The only thing my father ever set out to teach me was to drive a stick shift car. He did that because he was stuck—there was no one else. I was seventeen and had just bought my first car. I bought it during the two weeks I spent at his apartment that summer. Since I didn’t know how to drive stick shift, the only way I would be able to move my car out of my father’s parking spot and take it home was if he taught me how. A prospect neither of us looked forward to.
In the parking lot of Emmaus High School, my father told me of the clutch’s purpose and how and when to shift gears. Then we got out and switched seats. It was July. The car didn’t have air conditioning. I’d been sweating ever since I realized the difficult position I’d gotten myself into. My father was a perfectionist. If you couldn’t do something right the first try, he had no use for you. I never seemed to do anything right, especially on the first try. That’s why I never learned to work with my hands like him. Down in the workshop he had in our basement when my parents were still together, I learned that he wouldn’t let me help him make whatever it was he was building, the outdoor bench, the birdhouse, the kitchen chairs. “If you want something done right,” he once told me as he took the screwdriver out of my hand, “you got to do it yourself.”
The way my father explained it, I was to press down on the gas with my right foot just as I was taking my left foot off the clutch pedal. That’s what I did. The car bucked forward then stalled. “What the hell,” my father said.
He told me to start the car again. “Now listen to what I’m saying,” he said and repeated the same instructions he had given me two minutes before.
So I tried it again, and again, and again, and the same thing happened. Every time the car violently staggered then stalled. “What the hell is your problem?” my father said. “You keep doing that and you’re going to flood the engine.”
“I can’t do this,” I said. “I should’ve never bought this car.”
“Too late now,” he said. “Start it again and this time do it right.”
By then every pore in my body was a gusher. Not to mention that a severe headache had begun to squeeze by brain. I always got a headache when I felt like I was under pressure. Sometimes just being with my father was pressure enough. I often got headaches when around him.
I started the car and sat there looking out the windshield and wondering how I could be doing exactly what he instructed me to do and somehow manage to screw it up. I knew that if I didn’t get it right this time, my father would kick me out of the driver’s seat of my own car, the car for which I had borrowed five thousand dollars from my grandparents to buy, the car that I now despised.
I was right. The car bucked and stalled and my father told me to get out. He’d had enough.
This time I had flooded the engine. He had trouble starting it. “You see,” he said. “I told you this would happen.” Finally, the engine roared to life and we drove around the parking lot burning off the gas my incompetence had let enter the engine.
My father looked at me. “Are we finished for the night?” he said.
“I don’t ever want to do this again,” I said.
He gave his you’re-ridiculous-and-stupid laugh. It was the same laugh my mother cited as one of the many reasons she’d divorced him, not to mention the ulcers he gave her.
I looked out my window knowing that I was both ridiculous and stupid. I usually felt ridiculous and stupid in my father’s presence.
We drove in silence. At a red light on the way to my father’s apartment, I watched his feet work the pedals. When the light turned green and he moved the car out into the intersection, I said, “Hey, wait a minute. You told me that my left foot had to be off the clutch before I pressed down on the gas. That’s not what you do. Your foot’s still on the clutch when you press down on the gas.”
“Huh?” he said.
We came to a stop sign. He moved the car forward. “Look,” I said, pointing at his feet.
Never one to admit that he could be wrong about anything (another reason my mother said she divorced him), my father said, “You didn’t hear me right. This is what I told you to do.”
“No, it’s not,” I said. “No, it’s not. Now I know what I was doing wrong—because you were teaching me wrong.”
My father didn’t respond. He didn’t look at me. He drove as if he hadn’t heard me, or as if he were alone in the car.
That night I lay on the floor in the living room of my father’s one bedroom apartment (my sister got the sofa) with the peculiar feeling that I’d learned something important. I just didn’t know what it was.