There are lies you tell yourself and then there are the ones you tell other people.
I’m not against doing either.
It’s funny. We grow up hearing that lying is bad, maybe even a sin under the roof you grew up in. We judge people who get caught lying, while we hope our own kids tell the truth.
Then one day, you realize that lying isn’t actually the worst thing you can do. In fact, people are doing worse things all around you.
You start appreciating how handy lying can be. Sometimes, it’s a damn good coping mechanism to get you through the day and onto the next.
So you pass that point of no return.
Some of us pass it sooner than others. I probably passed it far too early.
“I want to get my driver’s license.”
I was 16 when I said this to my parents…a few months into my junior year at Brooklyn Technical High School.
I was, by medical standards, of average height but overweight. But I rocked a frizzy Korean poodle perm, circa 1992, like nobody’s business. Thankfully my puffy curly bangs covered my forehead acne but in reality, they probably caused my extra horrid breakouts.
My glasses, however, were my lifeline because without them I was borderline blind. My father always blamed himself thinking I’d inherited his poor eyesight, but my mother was quick to blame me.
She did that a lot.
But she was 100% convinced that I’d caused my own eyes to go bad. You see, as a little girl, my love of reading had led me to read books by flashlight under the covers at night—way past my bedtime. I’d always thought I was so clever, having found a way to slurp up more words inside stories I loved losing myself in.
This went on for years. Years.
My trusted flashlight shined bright by night as I turned pages upon pages through my favorite books. And then one night, at the dinner table, my mother asked a seemingly innocent question.
“Our flashlight is missing. It’s been missing for a while. Did one of you take it?”
My mother asked this in Korean, because she refused to speak English at home (never mind that she’d waited so long to bring up the missing flashlight).
I remember how she’d looked back and forth between me and my little brother, Jun Young.
I was 10 at the time, and Jun Young was only 3. The question was clearly meant for me.
“Flashlight-y flashlight-light-light,” my baby brother had repeated in a sing-song voice.
“No,” I’d answered, scared.
She stared me down accusingly.
The big spoonful of rice I’d just shoved into my mouth had felt so dry and punishing all of a sudden.
My father thought nothing of it, smiling at me, as he put a piece of meat on my empty spoon. His eyes twinkled behind his coke-bottle glasses. I could never do any wrong in his eyes.
My mother dropped the subject and the conversation was forgotten. I continued my night-time reading for a whole year after that until one night, my bedroom door flung open. It was my mother!
She flipped on the light and threw the blanket off me in one fell swoop like she’d been practicing that move all her life.
I sat there paralyzed. She’d caught me in the act—80 pages deep into Judy Blume’s Forever.
Her screaming woke up my sleeping brother, who shared a room with me. My father came stumbling down the hall. He’d left his glasses on his nightstand he was in such a rush to see what the commotion was all about. Squinting, he tried to assess the situation.
Well, I got my flashlight confiscated that night. But not my book, even though my mother tried. My dad had put his foot down, squinty-eyed and all.
You’d think I’d committed an actual crime or sin before God. My mother insisted I had.
She recited the Ten Commandments to me right then and there, her voice extra shrill when she got to the part about parents blah blah blah.
“Honor thy father and thy mother.”
This wasn’t the first or last time I’d heard it.
In Korean, of course.
Because on top of lying to my mother at the dinner table a year ago (which she reminded everyone of), I was also guilty of ruining my eyes by reading in the dark. She wouldn’t stop yelling about that. It was a really big freaking deal to her, so it became one for the rest of us.
After school the next day, she marched me to the “eye doctor” and lo and behold, he said I needed glasses. The good doctor wasn’t convinced that it was because of my flashlight reading, considering my dad’s eyes were pretty bad.
And, you know, genetics…
But my mother would have nothing of it. She was right, and no doctor could convince her otherwise.
So I got fitted for glasses at age 12.
They felt like a damn punishment.
Alas, 4 years later, and with different glasses on, I showed up bright and early at 7:15am for my first Driver’s Ed class. I was to meet my instructor at the northeast entrance of school, which happened to be a massive school.
My father had been happy to plop down a few hundred bucks so I could get my driver’s license. My mother, not so much, because she preferred to keep me under her thumb (for reasons I understand now).
But everyone else my age was taking Driver’s Ed. They all seemed so excited about it, rattling off all the places they wanted to drive off to.
Granted I loved going places as much as the next person, but I never felt the urge to drive myself to any of them. In truth, I was kinda terrified at the thought of controlling a moving vehicle.
But I convinced myself that getting my license would make me happy—that the excitement of driving would eventually come over me.
Now there was only one teacher at our school teaching driver’s education, the first and only for that matter. He also happened to teach wood shop.
So we’ll just call him Mr. Woody for the sake of anonymity.
Before I ever got in a car with Mr. Woody, I’d heard rumors that he was missing parts of his fingers. Some kids said he’d lost it “in the war” and some said it was a result of a bloody wood shop mishap in the 80s. Nobody really knew what happened, but they loved making up stories, that’s for sure. Apparently, Mr. Woody’s dried blood was still stuck to parts of the Black and Decker™ jigsaws in the back of the classroom.
“Song. That you?”
Mr. Woody called me by my last name that first day of Driver’s Ed, and every day thereafter. I never minded when teachers did that because it meant they wouldn’t butcher my first name.
Jun, pronounced like the month, June.
And Mi, pronounced like the word, “me.”
But nobody ever got it right on the first try anyway, unless they were Korean.
So, Song it was. And it was, very often.
So into the driver’s side of the car I went, after 3 weeks of sitting in a classroom after school learning about defensive driving.
The heat was on and it was incredibly warm in the car. I was so nervous. My glasses started fogging up immediately with the temperature change. I couldn’t see a thing and immediately panicked, imagining myself driving blind off a cliff.
Even my fingers felt tingly, and then I remembered.
Mr. Woody’s fingers!!!
I looked over at Mr. Woody but my foggy lenses made it impossible to make out anything but a blurry mass.
“Eyes forward, Song! Keep them on the road!”
I snapped my head back and regretted ever signing up for Driver’s Ed.
The truth was that I didn’t want to get my driver’s license. I didn’t want to drive.
But there I was with 9 more cold mornings like this to look forward to with Mr. Woody.
I showed up each time.
Mr. Woody never told me I was a horrible driver but he didn’t have to, just like I didn’t have to ask him what the fuck happened to his fingers. Because, it was true. He was missing parts of them, but only on one hand—his left.
Obviously he functioned fine with the nubs he had. I even got used to them by the time my 10 driving lessons were up.
“I passed. I got my learner’s permit.”
This is the news I broke to everyone in my life a few months later. No exclamation points added, because it was that anticlimactic. And I learned that I detested being behind the wheel.
I’d passed the written test with flying colors (no surprise), and barely passed the road test (I passed by one point).
To this day, I’m probably the slowest driver to have ever been issued a New York State Learner’s Permit.. And I mean literally, the slowest, because the speed of my driving was borderline dangerous to everyone else on the road.
With my learner’s permit I was allowed to drive as much as I wanted—as long as I had a licensed driver in the passenger seat with me—until I turned 18. Then I could get a real driver’s license.
That never happened, and for all the right reasons.
I had no business driving. I was that girl who could not gauge the distance from my bumper to the bus in front of me at a red light. The poor bus stood there before me minding it’s business, and I hit it. Not a major crash, but a fender bender nonetheless.
I was that girl who panicked and let go of the steering wheel more than once, when someone road rage honked at me.
I am also that girl who failed her driving test many times.
“But why won’t you just get your driver’s license?”
Why? I simply do not want to drive. And why must I?
It’s not even about setting a goal or setting my mind to it. Because I also happen to be that girl who’s quite accomplished. Period. And there’s so much more I want to do with my life. But they have nothing to do with driving.
Growing up in Manhattan, it was easy. There’s public transportation everywhere and cabs are a dime a dozen. Traveling all over the world, I’ve managed to get around and see everything on foot and hired motor.
Living in my little town of Evergem just outside of Ghent, in Belgium? Well, there’s a reason I chose to move into my town center after I ended my marriage a few years ago.
I needed easy access to everything (i.e. shops, library, doctors), where buses and trams ran regularly. Plus I now live 5 blocks away from my son’s school, the school that Noah’s attended since pre-kindergarten. He’ll most likely stay there through high school. It’s quite prestigious and ranks high on this and that list, year over year.
And Noah will also have a choice then, as to whether or not he jumps through the hoops to get his driver’s license. By then he’ll have seen what life with me is like without a car, and what life’s like with his dad with a car.
At 43, I have a lifetime of lies I’ve told myself.
The days of saying I’ll get my driver’s license are behind me. As a single mom, I appreciate not having the extra costs and concerns of owning a car. It affords me the extra funds to travel with Noah, and to teach him to (literally) find his own way through life.
Living without a driver’s license isn’t that big a deal. It’s certainly not up there with reading by flashlight at night, according to my mother.
It just takes planning, to be safe and to be prompt, in all your travels great and small.
I quite like living this way.