It was the day before the cotillion in Florida, a big day when debutantes are introduced at a big ball. Suzanne wanted her hair cut, permed and styled, a fuss I was spared; I wore my long, straight black hair either in a ponytail or, when I wanted to look sophisticated, up in a French bun. She drove the family car to a beauty parlor at the edge of town, and I tagged along to keep her company. While she sat in front of the mirror, I sat next to her and we discussed the pros and cons of various hairdos in a magazine. After the shampoo she got a telephone call from her younger brother, Tim.
“But, it’s going to take another couple of hours,” she was saying, “Can’t you wait?”
Then more forcefully, “I can’t do it, Tim. Wait. Maybe, Penny can bring it.”
Suddenly I was interested in the conversation. Suzanne turned to me and said,
“Penny, can you drive? Tim wants the car right now.”
I said nothing while I pondered how to answer the question.
“Tim is making a fuss. Tim, calm down. OK, already. Penny will drive the car over,” and she hung up.
I tried a mild protest. “Suzanne, I haven’t driven in a long time. I haven’t driven in this country.”
“It’s just a straight road, and you know where to turn off, right?”
“Here’s the key.” She handed me the key and continued her conversation with the hairdresser.
It was true I had driven before. Twice, in a driving class at an American School in Japan. I dropped the class, I rationalized, because I couldn’t get a driver’s license in Japan until I turned twenty-one anyway, and that was a few years away. The truth was I had found shifting the gears too difficult and the cars too big.
The American car used in the class was not scaled to my size. The large hood, the wide and long body, the huge trunk with elongated fins all said, “You’re too small, you’ll never master me.” After driving with pillows stuffed all around me, I had said, “Car, I’ll get to you later.” But, in theory, I knew how to drive.
I always hated the words “I can’t.” “You can’t” translated to “Penny, give it a try” whatever was difficult or prohibited. This trait usually served me well, but the current situation had a potential for a disaster — this was a very expensive car. But, I couldn’t renege now; I could only go forward and drive the car back to Tim. All I had to do was start the engine, ease the car into the road, drive straight for five or six miles, turn left onto a dirt road, drive through the orange groves, and stop in front of the house. “It’s doable,” I told myself and took the key and went to the car. Of course I had no driver’s license.
The car was not huge like the finned monster I had driven in Japan. It was black with a reasonable hood, an boxy body with high windows, and a plain sloping trunk. As I opened the door the hot, cloying smell of leather polish hit me. I sat in the black leather seat. My foot didn’t reach the gas pedal, or the brake pedal. Not only was I short at five feet, being a Japanese my legs were short in proportion. The soft and deep seat meant for comfort further served me ill. I looked around for a handle to move the seat forward. It was hot in the black car. It got hotter as I began to panic. Finally, I found a half-hidden handle that moved the whole front seat forward. But it wasn’t enough, and there was no pillow or cushion in the car. When I sat up close enough to reach the pedals, my chest bumped into the steering wheel and I couldn’t steer.
Forcing myself to calm down, I reasoned through the problem. To reach the pedals I had to sit at the edge of the seat. Next, to steer I had to lean back. But, then I couldn’t see the road out the windshield or the windows, only the sky. I soon discovered that if I leaned back further and scrunched down, I could see the road through a gap between the spokes on the steering wheel. The view wasn’t much but enough for a straight road. I put the key in the ignition and started the engine. I grasped the steering wheel and eased the car into the paved road and hoped nobody would come by. If someone passed the car and looked my way, she would see no driver.
Fortunately, in the midday heat there were no other cars on the road. The black tar road was like an arrow that disappeared into the horizon. On my right the dried grass and bushes continued to a sea in the distance. On the left, below an embankment, orange trees were green against the bright but humid sky. A shimmering, ghostly heat patch moved ahead of me and kept me company. There was no sound; it was so quiet I could almost hear the heat. I drove slowly, taut as a bowstring. Balancing semi-reclined on my buttocks on the edge of a seat cramped my stomach muscles and made my neck stiff. Every mile or so, I had to stop and give my muscles some rest.
After what seemed a long time, I saw a break in the orange trees and a familiar gate and a dirt road beyond. The road was narrow and grooved with deep tire tracks, and I knew I had to get the front tires into the grooves. Pressing the brake pedal gently, I turned the steering wheel, which wiped out my view. I turn into the dirt road, which went down a gentle grade, on pure faith, and missed the mark. But, I was on the dirt road in any case, and my destination was within reach.
Orange trees are neither very tall nor very wide. The branches spread out with dark green foliage. Unlike the Japanese plums and cherries, they bloom and fruit at the same time, especially in warm climate. The bright spheres of orange and the white clusters of aromatic flowers hang side by side in a sea of green — surely, a tree to grace the gardens of Eden. But, peering through the steering wheel, sweating to keep my body position, and maneuvering to avoid the trees, Eden was not on my mind. What I had seen in my mind’s eyes as a straight and smooth dirt road was neither straight nor smooth. Steering with only a partial view, I would either over steer or under steer forcing me to slow down to a crawl to get the car back on track. I would hit unseen holes and bumps that unbalanced my perch, sliding me off the seat or throwing me away from the foot pedals. But, I was getting closer.
After one final bend the white house stood right in front of me. A colored help turned to look in my direction, opened his mouth, and stared wide eyed. No doubt a strange apparition — a black car coming out of the orange grove with no visible driver. I stopped and honked for Tim.
I would not drive again for another five and a half years.