After looking left and right, and right and left, I pressed on the gas pedal and slowly inched forward onto the road. The streetlights offered a decent amount of brightness. My hands tightly gripped the steering wheel and I gave myself a mental high-five for remembering to check each rearview mirror. Aunt Jenny came to pick me up after work and let me drive home since I needed the practice. The backseat was filled with some of her kids so I put in extra effort to drive carefully.
Up ahead a cop car turned onto the road, driving towards me. He blinked his headlights. I straightened in my seat. There were no other cars behind me. Was he signaling at me? A few seconds passed as the distance between our cars closed. He flashed the headlights again. I looked at Aunt Jenny.
“Why is that cop flashing his headlights?” I asked nervously.
She leaned over to verify my speed limit. “Hmm, everything seems fine. We’re buckled up, you’re driving 25, are your headlights turned on?” I fumbled with the knobs until I found the correct one and switched on the lights. Oops!
The cop was flashing his lights for the third time right as my headlights came on. Suspicious at the delay of such a simple task, he turned on the red and blue lights and did a U-turn right behind my car to pull me over. Oh no! I slammed on the brakes and abruptly pulled over to the side. My heart began to race. I watched through the rearview mirror as his door opened and a tall man in a dark police uniform stepped out to walk over to my car.
“Good evening,” the officer greeted me after I finally managed to roll down the window. He had brown hair and appeared friendly. “I noticed some trouble with your headlights so wanted to check everything out. May I see your license and registration please,” he requested.
Aunt Jenny quickly gave me the paperwork. With my hand trembling, I handed it over to the officer. He waited. “And your driver’s license?”
“I… I’m not 16 yet. I…I don’t have one,” I stammered.
“Excuse me? Then why are you driving?” The officer peered into the backseat of the car. “Who’s all this?”
“These are my cousins. This is my aunt.” I motioned towards the passenger seat.
He looked at me with an exasperated expression. “So. You don’t have your driver’s license. You’re driving with somebody who is not your parent. You have a full car of people, who are kids! Wow. Well, at least show me your learner’s permit.”
I gulped. “I’ll have it in a few days. I just started Driver’s Ed and applied for the permit. It’s supposed to arrive in the mail any day now.” I wondered what would happen to me. Can a person get arrested for driving without a license?
The officer sighed loudly and looked around as if trying to remember what to do in this type of a situation. I bet he didn’t have a lot of experience with minors driving cars illegally.
“What is your name?” he finally asked, after pulling out a tiny notebook from his pocket. “Spell that, please. And your last name? How about the address? What is your aunt’s name? Her address please. You live with your aunt? Where are your parents?”
I told him that Dad died a few years ago and that Mom just died a few months ago, so I live with my aunt and uncle. The officer inquired about previous addresses where my family lived.
“Oh hold on a moment. Was it the yellow house by the Post Office?” he asked.
I nodded. Yikes. Was this guy psychic?
He took a deep breath. “I was one of the officers who responded several times to the emergency calls when your dad was being taken to the hospital.” He paused. “What a rough time you had to go through. No. I don’t want to add more problems to your life. Here’s what you’ll do. Get out of the driver’s seat, switch seats with your aunt, and have her drive you home. Don’t drive anymore without a driver’s license. OK? Good luck in life.”
And just like that, he shoved the notebook into his pocket and quickly walked away. A shaky sigh of relief escaped from Aunt Jenny’s mouth. We switched seats and drove home.
I didn’t enjoy school anymore. I doodled in my notebooks and skipped classes. It wasn’t as glamorous as I had imagined it to be. Sometimes I would skip a class and end up spending time in the library reading or chatting with friends. One time my friend and I had a chance to skip for a whole day, where we got a ride to the mall half an hour away. Now that was exciting. Instead of sitting in class we walked around the stores trying on clothes and eating junk food. After we walked out of one of the stores, my friend did a little victory dance. She showed me the contents of her purse and I saw a cute pink skirt that she had been trying on moments earlier. I stared at her.
“When did you have a chance to go to the register?” This didn’t make sense at all. She grinned. “I didn’t!”
No, this can’t be right. “How is it in your purse?”
She kept smiling.
“Did you steal it?”
She closed her purse and started walking. I caught up to her. “What is wrong with you? Why? Your family is rich! You have enough money!” This was followed by a string of colorful words that are not appropriate to write down.
Our friendship was never the same after that incident, and since she had been my best friend at the time, school became more of a dreary chore.
When I was at home, I felt weird. It didn’t feel like the home I had grown up in. It was way too quiet. Most of the siblings were gone. There were no more braiding hair competitions. There were no more chocolate and tea parties. The collective sound of voices of all my siblings was gone. I missed the rambunctious toddlers who ran up and down the stairs and always got in the way. I missed the games of tag we played in our downstairs living room. I closed my eyes and replayed the game in my mind. My heart pounding from running, I’m racing to the laundry or kitchen “safe zone” where I could rest for a minute from the person who was “It”. Catch my breath, and keep going. It was our entertainment. We had fun. The lively squeals and thunderous bumps against the walls from all our games sometimes got us in trouble. Then at other times I was the one annoyed; I needed to do homework and it was too loud.
Now at this house, it was a lot quieter; I could do as much homework as I wanted to. I didn’t have to constantly cook or babysit or clean, just keep my room tidy. I didn’t need to help anybody with his or her homework or projects, or sign the take-home sheets from school. Everything that I had done didn’t need to be done by me anymore. Aunt Jenny managed her kids and her kitchen and the rest of the household. I felt utterly useless.
My thoughts would drift back to my best memories of Mom. They usually involved something in the kitchen. We sat around the kitchen table and she showed me how to roll up cabbage rolls. I questioned why pieces of butter needed to go between each layer of the cabbage rolls and her answer was “Well, because butter makes everything taste better!” We had dumpling evenings too. For several hours we mixed, cut, and rolled pieces of dough into round flat disks. Then we filled them up with meat and pinched them together into perfect little dumplings. She taught me how to pound chicken with a tenderizer “just-so”, and didn’t get upset when I kept mixing up the order of dipping those chicken pieces into flour and then an egg wash before dropping them onto the skillet.
All these memories brought tears and I couldn’t make them stop. I hated it. It made me angry. Why did God allow this to happen? Why couldn’t He take somebody else? Lots of families had two parents; why not take one of them? Why take both my parents? I didn’t like being home because those thoughts usually visited me.
Working made me busy enough to not dwell on the sad part of my life. I enjoyed working at the pizza shop. There was an option to have more hours, as long as a legal guardian signed the paper, and my grades at school were acceptable. Sometimes Aunt Jenny gave me a ride, sometimes my grandpa did.
I didn’t like pizza but I learned how to make it like an expert. The challenge was to sauce the pizza, sprinkle the mozzarella cheese, apply the toppings in appropriate measurements, sprinkle more cheese on top, and slide it into the oven at record speed with minimal waste. I became familiar with the regular customers who ordered extra cheese pizzas, and with the odd ones who ordered pizza with no cheese at all. There were pizzas with artichokes and pizzas with anchovies.
I looked forward to my break when I could get a bag of custom-ordered breadsticks: crunchy, warm, with light garlic butter and heavy sprinkle of Parmesan cheese. Since my shift tended to be until closing, the breadsticks dipped into marinara sauce became my regular dinner. If Grandpa picked me up, I would drive home. Exhausted from the long days, I fell asleep quickly at night.
This school and work schedule became a stable routine. That is, until I got my driver’s license…
[image above taken from Little Caesar’s website]