Staying safe in difficult driving situations is easy when someone else does it for you

January 07, 1996|By SUSAN REIMER

I AM MARRIED to a man so cautious in matters automotive that before I leave for the grocery store, he suggests that I make sure I have enough washer fluid.

His idea of a Christmas gift is a box of flares, a blanket, a shovel and a bag of sand. His taste in automobiles runs toward something in an armored personnel carrier. Our family car would be painted camouflage green if he hadn't read an article that said white is the safest color for cars.

This is the man who kisses me goodbye each morning -- and he means goodbye -- because, he says, you never know which one of us is going to die in a fiery crash, but he knows where he is putting his money because I am the one of us who is thinking about too many things at once and not paying attention to where I am on the road.

I find his attitude patronizing and insulting, and I have mentioned that out loud in front of the children in what I am sure is an inappropriate tone of voice.

It is at this point that my 11-year-old son reminds us all that I am the one who once rolled the station wagon over on its roof.

"And aren't you glad you weren't along for the ride," I say snappishly, "or you might be even shorter than you are."

I am also the one, I also repeat, who essentially commuted from Baltimore to Newport, R.I., for two summers covering yacht racing. And I once spent six months driving around the country. I am not exactly Lucy Ricardo behind the wheel of a car.

However, I am loath to admit that in my current incarnation as the parent of young children, my navigational skills have atrophied from lack of use -- like my ability to stay up late and drink huge amounts of wine -- and I am not as confident getting from here to there as I once was.

So, when I recently drove into Washington -- alone and at night -- I got, how shall I put this, lost.

Crying, pounding-on-the-steering-wheel, cursing lost.

I had explicit directions and a map, but before I knew it, I was hopelessly lost in a section of Washington that looks like Beirut. There were bars on the windows of abandoned buildings, and everything looked as though it had been decorated with shrapnel and soot.

I knew if I stopped for directions my partially clad body would be found in a storm drain days later, and my husband would be giving his version of I-told-her-so as he gently embraced my weeping friends on the day of my funeral.

So I did what any resourceful woman would do.

I parked my car and hailed a cab.

As it turned out, I could have skipped to my destination without breaking a sweat, but I didn't know that at the time. The cab driver apparently recognized this and proceeded to drive me around until he had a $7 fare.

I sat through the play that was my destination gripped by the sad truth that my problems were only half-solved. I had to get back to my car and get home.

I did, without incident, thanks to a kindly Washington cab driver who gave directions to me as my husband might have -- slowly, repeatedly and in simple language.

The next day dawned, and my night terror evaporated like an unpleasant dream, and my adventure, I thought, would be funny in the retelling.

"Let me get this straight," my husband said in the way that tells me he is about to paraphrase me in the worst possible light.

"You abandoned your car in a section of D.C. where they kill people for their ATM cards?"

"I didn't abandon the car," I said, defensive. "I parked it. I parked the car.

"What do you think was going to happen to that car? Do you think someone would steal it? A white station wagon with french fries growing out of the back seat? That car would have been waiting for me three hours later if I'd left the engine running and the door wide open."

It went on like this for a while. My daughter came into the room, having heard just a bit of the conversation, and, her voice cracking with emotion, wanted to know if I had been carjacked.

"Does it look like I was carjacked?" I asked, impatient with the lot of them.

"Mommy wasn't carjacked, Jessie," my husband said, soothing her. "But she gave it her best shot."

Hours later, my husband's hyper-caution melted into sympathy, and he offered me an embrace.

"You poor thing," he said. "I bet you were crying and pounding on the wheel and cursing."

"Was not," I said.

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