CarStories are stories about cars. This week, we have Dianna Dragonetti, artist and theologian.
I’ve always loved being in cars. As a child, I relished being driven around; buckling up in my mom sea-green minivan or my dad’s beat-up Honda Civic felt like the beginning of a great adventure. This only increased when I was finally old enough to sit up front, a special privilege reserved for bigger kids. Not only did I have a front row seat to the road, but I also could familiarize myself with the mechanics of the car. It both dulled my childish fascination — contrary to my second grade belief, the car did not have little magical wings to propel it forward — and led me to a more mature appreciation of driving. It was then that my parents started to teach me how to drive, steering from the passenger seat on neighborhood back roads. I bugged them to practice as often as possible, eager for the day I would have my own license. I even fantasized about the songs I would play in my very own car stereo, when I was in control: “We Are the Champions” by Queen or Deep Purple’s “Highway Star.”
But life does not always work out as planned. Due to complications with my health as a teen, I never got a license. This proved to be inconvenient in my junior and senior years of high school, when I worked full-time in a town with no reliable public transit. Having occasionally two or more jobs at a time, I really needed a way to get around. Salvation came in the form of my friend Mark — or, more correctly, in his black Nissan Altima. Whenever I needed a ride, the Altima miraculously appeared, waiting for me in the parking lot. Many nights we spent driving around aimlessly; I didn’t care where we went as long as I didn’t have to walk home in the dark!
The most memorable drive in Mark’s Altima happened one warm, summer night in June. He picked me up from work as usual, and we ended up parked at an old Catholic high school by my parents’ house. The parking lot was sprawling, evident even in the dark. Flood lights illuminated enough to show the lot stretched back about a mile behind the school, sloping down toward the football field on a gentle incline. It reminded me of the back roads of my childhood, or the church parking lot where I learned to ride a bike: the wide, open space looked exhilarating. I turned to Mark and said, impetuously, “Man, I wish I could drive.” He replied, “What’s stopping you?” I laughed and told him I didn’t have a license. Or a car. He fired back, “So? You’re in a car right now!”
“But I don’t know how to drive!” I protested. The line of questioning made me nervous, but I guess, of the two of us, I was always the more prudent friend. He just looked at me and smiled.
“This is how you learn!” Next thing I knew, Mark had gotten out of the car and was tugging at the passenger’s side door. “Go get in the driver’s seat. I’ll guide you through it.” I was shocked at first, but, the more he wheedled with me, I figured what was the harm — he was a good driver, and it was his car, after all. I got out and slid cautiously into the driver’s seat. As soon as I sat down, it was like my whole world changed: I was the one controlling this big machine! My hands locked around the steering wheel in a death grip. Mark noticed my tension and smirked. “Are you gonna start this thing anytime soon?” I took that as a cue to fiddle with the keys, still hanging from the ignition. The car unexpectedly rumbled to a start that almost knocked the wind out of me.
“All right,” Mark said, embracing his role as teacher to a very fragile student, “Why don’t you guide it up to that stop sign?” He taught me how to brake and apply gas; he taught me how to put my turn signal on, to check my mirrors. Soon I was mobile, moving more reasonably than the snail’s crawl I started with and redirecting the car with ease. His instruction was so attentive, I momentarily forgot I had never really driven before. Fittingly, he put on “Highway Star.” It really felt like I had the car of my dreams, like the Altima was mine.
After looping around the lot a few more times, I drove us back to my parents’ house without issue. I stopped at the end of the driveway, hand on the steering wheel. “It was great seeing you tonight Mark,” I said. He nodded and replied, “Yeah, I’m glad you had fun. Can you let me back into the driver’s seat now?”