WHO'S THE BETTER DRIVER?
We had only been on the road for forty-five minutes when we decided that it was time for a break. My husband guided our rented silver hatchback onto a long sliver of pavement known in Scotland as a ‘passing place’ and put the car in park before letting out a window-rattling exhale. It occurred to me that it was the only one I’d heard out of him that morning.
Setting out from the rolling pastures of Ardchattan, north of whiskey-famous Oban, there had been moments of mouth-gaping beauty. Farmhouses rose from hills, their crofts freckled with sheep lazily bleating in the sun. Curtains of dense trees along the roadside parted to reveal mountain panoramas that glinted against an ultramarine sky. Between these moments were white-knuckled stretches of terror as we tried to navigate the meandering gait of a much-too-narrow road we didn’t know—all while attempting to decipher the signs for towns that had names with too many consonants, searching for turnoffs and roundabouts on what was to us the wrong side of the road. Surely, this joyride would be enough to test even the most unflappable couple, but while Rich and I can count on one hand the number of major blowouts we’ve had in eighteen years of courtship and marriage, I can guarantee that every bit of bickering we’ve ever done has been in a car.
For all of our easygoing level-headedness with regard to most of life’s trials and tribulations, driving brings something out in us. I can’t parallel park for all the money in the world, but I like to think I’m a good navigator. I’m hyperaware of the cars around me as well as a decisive lane changer (always signaling first) when someone isn’t honoring the speed limit. I brake in a gradual, fluid motion that brings the car to a stop the way a conductor might end a sonata. Rich, on the other hand, comes from a long line of distracted yet overly cautious motorists. He indiscriminately drifts in and out of lanes, slows down at random moments to the point of going fifteen miles per hour below the speed limit, and eagerly slams the brakes at the slightest hint of a brake light even forty feet ahead. I can always tell when his head is somewhere else while he’s driving, which has made me quick to comment when an exit is approaching or a lane change is needed—to Rich’s complete annoyance.
“Here we go,” Rich often says, rolling his eyes, as he feels me gearing up to make yet another suggestion. “Jen, I got it, alright?” he counters testily when I remind him of a merge 1,000 feet away. And, backseat driver though I am, I can get defensive because many are the occasions when we’ve missed an exit because he was busy trying to remember the last time the Giants made it to the playoffs (too long ago to matter, for the record).
So, when we pulled over that day on a somewhat busy—for Scotland, anyway—motorway, I did what any Tracy Flick would do in my situation: That is to say, after countless near-misses with the railing—when there was a railing—and close calls with oncoming traffic, I announced, “I’m driving.” After a half-hour catnap to restore our sanity and calm our nerves, I hopped into the driver’s seat for what I thought would be a demonstration of proper automobile handling. Unfortunately, Rich showed me up in ways I can’t even begin to describe. With the roles reversed, he was now the one admonishing me to ease off the railing, and he slammed down on a nonexistent brake as each curve approached unannounced. Though I was concentrating with as much effort as a kid avoiding the metal slot edges in a game of Operation, I couldn’t help but drift into the opposite lane or hit branches at the fringes of the painted road lines (did I mention those lanes were narrow?).
After another harrowing half-hour, I pulled over and called it quits, relinquishing the wheel to Rich with a sheepish apology. I vowed to speak up only when it truly looked like we were going off the rails, and Rich toned down his annoyance and seemed genuinely thankful for some (if not all) of my warnings and remarks. Towns then gave way to limitless countryside and scrubby Highland landscapes that felt out of a dream. Three and a half hours later, we finally made it to the Isle of Skye’s single-track lanes and complimented each other on our ability to correctly navigate the tiny passing places while avoiding errant sheep in the roadway. We high fived after safely making it to our destinations before nightfall—with that much trouble during the day, can you imagine how we would have fared on roads without streetlights?
After a week of stressful alert driving, we’d never been so relieved as the day we turned into the rental office lot in Edinburgh and handed over the keys. We happily returned to our car-free existence in Brooklyn, where we found ourselves a little more patient, a little more cooperative, and a little more accepting of our flaws. Nearly six years later, our most complicated drives are to visit grandparents in New Jersey and upstate in Lake George (with our now two-year-old daughter). If Rich is in the driver’s seat, I help him see past blind spots when switching lanes, and he helps me do the same. We’ve learned that finding common ground gets us where we need to go more quickly and safely, which is the point, right? But I still complain about the lane drifting; after all, old habits die hard.