It was Bozeman, Montana, in 1975. I was driving my boyfriend’s Plymouth Duster, bright yellow with a sexy black racing stripe that followed the curve of its bodylines. He’d taught me to drive in that car, and I loved it. Not bad for a girl who had just finished ninth grade.
I stayed with my older brother at the time. My parents had moved to Missoula, leaving me behind with Brother Steve. I had no idea what the future held, but when does that matter to a ninth grader? The sun shone, my stoned friends laughed, and David Bowie sang from the 8track. I was living my best life.
I’ve never understood what happened next. Suddenly the car fishtailed, brakes screaming, tires smoking until my foot remembered how the brakes worked. The only evidence was a trail of four S-shaped black skids on the west end of Bozeman’s Main Street.
Driving ever-so-slowly, I crept down Main to the gas station where my boyfriend worked, and parked the Duster. My friends left the car, swearing it wasn’t my fault, it couldn’t have been my fault, no way was that my fault. I was shaking all over as I solemnly returned the Duster’s ignition key to my boyfriend, the key he’d presented with more flourish than the ring I wore to signify our togetherness.
I didn’t drive again for months. It was time to pump the brakes.
I’ve taught three daughters how to drive. Each had her own set of challenges behind the wheel. One was too anxious, so she rode the brakes. Another wanted to be told what to do long past the point when she should have been making her own driving decisions. She ignored the brakes until I told her to apply them.
The other daughter was emotional behind the wheel, speeding up and weaving through lanes when she was happy, jerking the steering wheel and jamming her foot on the brake pedal when frustrated.
After a particularly dangerous display, I yelled at her to pull over. I delivered my judgment in a cold, harsh voice. “You are not allowed to have emotions behind the wheel. It’s dangerous.”
“What am I supposed to do with them?” she cried.
“Whatever you have to,” I said. “Just don’t drive with them.”
We paused driving lessons for a week. It was time to pump the brakes.
There was a heat wave in my city that week, and everything was overloaded, including me. I was out with friends after a writing class, in an actual bistro, in person. All this felt new, precious, as had all social events since the spring of 2020. After recent bout with Covid-19, I was recovered, out and about again, basking in my temporary immunities.
We ordered fancy cocktails and delicious small plates. My expensive cocktail was absolutely delicious, but it hit me hard and I felt a little embarrassed. I drink so little that my tolerance is always low. Covid had only made it worse. Was I going to talk too much?
Our food hadn’t yet arrived when the server came by and asked if we were ready for another round. My friend raised her hands, palms out, and gently gestured. “I think I’d better pump the brakes.”
It wasn’t just me who found the cocktail potent. This pleased me, reassured me. I was even more pleased with her gentle miming of the metaphor.
Not long after, the power went out on the entire block. We sat in the darkened bistro, suspended in waiting, but our food arrived. We ate and talked, soaking up the drinks and each other’s company. No more cocktails came to our table. Thankfully we all had enough cash to settle our bills, since the registers were down. Two of us had to drive home.
We were relieved to pump the brakes.