Everyone has those moments that seem to have a permanent residence in their memories. Snapshots from days gone by. Mental photographs that remind us of who we are and what we felt at a moment in time where we were shaped, where we were formed. Their first kiss. A cherished moment with a grandmother. That first surge of triumph, of accomplishment. A warm family memory where, for that moment, the universe and everything in it made sense because you felt the purity of love beating inside your chest. Most of these memories are tied to those closest to you. To family and friends, those still here and those who have gone.
There is the rare one though, the rare one of these memories that are caused by a stranger. By another soul that brushed by yours and left a mark forever never to be seen again. Nothing drastic. Nothing life altering, in the grand scheme of things. Nevertheless something resonated on a deeper level that won’t let go. Nothing profound but something permanent.
I’m 17 years old, a senior in high school, and heading out to a student driver lesson. My friend Dave has had his license since he was 16 and a car so the pressure to get my license as soon as possible wasn’t really there. Not only that, between school and sports, I didn’t have a ton of time to devote to driving school but Mom thought it was time so here I go.
The instructor is an older guy named Eric. He’s a bit heavy, bald, and with thick, almost coke bottle like glasses. I say almost because they are huge and I’m pretty sure coke bottle glasses need to be smaller than whatever he’s got. Eric is a nice enough guy but also seems to have a bit of a short temper. I guess I would too if I had to deal with a bunch of 16-17 year olds who are only there so they can get to the promised freedom that is a driver’s license in America. Roads to roam and a mobile, private room away from the watchful eyes of concerned parents.
There’s nothing special about this particular lesson. Eric shows up at my parent’s house in the training car in the morning. It’s a fall Saturday just north of Boston. The air is brisk as I step out the door but the sun is shining and there is a pleasant breeze that seem to carry the sweet-rotten smell of decaying fallen leaves.
I get in the driver’s seat as Eric has his clipboard in his hands, a large iced coffee from Dunkin Donuts claiming both cup holders between us. We exchange good mornings. I’m not much of a talker in class or on the road with Eric. There’s enough personalities in my class that chipping in would only help to disrupt and slow down our lessons even further than its already impressive, crawling rate.
We cruise through town. Eric’s only tapped on his brake a time or two early in our drive and both prematurely in my estimation. Nothing like my first couple lessons where it seems like he was braking more than I was. After we make it through a rotary, Eric visibly relaxes, seemingly happy with the progress.
Around this time Eric says that we’ll be picking up another student who lives a town over. I wasn’t surprised. Eric has told us his system for lessons where one student drives for a bit then picks up the next student. The former student then drives back to their home while the latter becomes an additional passenger. Something about simulating the responsibility or what not. Honestly, I think its just to save Eric time but who am I to question? My previous lessons I had been the second leg student so I figured it was only a matter of time before I pulled the first shift.
We pull up to a brown house sitting midway up a hill. I can’t see the front door as I’m parked and the stairs going from the newly paved driveway ascend above the roof of the training wheels Corolloa. I hear a door shut from above and then see her descend. Well, most of her.
She has straight, just below shoulder length brown hair that shimmers in the mid-morning autumn sun as she gracefully makes her way down the stairs. She’s wearing a brown opened sweater, revealing a tight pink shirt and an athletic body, with jeans and white sneakers. I can’t see much of her face though. Only a glimpse as she’s getting in on Eric’s passenger side, my view obstructed again by the roof of the car but I can tell. She’s beautiful.
I feel my heart thump in my chest immediately. What ‘expertise’ I had in the realm of talking to any women, let alone beautiful ones, was relegated to bumbling around in AIM chats or getting rejected by a since-Freshman-year crush who then dated one of my friends a year younger than me. To say the least, I was forlorn in the romance department and my 17 year old mind was already crashing fantasies and possibilities together at a hormonal rate akin to a tornado’s rotation.
“Tyler, you can pull out now”, says Eric. I’m confused by the phrase and the look on his face that says he’s issued the go ahead more than once. I feel my face flush as I hurriedly, but not too hurriedly, put the car in reverse. Behind me, I hear a wonderful laugh.
What’s strange now is that I don’t remember anything about the drive from her house to mine. I can’t recall her name. I’m not sure what we talked about exactly as Eric made introductions. All I remember is she was wonderful. She was funny, she asked me questions and seemed genuinely interested. I’m sure we talked about school, probably our hometowns. I think we talked about what sports we played. I even remember an almost throaty purr in her voice as she said I could drive her around anytime as we came back through the rotary. I remember beaming inside and out.
Then it was over.
I’m sitting in my parents driveway. I still don’t know what her name is. What had we been talking about? I still haven’t looked at her face. I try to sneak a peek through the rear view mirror but its an imperfect view of her forehead as she’s opening the backdoor. Eric is saying I did a good job but all I hear is a buzzing in my ears and now that thumping in my chest. I don’t know who she is. Will I see her again? Should I say something? Ask for a number? A screenname? Did we already and I just wasn’t paying attention?
I’ll never know why I did this but as these thoughts were racing through my head I was already robotically getting out of the car and preparing to walk towards the red door that adorns the front of my parent’s home. Simultaneously panicking at my lack of retention and basking in the glow of my emotions, I never even ask for her name for fear of exposing my addled brain. It was almost as if there were two of me in that car for that conversation. One controlled by the mind and the other by the heart.
I get out of the car and she’s staring right at me. I still can’t tell you what she looked like. I simply don’t remember. All I remember is teeth were a resplendent white and her eyes were the deep hue of amber. I can only look for a moment before I turn away and begin walking towards my door and away from this oppressive, aching feeling. My chest feels like its going to burst.
“I hope to run into you again”.
It’s her. That voice. Something in it shoots through me like electricity. Burrows its way into my center through my ears.
“Me too”, I say over my shoulder. It’s all I can manage, my mind stammering with an overload of desire and glee and terror at feeling so enamored so quickly. I keep walking, my steps feeling jerky and wobbly.
I feel a flutter, as I’m three steps away from my home’s front door when the sudden urge to turn and walk back to the car hits me. To ask for her name, for her number, for anything that will lead me to get lost in conversation with her again. To feel like I’m floating. To be lost in those eyes and that smile.
I realize I’ve been staring at my shoes for the whole journey from the car to the front door. How long have I been standing here? A moment of panic strikes me as my mind recoils at the thought of not getting a last look at her. My head snaps up.
The car is slowly backing out of the driveway. Eric taking what I can only imagine is healthy pull from his lukewarm ice coffee. The glare reflecting off the windshield as sunlight filters through the trees overhead keeps me from getting a clear view of her. Despair grips me as I realize I’ll probably never see her again. Had I imagined everything in the car? Was I just a jumble of hormones and heartache that I invented the whole thing? That was it. Just some stupid fantasy from a loved starved, young romantic letting himself fall into a fugue of premature admiration and….
Then I see it. As the rays of light cascade downward a flash of a wry smile pierces me like a dagger. She had enjoyed the conversation, she had enjoyed talking to me, just as much as I had enjoyed talking to her. It was fleeting, it was momentary, and because I was awestruck by her it was final but all that did was make the encounter all the more beautiful.
Shadows and Eric blocked my view after my glorious glimpse as she backed out of the driveway to the left and then drove down my street and out of my view forever. I smiled to myself, still outside my home, basking in the glow of I don’t know what and not willing to go inside and shade myself from it. The wind blew the crisp autumn air, swirling dead leaves around my feet but in that moment it felt like everything was about to blossom. It felt like spring.
If this memory was in a book I would have worn the corners of the pages long ago. It pops in my head periodically and causes nothing but quiet smiles to cross my face every now and again in one of those thousands of private moments we have each day.
I never saw this remarkable young woman again. I never tried to track her down. Something about tainting such a precious memory seemed profane to me, even back then. She became a personal myth, a sacred story, a tale not to be altered or disturbed by the romantic bumbling of a young man inexperience in love or relationships.
I think deep down it was because I know this meeting in a student driver car was not an emotional awakening for her. Was not this earth shattering, life memory that would stick with her for a decade and longer. Would not be a dog-eared page in her autobiography of memories. That was the magic that I didn’t want dispelled. That is the magic that has kept it bookmarked for so long.
It’s that magic that makes me say thank you to her, even today. I’ll never know who you are. I’ll never know your dreams, your fears, your loves, your hates. I’ll never trace the line of your jaw with my finger tips or feel the brush of your hair under my chin but all of those feelings, all of that intimacy I felt pour into me in that one gesture. It helped a 17 year old young man more than you will ever, could ever, know.
Thank you for giving that young man that one, last glance.