.

I look down at my hands, which are white and a little dry. I underline a few telling passages in my book. Then my daughter blows in with a huff of winter air. She has passed her test; she is pleased. I am pleased. I’m proud of her, but I’m even more proud of myself, because I’m the one who taught her how to drive. She is not me. I have made some changes. 

No one taught me how to drive until I was 24 and in my third trimester, and I passed my driving test two weeks after giving birth. There was a three-year-old and a two-year-old in the back seat as we lurched around the deserted parking lot in the evenings, practicing and practicing, trying to get better. They cried, and I cried, but I friggin learned how to drive. Nobody cried when I taught my daughter. She says with blithe confidence that now we’ll have to make her a copy of my key, so she can use my car whenever she needs it. If there’s anything she’s afraid to tell me, she hides it well.

I had plans to get myself a Real ID while here at the DMV. I have a license, but it’s not sufficient identification to fly. I have a speech to deliver soon in Chicago, but now, to get on a plane and fly out of the state of New Hampshire, you need a Real ID. I thought it would be easy, but looking over the paper work, I see it’s more complicated than I’d realized.

Angie snaps my beaming daughter’s picture, and the driving instructor slides into the seat beside me. “Mom?” he asks. I nod yes. “She did well,” he says. There were some rolling stops, and she didn’t always check her blind spot, but she did well. He says she is a safe driver, or will be.

I remember the look my own driving instructor gave me as I made one final stab at parking inside the lines. It was rough. Maybe he saw the three carseats crammed in the back seat, the dunes of pulverized graham crackers that lay between them, the impenetrable dust and grime on the dashboard that I tried to wipe clean but could not. I parked poorly, and didn’t try a second time, because I knew it wasn’t going to get any better than that. “That…” he said, “…was rough.”

“I know,” I said.

But he let me pass. And I did get better. I got so much better than I can teach other people how to drive without shouting, without making them feel like fools. I work hard; I pay my bills; my papers are in order. I shower. I wear appropriate clothing. I am clean. I have no discernible accent. I do not own a dirt bike. I keep busy even when no one is watching. No policemen come knocking at my door; and as far as I know, no one is afraid of me.

I run my hand over my hair, which is freshly cut. And I know how I sound: Like I think I’m better than everyone else. It’s not that. It’s just that I’m better than I used to be. My daughter has the paperwork to prove it.

But I still don’t have sufficient identification to fly out of this state. I still need a Real ID. Before the heavy glass door closes behind us, I snatch up a pamphlet that tells me what I still friggin need to do. 

Image by Circe Denyer (Creative Commons)

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