Why Your Mother Can’t Drive
Your mother can’t drive because when all her high school friends were getting permits, she was an undocumented teen with a MetroCard but no I.D.
Your mother can’t drive so she takes you from place to place on a yellow bike. When you were smaller, you rode in an attached bike trailer with a five-point harness. Now you ride straddling the padded rectangle on the rear rack, a cushion made of your mother’s old scarves. You rest your helmeted head on the curve just below her nape, wrap your arms around her waist, and she pedals.
Her speed: twelve miles per hour. Your comfort: the smell of sweat off her back.
Your mother can’t drive so she and your father have bought a condo in what the realtor called “a walking neighborhood.” Your school, the urgent care clinic, the post office, the supermarket, the bakery, the dentist, the CVS with a full pharmacy, the skate park, dog park, community pool, and soccer field, the one Filipino friend who speaks your mother’s language, the café where she writes, the salad place where she meets her writing students and clients, the bar your parents whisk off to when Mimi is in town to watch you—they’re all within a two-mile radius.
Your world: this circle. Her world: life on two wheels.
Her world: life on two wheels.
Your mother can’t drive so she can’t chaperone field trips, can’t pick you up with a gang of friends for an after-school playdate, can’t queue up in the carpool line. She parks her bike behind the bush outside your classroom, waves at you from the other side of the gravel parking lot, and signals to you when it’s safe to cross. “Is that your mom’s bike? Are you biking home with your mom?” your friends ask most days. “So cool.” But when it rains, the other moms roll down their windows and say, “Y’all need a ride?” Your mother refuses, always. “No thanks,” she says, then zips up your rain jacket, then hers.
Your protection from the afternoon showers: a shell of pink, heart-print, waterproof material. Her shell: having survived poverty, hunger, an abusive mother and stepfather, a monsoon, a deteriorating mansion, and the belief that she needs nobody’s help.
Your mother can’t drive so when you forget your project at home, she bikes just slightly faster—thirteen miles per hour on second gear without slowing down at speed humps—and balances the two-foot-wide and one-foot-tall cardboard installation on the bike handle, clamping it with the inner sides of her arms and holding it down with her chin. She says “fuck” when the chopstick antenna piece falls off, and “fuck” again when the Scotch-taped sign that says Counting to 100 gets blown away by the wind she’s cycling against. She parks the bike on the curb and searches for your handiwork, and when she finds the chopstick under a bush and the crayoned sign in the gutter, she dusts them off with the back of her hand and holds them with her teeth before she mounts the bike again. She rides like this, trying not to slobber. She arrives at the school and your teacher meets her at the front door, lets her in, asks what she’s brought with her, and when she replies, your teacher says, “Oh, it’s for Thursday. Not today.” So she bikes back home and does it again, your project trapped under the weight of her chin and the weight of her invisible handicap, and again on Thursday, when the project is due.
Your words: I’m sorry. Her words, though you know the truth: It’s okay.
Your mother can’t drive because when all her high school friends were getting permits, she was an undocumented teen with a MetroCard but no I.D. She couldn’t register for driver education at school, just like she couldn’t register for the SATs, the internship program at the job fair, and the state-sponsored writing contests that her English teacher said she should join. She was adopted into the U.S. two years prior, at age fifteen, but her adoption papers weren’t finalized by the judge until she had turned seventeen, when she had aged out of her naturalization benefits.
It’s not so bad, she thought. There’s the bus and the Subway. And New York is a walking city.
Your mother can’t drive because when she tried to learn, she was six months pregnant with you, and it was 90 degrees in her new home state of South Carolina. She told your father that the brake and gas pedals were hard on her swollen ankles and that the Camry’s leather upholstery made her sweat. “Too hot, just too hot,” she said. But what she didn’t say was that sitting in the driver seat and holding on to the steering wheel made her heart palpitate; that she was sweating not because it was hot out—the AC was set on high—but because her stress hormones were rushing and triggering increased blood flow, and she was sweating because being behind the wheel made her feel like her stomach was on fire and she had to perspire to release the intensity, lest she overheat, and that all she could think of in the moment was Fight or flight, fight or flight, drive or die. Mama, the road. Mama, there’s a car. Mama, they’re right behind us. Mama, there’s a gun. She cleared her throat, opened the car door, peeled herself off the leather, and stepped out. Your mother left an imprint of her sweaty back on the seat and her sweaty fingers on the steering wheel. And there, too, she left flashbacks from fifteen years ago.
It’s not that bad, she thought. It’ll go away. Must be the hormones. I’ll try again when the baby is born.
Your mother can’t drive because when she tried again, you were a newborn who didn’t like to sleep. She was tired and sobbed frequently; her crying alternated with yours. She cried in the shower, in the rocking chair, and in bed. She thought it was the isolation—the loneliness that came with early motherhood. So she put you in your car seat, determined to get out of the house that day—to Target, to Wal-Mart, to her friend’s house, to any place with people. She carried you in the plastic contraption that weighed thrice as you, but that weighed no less than the dread that clogged her throat and chest. She limped out of the condo, down the hallway, and through the parking lot, the way parents do when they carry around a car seat. But she also limped the way sick and weak people do, when suffering from illness, an injury, an accident, or many accidents. She opened the back door on the passenger side of the Camry, and maneuvered the car seat onto the base until it locked in place. And as soon as it clicked to latch, you wailed. Your mother shook her head, and said, “No, no, no.” She slammed the door shut, ran to the driver side, got in, and buckled up. She put the key in the ignition, and turned back once to check on you, only to be reminded that you sat rear-facing and with the sun shade shielding you from her sight. You kept wailing. She shifted the gear from P to R, stepped lightly on the gas, and, on reverse, lurched, lurched, lurched, until the car had pulled out of its parking spot. The go-stop-go-stop quieted you—the tempo of your mother’s trepidation lulled you to sleep. “Better,” she said, thinking that it was your crying that kept her from operating an everyday machine. She might have even smiled at her reflection on the rearview mirror. But then. As she attempted to hit the gas again, the sweats came, the memories flooded in. She was not with you but back in time, and it wasn’t your cries she was hearing, but hers.
Your mother can’t drive because she believes everything is her fault.
At age three, staring at a seven-vehicle scene on the highway: four sedans and two SUVs crushed under a freight truck. At age four, laying across her parents’ laps in the backseat, her mother’s tears and hair falling on her face, her father singing her awake, her brother saying through tears, “Is she gonna die?” At age nine, riding in her brother’s van as he sped away from cops and nearly hit a street vendor. At age ten, living in the same van with her mother because her father had left, her brother, too, and her stepfather had taken over their house and squandered their money. At age eleven, still living in the van with her mother, who had stopped eating, and who wept with her forehead on the steering wheel, honking at nothing, honking at the storm that whipped the van from both sides, rocking their metal mobile home with monsoon gusts. At age twelve, hiding under the back seat as her mother flailed a gun in the air and Shpping! Shpping! the bullets went through the vehicle’s metal doors.
Your mother can’t drive because she believes everything is her fault. The sedans and SUVs smooshed under the truck was her fault. The head injury was her fault. The car chase was her fault. Living in the van. The crossfire. All her. This is what the trauma specialist, her therapist, has tried to explain to her. “As much as you believe it, it’s not true.” This is what children of divorced parents, of beaten mothers, of fathers who up-and-go believe of themselves. This is also what siblings of dead children will spend a majority of their lives unlearning. Mea culpa. Only the monsoon isn’t her doing. Only the monsoon she can separate from herself, her intentions, her deeds. The rain gives; the rain takes. She accepts this. But cars are different. Cars are man-made. Cars need operating, and therefore, an operator. And she refuses to be the machinist responsible for anything that could hurt you: brown-eyed lover of dolphins, black-haired owner of a canopied princess bed, budding writer of haikus. The rain she’ll let you dance in. But cars, Hmm. Cars could take you away from her, like it took away that and that and that and those, too.
Cars are bad, bad, bad. Cars, bad. You, good.
Your mother can’t drive but she is mobile because of words. She’s been to many places in her mind because of the books she borrows from the library and the books she buys from the downtown bookstore and the articles your father emails her. She’s been to many places in her mind because White was in New England, Didion was in California, Lewis in London, Diaz in Santo Domingo, Ondaatje in Sri Lanka, Hagedorn in Manila, and Adichie in Nigeria. Her list of authors and places continues to grow; her list of fears shortens. She made a hierarchy of these fears once: at the top was killing someone or dying from a crash, and toward the bottom was other motorists giving her the middle finger. She’s learned to bike on the road, near cars, at rush hour, and she certainly has been a recipient of the middle finger. She waved and smiled at the giver.
Her list of authors and places continues to grow; her list of fears shortens.
Your mother can’t drive but she reminds herself that she can do difficult things. She went back to school before you turned two, graduated, and wrote part of a book along the way. She took care of you, worked at two cafés, worked at a candle shop, and finished her book before you turned five. By the time you were six, she had a job at your school, two new book ideas, and citizenship papers she had waited fifteen years to get.
For you, my girl, for you.
Your mother can’t drive but she’s stationary for long periods of time, so she’s been reading about the frontal lobes, hippocampus, hypothalamus, and thalamus. She’s learned so much about trauma, what it does to the brain, what it does to the body, to a child, a mother, a family.
Your mother can’t drive but maybe she can. Last summer she drove a golf cart across a lawn.
Your mother can’t drive but maybe she will, or at least she’ll try.
For you, my girl, for you. ●
Cinelle Barnes is an essayist, memoirist, educator, and candlemaker with a BA in media studies in journalism from Hunter College and a master of fine arts in creative writing from Converse College. Books have been the one constant in her life—through her tumultuous childhood in the Philippines, her years living as an undocumented immigrant in New York City, her time as a new bride living in the American South, and as she completed her MFA program and began writing about her secrets. She lives between two states with her husband and daughter: New York, where she is always inspired to write, and South Carolina, where she can be close to the ocean. Find her online at www.cinellebarnes.com, and follow her on Instagram @cinellebarnesbooks.