I am a bad driver. I say this not as self-deprecation nor a desperate grab for sympathy but as an objective fact. I am a safe driver, but not a good one; to the chagrin of everybody else on the road I move incredibly slowly, and my unprotected left turns leave much to be desired.
Like my tendency to bite my nails, I get this from my father. His complete inability to change lanes without aggravating the drivers behind him is as embedded in my DNA as his blue-green eyes. Of all his qualities — his stubbornness, his easily-burned Scandinavian skin — this is the one I least mind sharing.
One of the casualties of boarding school is that I do not get a driver’s license until the week before college started. This is how I find myself behind the wheel of a car for the first time at age 18, my dad in the passenger’s seat, all the distance and anger of the past two years reduced to the width of the center console.
We have seven days to teach me how to drive — eight, if you count the day we’ll spend driving from San Francisco down to Fresno, the armpit of California, where the only road test in the entire state is available on such short notice.
Adjust the seat, he tells me. Reflexively, I bristle at the command, but take a deep breath and remind myself that my mom is too busy with work to do this and my grandma refuses to get in a car that I am operating.
It’s been a few months since we started speaking again and it still feels strange to see his name pop up on my phone rather than in the “blocked” section of my voicemail. As a little girl I could go dinners or sometimes even half-days without speaking to him, my arms crossed and face scrunched up in immature irritation. It always passed, though, with the arrival of dessert or the offer to watch an episode of “Wizards of Waverly Place” with my little sister and me.
I did not speak to my father from the spring of my sophomore year of high school until December of my senior year. Sometimes I tell people this and they look at me like I’m damaged goods. It’s hard to explain that some things can’t be fixed by carrot cake or Selena Gomez — that some grudges harden like cement and become a part of you.
Adjust the mirrors — side and rear-view.
In the third or fourth grade, I began to notice that my classmates greeted their fathers with hugs and squeals at afternoon pickup, but all I wanted was to walk myself the five blocks back to our Divisadero St. home. Some mornings, I showed up to school with my maroon jumper already stained with tears, the result of some breakfast argument. He was stubborn and confrontational and I was exactly like him, except 10 years old. We fought about everything, all the time, and to me, this seemed normal.
Release the parking brake. Foot on the brake, move out of park and into reverse, slowly.
Things were better when I went to boarding school. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” is never so true a truism than for shipped-off teenagers, and over holidays, we’d almost be pleasant to one another. I began to view our fraught relationship as an unfortunate side note in a chapter that was over.
Back out of the garage slowly, checking the mirrors and over one shoulder, and please try not to scrape the sides of the car.
This is how everything was ruined: when my little sister was in the eighth grade, she applied to my high school, and got in. It was her top choice, but my dad decided he wanted her to stay in San Francisco, and took my mom to court to prevent her from attending boarding school. He won, and I stopped talking to him, and my sister stayed home and consequently developed a life-threatening case of anorexia, brought on in part, the doctors told us, by her inability to decide where she lived or went to school. Eating disorders were matters of control, they said.
As a result, I didn’t speak to my dad for nearly 18 months, until I got into Yale and decided I was tired of being angry and also wanted him to know that I had turned out alright. I called him and it broke my heart in a good way. A few weeks later, he was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. He has gotten progressively sicker over the past year.
We can work on turning tomorrow, he tells me. The people at the D.M.V. tend to get angry when you don’t signal.
For six more days, we do this. Rush hour or nighttime, fog or rare sun, we get in the car and go wherever we want — Twin Peaks, the Castro, never downtown, if we can help it. We spend hours in the Presidio, weaving in and out of the eucalyptus trees, practicing right turns at the same mostly-empty intersection.
I talk to him about the summer, my senior year, what excites and scares me about Yale. He repeats his questions frequently, and his memory of the city’s streets has faded, so often we find ourselves circling the same block for minutes at a time while he struggles to recall some long-lost mental map. I don’t suggest that we use Google Maps. Somehow it would feel ineffably cruel.
On day eight, we go to Fresno. We take turns driving, and when it’s his shift, he plays old John Denver songs, singing softly to himself. When it’s my turn, he naps, and I keep his music on.
That night, we order overpriced pad see ew from Fresno’s finest Thai restaurant and it arrives lukewarm and somewhat soggy. Sitting at the little table in the corner of the hotel room, we eat our spring rolls in silence, not out of anger or exhaustion but simply, finally, because there is nothing to be said.
The next morning, I pass my road test. I lose six points — some for driving too slowly, others for sheer incompetence — but it’s a pass, nonetheless. A license. I burst back into the D.M.V. and weave through the rows of folding chairs to find my dad sitting at the very back, waiting.
I tell him I passed and he breaks into a sunny smile, his eyes brightening through their usual blue-green cloudiness. He tells me he’s happy for me.
And all at once, the little girl on Divisadero St. and the 15-year-old in a dorm room forgive him. Because maybe I’ve been waiting my entire life to hear him say that. Because I can’t be mad at somebody who can’t remember what they did wrong in the first place.
I smile and it feels like a prayer. “Want to go home?” I ask. He nods, like he can’t quite remember why we came, but is content to be along for the ride.
On the drive back to San Francisco, we pull over at a rest stop with three different vending machines, and he spends 15 minutes contemplating which snacks to buy, not because he’s indecisive but because at the last vending machine he forgets what he saw in the previous two, and has to double back to be sure he isn’t missing anything. He repeats this cycle several times and it’s the saddest thing I’ve seen in my entire life.
Two days later, I leave for college. I take with me an embarrassing number of bulging suitcases and the paper license that’s valid until my real one arrives in the mail. My dad doesn’t come for move-in day because we don’t invite him. He will not remember that we didn’t invite him and for this I offer silent thanks to a non-denominational deity. The only blessing of this disease is that we cannot hurt each other anymore.
He calls me sporadically, usually when I’m in class or the library, and I always promise to call back and sometimes I do. Without fail, every conversation is like Camp Yale all over again — what I’m majoring in (English), whether I like my suitemates (yes, and there are eight of them), how my classes are going (Elementary Portuguese is sapping me of my will to live). After every conversation I sit for several minutes on the cold stone benches outside Sterling, breathing slowly and quietly, waiting for tears to stop pricking my eyes.
On Christmas Eve, around four in the afternoon, I pause my present-wrapping and get in my mom’s Mini Cooper. The day is overcast and everybody is driving like an absolute maniac in their hurry to get out of town or get to the mall before it closes. I’m in no rush, though — my grandma’s party doesn’t start until six.
The intersection of Divisadero and Jackson is a nightmare, like it always is, and the bright red door stands out in the row of muted Victorians, just like it always has. I turn left and pull into his driveway, managing to cut off just one angry driver in the process.
For a split second I am eight years old again, sitting in his living room with my little sister on a Sunday afternoon. We press our noses up against the windowpane, waiting for Mom to come pick us up, listening for the familiar hum of her motor as she pulls into the driveway. We will dart to the door as soon as she kills the engine, ready to attack her with hugs and kisses. Our shoes have been on for an hour.
I shift the car into park, but leave the keys in the ignition and sit there for a moment. It occurs to me for the first time in my life how painful it must have been to be my father.
I get out of the car and take the stairs two at a time, like I did when I was little. I ring the doorbell and he opens the door right away, arms laden with gifts, wearing that ridiculous snowman sports coat he got from a White Elephant party in the ’90s. He didn’t forget.
Merry Christmas, I tell my dad, and I hug him.
Olivia Tucker | email@example.com