(a short story)
The summer I turned sixteen, Uncle John offered to teach me how to drive. He did it to my total delight and to the surprise of my parents, who were so taken aback by his proposal that they didn’t object. It was on a Sunday afternoon and Uncle John was having coffee with them in the living room. I came silently out of my room, where I wasn’t doing much of anything, and I tried to sneak out.
“I see you!” my mother said.
“Do you have enough money on you?” my dad asked.
“Young man,” Uncle John said, “are you always in such a rush? Don’t you want to spend a few moments with your cool uncle, to at least say hello?”
“Hello,” I said.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
I told him I was going to the movies with Victor, and Uncle John smiled at me with his usual insinuating glance.
“Are you and this fellow Victor accompanying a couple of beautiful young ladies this evening?” he asked.
“I don’t have a girlfriend,” I said.
“Let’s change that,” he said.
“Johnny,” my father said.
“No, no, no. I know just what he is missing, and I know what he needs. Andy, come here a minute, please.”
Hesitantly, I advanced to the table.
“Tell me, do you know how to drive?”
“You heard me. It is a simple question: yes or no?”
“No,” I said.
“Well, here you have it,” my uncle said.
“Here I have what?”
“You need to drive a car, and the girls will flock to you like birds to a feeder.” Uncle John’s face opened into an expanse of merriment.
I felt stupid. What the hell was he talking about?
“Johnny, what are you talking about?” my mother said. “We don’t have a car, we don’t have the money, and besides, he’s barely turning sixteen. The legal driving age is eighteen.”
“Legal, illegal,” my uncle said. “Don’t worry. I’ll teach him, and I’ll let him borrow my car.”
It was the mid sixties, and owning a car in Bucharest was rare. Letting a kid drive it — unheard of!
“Andy, stop by my apartment tomorrow at four in the afternoon. Young man, I’ll make a citizen of the twentieth century out of you.”
My mother sighed.
I nodded and dashed out of the apartment before she had a chance to say no.
Uncle John gave me four driving lessons that summer and then, being the erratic person that he was, he lost interest and stopped. Yet his lessons gave me confidence. They proved that I possessed an aptitude for all things mechanical, and I mastered the feel of the clutch in the first ten minutes of the first lesson causing Uncle John’s otherwise clunky vehicle to accelerate as smoothly as a boat on a still body of water. Uncle John called me his ‘young Einstein,’ and while his term of endearment was based on a wrong association between the theory of relativity and auto motion, at the end of those four lessons I was convinced I could drive perfectly on my own.
Uncle John’s car was a Dacia 1300 built at the Colibaşi Automotive Factory about one hundred miles west of Bucharest. He used it rarely and kept it parked in front of his apartment building under a canvas tarp, the color of spotted eggshell. In the trunk, next to his toolbox and spare tire, he always kept a full can of gas, a piece of hose, a pack of matches, a candle or two, several Band Aids, a Swiss army knife, a box of crackers, a chunk of very dry salami, and a quart of Slivovitz and one of water in unbreakable plastic jars.
* * *
I was eighteen when I stole Uncle John’s car. My only driving practice until then had been the four lessons, but in my defense, when I did it, I was bored out of my wits.
We had just left a party, Victor, me, and this other guy we called Dimi. It was a birthday celebration for a girl in our class — twenty or more young people crammed into her apartment, her parents relegated to the kitchen. Almost everybody was from our school, so there was no chance of bumping into anyone fresh or interesting. The three of us sat on the sofa, smoking and cracking jokes about the others in the room. We had a couple of beers but by 9:30 the booze was gone and we decided to leave. Our hostess seemed appropriately disappointed, and we did our part: we pretended we had to go study, which was reasonable, since most of us at the time were preoccupied, obsessed even, with preparing for finals at the end of twelfth grade and for college admission. As soon as we were in the street, we started running, jumping, and pushing each other, as if somehow we had just regained our freedom, but at the corner we stopped and lit our cigarettes.
I allowed the magic of the spring night to catch up to me and fill me with a loneliness mixed with unrest. I felt as teenagers do when they drink, but don’t drink enough.
“If we get admitted to college this summer, we’ll have it made,” Victor said, pulling hard on his cigarette and exhaling dreamily.
“In college, you don’t even have to go to class if you don’t feel like it,” Dimi said. “In the mornings I rush to make it to school, and my older sisters just lie there in bed.”
“Yeah, but they go crazy during exams,” Victor said.
“They work hard for three weeks and are free to do as they like for the rest of the semester.” Dimi’s face was long like a doe’s, and a curl of brown hair hung over his smooth forehead. When he spoke of his sisters, he looked away, as if ashamed or confused. I had known him since grade school, but I had never really befriended him, even though we had been neighbors and had played in the same streets for years. Growing up, we had watched his older sisters go on dates. They always dressed to the hilt and looked sexy. If anything, they should have graduated from college some time ago. Dimi shared an apartment with them along with his parents, his grandparents, an aunt, an uncle, and a white Pekingese called Puffy. Last year, an Alpha Romeo parked for several weeks in front of his building, and a rumor started that one of his sisters — not clear which one — was dating an Italian. This was a big deal.
“But what do they like most of all in bed, your sisters?” I asked in the insinuating tone I borrowed from my uncle.
“Oh, fuck off,” Dimi said.
I laughed. We crossed the street haphazardly and walked along a park. A busy avenue ran behind the park, and, from time to time, the rattle of electric trams reached us through the trees.
“It’s Saturday night. Let’s go somewhere and have a drink,” I suggested.
“You guys go,” Dimi said. “I have to study tomorrow.”
“Of course you have to study tomorrow,” I teased him. “You want to be like your sisters.”
“I’m telling you guys,” Victor said, “if we make it to college, we’ll have a wonderful summer.”
“And if we don’t, it’s the summer from hell,” Dimi said.
“Boot camp,” I specified.
It was the law of the land that every young man of age who didn’t make it to college got drafted.
We walked silently into the park and sat on the first bench. I let myself slide as low as I could, stretching my legs and resting my head on the wooden backrest. It was darker than in the street, and, through the treetops, I could see a few stars twinkling in the distance.
“It’s boot camp for some of us, but not for you, Andy,” Dimi said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing, except your daddy being a professor.” His tone turned apprehensive. “There’ll be twenty people or so for every available spot, but you have private tutors, you see? Not to mention that if push came to shove, your daddy could make that critical phone call; I mean, wouldn’t he?”
“You know what? You’re stupid.”
“Guys,” Victor said, “cut it out. It’s a beautiful evening. We have nothing to argue about and if we make it to college, we’ll be on top of the world.”
He was right, of course. In college, there’d be none of this squabbling. I mean there’d be some, but on a different level, and we’d be on our own. If Dimi was getting me a little upset right now, it was because he was onto something. I didn’t know if my father could get me into college with a simple phone call, but he had arranged for two assistant professors to come to our apartment twice a week and help me with math and physics. These were the two disciplines required to get into the Polytechnic Institute, and I was getting better at them and even started to enjoy them a little.
I lit another cigarette. “If I’m drafted,” I said with conviction, “I’ll try to make it into the Air Force. I like flying, and I like engines and gadgetry of all kind.”
“Except they won’t accept you,” Dimi said.
“And why not?”
“To begin with, you have to be in top physical condition.”
“I know, and I am not a cripple.”
“But you’re not a first class athlete either. You listen to your parents and go into engineering. You’ll be okay.”
This guy, no wonder he’d never become one of my close buddies.
“If I had to make a choice,” Victor said, as if to get in between us, “I’d join the Navy. After one year, you serve on a ship and can travel.”
“Like hell you travel,” Dimi said. “All you do in the Navy is get sea sick.”
“Dimi, why don’t you beat it?” I said. “Go home and learn how to live from your sisters.” I dropped my cigarette to the ground and crushed it.
“I mean it,” Victor insisted. “My father told me about this guy whose son had served in the Navy and sailed through the Bosphorus into the Mediterranean.”
“Yeah, and defected in Naples,” I added, “and came back driving an Alpha Romeo.”
“You’re funny,” Dimi said to me. “You’re very funny.” He got up and his figure seemed to shiver in the darkness. “But how do you know that you like to fly? Hey, have you ever been on an airplane?”
“I haven’t,” I had to admit, “but I am good with engines.”
“Yes, I am. I can drive, for example.”
“Now that’s real funny.”
I, too, got up and stood facing him. “No, it’s not. I’ve been driving since I was sixteen. You don’t believe me?”
“No, I don’t,” Dimi said and burst out laughing.
I could have smacked him, really, but I had a better idea. “Here,” I said, “let’s get in a car and I’ll show you.”
“And where will you find a car?”
“Let’s get your Alpha Romeo.”
Dimi waived his hands in a gesture that even in the dark meant he was done talking to me, and turned to Victor. “I’m off. Perhaps I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Hold it,” I said grabbing his arm. “You’re not going anywhere. I know where to get a car. And, Victor, you’re in this, also.”
Slowly Victor got off the bench. “It’s late. It’s time to go home. C’mon, Andy.”
“It isn’t late. It’s barely ten. We’ll go to my uncle, and I’ll get his keys.” I wasn’t thinking straight when I said this, and I wasn’t considering what I was getting myself into, but as the words came out of my mouth, I realized that I couldn’t back out, not now, not anymore, not if I ever wanted to face these people again; and I don’t know what motivated them to follow me — if they had nothing better to do or if they believed this whole thing was a dare when you never blink first or if they actually found the idea of an unexpected and illegal ride in a car you didn’t possess an attractive and crazy adventure, but they both followed me.
We crossed the park without saying much, and then rode the electric tram to my uncle’s building. His car was parked under the eggshell colored tarp, and a pale light shone through one of his apartment windows.
“Wait here,” I said leaving them on the sidewalk, and took the elevator to the 4th floor. By the time I pressed his doorbell my plan was ready.
Uncle John was surprised, even a little agitated to see me at that late hour. He kind of blocked me in the foyer, as if trying to prevent me from going into the living room.
I told him I was in trouble. I said I went with some friends to a restaurant not too far from his place, ordered more than we could afford, and urgently needed some cash. I gave him a sum that was large enough to appear serious, yet small enough that he’d most likely have on him. “My friends are still at the restaurant, Uncle John, waiting for me to return,” I told him. My hands were shaking a little and I kept them deep in my pockets.
“No problem. Just wait here a second and let me look for my wallet,” he said and disappeared inside the apartment.
I stood in the foyer, my eyes fixed on the drawer of a little side table next to the coat rack. I knew that was where he kept his car keys. All I needed was to take one step and open that drawer. I saw his dark overcoat hanging near the side table and a smaller one next to it in a brighter color. A woman’s coat, I concluded. That evening, my uncle was having a little fun.
“Uncle John,” I yelled as I took my one step, “I promise I’ll bring you the money tomorrow morning.” Then I opened the drawer and grabbed the car keys. That’s how simple it was.
Several minutes later, back in the street, I walked to the car with determination. My buddies followed me. I knew that my uncle’s apartment was on the other side, and even if he looked out the window, he wouldn’t be able to see us. We removed the tarp, folded it neatly, and placed it inside the trunk. I sat behind the wheel. Victor got in next to me, and Dimi climbed into the back. None of them made a sound. I turned the keys in the ignition, and the engine started right away. I switched the lights and the blinker on. I touched the accelerator slightly, the engine revved, and I put one foot on the brake pedal and the other one on the clutch. The commands were all coming back to me: slowly I placed the stick into first, eased off the clutch and pushed the accelerator. We moved.
That night we drove all the way to Ploieşti and back, 60 kilometers each way. There was no reason for us to go there, and no reason not to.
At first we were nervous, and we rode in silence interrupted only by my companions’ guttural commands like ‘watch out’ or ‘easy now,’ which were not so much driving advice as a way to release the tension. The three of us were generally good guys, respectful, studious, disciplined young men who went to school and didn’t steal, cheat, fight, or disrupt public order. I had no illusion that my friends knew I didn’t possess a driver’s license — there was no way I could have gone through the process of acquiring one without their knowledge and without me bragging about it. What they didn’t know was how I had gotten the car keys. Clearly, I was responsible for what was happening. I had gotten them into this, and could lead them to disaster. The thought of turning the car around occurred to me a few times, but, of course, I wasn’t going to do it. By the time we reached the outskirts of Bucharest, miraculously, the tension dissipated. Around us, traffic died down to a trickle, and I felt more confident behind the wheel. The mere fact that I had managed to get that far reassured me. My eyes adjusted to the darkness, and I stopped focusing solely on the two pale channels of light from the car’s headlights. I noticed the world around me, shadows mostly, in an unfamiliar perpetual motion. I had ridden in cars and buses, but not having driven them, I had never fully grasped the speed with which the relative position of everything changed. It was dizzying, and also liberating. It was like flying. My fingers stopped clutching the steering wheel, and I lowered the window the way I had seen experienced drivers do and stuck out my elbow. The fresh air filled my chest and washed away the boredom I had felt earlier. It was spring, it was beautiful all around us, and we were moving.
Like the skin of a black snake, the road shone in the headlights, one lane in each direction. I quickly drove by the International Airport and skirted the shores of Snagov, a lake resort famed for villas built there for the lazy weekends of the Party elite, not too far from Bucharest. We crossed wooded areas and open fields, and we ran parallel to the railway tracks. Passing through villages and small towns, I had to be careful because of pedestrians heading home from the pubs. Twice we saw police cars with their lights flashing, and my heart sunk each time. But nobody stopped us, and when we arrived in Ploieşti, I felt totally comfortable and relaxed, and the three of us were in a great mood. I even had the idea to park the car in the main city square and take a short walk before heading back.
The square was illuminated and surrounded by old stone buildings. It was shortly before midnight, and groups of young people were strolling on the sidewalks. I found a public phone and called home.
“Hello, Mama,” I said when she answered, “I’m sorry to call you so late, but the party’s still going. It is very nice, and I’ll be staying for another couple of hours. Please don’t worry.”
She had no reason to suspect anything, and she said, “Thank you, honey, be safe.”
She’d been pestering me forever to call when I was late, so this time I did, and I felt good about it and acting responsibly.
On the way back, when we got to Lake Snagov, I slowed down and stopped the car off the road, on the grass. There was no shoulder to speak of and no guardrail.
“What’s the matter?” Victor asked.
“Picnic,” I said proudly and got out of the car.
The road was empty. My friends jumped out, hollering, and ran to the water. A pale moon reflected off the lake surface. We spread the tarp under the trees, and, to their surprise, I brought out the alcohol, the crackers, and the salami. They had no idea my uncle always kept that stuff in his car. I even tried to light a candle, but the wind blew it out. We ate, drank a little and smoked a few cigarettes. Victor took off his shoes and went to the lake. When he returned, he stood and looked into the night.
“If my sister marries this Italian,” Dimi said, “we’re out of here, all of us. And we’ll take Puffy with us, too, so you know.”
“We want to go to America,” Victor said. “I mean Andy and me. Do you realize in America people our age drive their own cars?”
“No, they don’t,” Dimi said.
“Yes, they do,” Victor said. “That’s how they go to school.”
We heard sirens approaching, and Victor lowered himself to the ground. Being away from the road, we couldn’t see what was happening, except the blue-yellow reflections of the flashing lights projecting over the treetops. I was convinced they had come to arrest us, but the noise faded, and there was silence again — just the splashing of waves at the shore, and the darkness.
“Some big shot with his escort being rushed to his villa,” Victor guessed.
“Makes me puke,” Dimi said.
I had nothing to add.
We jumped back in the car, and I drove to my uncle’s where I parked, and we covered the car with the tarp.
It was wonderful being alive.
* * *
The next morning I rang his doorbell. “Here is the money,” I said. “Last night, you really saved my ass.”
“No problem,” my uncle said. “Come in, and I’ll treat you to a cup of coffee.”
I had no choice but to follow him, and we sat at his kitchen table. He poured the coffee and talked about this and that. I listened. His car keys were burning a hole in my pocket.
When the phone rang, he excused himself and went into the living room to answer. I considered a dash into the foyer to return the keys, but it was too risky. All the doors inside the apartment were open.
“It was your mother,” uncle John said when he returned. “She asked me to send you home right away. Apparently, you have to study.”
“She’s right,” I said with a sigh. “The finals are in a month. Uncle John, you finish your coffee, and I’ll let myself out.”
I closed the door to the kitchen, and quickly crossed the living room. The foyer was quiet and dark. I opened the drawer and gently placed the car keys inside. As I turned to leave, I saw Uncle John standing in the doorway. Our eyes met, and he wistfully winked at me: “Next time, just ask!”
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