In the summer when I was sixteen, I got my driving license. The world changed.
Now I had bursts of freedom from my parents. Tucker found that he could escape his for a while, too. Every Saturday, he hopped into the front side seat of my parents' station wagon, leaned over to me, and said, "Where are we going?"
Accompanied by the smell of my father's stale cigars in the ashtray, we drove to every place we could reach that wasn't another cluster of farms. We visited book shops, the malls, the Ben Franklin convenience store, the movies, miniature golf, our friends in their houses, and others who snuck out of their houses and met us to go into arcades. We jangled our pockets full of quarters. We uncrumpled dollar bills to make change for more games. We accepted donations from our friends. Tucker spent everything he had and he volunteered for chores around his home, hoping for more.
"Do you mind if I steer?" Tucker asked after a few weeks of our new summer routine.
"How would that work?" I glanced to my right, where he sat upright at the end of the green, vinyl bench seat. He wasn't slouching. He was smiling. He tapped his gold-rimmed glasses.
"One of my other friends, Mike, let me steer his car. It was easy." His left arm stretched toward the wheel. I gripped it harder with both hands. "It's better when the road is mostly straight. All you have to do is take your hands off the wheel and let me keep us on the road."
We had been headed down the hill away from our homes on Black Rock Road. As we passed over the bridge above Seneca Creek, the gravel path straightened for an eighth of a mile. He put his left hand on the wheel. When we rolled off the bridge, I let go. He kept steering.
The front end of the car wobbled.
"Hold on, I'm getting it," he said. He pushed one way and then the other. Gravel pinged against the undercarriage. The station wagon drifted over the lip of the road and growled in the dirt. An instant later, it jerked back to the middle. While he was in control, I rolled down my window. The smell of summer brambles, dried mud, and mossy rocks drifted in. Black Rock road passed through the middle of a state park, an area that grew thick with oaks. A few, stray birch or poplar trees stood at the edges, near the clearings.
We passed a strand of oaks and poplars. At the next hairpin turn, I took over. We kept on, headed to our friend Debi, who wanted us to take her to the mall. On the straightaways, Tucker begged for every chance to practice his steering. That's how we pulled into the parking lot of Debi's apartment complex, where Debi saw Tucker steering. She decided she wanted her turn.
"Why don't I sit between you guys?" she suggested. She cozied up next to me as if she intended to flirt. However, she had her eye on the steering wheel.
Soon enough, wherever we went, I only worked the pedals on the straightaways. The weeks rolled by in our drive-by-committee fashion. Tucker grumped when Debi did most of the steering, especially after she decided to tease us by aiming us at other cars, or trees, or the curb. When she did, I would snatch the wheel back and guide us out of trouble.
"Aw," she would pout as if to say she only wanted to crash us a little bit.
"God dammit!" Tucker shouted once. "That was really close."
"It was pretty close," I allowed.
"This thing can take on most cars." He straightened from the crouched position he'd taken. His mouth still open, he stared behind us at the narrow bridge. Then he glared at Debi. "But not a school bus."
After a couple near misses, Tucker volunteered for the back seat. He returned himself to the front within the week, though.
During the fall, Debi did a lot of steering. She was short, so sometimes she mashed her body against mine in order to pull us off course. A few times, she pumped the brakes when I was on the highway. She hit the gas pedal when I was parking, or aiming for a spot. That was more dangerous than the brakes. She pushed the steering wheel right or left at random. I learned to keep sort of alert, even when I had the wheel in my control and she was giving me an innocent look with her hands in her lap. Everything could change in a second.
Debi was cute and smart. Her willingness to steer us off the road started to feel like a challenge to Tucker, somehow. When he rode with us, or even with me and no one else, he felt he had to step it up. But Debi had a deft touch. Tucker didn't. On his second or third prank try, he steered me over a curb. As I grabbed the wheel back, I slugged him in the shoulder. But I didn't really need to. He had already been backing off.
"I'm not brave enough for this," Tucker said. "This is crazy. Debi is just outright insane. How does she know when you have time to recover?"
I had no answer for that. Sometimes, Debi misjudged me. Twice, she pulled me into oncoming traffic but when I snapped back, we found a dodging car coming at us and needed to make another escape.
By November, Tucker had gotten a better idea. It started when we were headed back home in my parents' station wagon. We were near our curfew. I was so tired that, on Black Rock, I closed my eyes for a moment.
"You can drive home on reflex now, I guess," Tucker observed.
"Yeah." I yawned. I blinked and tried to watch the edges of our lane more carefully.
"Could you keep us on the road if I turned off the lights?"
"As long as we kept to the same speed, yeah." I meant my reflexes were based on timing. They were connected to the feel of the road. The gravel path of Black Rock angled a lot, not just up and down along the hills but off to the sides. My muscle memory found it natural to locate our car's position by the tilt and momentum. If we kept to the same speed every time, I could make every turn based on feel.
"When we get to a straightaway, turn the lights off for a second."
We swung left, then right, then came to a hundred feet of straightness. The boughs above us had lost their leaves already. Now they parted over our heads, too, and we could feel the sky. I pressed down on the knob to my left. The interior of the car turned black. Outside, the headlights blinked off.
To my surprise, I could see. The surface gravel and the trees on either side had instantly filled with a silvery glow.
"Thought so," said Tucker. "The full moon is perfect."
"It's more light than I need," I pondered.
Tucker thought about that point for a moment as we glided through a turn. Leafless branches closed off most of the cloudless sky above. Although I couldn't see much, I still wasn't worried. There were lighter shadows and darker ones. And the feel of the road, a tilt low and to the right. We straightened for a few feet and slid around another gravelly turn. I could hear the tires on the road more clearly than ever before. Or maybe I was simply paying attention.
"You know what?" Tucker concluded. "Me too. I think I could drive this during less than a full moon. I'd want a little bit of light from something above, though, maybe a really clear night with lots of stars."
He didn't have his license yet but I knew what he meant.
When I passed my test, the ability to drive had given me freedom. But soon enough, it turned into something more. Driving became my way to be with friends. It was almost the only way there was, living out where we were. The car gave me a way to impress them, even. Clearly, Tucker was impressed by driving at night, headlights out.
The next week, we drove back the same way. I cruised along Black Rock. Tucker turned out the lights. In silence and moonlight, we cruised on.
My impressions of cool driving tricks came from Debi and Tucker. But they could be back-seat daredevils. Debi had her license but no car. Tucker wanted so badly to learn and to be more free.
My parents bought a Volkswagen Rabbit. With it, Tucker and I learned how to manage a manual gearbox. He had to learn to shift left-handed, of course. We drove around Gaithersburg and Rockville on double-dates, spilled beer on the seats, and told our parents the car had broken down when we came home late. Sometimes to impress girls, I'd take my hands off the steering wheel and, without a word, Tucker would take over. He always loved to turn off the headlights as we cruised Black Rock and show everyone we didn't need them.