I had been looking forward to turning 16 for at least two years. Because at 16 years of age, I'd be able to get my driver's license. And a driver's license signaled entry into the adult world. I had been told that entry would happen at 13, after my Bar Mitzvah, but that date came and went and I still felt like a kid. I didn't care what the Rabbi said; I hadn't even started to shave.
Now things were different. I still didn't need to shave, but I did have hair on other parts of my body where none had grown before. I even had a girlfriend—Helena Snyder, who I thought was cute and sort of smart and who had let me put my hand under her blouse, though I mostly just fumbled around and wasn't sure what I was touching. But once I had my own car, well, who knew what might happen.
My mother was the one who taught me how to drive. I guess my dad was too busy. I would have been scared anyway to have my dad instruct me, sure that if I made a mistake he'd turn away in disgust. And then where would we be?
Mom was pretty patient with me. I think we both enjoyed doing something together where we didn't have to get angry or embarrassed with each other. And with her wide-bodied, automatic-transmission 1954 Buick Special, it wasn't that hard to learn. We'd practice on back streets where there wasn't much traffic and Mom smoked her Kent cigarettes as I braked carefully at every stop sign.
"Good, Butchie," she'd say blowing smoke out the window. "You'll be ready for that test in no time."
"When can I take it?" I asked. "My birthday is tomorrow." I pushed slowly on the accelerator.
"We'll have to ask your father."
"Why? What's he have to do with it?"
"The car is registered to him," Mom said. "He'll have to go with you to the place."
"What place?" I felt my stomach start to knot up.
"The driving place. I don't know. Your father knows where." She flicked her cigarette butt out the open window.
"I don't know about this," I said, shaking my head. I rolled through the next stop sign without even touching the brakes. Luckily, no one was coming the other way. Mom didn't even notice.
About a week after my birthday, Dad agreed to accompany me to the DMV to take my test. "Maybe I could drive on the way over," I said, as we were walking out to the car. I reached my hand out for the keys. "You know, to practice."
"What, are you kidding?" It was like I'd asked him to take his pants off and do the mambo right there on the sidewalk.
I settled into the passenger seat, feeling a heaviness on my shoulders, a mixture of anger at my dad and fear about the upcoming test. Dad drove the whole way there without saying a word. When I reached out to turn on the radio, he batted my hand away. Maybe it wasn't too great to be 16 after all.
Fortunately, Dad wasn't allowed to stay in the car while I took the test. He stood under the eaves of the DMV building smoking a cigar, his face almost invisible underneath his wide-brimmed, brown fedora.
"Your dad seems worried about you," the officer who was administering the test said to me as we pulled away.
"I doubt that," I told him. "He always looks that way."
The test was easy. I parallel parked correctly, used my turn signals when I was supposed to and didn't go through any stop signs, even when the officer tried to trick me into doing so.
"Just pull over there," he said and waved his arm, pointing to a spot beyond the last stop sign on the course. But I came to a full stop before proceeding.
"Way to do it, kid," the cop said.
They gave me my license right there on the spot and I rushed out of the building to show it to Dad, waving the card around in the air like it was a burning torch.
"So you did it," Dad said. "Mazel Tov."
I was shocked. Did I even see a slight smile crease his face? "So, you want me to drive home now?" I burst out. "With my new license."
"Don't be crazy," Dad said. And held out his open palm. "Give me the damn keys, boy."