Green light. Tears stain my cheeks, blinding my view of the clear road ahead. Yellow light. My heart hammers out of my chest as I pull off into the parking lot. Red light. My hand trembles as I put the car into park. White light. I stare out the windshield to the ash gray clouds in the sky.
July 19, 2012. My mother waves me over to the couch, and I head over to slump into her arms.
“Can I drive myself today?”
Mama continues to tap her tablet, eyes scanning an endless Facebook feed.
“Beta, we’ll see.”
“Ma, why don’t you ever let me drive? I’m only going to Peer Jury. I’m not going to a party. I can do it. I’ve driven myself before. Just trust me, okay?”
“I trust you beta. But Baba and I don’t think you’re confident enough. When you’re driving, you can’t be nervous. But fine. I’ll let you. Make sure to drive carefully, okay?”
Overjoyed, I grab the keys from the hook next to the pantry and run down the stairs into the garage. Sleek black and equipped with seat warmers, my dad’s BMW stands still in the garage. I run my hand across the shiny paint and curl my fingers over a handle. I slouch into the leather that perfectly curves with the lines of my back. The keys turn with my fingers into the ignition. Nothing. I turn the keys again and finally jolt the car awake. Clutching the garage opener in hand, I click it lightly until I hear the murmur of the garage door. I put the car into reverse and slowly back out into the driveway.
As I reverse, drops of rain tap the rear windshield, falling from the charcoal clouds. The clouds threaten to burst with showers at any moment. For the first time, I drive in the rain alone. I review the gadgets in the car, remembering to turn the right handle next to the wheel to activate the windshield wipers. The clamor of the wipers grow. Louder, the rain continues to pitter and patter.
I drive down the town roads onto Cass Avenue. My fingers brush each other as I twist the volume button to the right. Freedom echoes in the music. My left foot taps to the beat of the music while outside, the raindrops drizzle in harmony. I forget about all the stresses of school, chores and relationships. I let go of reality and pretend that I am free, free from my parents and their overbearing nature.
Katy Perry cries out as I enter this state of freedom, only to realize I’m not sure where I am heading. My mind focuses back into reality as a sign that reads Dunham Road appears. Definitely in the wrong place. I pull to the side of the road next to a house. I grab my iPhone out of the cup holder to check the GPS and begin to panic. I realize I missed a direction and am now going to be late for Peer Jury. To find another route, I type the address to the Downers Grove Village Hall again. Route found.
Clicking the left turn signal, I proceed out from the side of the road. I move my hands up and over each other as I turn back into the lane, only to see train tracks ahead. My mind searches for all the rules I learned during driver’s education about railway crossings, but can only come up with a few.
“Be aware that trains cannot stop quickly.”
“Be extra alert at night or in bad weather.”
“Never race to a train crossing.”
As I move forward toward the train tracks, stones that surround the metal pattern of tracks replace the blades of grass on the road. There are about 40 lines of tracks aligned ahead of me. Between the tracks and the road are two barriers, one before and one after. The red stripes that stain the white gates shine bright in the array of dull green and gray.
With my heart pumping faster, I drive my car across the line that marks the position of the gates and lift my foot from the accelerator to the break. The gates ahead of me across the train tracks light up white and red. I didn’t expect lights to start flashing, so I halt the vehicle. The bright lights distract me. Am I doing something wrong? The gates lower closer and closer to the ground.
I have to cross the tracks or it’ll just be me, an oncoming train and a crushed up BMW. With Katy Perry’s voice still booming, I quickly put the gear in reverse and move backwards away from the tracks as much as I can until I hit the barriers behind me. Trapped. I begin reciting any prayer my mother taught me. My hands quiver on the wheel.
In the corner of my eye, I see the train getting closer and larger, and I reverse the car just a little more. The gate behind me hugs my dad’s car too closely. I pray, heart beating louder and louder with each prayer. I look in the rearview mirror and see the stupefied look of the driver behind me, just staring. I look in front of me to the cars on the other side. A man sits in his car with a confused look, rubbing his forehead. I peer to the right of him and glance at a clear road beyond the tracks. No gates. The barriers don’t line up. One gate behind me and one gate in front of the oncoming cars on the other side of the tracks. I’m not trapped after all. But, my light bulb moment comes a little too late. I can’t beat the train to the other side. I remain in the car and wait as the menacing rumble accelerates onward towards me.
Why didn’t I let my parents drive? Why didn’t I let my sister drive? I shouldn’t have been listening to music or should have used common sense. I know nothing about the road. I’m not ready. I’m only 17.
As the train inches towards the intersection, I await my fate. I stare at the puffy clouds and the flashing lights. No more prayers. Just fear. Frozen, I wait five more seconds, gripping the wheel tightly. From a distance the train honks once, and then again. The train blares its horn as if swearing at my stupidity. I stare at the metal caterpillar, knowing it would never stop charging my way. Its glass window eyes and wind wiper eyebrows glare at me. The train trudges, slow in the distance, but gains speed nearing me.
I close my eyes.
When my eyes flutter open, the metal clunker passes me in a blur. The colors green, yellow and red fly by as the train rolls on, just barely scratching the surface of my car. The thunderous monster shakes the barrier bars behind and in front of me. Like the bars and the ground underneath me, I quiver in my seat, not knowing exactly what was going on. Then, nothing. No more train. The yellowed grass, the sharp stones, the murky sky, the drizzling rain, the train tracks remain while the train becomes just a memory.
Exhaling, I put the gear into drive to get away from the condescending looks of the nearby drivers. I could see them in my head, laughing at the nitwit stamp that was clearly written on my forehead. The gate behind me thumps the back of the BMW as it moves upwards and I propel past the tracks onto the road where the gates had never been.
I don’t stop until I arrive at Peer Jury. Pulling into the parking lot, I pass the lined up police cars that remind me of my ignorance, remind me of my mistake. I park the car in a spot far away from them. I twist the key and turn off the engine. Taking off my glasses, I close my eyes and replay the oncoming train in my head. Horns blare at my ears from the memory. My body tenses.
I can’t tell my parents or they won’t ever let me drive again. I won’t let them find out. I can’t. Mama and Baba already think I’m a child, still see me as their little girl. But maybe they’re right. Maybe I need to slow down and reconsider racing to adulthood. And perhaps, let my parents take the wheel for a little while longer.
When I open my eyes, I hear the rain drizzling over my head, tapping the window yet again, but this time there is no music.