The Brakes

I learned how to drive on a 1973 VW Microbus with a manual transmission. My mother’s patience was a thing of legend so she took on the task of teaching me. For years already, whichever kid sat in the passenger seat was allowed to shift when she put in the clutch, so I had some experience there. 

Now, in addition to all the steering and signaling, I had to also get used to putting in the clutch whenever I braked so I wouldn’t kill the engine. For a while I avoided braking as much as possible, rolling through stop signs when no one was around to see. Because once I was stopped and needed to start again, it meant navigating the dance between clutch and gas pedal, letting out the former while pressing on the latter in hopes of having them catch at the right time for a smooth acceleration. A smooth acceleration was also a thing of legend. It didn’t help that while I was fussing with these two pedals I was unable to depress the brake to keep the car from rolling. On flat ground this wasn’t much of an issue. On hills it was another story.

For hills, my mother taught me – tried to teach me – how to use the handbrake to buy myself some time while attempting to move the car forward. The idea was to engage the handbrake while the clutch was in and, as you felt the accelerator more and more likely to take over, you eased off the handbrake. In this way, the brake kept the car secure during that vulnerable transition. I never got the hang of it and instead got good at being lightning fast at letting the clutch out and pushing down on the gas pedal.

***

I dated Mark casually off and on in high school. College and grad school took him out of state, but whenever he returned on a break, I’d plan to see him. Then, when I was 27, overnight he became interesting to me. We began writing letters to each other, and suddenly I saw behind the veil. Before our correspondence, I would have described him as intelligent, and self-contained to the point of aloofness. Now I was coming to know him as someone with not just an intelligent mind but a lively one too. Once, he wrote that while he dozed on the couch, he thought he heard his roommate shuffling cards, only to find out later the guy was loudly munching Captain Crunch cereal. 

I also came to know him as someone with feelings, and some of those feelings were for me. He said they were strong ones. So strong that, were he not bound to graduate school in Austin, he’d immediately return to Oregon to be with me.

I was 27 and had nothing going on more compelling than declarations of love.

“I want you to move here, but I feel I should warn you. If you came,” he wrote, “you’d be on your own a lot. I don’t really have friends. And I work every day.”

It was difficult to imagine myself into the world he described. How much could someone work, really? And surely no one has no friends. I moved to Austin.

It is possible for a person to work most waking hours. This single-mindedness can make friends feel unnecessary. I convinced Mark to return home each evening for dinner, but then he headed back to the University and his work.

I got a retail job, joined a women’s support group, and hunkered down in the Texas heat.

Months passed. I was unhappy. I loved him. I didn’t understand why, if he loved me, he couldn’t make more time for me.

Once, we drove from Austin to Portland to visit family. I had trouble getting enough sleep on the 45-hour drive. I would drive, and then Mark would drive. Along one stretch in Wyoming, I convinced myself while I drove that I could rest my eyes now and then.

During one tearful fight – Why wouldn’t he spend more time with me? Did he understand that my friends half-seriously thought I was making him up because they hadn’t met him yet? Why wouldn’t he come to therapy with me? – he said to me through clenched teeth, “I told you how it was; I was honest with you.”

For the three years we were together, often I’d dream I was in the microbus, stopped on a steep hill, a line of cars behind me. To the left, the land beside the road rose steeply upward. On the right, no guardrail, just a gentle grassy shoulder and a precipitous drop beyond that. I pulled on the handbrake but it was old or damaged somehow and kept slipping. I yanked on it harder, trying to release the clutch at just the right moment, to propel the car forward, but I couldn’t get it right. With each attempt, I moved, not forward, but backward. It was essential that I not hit the cars behind me. I turned the wheel and continued a slow slide toward the drop off.

7 comments
  1. Wow! I felt a lot of tension, and mutuality, reading this. It really evokes a feeling of place and time. Those car dreams on a hill, I’ve had them! That feeling if heartbreak

  2. Thanks, Lake. And, yes, those car dreams on a hill! Yikes!

  3. Polly Pitsker said:

    Wonderful to see you writing again.  You slid backwards but you ended up in the right place, I think.  I enjoy reading your writings.  Hope you and your family have gotten over the illness that hit you at Thanksgiving.  Love you.  Polly

    Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPad

  4. Dee said:

    Hi Katrina, I was tense the whole time, not about your love affair which seemed low on gas from the start, and destined to run out, but the shifting on an hill with no guard rails. A very good story!! Thank you!

  5. Kelly Gabriel said:

    I thought you were writing about learning to drive a stick. Instead you took us, the readers, on a wild ride. My heart plummeted as I read the final paragraph. I even felt tears escaping. This piece definitely needs a follow-up.

  6. Kathy Moss said:

    Beautiful writing! I can imagine your mom as a patient driving teacher. That dream was pretty vivid and symbolic, wasn’t it?

  7. Brita M. and Dennis C. Gould said:

    Thank you for sharing this. The contrast between the two scenarios is quite startling. i remember you sharing these themes but it’s a whole different experience to see how you’ve filled them out in writing.

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