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A DEFENSIVE DRIVER

"Passenger" by Nour Annan


October 10, 2019 

Dear Aysha,

I have finally got my driving license. I know I will be leaving this place soon, but I couldn’t stand the immobility anymore. Let me tell you about my first lesson with this old man—Clifford. 

“Drivers here are courteous, you know. Don’t be alarmed if a car waits for you. I know you’re not used to this back in your home country,” he said, and I let myself feel small, glancing away so he could not see the look in my eyes. I never responded to his comments about my home country, which he had visited thirty years ago and could barely recall its name. I didn’t say, “Some people are courteous, and some aren’t. It isn’t any different than it is here, really.” I let him give me more directions as I drove, forcing a smile and holding back every comeback. It did make me bitter as the days passed, but I had become increasingly adrift over time. Eventually, nothing bothered me anymore. At least, I thought nothing did. 

So I didn’t tell him about my mother, the best mother and friend I could’ve asked for. Nor did I confess that at times I longed to return and never come back, that in Amman I felt everything was real and my life in Euclid a facade.

 I used to think there were two types of peoplethose who cared and those who didn’t. Until I met my driving instructor. After a couple of weeks of driving with him, I had gotten used to his ways. His worldviews and opinions didn’t make me flinch. I just drove. I didn’t answer his taunting smile like he expected me to. I barely kept up with the chit-chat during the rides. 

One of my friends, Mira, sent me his contact information a couple of months prior. She said he helped her get her driver’s license when she first moved to this town. She only had to take the test four or five times. She also said Clifford wasn’t easy to get along with. “He’s an old man,” she cautioned. But I never trusted Mira’s judgment with anything. She believed that wrong could be made right, nothing was impossible, and things in this small town could improve. Her motivational speeches inevitably failed but they were never officially abandoned. Why would I trust anyone like that? Someone who can’t see things as they are? But I had no other choice than to reach out to Clifford. 

I never have a problem when dealing with people. It’s not because I care too much; honestly, it’s because I don’t. Although it was difficult not to care at first with Clifford because he pushed all the wrong buttons, I eventually detached myself. Every time he made one of his facetious comments about me or where I come from, I counted ten seconds in my head, and then another ten followed by another. It worked, somehow. 

Clifford was older than I had anticipated, with small piercing blue eyes and straight hair that he tied up with a rubber band. He looked scruffy and clean at the same time. Scruffy because of his longish beard and the deep wrinkles across the worn skin of his forehead. His hands were coarse. Cold. Every time I used my right hand for a left turn, he would grab it and remind me to use the left one. One time he told me it must be cultural–the fact that I didn’t want to use my left hand as much. I shrugged it off and drove. 

Last Sunday, I drove with Clifford for almost three hours. That is the way he liked to teach: long hours, usually between two and five in the afternoon. October, and it was already winter, already cold. One month of driving with him and every time I twisted the key to start the engine I felt like an amateurnever good enough. He often told me his techniques were unconventional, but that I would come to appreciate them one day. 

When it came to my driving, I made textbook turns. I followed every step he had taught me, except for the damn hands. I just couldn’t get that one right. 

“Why did you use one hand this time? You’ll never pass the test if you use one hand,” Clifford suddenly said. And I wondered if this was the right time to tell him that his techniques didn’t work for me, but I didn’t. 

I continued driving, my grip getting tighter on the steering wheel. Hands sweating. My face flushed. I swallowed hard and kept looking straight ahead. The silence was suffocating. Daunting. But what could I have done? Clifford never charged students any money, and I was broke. If I could tolerate him just for another week, then another, and perhaps another, it would all be over before I knew it. 

I must have looked uneasy because he’d looked at me, his tone less serious than usual, and said, “You must get good grades. With no family around, I bet all you do is study.” I had heard this before; none of it was new. 

“I guess. Yeah, I

Clifford’s phone rang, violating one of his strict rules and interrupting my sentence. 

“I have to take this.” He mumbled something on the phone and looked rather distressed. 

“Is everything okay?” I felt obliged to ask. His face had a look of urgency. 

“My granddaughter lost her dog and she’s panicking. . . .We’re five minutes away from my house. She’s only eight and my sister left the house looking for the dog.” Clifford sniffed. Breathing heavily. His teeth clenching. Trembling. 

“We can go there.” 

“Yes.”

“Where?”

“Go straight ahead for about two miles then turn right.”

There was a cross road ahead of me and I yielded to the cars. Exactly as Clifford had taught me.

“Don’t tarry! Just drive for God’s sake.” 

I was being courteous. I did what I thought was right. I rolled back my eyes and whispered under my breath, “I can’t do this anymore.” 

Clifford looked unbothered. “Right here. Pull in front of the house at the end of the road.”

From the outside, this house looked old, but well-maintained. It had a covered patio surrounded by vibrant maple trees.

“Grandpa! You're here!” A girl with short red hair and wide blue eyes yelled as we pulled in front of the house. I saw the reflection of Clifford’s face in the windshield of his Buick transformno longer the snarky old man I had spent many dreadful hours with. 

“What happened? Did you find him? Where is aunt Sandra?” Clifford asked, holding her in his arms, the girl tugging onto Clifford’s wrinkled shirt.  

“She went to look for him and asked me to stay here. And. . . who is she?” The girl pointed in my direction. 

Clifford ignored the little girl’s question and asked if I would like to wait inside. I told him I would order a taxi to take me home. Clifford chuckled, “You know we’re in the middle of nowhere, right? Come on in. It’s cold outside.”

I walked into the living room, which was dark except for the light of the television screen. My eyes glazed around the room, inspecting it. There was a bottle of gin on the coffee table, a glass, and a packet of Tylenol. The furniture was worn out. Soot stains above the fireplace. A dining room table. Three chairs. Family photos. 

In the photos, there was a young Clifford, a beautiful woman I assumed was his wife, and two young men. I saw two coats hanging in the closet behind the door where I left mine. 

I was waiting for his wife or maybe someone to show up, but I assumed everyone was out searching for the dog. 

“We found him.” Clifford’s voice sounded relieved. 

We sat in the living room and he was talking with his granddaughter. I was nodding, smiling, and trying to feel something. 

“So, you seem close to your granddaughter.” 

“Yes,” said Clifford. His eyes lit up. I looked around the room in an attempt to comment on something, to connect. 

“You have a beautiful family,” I said, glancing at the photos on the wall. 

Clifford looked down, unable to meet anyone’s eyes. 

Our drive the next day was different. I used both hands to turn left and right and he seemed unconcerned. 

My jaw was relaxed for once. I sighed and said, “Why do you do this?” 

“Do what?”

“This. Teach international students how to drive in your town, for free.”

“My son.” Clifford’s response was garbled. He turned his head away. 

“What about him?” I said hesitantly. 

Clifford cried a little, not proper crying with sobs and moans but a few tears I could spot out of the corner of my eye. His voice, when he started to talk, was dry and sour. 

“He was paralyzed from the shoulder down. He was a quadriplegic.”

I felt glued to the driver’s seat. Clifford’s knee was shaking and he covered his eyes with both hands. What was I supposed to say? Sorry for your loss? I hope it’s for the best? I ran out of words. My bitterness was almost gone. 

“He used a stick, you know. . .to drive. One hand. That’s all he could use.”

“Oh,” I said and swallowed. 

“My wife couldn’t deal with it. She said she’d done too much already and it was my turn to be responsible for him now. She left me five years ago.” 

I looked at the man next to me with the corner of my eye and I saw a defeated look on his face. 

“That’s my ex-wife’s house. That white house on the corner.”

I wish Mira had told me about this! I couldn’t deal with other people’s emotions. They swallowed me whole. I didn’t want to hear a sad story. I wish I didn’t ask him about his son. I wish I didn’t go back to his house, and I wish I never called his number. Why do I need to drive here anyway? It was easier to just know he was a grumpy old man who did what all grumpy old men do. Now I know. He told me his son’s story as we drove in silence. 

Clifford’s son got in a car accident while he was still in college. It was a spinal cord injury that altered his life entirely. Clifford, who never took his son to school or attended any of his soccer games, was suddenly left alone to take care of his son and his granddaughter. Clifford’s sister, Sandra, helped a little but she couldn’t always be there. 

“It was a Sunday afternoon. He was driving back home from his part-time job at the gas station when a truck crashed into his car.”

I was silent.

“The truck driver wasn’t injured. Nothing. Not a single scratch on his body.”

Clifford opened the glove compartment and pulled out a picture of his son and another guy; they looked about the same age. 

“This guy was his caregiver. He was somewhere from Southeast Asia, you know, around where you’re from?”

“Not really. I am not

“Oh well,” he interrupted. “What I still cannot wrap my mind around is how this guy, right here, wanted to help my son and be his roommate. For what? Nothing. No money. No favors. I guess. . . you can say. . . I am trying to give back.”

“Seems like you were all good friends. That’s rare to find.” 

Clifford ignored me again and finished off his sentence. “And I also want young people to drive right. Most people around your age just don’t care. They think they know what they’re doing but they don’t! They drive like they own these streets and they’re not what I would like to call defensive drivers. My son gave me purpose. I was nothing before that. Then my wife abandoned us and my only support system was his little daughter and his caregiver.”

“Sorry about that. . .”

“I know I can be a little tough on my students, but I just want them to be careful drivers. Can’t gamble with people’s lives.”

“Of course. I really appreciate what you’re doing.” My tone was monotonous and I knew it. I felt the need to thank Clifford. After all, I don’t think I ever thanked him. And after his son’s story, I felt like he deserved some recognition. 

I was driving the next day with Clifford. Both hands on the steering wheel. From the misty windshield I saw the road ahead, a little clearer than usual. I wondered, when did my heart harden? And when did I become immersed in limbo? My eyes filled up with tears and this time I didn’t glance away. I had become detached from this vulnerable feeling and it was good to recapture it and, finally, grieve. Muddled feelings. I was crying. For Clifford’s son or maybe because I was homesick, not only for my home but sick with longing for my mother’s stories in the passenger seat, the worried tone in her voice and the color of her eyes—the softest brown infused with green, shining like sunlight on a breezy Spring afternoon. 

“It’s a beautiful day,” Clifford sighed. “I don’t know much about you. Not a talker, huh?”

I tried to hold back the seething tears that had been building up for a long time, but I failed. I inhaled deeply and he must’ve noticed the tears running down my face. 

Clifford didn’t say a word. 

“Can you hear me?” I said anxiously. My stomach was in knots. 

“Yes,” Clifford said. 

It was our last lesson

Hope you're well and I can't wait to hear from you.

 

Sincerely, 

Salam 

Contributor
Rand Khalil

Rand Khalil is a Palestinian-Jordanian Fulbright alumna and a first-year Ph.D. candidate in literature at the University of Houston. She received her M.A. in English Literature at the University of Northern Iowa. Her research interests include Anglophone Arab Literature, Post-Colonial Theory, and the politics of hyphenated Arab identities.

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Rand Khalil is a Palestinian-Jordanian Fulbright alumna and a first-year Ph.D. candidate in literature at the University of Houston. She received her M.A. in English Literature at the University of Northern Iowa. Her research interests include Anglophone Arab Literature, Post-Colonial Theory, and the politics of hyphenated Arab identities.

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