The Enduring Haunting of a Failed Driver’s Test(s)
The greatest shame of my young life was the first time I failed my driver’s test.
I had never failed a test in my life, despite the fact that my Pre-Calculus teacher frequently left for 60 minutes of our 80 minute period and never really closed the loop on what radians are. How could I possibly start failing now?
Ever the dutiful test-taker, I had studied the night before. I was up and down the side streets of Brunswick, Maine, testing my parallel parking chops under the direction of my driving teachers: my mother and father.
Over the preceding nine months of collecting my driving hours, I had become used to my parents’ teaching styles, especially when it came to parallel parking. My mother was visual, explaining which lights to align to which mirrors. “It’s easy once you know the cues.” she’d say.
My dad, on the other hand, was always a math teacher first, a driving instructor second. He used his classroom voice to shout angles to help (debatable) us ease the car into its spot, “Forty-five degree angle, forty-five degrees! Now CUT IT!” He’d demonstrate on his phantom wheel, his right foot tapping at his phantom brake.
The DMV was in a strip mall, nestled between Reny’s (A Maine Adventure) and some local prom dress emporium. My mom accompanied me to the test to offer the same moral support she offered during my vaccination and blood work appointments over the years. Also, probably so she could get a good deal on Green Mountain coffee beans at Reny’s while I took the test. (That place has EVERYTHING.)
I know it’s a hack to make fun of how dysfunctional and cold DMVs are, but seriously, those places are a half-step above an abandoned warehouse when it comes to seating and vibes. Their only investment seems to be the TV screens that play looping videos convincing you to become an organ donor or warning you about the dangers of moose-involved collisions (this was Maine after all).
My test administrator was a middle-aged woman with stringy, straight blond hair that hung limply at her shoulders. She was dressed in navy blue from head to toe with what I assumed was a taser attached to her hip. She was pleasant, if a little robotic in her delivery. Every request slipped from her lips in a bright monotone that I would most closely compare to the title character from the seminal Disney Channel Original Movie, Smart House.
I took my driver’s test in my family’s white 2000 Toyota Camry, adorned with its Obama 2008 stickers and competing decals from my older brothers’ universities. I had already picked out the anti-Fox News bumper sticker I would add to the collection from the Socialist bookstore downtown. In the parking lot, I demonstrated to the Robot Administrator that the car was safe to use. Left blinker. Right blinker. High beams. Low beams. Brake lights. My dad had overridden the ever-present “Check Engine” light that morning, so we were good to go!
After I turned left out of my parking spot, she began to direct me, her voice never dropping out of its breathy robotics.
“Parallel Park here.”
In the throughlane of the strip mall parking lot, she had set up a car, a blue sedan of some sort, with a piece of poster board propped up in the rear window that read “CAR IN USE AS A PART OF DRIVER’S TEST.”
I inched up towards the car, hearing Mom’s cues in my head. Line up with the car. Reverse. Turn the wheel when your mirror lines up with the back driver’s side handle. Straighten your wheel when the mirror lines up with the rear lights. Keep backing in. Now—Dad’s voice this time—CUT IT!
As it turns out, I could not cut it.
I pulled next to the car. I decided to inch forward to make sure I was perfectly lined up – mirror to mirror, cheek to cheek. The next three quarters of a second of my life passed in slow motion.
My mirror, a brilliant white, scratched along the sapphire blue mirror of the parked car, transferring a little white paint like a subtraction sign written in chalk.
“You hit my car,” she chirped, her voice unchanged. I had, I will remind you, not even left the mall parking lot.
What I did next was not my best move. I laughed. It was, really, somewhere between a chortle and a guffaw, a way for my horror to escape my body.
“Is this funny to you?” she asked like a Smart House that was about to turn on you.
“No,” I said through another uncomfortable laugh trapped in my throat. I sat frozen in the driver’s seat, my hands glued to the wheel.
“You need to get out of traffic.” To call the Topsham Fair Mall’s parking lot “traffic” was a compliment to its sparseness, but my obedience put the car back into gear, completing what was an otherwise flawless parallel parking job in a blind panic.
“A collision is an automatic fail,” the test administrator announced, as she pulled out the testing rubric.
She checked the box announcing my failure and checked the reason: “Driver involved in a collision with…” Below, she selected the nature of the collision, gliding her pen over “Object” and “Person” before she scratched a check in the box next to “Other Vehicle.” She signed the page before directing me back to the parking lot. Just another 2 right turns to go back from whence we came. She handed me the piece of paper to send to the state to request a reschedule. It would be in a folder somewhere in Augusta forever. Meghan E. McGuire failed her driver’s test due to a Collision.
The word collision feels so strong. A collision is something you crane your neck at on the highway, not something that could probably be remedied with a damp washcloth. I prefer now to think that I failed my test due to a minor abrasion. But there wasn’t a minor abrasion box on the form.
At Twelfth Night rehearsal that afternoon, I insisted through gritted teeth to my friends that this would be a good story some day.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. Every couple of minutes, just as I was slipping off to sleep, I would shock myself awake with the thoughts You failed your driver’s test in 3 minutes and you hit her CAR, you idiot. When I closed my eyes, I saw the half a second before my mirror scraped against hers, starting the shame spiral all over again. I had practiced and practiced. I had studied.
I am not someone who makes mistakes.
I am not someone who fails.
My car had made a fool of me.
I considered that maybe I shouldn’t get my license at all. My parents could keep picking me up from late night tech rehearsals forever and would not hate that at all.
But, after wallowing in my failure for a moment, I stuck my request for a new test date in the mailbox, raised its red flag, and said a little prayer to no one in particular.
If I hadn’t already hit a car on my first driver’s test, then maybe confusing my left with my right on my second try would have been more horrifying.
“Oh, I said, left…” the Bear of a test administrator said as I confidently flipped on my right blinker in the middle of downtown traffic. Yes, I made it out of the parking lot this time, if only because we didn’t do parallel parking first.
“Oh, I– yeah.”
I finally managed to pull a hard left across Maine Street (yes that’s a street name pun), braving two lanes of traffic on the wide street that lumber workers used to roll logs down to the paper mill.
I failed again, but not because I still had to hold up my fingers in a L to tell my left from my right. I failed to parallel park. Last time, I was too close, and I didn’t dare make the same mistake again. This time, well, Bear Man opened the passenger door to reveal the curb a full two feet away from the car.
“Does that seem close enough to you?” He asked.
I laughed. Girl, stop laughing. I laughed and said, “Yes?”
He let me try two more times. And still, the curb was just out of reach.
Another stamp on my permanent record. Failed. My sense of worth came from “A” on the top of papers and gold stars on report cards and little comments about me being a pleasure to have in class. How could I fail? By the transitive property, does that not make me a failure?
I won’t belabor the point. I passed on my third time with the kind Mustache Man, who led with positive reinforcement, which was all I needed to glide seamlessly into a parallel parking spot.
“You’re a hesitant driver,” Mustache Man said as he signed my temporary license. “You will need to be bolder.”
Reader, I did not get bolder. When I faced the open road and, more realistically, the Brunswick High School driveway traffic jam, I grew more afraid. Over the bum bum bi dum of Q97.9 Portland’s Number One Hit Music Station, I could hear the perfectionist who lived in my brainstem whispering, “You could fail. You have failed,” and so I took the long way to avoid highways and left turns and parked fifteen minutes away from my destination just so I wouldn’t have to parallel park. This was my attempt to prevent any car-related failure in the future.
Things have gone wrong. I must prevent things from going wrong. It is the only way.
Cars are all potential energy, parked innocuously on the street and in driveways, full of possibilities of what could go wrong, from everyday inconveniences to life-altering catastrophes. Things could go wrong while the steering wheel is gripped in my sweaty hands. There are some tests that you can’t study for – and I will do anything to prevent another failure on my permanent record, even stop driving all together.
Which I did for a while. Even if it meant I couldn’t go to the grocery store or had to take a bus to a train and then back to another bus to get to a friend’s apartment. I would rather inconvenience myself than risk failure.
As of April 1st, I am the proud owner (pending twenty-four monthly payments) of a used Honda Fit, after four years without a car in Chicago. The only way to park in Chicago without paying four hundred thousand dollars for a spot of dirt that some landlord called a “parking spot” on Craigslist, is to parallel park somewhere on the grid of streets, battling other beat up used cars, permit zones, and the piles of snow in the winter and the street sweeping schedule in the summers.
Today, I was driving home from my friend’s apartment, and the whole drive home, as my speakers blasted my sad lesbian playlist, all I could think about was parking. The old what ifs came back. What if I don’t find a spot? What if I find a spot and I just can’t get the angles right to get in it? What if someone stops to watch me park? What if cars line up behind me as I try to park? And worst of all, what if I fail at parallel parking again? What if all of my knowledge about the act of parking suddenly falls out of my brain? Will I just circle the block forever wondering “What if” until I run out of gas?
But what if everything I did wasn’t a test I had to pass? What if I just drove somewhere and then drove home?
Meghan McGuire is an essayist, screenwriter, and playwright. Her TV pilot The Way Life Should Be was a quarterfinalist for the Slamdance Screenplay Competition, the WeScreenplay Diverse Voices Lab, and the Page International Screenwriting Awards. She holds a BA in Theatre from Denison University and has studied at the Second City, The Annoyance Theatre, and the Neo-Futurists. Meghan is currently an MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction at Antioch University-Los Angeles. Born in Alaska and raised in Maine, she followed her passion for cold places to Chicago where she lives with her anxiety-inducing cat. Website: meghanmcg.com