Two for the Road
Two for the Road
SILVERIO, my driving instructor, is a short, smiling Mexican in his late 30’s. His smile gets broader when he learns that I speak Spanish, too, but he doesn’t really give me instructions on how to begin, besides shift to drive, turn the wheel all the way to the left and enter the real-life video game that is the city’s mutinous driving scene.
I am nervous, but Silverio is not. He is so not nervous that he doesn’t ask me to wear my seat belt, adjust my mirrors or look over my shoulder as we ease into traffic on East 23rd Street.
I have been a resident of this country for three years, and it is my green card that motivated me to become a driver, or rather, it was being stuck in Los Angeles without wheels. As I was walking in Beverly Hills, I was spotted by a police officer in a squad car. “ID?” he demanded, extending an enormous hand out the window. Driver’s license? Clearly, he found it suspicious that anyone would walk in the neighborhood. As soon as I returned to my West Village apartment, I booked lessons at the Professional Driving School of the Americas.
When Silverio learns that my mom is Cuban, he wants to know what will happen when Fidel Castro dies.
‘’You should buy real estate in Cuba,” he says. “Turn right here.”
“Just buy it.”
“No. How do I turn left?
“No,” Silverio says gently. “I said right. Just signal.”
Behind us is an army of yellow cabs, with angry drivers leaning on horns so loud that Silverio is now shouting. I wonder if any of the drivers are carrying weapons.
“Signal to your right again. Castro is a good man or at least he was, don’t you think?”
Three drivers speed past me on the left while I sit as rigid as a statue, ignoring their murderous stares and the insults I can see them mouthing.
Silverio may not live to see Castro die if he doesn’t pay more attention to my driving, but I decide to go with the flow. We start talking about food, the greasy, fatty, soulful Latino meals that Silverio’s wife, Columba, cooks for him in their apartment on East 138th Street. They have been married forever, Silverio says, glancing at my bare legs. I make a point of letting him know that I can’t cook.
By the time we reach West 120th Street, I see an exhausted-looking girl of about 16 with a baby. For the first time, I see fury on Silverio’s face, as if he instinctively held the girl responsible for such an early motherhood. As we drive on, I learn that Silverio once got a girl pregnant and refused to recognize the child as his, a decision he now regrets.
After a couple of lessons, we have our routine down. We talk politics and world affairs as we practice switching lanes. We discuss love and sex while working on my three-point turns and end up mixing all those themes when arguing about Cuba.
I am getting used to Silverio’s bouts of indignation. While struggling to drive, I listen to the eternal tale of the immigrant and the dream of finding abroad the means to live at home. He tells me about his feeling of being sanctified when his green card finally arrived. He shows me a photograph of his father, a farmer in Puebla, whom he adoringly describes as “as strong as a bull.” He daydreams about owning land and constructing a building in his hometown in Mexico, which he would rent out. He imagines a little convenience store or a restaurant on the ground floor.
Silverio insists that he lives to work, that he doesn’t drink or smoke or even fool around with anybody other than his wife, who gave birth a few months ago to their first child, Michael. When I tell him I don’t believe a word of this, he laughs, slapping his hands on his knees before sinking more deeply into the passenger seat.
Somehow, we make it to Spanish Harlem, although my cautious driving has apparently annoyed the driver in a convertible behind us. After the light changed, the man peeled out in front of us, sticking out his arm and making a lewd gesture. “I think this is for us,” I say.
At Flor de Mayo, a Chinese-Cuban fast-food place near Silverio’s apartment, I buy him a Coke and treat myself to really strong coffee. As we enjoy our break, Silverio and I brag about Latino culture. We talk about our people’s sensuality, sense of humor, and friendliness, savoring the moment. But Silverio believes that not all Latinos are created equal. Puerto Ricans, he says, are to be trusted more and Dominicans less. Cubans are out, I suspect because of Castro.
The day of the test, I drive Silverio all the way to Long Island to the school’s test site. He opens up about what happened when he was 23 and through a random tryst in Mexico got a woman pregnant. He has never met his son. For what it’s worth, I share a slice of my own family history.
In 1981 my uncle fled the island for America, leaving his daughters behind. Twenty-four years later, before he died in New York, I went to his apartment on Fordham Road in the Bronx and interviewed him about his life. Later, I took the tapes to his children in Cuba. I filmed one of my Cuban cousins, crying and laughing, listening to the father she hardly knew, his deep voice conveying an intimacy they had never shared yet had always been there.
Silverio and I are both moved by this story. We reflect silently on love and separation, on the plight of immigrants and refugees. We feel close enough to remain quiet the rest of the way to Long Island.
My instructor is a chubby Dominican with bright green eyes and curly chestnut hair. Chewing gum, she asks me where I am from.
“France,” I say, starting the engine after making a big show of putting on my seat belt, looking into the rear mirror and adjusting everything I can possibly adjust. “But my mother is Cuban.”
As we drive, my instructor tells me her age without fear — 50 — and says she is looking for a place to go on her honeymoon.
“Congratulations,” I say. “Your first marriage?”
“I got married three times, honey,’’ she replies. “One for love, two for the show, three for the money.”
“Italy,” I suggest. “Toscana. Romantic, plus the shopping is awesome.”
My three-point turn is impeccable. As we drive back to our starting point, I see Silverio in the distance standing alone on the sidewalk waiting for me. I triumphantly wave my temporary license at him as I climb out of the car.
On our way back to Manhattan, the radio plays cheesy Mexican love songs. For a while, Silverio and I become strangers again, having finished the business that brought us together. Silverio is lost in his thoughts.
“Castro?” I ask.
No, the son lost to him.
I am driving, my left arm out of the window, pretending the wind I feel comes from big open spaces. Maybe between the two of us fits a good old definition of the American dream.