An Account of a False Caribbean Baby Learning to Drive in the Far North
In the far north, three hours beyond the Mighty Mac and directly off of a poor excuse for a highway, sits a county road in the Upper Peninsula, Michigan. Right now, I could tell you of every pothole, 90 degree bend, and State Trooper hideout along County Road 440. But when I was fourteen, I could only tell you that I was terrified of learning to drive its stretch.
It was the beginning of summer. Every year, we would make the same trek back to our birthing land. To explain this will take time and I beg you, reader, stay with me.
My family and I reside on a small volcanic rock of an island dubbed Grand Cayman; it is hot and I miss the idea of laying in a shaded hammock, sunburnt and hastily covered in aloe with no company. I am not a Caribbean baby. In fact, I was born in a small Michigan town off of Lake Superior: Ishpeming. Similarly, my mother was born in a town an hour away from me: Munising. We are Yoopers. We make fun of Michiganders who reside below the bridge. We call them trolls and we are proud to claim U.P. birthright. It’s why we venture back.
We leave behind my brother and father to fend in the building heat of Cayman. We fly into an airport the size of an average living room, we pick out the most practical rental car, we drive with our windows down and country music on, and we speed towards Round Lake; this has a cabin built by my great-grandfather’s hands and almost every one of my mother’s seven siblings waiting for us. It is tradition, and we have never broken it since I was born.
So it was at fourteen that I found myself sitting on the driver’s side of our rented Subaru, belted in, checking mirrors while my mother turned down the radio and lit a cigarette. I remember the steadiness in her hands, the elegant way she moved her lacquered nails, a turn of the stereo knob, a flick in the wrist for the Bic lighter, a relaxed V-shape in her fingers; experience. She wore a white cotton shift and oversized shades. She was nursing a hangover and needed me to drive. She never said this, thinking I was still too young to recognize a parent needing the help of a child. Instead, she said It’s time you take the wheel.
I was nervous. We were on the 440, a wicked washboard dirt road that had caused at least ten of my thirty cousins to crash at one point or another. The corners were sharp, the road narrow, and the shoulders soft; hugging them meant the car would be sucked into the treeline. I wanted driving to come naturally to me, the way it did for my parents, my brother, and most of the boys in my family. I was tired of my uncles sitting around our cabin fire in flannel shirts with torn sleeves always sure to point out the fact that it’s the women in our family who crash. I wanted to be like my mother; respected for growing up in a house of boys, expert handler of whiskey, and a complete natural with the clutch.
I don’t remember much of what followed, only that I must have killed the car four times and almost sent it into a ditch. I do remember becoming frustrated, almost crying with irritation while my mother said quiet and annoying comments. Stop grinding the gears. If you kill this car one more time, we will have to walk. Put in the fucking clutch. And then, when’s the last time you watched someone drive stick?
It was a simple question; I grew up watching my parents in an automatic, and my friends didn’t bother learning on a stick shift even though most of our parents insisted on it. Then I remembered Zak Quappe.
Zak, a boy—and I’ll always say ‘a boy’—four years older than me, drove stick like a NASCAR driver and he liked to show it off. Somewhere between the ages of twelve and thirteen, I sat in the back of his piece-of-shit Toyota going over a hundred miles per hour, screaming my head off. We were young teens taking advantage of the only road in Cayman that permits a speed limit of fifty (not that it mattered). The road was slim—one lane traffic—with ocean on one side and a tropical forest on the other; our options were drowning, an encounter with another vehicle, and crashing into a palm tree. I remember thinking I would never get into a car with Zak again, how I was too smart to die in a reckless car accident, and how I loved the feel of one hundred mile an hour wind. Most importantly, I remember leaning forward in order to grasp the back of the passenger seat and yell for him to slow down because that’s when I saw his feet; smooth and effortless. He was shifting his way back to second and I saw the rhythm. Breathe in: prepare, breathe out: clutch, breathe in: shift, breathe out: release clutch and ease on gas; over and over until we were going a steady twenty-five, his eyes back on mine, his mouth saying “wasn’t that wild?” And then I’m kissing him, he’s the first and I’m kissing him because I’m alive.
I snapped back to my mother and I on the 440 just in time to realize I’d killed the car, again. I heard a jumble of swears from the passenger side, smiled, and restarted.
With Zak’s pattern in mind, I began making progress. My shifts still caused the car to shudder for an uncomfortable second and I was in fear of going over thirty-five miles per hour, but the go-and-stop-and-go jerks were minimal if not gone. I was getting into my groove, turning up the radio, moving my hands this way and that, wondering if I looked cool when my mom leaned over. There are two things you must be on the look for. The first and very particular until you’re legal are the troopers. The second and most important no matter what age you are, are the deer.
Her voice was soft and it scared me. I put both hands back onto the wheel. To be honest, I had forgotten about the possibility of hitting an animal and with the sun drifting closer and closer to the horizon, it was deer-hour. I began sliding my eyes back and forth across the road. I was tense. Back and forth, back and forth. Cops don’t scare me. Deer do.
Before I was on the 440 that summer looking back and forth and back and forth, I was still riding around with Zak. I could always count on him for a lift; he liked me and I abused it, called him to pick me up from other boy’s houses and drop me home without even a kiss on the cheek as a thank you. His manic driving never changed, but my desperation to get away from my parents did. I could try and explain the complexity of living with parents who do not love each other yet do not get a divorce, but that’s another essay. You just need to know that fourteen-year-old me had it all figured out and knew how to play games well. So it’s with shame I tell you, reader, that I made a bet with Zak on a game of pool knowing his love for the pastime, knowing his competitive nature, and knowing it would get me out of the house. He did not know that I had been playing pool with my father long before I was taller than a cue. Zak took me out and got obnoxiously drunk when I won. And it was at three in the morning, sitting next to a drunk and angry driver, that I realized I did not have it figured out. I was pleading with Zak—which happened more often than not—to let me out of his car when I saw the stationary blue police lights ahead meaning one thing: roadblock. We were doing 80 in a 30. My eyes were going back and forth, taking in the scene of the officer standing in the middle of the road waiting for us and we had nowhere to go but forward. Zak didn’t even think to slow down and we came so close to the officer I thought we’d run over his feet.
I think that was a roadblock I managed to say in a surprisingly calm voice. I was beyond shocked. My mind went into overdrive thinking about getting caught, my parents, going to jail? Would I go to jail for being in a car with a drunk driver? I didn’t know. I looked back to the officer, watched him shrink into the distance, and waited for the car to come after us. I saw the officer remain in the middle of the road, saw his flashlight pointing in our direction and then back the way we came from, back and forth. I saw him do it multiple times. And while coming to the magnificent realization that the officer was too stunned to move, there would be no pursuit, Zak decided to throw the car in reverse and back us up until we were face to face with the officer again. There were open beer bottles in plain view. It was almost late enough to be early.
The speed boi. Why yuh nah watchin the speed? The officer had a thick Jamaican accent and was shining a light directly into my eyes. Zak, suddenly sober, went into some elaborate story about our nonexistent relationship and how I was going to be late for curfew and if he didn’t get me home my father would murder him (somewhat true) and on and on and on until the officer interrupted him with wild hand gestures saying GET HER HOME BOI, GET THE GYAL HOME. So Zak pulled away while I shook in my seat and then I was laughing until I was crying and crying until I was laughing again. I thought about how the men of Cayman will always pump a girl’s gas, hold the door open, get a girl home on time. I thought about how sexist Cayman is and how thankful I am for it.
The progression of thought between my mother’s driving lesson and Zak aren’t as smooth as I wish they could be. You see, reader, I thought of him on the 440 not just because he reminded me of how to drive stick, how to lie through my teeth, how to kiss, how to act older yet my age all at once, but because I had received a plain and simple text telling me that he died in a car crash two days ago. He was going 110. The thought of it made me want to start shifting in the smooth way I remembered him doing, pushing our reasonable car into an unreasonable situation just to see what would happen. I didn’t. Instead, I kept an even and safe 45, scanning my eyes back and forth, back and forth. I watched the sun dip far below the treeline. And when my mother said headlights I turned them on just in time to see the wide dirt road, the lush green trees, a dead and bloodied deer pulled lazily off to the side.