Stay to the Left
© Copyright 2010 by Cinnamon Geppelt
It takes skill to drive in England.
My husband, Aaron, arrived ahead of the family for our temporary work assignment, and with his vast prior three-week experience he became the self-proclaimed English driving expert. And thus my teacher.
A week after my arrival, and a lot of convincing, he added my name to the rental agreement. It then triggered an argument over when I should start driving. He may be working, but I came over to travel, with kids in tow. After sitting on the left-hand side of the road in a car that felt backwards, and stomping on my imaginary brake in moments of uncertainty, I was anxious, eager and admittedly a little scared, but a stronger urge for independence and control overshadowed my reluctance to drive; in life you have to feel the fear and do it anyway. I mentally charged myself to take on the challenge.
I wanted to start driving that very day, but Aaron in his wisdom (that I don’t always understand) decided a slow Sunday afternoon drive was better experience to ready me for Monday morning commuters. We resided in the Bristol city center, deep in the frightful congestion of downtown.
Sunday afternoon the sun was just waning in the winter season. The driving lesson begins: Aaron a little tense with fear and a cocky swagger tosses the keys with a grand introduction, “Don’t get frazzled.”
We strap the kids in the back and climb in.
“Okay,” he starts in his ‘I-know-everything’ voice. “When’s the last time you drove a standard?” I buckle in, and orient myself to the main controls I responding with an airy,
“Oh, I’d say, the last time you drove a stick prior to coming here.”
I crank the key and the engine purrs to life. Setting it in gear, I pull out easing the clutch in counter-harmony with the gas pedal, and gently crawl forward.“Sheesh,” he grumbles with tension. “Watch it, Cinnamon.” I give him a quick look that says, “I am! Chill,”
“Don’t look at me! Look at the road, and don’t be afraid to use the clutch.” I bite back sarcasm wanting to ask, “How do you think I’m making the car move?” Instead I keep the peace; I really do understand he’s taking a risk. His company’s paying for the car, and if I crash or damage it he’ll feel the repercussions. Attentively I ‘watch’ the road lined with cars on both sides. There is barely enough room for one car to squeeze through, by big American standards, but traffic flows both ways here.
With gaining confidence I near the first intersection, and begin my first major maneuver: a turn onto the main road. “GET IN THE LEFT!! GET IN THE LEFT LANE!!” Silently acknowledging his words, I pull out from the right lane (oops, old habit), and start turning into the far left.
“YOU DIDN’T CHECK THE RIGHT! You always look to the right BEFORE turning!” He bellows as if I’ve just proven myself completely incompetent for the task, and confirmed what he’s thought all along—this is a big mistake.
“Aaron,” I soothe, “The company approved me. You insisted on this lesson. I humbly admit I need help, but if you yell at me I am going to get frazzled. Yelling does not help me. It’s a necessity that I learn to drive in this country. Everything’s going to be fine.”
“Necessity is an overstatement. And the company doesn’t know your tract record,” he mumbles, but I ignore him.
“Okay,” he resigns with impatience followed by a huff. Not quite yelling, but in a very loud chipped voice he resumes his instructions, “We are approaching a round-a-about, just go straight through it, but you have to yield to the right.” His teeth are almost clenched when I start forward slowly making the curve and taking the second exit to technically go straight. “Don’t get nervous.”
I check my feelings. I’m attentive, my awareness is heightened, my focus fixed 100% on driving and listening to Aaron, but no, I’m not nervous. I’m kind of excited! This is an adventure.
“Umm, I’m not nervous. Do I look nervous?” I asked.
The yelling starts. I should have just let it go.
“I didn’t say you were nervous! I said, don’t get nervous!”
“Well, I’m not nervous.”
“I didn’t say you were! You aren’t listening! I was saying don’t get nervous because most people have a tendency to drift to the left!”
“Well, you didn’t say that. It seemed you implied I was nervous.” I am still surprisingly calm and almost laughing inside because I know I’m egging him on; but I’m not nervous, and my pride doesn’t want him to think that.
“I DID NOT!” Aaron continues, and in the same breath, “YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO STOP AT THE ZEBRA CROSSINGS!” Too late, and a good thing no people are about. (Pedestrian crosswalks are black-and-white striped, and I swear they are located every 15 feet.)
We head deeper into town, and I’m trying to find the gears. This car may have leather seats, but the gears work like an old rusted truck that requires muscle-power from my weak, uncoordinated left arm. He began, in a strained, not nice, loud, but not yelling voice, filling me in on everything that I’m supposed to do and be aware of. “Stay in the left, always look to the right, stop at all Zebra crossings if there are people approaching them, and beware of jay walkers, and doors opening on cars parallel-parked. Watch the lights. If it’s red and yellow (at the same time) that means get ready to go. Look for bikers and motorcycles. They come up the center aisle and act like traffic rules don’t apply to them, get in the lane corresponding with your exit, and count exits on the round-a-bouts, TURN YOUR THING ON!”
“Your turn signal!!! You have to use that here, Cinnamon, all the time! Did you look in your mirrors? What’s behind you?! Shift!! Sheeesh, you’re killing me!”
“NO, I’M NOT!”
I won’t detail the argument, where he tells me I’m a bad driver who makes him yell, because I’ve wrecked before, um….over fifteen years ago as a teenager. I don’t think that should be held against me. Granted, I occasionally nip the garage opening with the side mirror, and knock the alignment out when I bump the curb on a few turns running late for work, but I don’t consider that damage.
We continue cruising the town; Aaron directing in begrudging silence with flicks of his hand. The glint of my smile is gone. The boys are so quiet, or I’m so intent on proving myself, I almost forget they’re in the back. My calm reserve of maturity and respect deteriorate into a deep disgusting irritation for the repugnant man sitting next to me, and my mind wonders in the angry abyss.
“Aaron, did your dad teach you how to drive?” I inquire, breaking the silence.
“Yes, why do you ask?” “Oh God,” I plea in silent agony, I hope he doesn’t plan to continue the tradition. My poor kids! I grit a silent vow of determination, “There is no way this man will teach my kids.”
It’s almost over. All goes relatively well, from my point of view, until we reach a nasty patch of round-a-bouts. “Why are you waiting?!” he abruptly asks at the next junction. Bub-bull-lub-bub-bub, the car putters, “Because I obviously cannot find first!” I snap, jamming the stick around, reeerrrr, re-reeer- “Nope, that’s not first either,” I mutter to myself. We were almost home when I miss the exit on the big round-a-bout. There are three lanes, but it looks like four, and I can’t figure out which lane I’m supposed to be in to get to the third exit, oh and shift, maintain speed, and fight centripetal force at the same time.
“YOU JUST CUT THAT CAR OFF!!” Aaron informs me. After a couple more of times circulating the round-a-bout I finally get on the third exit, cutting off more cars and apologizing with a wave of my hand.
Before my confidence can rebound, I instantly hit another round-a-about. “Take a left,” he jams his finger in that direction. “Take a LEFT! Aye!” He groans in frustration as I miss another chance at home. We are now driving on this narrow tight… what should be a one-way, one-lane road, by all standards. My breathing is restricted with tension now. The thrill of driving blew out with the exhaust, and healthy dose of trepidation settles in. Cars are parked in an unending line on the left, and a steady flow of cars are flying by me on the right creating the tiniest alley for me to maneuver in. It’s now pitch dark and Aaron starts making these loud distracting sounds “EEEEGH, SHEEEEEH, CRAAAP!”
Then he yells, “MOVE!.... MOVE OVER! MOVE OVER!!!” and he’s pointing toward the parked cars, which is fine with me because the moving cars are terrifying. A long sting of fast moving headlights glare in succession past me like an ominous sign of a continuous, deadly, head-on collision! My heart’s pounding; my knuckles are white. I lean forward gripping the steering wheel as a life-line, and my eyes are wide open. “GET. OVER!” he commands. I make my move. “MMMMir-MMMmmm... MIRORRS! @#%&!...(breath)… YOU!” He stops. Looking back, I think he was recovering from heart failure, or else trying to rein in his emotions. He blows his breath out, sucks in, and shouts, “YOU ALMOST TOOK OUT OUR MIRROR!!!!” His deep breathing continues, his fists clench and unclench commanding again, “Move. Over.” I jerk the wheel back into oncoming traffic, and try to slow down as I approach yet another round-a-bout, and shift gears, and turn on my signal, and look for pedestrians crossing, and bikers, and motorists. I’m frazzled.
Moments later, once I’m in safer territory, I say in a severely calm voice, “But you pointed that way, Aaron.” Between clenched teeth he bites out, “BECAUSE YOU ALMOST TOOK OUT THE MIRROR!,…BY A HAIR!!!”
“Okay, then,” I acknowledge, straining for my own control. Every muscle, bone, nerve in my body is still vibrating like Jell-o. “Aaron you have been pointing the whole time which way I should go; if you don’t want me to go that way, then DON’T POINT THAT WAY!!” This, right here in this moment became one of those ultimate tests of our relationship. For an instant we lost that lovin’ feeling.
I’ll spare you the dialogue rife with edgy tones and uneasy silence, and something involving, “I told you don’t get nervous,” as we made our way to the apartment. I rushed to the kitchen and nursed my rattled nerves with everything edible. From then on, whenever we travel together Aaron drives, and I’ve learned to become a superb British driver all on my own by chanting the mantra, “Look to the right, but stay to the left.”
Unexpectedly pregnant, and with two kids, my
husband and I volunteered for a temporary work assignment with his
company. We lived in Bristol, England, and traveled the country
for ten months. To fill the familial void, I wrote home
to select friends and family updates of our weekly adventures that
I’m compiling into a manuscript. I’m a a mother of
three by choice, nurse by profession, but I read and write for a
Another story by Cinnamon