November 15, 2019 | Narrative
eyes on the road
at the intersection of driver and passenger
Content Warning: References to animal injury and car accidents
I don’t remember where we were going when it happened, or what we were talking about, just that whatever my friend Mia was saying from the backseat dissolved into a yelp as I looked out the passenger-side window and saw the round, glassy eye of a deer right next to me.
Deer are to Michigan roads what dandelions are to front yards. Relentless, pervasive, oddly beautiful for something people try so doggedly to eliminate. I remember the first time I saw one in our backyard picking at the oregano in our patchy, half-maintained summer garden. Its head snapped up as the hound dog in the house behind ours resumed his usual forlorn refrain.
The deer, framed by my window for just an instant, glanced off the side of our minivan—legs perhaps scratched, but not injured enough to become one of the all-too-familiar brown lumps dotting the side of the interstate. We were moving too quickly to see whether or not it loped off into the foliage.
My mom, who is an excellent driver, began explaining what to do should this scenario ever fall upon Mia or me. Whatever you do, don’t swerve. Lay on the horn, and slow down as quickly as you can. I asked if that would cause me to get rear-ended. Maybe. But if you hit the deer, it might crash through the windshield, which would be worse.
For a horrible split second I pictured what that would be like, the same brown mass I had seen chewing on our garden bursting through a mess of glass in front of me. And also a car ramming into us from behind, the exclamation point of sound it would make, the metal crumpling like a face about to cry.
I didn’t ever want that much control over a second. To have to think of all the things my Mom described and execute them before I found an entire mammal on my lap. The moment the deer skimmed our car unlocked a strange and insular world where animals could fly through windshields as easily as insects could splatter across them and clunky human instincts might get to the wheel before the mind can. I wasn’t sure anyone should have that much ownership over a single moment, or anything at all.
The scene was so familiar it could’ve been interchanged with any given dinner party with any given family friend between 2015 and 2018: the same Coca-Cola in my hand, the same resigned expression I would hide as I took a sip before answering, “No, I’m going to wait to get my license,” regardless of the scenery revolving around me—a never-ending carousel of small talk.
My response would always prompt a polite anecdote about their 20-something-year-old son who also waited to get his driver’s license, and then they would ask why I was waiting. After all, virtually every 14-year-old in our neighborhood started buckling into the driver’s seat next to their parent or guardian the moment they got their hands on a permit.
In these moments, I’d think of when Mia dropped me off at home after an outing. Before reaching my white picket fence, she would take a sudden turn—always sudden, even if I expected it—and declare that I’d have to choose the last song of our drive. The first few seconds of it would duet with the sound of the windows rolling down, the night air rushing in. And there, sitting in the passenger seat, with Mia making loops around the quiet corners of our neighborhood, singing at the top of my lungs, I’d find there was nowhere I’d rather be.
Driver’s ed was inevitable.
It started in a sweaty classroom full of 14-year-olds who observed me boredly, like I was a fish in a waiting room aquarium. The teacher was objectionably creepy. We watched videos in which people with ’80s mullets advised us on how to avoid hydroplaning during a storm.
These lessons were combined with driving practice, which thoroughly terrified me. My mom and I met my instructor in a McDonald’s parking lot on Southfield—an extremely busy road, especially for a new driver. I closed my eyes, reducing the world to the sound of cars whooshing past, labored exhales of exhaust, everyone on their way to somewhere. I pretended I could take root in the cement beneath my feet, coexisting with the moving cars without ever stepping inside one.
This fantasy was short-lived. Trying to be as polite in my presence as possible while clearly conveying her concern to the instructor, my mom said, “It’s fine that she’s never put her hands on a steering wheel, right?” My teacher didn’t look up from his clipboard. “She ever play Mario Kart? She’ll be fine.”
It mostly was. If it ever wasn’t, my instructor, a titan of a man with a penchant for oversized polo shirts of various colors, would lay one enormous hand on the steering wheel or pump his passenger-side break.
I learned a few things during these lessons. That my instructor hated his brother, who was in jail. That I’m not a bad driver, but an overly cautious and slow one—which, in Michigan culture, means a bad one. That if I ever have to run off the road, I should aim for something soft, like a bush.
In May of 2018, at 18 years old, I walked into my calculus class wordlessly holding a flimsy piece of paper over my head. It said I was allowed to commandeer a pod of metal for the foreseeable future, for better or for worse.
I didn’t forget the deer. But as my friends all erupted into applause, our bewildered classmates craning their necks to see what on earth I was holding, I could almost stop seeing my reflection in its eye.
This past August, I picked up some pizzas for my brother and sister, who were at band camp. Visiting always makes me sentimental—I owe some of my best high school memories to marching band. As I clambered out of the driver’s seat onto the blacktop of the student lot, I couldn’t help but smile.
Never having driven myself to school, I had never felt connected to this space in high school—this black expanse covered in constellations of white lines that marked off places to tuck away your vehicle for a while. At the end of the day, the lot would flood with students, a symphony of chirping Jeep Libertys and engines stretching awake.
I don’t regret not playing a part in the cacophony. Even after getting my license, I would seldom ever choose to give up that precious passenger-side position, where I could gesticulate to my heart’s desire while relaying the day’s events to my mom. Where I sat next to Mia on our second to last day of senior year, slushies in hand, as she suddenly went quiet before saying it just occurred to me that this is really happening. Where I could sit next to her and always choose the last song. I don’t want my eyes on the road—I want them elsewhere. Anywhere I want.
I looked up; the sky stretched wide and blue, the usual cloudy lid on Michigan torn off by summertime. I locked the car as I walked toward the entrance to my old school, the reliable beep in response swallowed whole by the sound of the door opening.