If you ever carpool with me, I should probably ride shotgun.
When I first started driving in high school, I was really, really bad. I waited until I was 18-years-old to get my license. At that point, it was to have it more because I wanted to get to my friends’ graduation parties rather than simply drive. My mom would print out a Google Map for every location but still that didn’t work all of the time. It once took me 50 minutes to get to the mall that I’ve been going to for my whole life.
An upside of learning to drive in the suburbs was that my “bumbling driver” persona wasn’t ever much of an issue. The extent of it was either my friends poking fun at me when I would have trouble pulling into a gas station or my younger siblings (without permits at the time) electing to drive instead of me.
I got a little better by the end of the summer before freshman year of college, but I couldn’t continue to practice once I got to school. I came back during break and drove again, as if I had pressed a reset button. This was the norm for the next several semesters. I had two weeks of a break between my time in London and LA. Over in England, I was used to using the Tube every day.
So renting a car for the LA semester was of course going to go well.
It was, unfortunately, necessary. I’m not accustomed, should you say, to the way in which LA is set up – I thrive on walking. I became accustomed to walking for at least two hours a day while I was in a city. Some days, I was going for six pushing on seven hours. And I loved it, despite the fact that I would sometimes wear out my friends and learned how to better read social cues. In LA, though, the most walking that I did was to and from my car.
In LA, people drive to go to a Starbucks if they’ve left a Coffee Bean that they didn’t like (something that I admit to doing). People also don’t use turn signals. People also don’t merge until the last minute. People also don’t slow down.
In LA, you have to constantly be watching which lane you need to be in because at any moment your exit could come up and you’ll be defying death by crossing over four lanes in four seconds.
I hated it.
I hated every moment of driving in LA. I was enjoying getting to know the city but boy, I turned into a toddler throwing a temper tantrum every time I got into the car. I hated it so much that I would listen to music in the car to distract myself from my hatred, which was a dumb idea in the first place because that’s one of the many things that created my anxiety about distraction.
The day before my accident, I finally thought that I was going to be okay. I had gotten into a fender bender a few weeks before but I thought, That’s it. That’s all it is. Just a fender bender. I’ll be able to know what to do to avoid that.
I was going to test myself.
I drove down to Amoeba Music from Universal City during rush hour – and I had gone on the 101. I even drove down into Amoeba’s basement parking garage without a hitch.
Why would I defy danger, dare you say? Well, I just had to see the Silversun Pickups play and write about it. It was important. I would drive during rush hour into Hollywood for a band.
I was fortunate enough to be one of the last groups of fans waiting outside let into the store. I watched Brian and Nikki from the band play an acoustic set of songs featured on their Singles Collection and they played “Lazy Eye,” my favorite, for the last song. I thought, This is all that rush hour is. That’s it. I’ll be able to know how to drive to see and find music anywhere.
The day of the accident was the first day that I felt the bravery to explore. I missed just going around places and seeing different shops and areas. I passed my normal coffee shop that I would stop at after class and went down to Magnolia Boulevard instead – a cool strip of different restaurants and boutique-y sort of places. My destination was a record store that I hadn’t been to yet.
Not seeing a free parking lot, I parked along a side street.
I got out and walked around. Record store, different food places, an old recording studio facade. It was starting to get cloudier and less aesthetic outside so I was done after about a half hour. I got back in the car and turned on the Swoon album by Silversun Pickups. I was still glowing from that experience from the night before: that song, my favorite place in LA, that band, my confidence about driving that I never thought I would have. “Substitution” began to play. It was the first song that ever I heard by the band and I was in the mindset of thinking of where I had come from and how far I had gone.
I pulled up to the stop sign. I looked right. I looked left. I looked right again.
There was a road like this back home but this… was more than that. Cars were zipping by and every block it looked like there was a stoplight so traffic was always coming and going. I had to make a left. I waited and thought I had a window of opportunity.
I started to turn.
I looked left again.
There was no mistake, I was going to get hit, driver’s side.
Fortunately, I had enough time to swerve the slightest so my body didn’t get the impact. I waited for it and felt the hit.
This was different from the bumper-to-bumper crunch that I had heard before. This was a tin can being smashed and I was in it. I hit my head on the top part above the window, missing the glass.
The car stopped and the crunching sound was over. I was still in the car. I wasn’t bleeding. I was okay. I was okay. I was okay.
“Hey. Hey you’re okay.”
I was alone but I needed someone to tell me to pull myself together.
“Hey, you’re okay. You’re okay. You’re okay you’re okay you’re okay. You know what you need to do? You need to get to the side of the road okay. You cannot freak out yet. You can’t do it. You gotta hold on just a little bit more. Try to see if you can get to the side of the road.”
As I attempted to floor it, the car sputtered along and several drivers sped past me.
I glared at them, fuming at the fact that I was in a place where this was normal.
I managed to drive my battered car to the parking lot that was right next to the road in front of a maintenance shop.
I got out of the car and looked over to the other driver. She looked to me, her eyes thin from squinting through the cloudy sunlight.
“Excuse me? Ma’am?” the other girl said.
Ma’am? Did she just call me ma’am? I was probably younger than her.
“Ma’am, you’re going to need to get over here and call the police.”
I hadn’t done a police report before. The fender bender was just exchanging names. I didn’t know how to do a police report. I have to call the police?
I weaved through traffic and met up with the two other drivers.
“Is everybody okay?” I asked. I was weak in the knees and I am sure I looked pretty weak as well, the way that I get when I talk to people who intimidate me.
“Stand up straight, Claire,” my mom would always say.
“Well, the seatbelt was really tight on my chest,” the other girl said. “So I’m a little winded. But neither of us are bleeding.”
“My leg hurts,” the driver said, limping to walk closer to us.
“Oh my gosh, oh no… I must have not seen you… I mean… this is awful…”
“I’m going to call the police so they can file a report,” the driver said.
“Okay… okay I’m going to call my parents,” I said.
I sat on the curb and prepared for the call that no parent ever wants to receive. My crying stories aren’t always a laugh riot for my mom, but this was something that no one wants to hear.
“Hello Claire!” Mom said, her voice upbeat as normal.
There wasn’t any way to lead in with anything. I had to just go in.
“Mom, I just want to let you know that I am okay and that no one got seriously hurt, but I was in a car accident and the police are coming.”
I can’t really remember much of what I said afterwards. I was crying hard and my parents were asking detailed questions of the scene.
“Do not say you are sorry,” Mom said. “It is up to the police and the insurance company to decide who is at fault. You do not have to say you are sorry.”
I’m so used to saying sorry though. I’m sorry that I forgot the milk. I’m sorry that you didn’t make the play. I’m sorry that the rental car is totaled.
The next few hours happened, long and monotonous. I called home intermittently with more information that I received over time. The cops showed up and squared off the part of the street that had debris. They asked us if any of us were hurt and we all told them about how we felt.
“We’re going to need paramedics just to check you all out,” the main police officer said.
I sat down along the curb and balled up.
I’m relieved whenever people tell me that I am over-exaggerating or freaking out over nothing because then I can make those feelings stop.
So when I was scared and I was right, I felt hopeless.
The paramedics came and fortunately my wish was granted.
“Do I have a concussion?” I asked, hyperventilating on the curb.
“No… but don’t work yourself up like that,” said one of the firefighters.
They were silently standing in a circle around me. I felt like I was a bleating sheep and the farmers in front of me were wondering why it was making so much noise.
“Seriously, you’re messing with your internal system. Stop it,” the firefighter said.
After calming myself down to a level of mild sanity, I called my friend to come pick me up.
I once was in a fender bender with my mom on the way to high school. I was late as per usual with getting ready in the morning. It was snowing and we turned left onto the main road and we were going along and we heard a crunch. The next several months my mom had to deal with the insurance companies and the driver and going to court, which was just a pain in the neck for her and it was because of me.
The other mom calmed the girls down as I was sitting on the curb in front of the firefighters practically in spasms and she had to be there to make them feel better because of me.
When my friend came, she didn’t see the car since it had been towed already and the other driver and passenger had left with their mom. She didn’t mind driving me back but it wasn’t something anyone really wants to do. You don’t want to hear that someone you know gets in an accident. But I couldn’t think of anyone else at the time that would be available and know what to say to me. I didn’t know her then as well as I do now, but I knew that she wouldn’t blame me the way that I was blaming myself.
In her car, I was crying. This was the first time I had shown this side of myself to her. People don’t really know me until they know that side to me. It’s a gamble to show people that side but sometimes I don’t know how to control it.
She comforted me and she said something that helped me more than I think she realizes.
She said, “Oh Claire. This is just part of your charm.”
And it was just what I needed because then I could laugh at myself.
She dropped me off in front of my apartment and told me that if I needed her that she’d be there for me. I went inside and I was so happy to not be in a car. I was so happy to call my mom in a place that I knew.
I called the insurance company and then I ate Skinny Pop and watched It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. I went to bed and I could pretend that it didn’t happen, just for a little bit, while I slept.
When I woke up, the problem was still there. I needed a car.
The first time, after the fender bender, I drove into the Enterprise parking lot thinking that they were going to just notice a few scrapes. The Enterprise branch manager, a calm, professional woman with a comforting smile, met me outside and we walked around the car.
She pointed to the front and said, “Your hood is crunched.”
I crouched down and then I saw it. I’m so bad at cars that I don’t even know how a car is supposed to look.
So I got a new car after the fender bender and I started to feel better and I went to the concert and then I got into the accident and this time I showed up with nothing.
I was barely holding it together as I walked in that morning but I was fortunately in my pre-crying stage. I’m better at holding myself together when it comes to having to interact with strangers. I’m fantastic at work. I’ve never cried before, not like how I would cry during school. I came close a few times and maybe I’ve cried because of work when talking about it, but when I am on the job I am on the job.
I sat with someone – I can’t remember his title but he seemed like he was in charge of the claims or something – and he looked the report and went through a myriad of details about what I should do about getting a new car and what to do with the old car.
I told him, “It already was towed.”
He asked, “Did you use our service?”
I told him no because there wasn’t anyone on the line that late at night.
And he got frustrated.
But this isn’t the sort of frustration that I needed to hear because in that moment I thought I hadn’t made a mistake. The night before, I talked to the police officer and he gave me a number to call and I used that because I just wanted to get back to the apartment.
He explained how that now because I didn’t use the service, they had to track down the car in some random impound and how this made things more difficult. I was being scolded and this poor guy didn’t know whom he was talking to, not like my friend.
So I started to cry.
I cried in the Enterprise and Yoga pants-wearing So Cal visitors looked over at me, just wanting something to drive. Claims Guy felt bad about this so he apologized and started to speak to me in a softer, warmer voice. Then, the branch manager walked out of her office and held up a nearly empty plastic casing.
“Do you want a cupcake?”
Now, I’ve always loved cupcakes. I can’t tell you how many I ate while I was in New York. Her asking added to the bizarreness of how I was feeling already.
I laughed and I ate the cupcake while there were still tears coming down my face. Claims Guy did his best to stay focused on deliberating the information as I stuffed my face with frosting and looked like a wreck.
A young employee with a bright smile and almost cartoonish amount of energy led me to the Enterprise van so we could pick up another car from a different branch.
“It’s so nice to meet you! Where are you from?” he gushed.
The ride over was so pleasant that I temporarily forgot about everything. I was just happy gabbing about the industry and how we were so relieved that we weren’t in other parts of the country during this particular winter.
Once I was set up with the new car, I managed to get myself safely back to the apartment.
There still was enough time in the morning to go to work.
I could go. It’d help things feel normal again.
I repeated this in my head maybe fifty times. Then I stopped lying to myself.
I called my supervisor and explained the situation.
“Oh my gosh,” she said. “No, just rest and come back tomorrow – or you can take off tomorrow if you need to. Seriously, do not feel like you have to push yourself.”
For the remainder of the semester, I didn’t get into another car accident. I made sure to give any last details to the report. I made sure to come on time whenever I did the monthly check-up at Enterprise. The branch was always happy to see me.
“Hey there! It’s so good to see you!” they beamed. “It’s so nice to see you smiling. How are you?”
I’d smile and think, I totaled your car but I’m okay with this.
When I returned my car at the end of the semester, they even said they were sad to see me go.
“We always have a few students from those programs in the Oakwood that we get to know, and we’re so glad that we got to know you!”
I laughed, thinking how strange but wonderful it was for these people to be so welcoming. I have some friends that wouldn’t be nearly as accommodating.
The branch manager stood up from her desk and came to the front, holding a brownie for me. The entire branch and I laughed about it, as if it were the end of an I Love Lucy episode.
The young employee drove me and a few other students back to the Oakwood so the airport shuttle could take us to the airport. I waved goodbye to him and I don’t even think it would have been weird if we hugged.
I waited in the lobby and the shuttle finally came. I got in and sat down and started my journey to the airport. Someone else was driving.