Ten of my friends were piled behind my car with their hands on the bumper and trunk, ready to push. I was white knuckling the steering wheel and pressing both the brake and clutch to the floor. My friend Leigh sitting shotgun telling me “you can do this” while tears poured down my face. I can still see the scrunched up look she gave me when I yelled “I’m not interested in killing most of my friends tonight!”
I was barely 18 and the shiny black Volkswagen Cabrio had been mine for just a few months. It was stick shift. I told my parents I didn’t want stick shift. Like a bratty teenager, I found a reason to be unhappy with the awesome car they bought me. I whined while my dad patiently taught me how to drive it. In my defense, it’s not easy to learn manual in the mountains of North Carolina. It still amazes me that he didn’t just leave me out on a mountain road that day before returning the car to the dealer.
I pretty much had it down by the first day of school.
That’s a lie.
On the first day I stalled out on the hill that used to mark the entrance to the Daniel High School student parking lot. You don’t want to stall out during the morning rush to school in front of everyone, but sometimes you do and then you pick up and move on with your life despite the humiliation.
By the time Thanksgiving break rolled around, I definitely had it figured out. I was basically a pro. I was teaching my friends how to drive in local parking lots like some sort of stick shift scholar. I knew it all. Until I didn’t.
That Friday we all piled on Andy’s living room floor to watch the live action movie version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I’ll admit it’s probably a god-awful movie if you didn’t grow up wrapping ties around your head and pretending to be Michelangelo. Regardless, that’s where we were when I found out just what I didn’t know about driving stick.
The movie ended. We had some laughs about the early 90s special effects that went into making Splinter come to life. We thanked Andy for having us over and headed out the door to our cars. Mine was gone. It wasn’t where I parked it. The discovery went a little something like this:
Me: “Hey, where’d y’all put my car?”
Them: “What are you talking about?”
Me: “Hilarious, but really, where is my car?”
Them: “We were all inside with you. What could we have possibly done to your car.”
Them: “Wait, is that your car?”
There she was. Off the side of the bottom of the driveway. Possibly smashed into a tree. I couldn’t tell from where I was, but I knew it was her. She was easily identifiable by the shape of the darkened headlights staring back at us.
“Jesus Christ! What happened?”
Three minutes later I was in the driver’s seat crushing the clutch and the brake. Almost a dozen of my closest friends were lined up and ready to push. All I had to do was convince my right foot to move from brake to gas. That was all I had to do and yet I couldn’t think of anything except the horrific scene I’d leave behind when my car rolled backwards over all of them. I was imagining the moment I’d climb out of the driver’s seat to survey their lifeless bodies. I was thinking about all the calls I’d have to make to police, to parents.
Why had I put on my seatbelt? We hadn’t even technically left Andy’s yard. My tiny car was resting on a giant stump, not smashed into a tree but saved by a stump halfway down the steep slope of his lawn. My friends were grabbing taillights and volunteering their lives (so I thought)… and I’d put on my seatbelt.
Most of the moments inside the car are a blur to me now. I know I yelled several variations of “I can’t do it!” while Leigh remained calm. A total role reversal for the two of us, and I’m sure she’d agree. I don’t remember the exact moment I managed to finally shift my right foot over the few inches necessary to just get out of there. I do remember the sound of my friends screaming as mud flew up in their faces. Once I shifted the whole ordeal was over in less than a minute. My car and I were back on the driveway without a scratch. My friends were covered in red mud, but completely unharmed and mostly still laughing.
I don’t even have the car anymore. I drove her for five years before trading her to a Chevy salesman in Mississippi in a deal I regret to this day. I hope she’s serving someone else well. I hope some teenage girl is cruising around with the top down singing ‘Me & Bobby McGee’ at the top of her lungs. I hope her new driver is an optimist who looks up at cloudy skies and figures she can make it all the way home with the top down before the rain starts. I hope she’ll drive that little cabrio to the top of a parking garage with her friends where they’ll turn up the music and dance above their city. I hope, more than anything, when she parks her on a hill she’ll know not to rely solely on the emergency brake.