You are the captain

She is so scared. I can always tell when she’s scared; she has this look on her face, and it’s not so different from the look she had when she was three years old and we were walking through Times Square, and the crowd was overwhelming her. I reached down then and picked her up and slowly the fear drained from her face. She was happy again. I cannot pick her up now. She stares at the monitor, the one that shows who will be called next. D113. C149. E228.

I look at her card again. It is A102.

She doesn’t want to talk. Sometimes, when she gets like this, I can coax her out of it, talk about something comfortable and familiar that will ease her mind. In the days after she had her tonsils removed she was in so much agony and filled with such righteous anger about the unfairness of the world that the only way I could get her to take the pain medicine was to sit with her, hold her close, and recite the names of Barbie’s 12 Dancing Princesses with her.

A is for …

“Ashlyn,” she would say.

Right. Ashlyn, then B is Blair and C is Courtney and D is …

“Delia,” she would say, and she would drink a little of the medicine.

Delia. Edeline. Fallon.

“Genevieve. Hadley.”

I is for Isla. J is for …

“Janessa!” Elizabeth loved the name Janessa.

Then Kathleen and finally …

“Lacey.”

I look at her now and realize that the twelve dancing princesses probably won’t ease her mind. She was 6 then. She’s 16 now. This doesn’t make sense to me. While it was happening it made sense, mathematical sense, birthdays come every year, everyone gets that, she was three and then seven and then 12 and then 16, entirely logical, entirely predictable, and yet here we are, and it doesn’t make sense at all.

She looks at me. She is biting her lip. She’s going to fail again. She knows it already. All her life, I’ve tried to instill confidence in her. How do you instill confidence, anyway? Maybe you don’t. Maybe it is something you are born with. Our younger daughter tends to know that with enough hard work she can make the world bend to her will. I didn’t teach her that. I couldn’t have taught her that because I never felt it myself.

Elizabeth though — she is too much of her father’s daughter. She expects failure. She braces herself for it. The last time we came to get her driver’s license, I told her to believe in herself, told her that she is an excellent driver, a safe driver, and she would get it. She breezed through the driver’s test. She had the license in her grasp. The last turn was a left across a busy street into the DMV parking lot. Cars were racing by, and there was no opening, and she could feel herself beginning to panic. She began to think that the longer she stood at the light, the less that the tester thought of her. And then Elizabeth saw a crack, a chance to go, and against her generally conservative nature, she turned.

“Whoa!” the tester said, a nasty four-letter word for the person who is administering a driver’s test. The tester was apologetic but firm as she checked “fail” on the testing sheet.

After that, Elizabeth had a plan. The kids at school had told her that there was a super-easy DMV; every reasonably sized city in America has one. This was true too when I was 16. The other kids at school would tell tales of this driving place where the tester didn’t care how many mistakes you made, where they would give you the license even if you ran into a tree during your three-point turn, where they would take you for pizza test and ask you to just pretend like you had been tested. The super-easy DMV was a good hour from our house. Elizabeth desperately wanted to go there.

We did not go there. There were no openings there, for obvious reasons. Instead, we came here. The hardest DMV driver’s testing place in town.

“Well, it’s the only one where I could get an appointment,” Elizabeth’s mother said. Well … yeah. There are plenty of openings here. This is the DMV where they give you the vision and street sign test while the other places just blow that stuff off. This is the DMV where they make sure to put you through the whole thing — three-point turns, U-turns, crossing traffic, weave through a cone slalom course at top speed, chase down Vin Diesel, make the car spin out three times and then have it skid neatly into a parallel parking spot.

She is so scared. This is about more than the driver’s license. It always is. This is about adulthood. This is about freedom. It’s easy to forget those contrasting feelings of being 16, the ferocious hunger for independence and the quiet but persistent wish to stay a child. Hold on to 16 as long as you can, John Cougar Mellencamp told us. Also he suggested suckin’ on chili dogs outside the Tastee Freez.

“Elizabeth,” a woman says. I look over to see the tester. It is wrong to judge anyone on first glance; however, it is clear from first glance that Elizabeth drew the sternest person on planet earth. We don’t use the word “stern” often enough. This woman looks like she was an actress hired to frighten teenagers. She is of an indeterminate age; I would believe her if she claimed to be 35 or 96. She looks like she barely remembers her last smile, not only because it was so long ago but because it’s a haunting memory she has suppressed. The tester begins to walk out the door without saying a word with the obvious expectation that Elizabeth would follow her. Elizabeth does follow and, as she heads out the door, she looks back one last time. She is so scared.

Elizabeth later told me the tester did not say a single word to her except “Please get into the vehicle.”

They are gone for a long time, much longer than the last time. I do not know if this is a good sign or bad, but I suspect bad. There used to be a football coach saying that when you throw the football, three things can happen and two of them are bad. As I do the calculations in my mind, there are three logical reasons why they are out so long:

1. As is this place’s reputation, they give a thorough examination.

2. Elizabeth hit a mailbox and they are repairing it.

3. The test is actually over, but the tester has been lecturing Elizabeth for the last 15 minutes.

Two of these are bad. The other one isn’t necessarily good.

Finally, they walk in. Elizabeth still looks scared. The tester tells her to have a seat, she will be called up in a moment. Elizabeth walks over and says, “I think I failed.”

“Why?” I ask.

“Well, I was doing OK. But then it came to that last turn, just like last time. And there was a lot of traffic. And there was an opening and I kind of panicked and I said to the tester, ‘Should I go?’ And she said, ‘Do not ask me that. This is your vehicle. You are the driver.’ I think I failed again.”

I nod. Confidence. How do you instill confidence? I think about how disappointing this is, how badly she wants to take that next step to adulthood, how dumb it is to ask the DRIVING TESTER if she can go. Panic makes dumbos out of us all. After a few minutes, we are called up to carry out a postmortem of this fiasco.

“Elizabeth,” the tester says. “You are a very good driver. You did everything well. But, as I told you in the car, you cannot ask anyone if it is OK to go when you are the one behind the wheel. When you drive, you are the captain. Do you understand?”

Elizabeth sadly nods.

“OK,” the tester says, and then she does the strangest thing. She smiles deeply. It is like she turns into a whole other person.

“You pass,” she says. “You will be a very good driver, Elizabeth. Just believe in yourself.”

Elizabeth doesn’t get it at first. She stares blankly at the woman. And then she looks at the testing sheet, and she sees the word, “PASS!” written across the comment section, exclamation point and all. And with that, she starts to shake a little and her face blows up — it just detonates — and she lets out a sound I had never heard before, something like “MEEP!”

This happened four days ago. Each day since, Elizabeth has asked me for the keys to my car so she could go (1) buy groceries for Mom; (2) take her little sister for frozen yogurt; (3) pick up a friend and go to the mall; (4) pick up pizza for the family; (5) just drive around the neighborhood. I do give her the keys, this girl whose diapers I used to change, this girl I used to sing to as I rocked her to sleep, this girl I used to scoop up and carry when we walked in New York, this girl I read the Harry Potters books to, this girl … no, not a girl, not anymore.

And it hits me. It wasn’t Elizabeth’s scared face I was seeing as she waited to take her drivers’ test. It was my own.