Learning to Fly – Susannah Chovnick

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Learning to Fly

SOME PEOPLE HAVE DREAMS where they fly. Some people grow wings and fly above the trees and through clouds, over cities and bridges. Some people don’t grow wings, but they still make it to the sky, their arms stretched wide. Flying until alarms go off and the morning sun sneaks beneath their sleeping eyes. In my dreams, I’d drive. I’d get into a car, push a lever and zigzag around a block. I’d bump into other cars, roll onto sidewalks. My only fear was getting caught. So usually after takeoff, I’d go real slow, inching down the road.

Most people in the US learn to drive at 16. Then there are New Yorkers. Savvy walkers of concrete streets, riders of midnight trains, drunk passengers in yellow taxis, nervous passengers in cars of college boyfriends from small towns and rural parts. And that left me as a 27 year old with a state ID that allowed me into bars and planes, but never behind the wheel.

But then a year ago I met Jonny. Jonny is from Florida, he drives a grey Chrysler. Our first date, he picked me up at 7:00pm on a Saturday, and drove us to Sausalito. He wanted to know why I never learned to drive. “Because there’s never been anyone to teach me!” I laughed. He smiled and kept driving. Behind him the sky faded from a light blue to a dark purple washed with thin clouds of fluff. The water below the bridge was sparkling, I remember because it was covered with a million sailboats. And then finally, he pulled into some empty parking lot. We sat there a second before he leaned in close.

“Okay, well, I’ll show you,” he whispered. So I walked around the car, slid into the driver’s seat. Then I hit the gas so hard he bumped his head on the windshield.

JUST TO BE CLEAR, it was a smack, not a gushing accident. But still, there it was, the reality sinking in. She really can’t drive at all, the shock of it seeping through his widening hazel eyes, but still, he was smiling. I was smiling.

The first few times after that, I pushed the gas real slow, my body shaky, sweating, clenched, like I was sitting in the front row of a roller coaster. I wished so bad I had eyes on the sides of my head, behind my head, anywhere they’d be willing to go, really, if it made driving easier. I’d inch through empty streets and pause for minutes at each stop sign. And Jonny would say, “you don’t have to wait that long!” But I would, because everything seemed like a potential death. When I finally went on a road with two lanes, I’d stare at each impending car, convinced there was only room for one.

Finally, I got a real driving instructor, Patti. Patti was an older Asian lady with a soft voice. She wore khaki shorts often, and most importantly she always said, “don’t pay attention to the other cars.” We’d drive around while the sun hit us hard through the rolled-down windows. My jeans were always moist from nerves. The houses all around were colorful, in pastel shades under palm trees, decorated with plants and vines.

And then one morning in May, driving past the surfers in wet suits and the waves of Ocean Beach, I turned to Patti and asked if I was ready. “Well,” she said, “why not?”

The following Tuesday, It was breezy, and cool. After 20 minutes of being observed on my every impulse, using Patti’s car, I finally pulled into the DMV. The last seconds of the test were here, as I parked and turned off the engine. Then I turned to the examiner and waited. Finally the lady, with her long hair and round eyes, grabbed my leg, laughed and exclaimed, “Well that was a wild ride!” She laughed and laughed. I said nothing, looking down, afraid I would be letting down Patti and Jonny and everyone of my co-workers and friends who knew I was taking the test that day. My boss would have more proof I was the idiot she thought I was. In the midst of these thoughts, the examiner circled a bunch of numbers on a sheet of paper. When she finished, paleness painted her face.

“You’ve passed,” she whispered. Then, she took a second to re-calculate. We sat in more silence. Then she waved out the window, for my instructor. Before Patti was fully at the car, the lady yelled, “She MUST continue to practice, she passed, but she must keep practicing, okay? Those turns are wide, out of control. And also, she almost backed up into a truck. She needs to KEEP PRACTICING!” And with those words, I felt my cheeks turn tomato as I uncontrollably smiled and shook her hand, thanking her profusely. There I was, legally licensed. She kept talking and I kept shaking my head promising her things I could no longer hear, as the disbelief seemed to blur the words evaporating from her mouth. All I could see were visions of me driving across the country, and telling the world I could drive. Then I exited the car, slammed the door, hugged Patti and headed to work. Patti waved and wished me the best.

As I left the DMV, I walked past a coffee shop and then a pizza shop and then I bent over on the sidewalk, like I had just ran a race or won some kind of medal. I let the saliva drip from my tongue while my heart caught up to reality. I thought for a second I was dying, I couldn’t breathe. But maybe I was just living really hard. There’s something that makes your heart jump out of your chest I guess, when you cross the barriers you create for yourself. When you do the things you tell yourself you’re not capable of. And for me, this year, that was driving.

Susannah Chovnick is a Brooklyn native who has always enjoyed reading and writing true stories. Following her passion. In 2011 she graduated from Ithaca College with a degree in journalism. After graduation, she spent several months writing about the Israeli music scene in Tel-Aviv. She now resides in San Francisco, where she has experimented with multiple writing styles, from stand-up comedy to personal essay. She has recently had work featured in Sweatpants & Coffee and Germ Magazine.


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