I don’t know how to drive. I dodged lessons offered by Papa during high school. The occasional nightmare visits me still, where I crash his Mercedes. I’ve never sat behind the wheel of that car but I know in pristine detail how it feels to destroy it. My head and neck snapping forward, the sickening crackle of knotted vertebrae coming apart. The sound of shattering glass, high-pitched like a shy request. The accordion crunch of metal, the squeal of tires on asphalt, the pebbles, rocks, branches fleeing the scene. Finally, my primal scream pulled from the little ballerina box where I hide unspeakable things.
My husband is very excited to teach me how to drive. He says the Suburban is perfect for teaching, because it’s huge and heavy, with a stick shift—if I can drive this car, I can drive any. I’m told it’s good for men to feel like they can teach you something. It’s important to him, and me, although his enthusiasm is colored by competitiveness. I don’t mind. I want nothing more than for him to feel knowledgeable and thus, hopefully, more confident and secure.
He chooses a winding road up a mountain for my first lesson. The path is choked with snow. The lesson happens spontaneously, like a forest catching fire due to extreme heat. We’re on the way to visit friends when he stops the car and demands I take the wheel.
“Come on, baby. Where’s that famous focus of yours? Let’s see you put your discipline to good use. Go.”
So I do. I wind up the mountain, a wall of rock and snow on our left, empty space on our right. A steep drop, thousands of feet high or deep, however one wishes to see it. I do rather well.
I have nearly mastered driving. My husband is determined to show Papa I can, believing this can be a watershed event, when we bond and I release my fear of him. But I don’t feel I’m ready to drive, not with other lives on the road, nor do I think we can force an epic turning point in our relationship.
“Come on, baby,” he urges with characteristic relentlessness, biting down on his opinion and refusing to relinquish the caught animal. I consent, both Papa and I viscerally nervous. Nearby, my love, I feel you tense.
“You don’t need to,” Papa says. “It’s okay.”
“It’s okay,” I parrot. “It’ll be fine.”
We begin smoothly. The day is clear, the sun is shining, I’ve driven the Suburban and this loop a dozen times. Papa sits behind me and speaks in Bengali.
“Slow down, look at the rearview mirror, signal the turn, slow down, slow down, slow down, you don’t know what you’re doing, slow down.”
My husband sits beside me and says in English, “Speed up, hurry up, push down on the accelerator, signal the turn, speed up, speed up, why are you doing that, don’t do that, that’s not the way to do it.”
Both voices, one nasal, one gruff, contradicting each other, quickly escalate to yelling, devoted to the same cause; to drive me as I drive. Within minutes, we create our effortless norm: distilled cacophony and my acquiescence. Soon, neither man speaks coherently, only loudly, caught in the vortex of his need to control.
I calmly repeat, “Please stop talking. Please let me drive.”
The instant I stray from this tone, all will be lost. I focus my entire concentration on the wheel, the road, imploring myself, Don’t listen, don’t break, don’t let go. As I approach the turn into our driveway, their voices reverberate against the glass. I feel their tag-teamed efforts battle-ramming my chest. I’m struck by a horrifying thought: they’ll stop only if I crash.
I don’t mean to.
But perhaps I do.
I press down on the accelerator. We smoothly careen into an oak stump, three feet in diameter, at forty miles an hour. The tree receives us without any hesitation, the impact unlike anything I’ve felt before or since: a stoic, solid end. We halt so firmly, so casually, the air bag doesn’t explode. My chest slams against the wheel, my hands gripping it still, like a child refusing to unclutch a security blanket.
The doors swing open, the car spits us onto the grass. We spill more than we walk. I buckle in half as if kneed in the stomach, crumpling like a soiled paper plate a person folds without thinking before throwing it away.
I burst into huge, gulping sobs. I collapse onto the asphalt, the pebbles hot and sharp, creating indentations wherever we touch. I’m so scared. How could I have failed them so terribly? They’ll be livid.
Neither man comes to me. They stand a few feet away. Watching.
Suddenly, my husband starts laughing hysterically, so hard he cannot stop, holding his stomach from the effort of his mirth. His eyes tear up.
“Baby, I have never seen anyone cry like this before! I’m sorry, but I’ve never seen you like this at all, it’s amazing!” He gets out his phone and snaps dozens of photos of me, finally unhinged, weeping.
Papa takes a few steps toward me, unsure of what to do, what to say, how to comfort.
I peer through the salt, my eyelashes caked with the dirt and dust of the ground where I burrow. Our combined personalities have orchestrated a car crash. How humiliatingly unsurprising and inevitable.
Humility is the moment you realize your universe isn’t original or special. You’re scathingly human, mostly alone, and now you must stand.
I stand. I scream: “Someone please hold me.”
I cry this with all my might. I’m terrified they’re both furious with me, but still, I scream my plea.
My husband continues to laugh with unwavering enthusiasm. Papa tries his best to hug me, tying his arms around my face and shoulders like a loose, warm swaddle, patting my cheek with one hand.
“Shh, shh, jaan,” he says. I love him so much for this I feel I’ll collapse again.
“I’m so sorry,” I sob. “I’m not perfect. I know that. And you can’t keep yelling at me for it.”
My words shock me as much as they astonish the two men in my life. I feel I have sinned. I’ve exposed a vicious truth known and hidden by everyone. I return to my tangle on the ground.
A few long minutes pass. Papa pulls me up.
“Shh, amanjee.” Little mother. “It will be okay.” It’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard.
My husband continues to take photos, capturing every moment, of Papa trying to hold me up, of the two of us standing in front of the demolished car and the stump. He calls over a neighbor, asks him to take the photos so he can strike a pose. He joins us for another dozen, him grinning, flashing a thumbs up, me weeping, Papa looking stricken. He texts and emails the photos to our families. Momma calls, horrified.
“I’m sorry, Momma. Please don’t worry. Everything is fine. No. I’m not hurt. No one’s hurt. I just. Messed up. Tell me about you guys. Please.”
My brother is with them in Portland. He recently graduated college. He’s visiting Momma and Dad for a few months, for this time between graduation and beginning his corporate job. The wise investment he is, he was recruited straight from school by a Fortune 500. Everyone is so proud. He, too, didn’t learn to drive during his teenage years. Dad has taught him over these past months. My brother wanted time with that pairing of parents for exactly this sort of reason. To feel and do things that escaped us before. I’m so happy for him.
On the phone now, Momma talks about my brother’s achievements and how confident he is on the road, knowing that anything regarding either sibling always raises my spirits. She gushes, I laugh from joy, cry some more. I miss them with a hunger on a cellular level, a longing that travels my veins, replacing my blood. I feel so far away from them, not just physically. I’ve tried tracing when this feeling began. I think I’ve always felt it.
It is evening. My husband asks, “How’re you feelin’?”
“I’m fine. Thank you.”
“It’s okay to cry.”
“Thanks for your permission.” I sound like water turning to ice.
“G’night. Love you.”
“Love you too.”
Of course I do. If I did not love him, who would? Everyone else has left. Who would love these men but me? I close my eyes.
I wake up to his usual morning kisses and playful growls that always make me feel lucky and cherished.
“Wake up, baby. I love you, I love you, I love you. You’re so beautiful when you sleep. So peaceful and young. You’re my little fairy queen. Today will be great, I promise.”
I open my eyes and just this hurts. My whole body throbs with every heartbeat. I sneak a peek under the covers; my breastbone is vivid indigo. I breathe and stretch beneath the press of his body. I giggle despite the bitter ache, still smitten, still susceptible to him.
It’s Papa’s last day with us. We have a blessedly gentle day. We picnic in the field next to the Barn. For dessert we each have an apple from one of our trees, the fruit green and red, speckled with little black freckles. The car is drivable albeit dented and scratched. We drive Papa to the train station. We thank him for making the trip to see us.
“It’s been a wonderful visit,” he says.
“I’m so glad, Papa. Thank you for coming to see us. I’m sorry about yesterday.”
“It’s all right, jaan. You’ll learn to be better.”
My husband slings his arm around me and echoes, “Yup, you’ll get better.”
I look at my men. I smile, nodding in agreement.
Rumpus original art by Sumayya Ansari.
Excerpted from I Am Yours by Reema Zaman. Copyright © 2018 by Reema Zaman. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of Amberjack Publishing.