Last week I faced the moment the father of a teenage girl dreads most.
Oh, God no, not THAT moment.
No, my daughter got her driver's license!
She had little help from me. I only took her out once, to the local high school parking lot, where I had her drive backward around the lot repeatedly--as my father had done with me almost 35 years ago. I never questioned my father's purpose in doing this. I accepted it as the fundamental building block of driver education: One needed to learn how to drive backward in order to truly understand how to drive forward. So around and around my daughter and I went, until I begged her to pull over so I could get out and throw up.
"Dad, you're so pathetic," she told me. "This is nuts. I'm never going to have to drive backward. When I get out of college, do you think I'm going to find a rewarding career in valet parking?"
That night I called my father in Florida and asked him why he made me drive around backward. He said, "Oh, that. I wanted to make you nauseated so you'd stop pestering me about teaching you how to drive."
So I left my daughter to the rigors of the District of Columbia driving test, which she described as follows: "Go around the block once, and don't kill the mayor."
I asked her how she did, and she said, "I had enough points to pass."
So I think she may have hit the mayor, but not killed him.
Now she wants a car.
The other morning we went out for breakfast to talk about cars. I wanted to explain to her, for example, that I didn't get my first car until I was a sophomore in college, and that she's a junior in high school, and that she ought to go out and work and save money for a car like I did, and that things were a lot tougher when I was her age, and we only had one car for the entire family . . .
She yawned. "Wake me when you get to the part about walking to school in the snow. I love that part."
We began to talk about what she felt was important in a motor vehicle, and her conversation revealed a surprisingly high level of sophistication.
"I don't want a white car," she said. "And the main reason is, it says: 'Hi, I'm a white car, and I'm ugly and stuff.'
"And I don't want a big Buick. It reminds me of Grandma."
(What she doesn't know is that Grandma used to drive muscle cars, until that unfortunate incident in the GTO when she stood that bad boy up at 120, and the wind resistance pushed her upper bridge straight down her throat.)
I asked her if there was anything she particularly wanted in a car.
"Automatic lights, because I don't really know how to turn the lights on myself yet."
(And doesn't that fill all you commuters with confidence?)
I felt euphoric, because my daughter and I had spoken for about seven minutes--the longest conversation we'd had in five years that did not include the sentence "Dad, you're so pathetic."
But I still had a problem: I think she's too young to have her own car. But now that she's got her license she's going to want to borrow my car. And I don't want her to borrow my car, because:
a. It's my car.
b. I remember what we did every time we borrowed our parents' cars. First we drove into ditches to see if the wheels would come off. Then we drove at high speeds, and slammed on the brakes to see if the guys in the back seat would catapult through the windshield. And if we were lucky enough to borrow our parents' cars during an ice storm, we deliberately fishtailed into a wild 360, hoping to smash into something. And we did all this even when we weren't on acid.
This, of course, is boy behavior. I needed to know about girl behavior. So I consulted my friend Nancy, who told me: "We always said, 'Can I have the car to go to the library and do homework?' 'Homework' is the magic word. Then we'd pile as many girls into the car as possible and just drive wantonly around the city, trying to attract as many boys as possible. Which, as it turned out, wasn't all that difficult."
Inevitably, I'm going to get my daughter a car. But what kind of car? Something small and fast, with a spoiler and a bumper sticker that says "I Brake for Unprotected Sex"? Oh, hahaha, I don't think so.
I intend to say to the car dealer: "Give me something that won't operate over 40 miles per hour, won't enter the Beltway, and at 11 p.m. will automatically start heading for home."
A first car ought to be a hideous, indestructible bomb. Your friends should be the only people on Earth who would consider sitting in it. It should have springs sticking out of the back seat. It should smell like someone is decomposing in the trunk. My friend Tom's first car was so horrible to look at that the first thing he did with it was to paint an American flag on the roof, with house paint! Which actually made it look much better.
"How old is Lizzie now?" Nancy asked.
"She's 16," I said.
"I crashed a boy's car the night of my 16th birthday," Nancy mused.
"He let me get behind the wheel," Nancy said. "I believe there may have been some beer involved. I remember I was driving just fine going straight. But then the road curved, and I drove the car into a tree. I couldn't consider myself an expert on such things, but from the steam hissing from the radiator, and the smoke and the crumpled hood, I sensed there was something wrong with the car."
I know exactly the kind of car I want for my daughter. Something large and slow, with only one seat and no radio, like a forklift, or one of those things that tow the space shuttle to the launching pad. Something so solid and formidable that my sweet baboo will not be injured when she plows into her first tree, or house, or police car--which will probably happen the first time she grabs for something she thinks will turn on the lights.