“Can any of you drive a stick shift?”
That was the moment the trouble started.
Of course, yeah, sure, I can drive a stick shift! Fearless team leader Aaron, be proud of me and make some remark about how that will be useful in my life in the distant future!
“Okay, Erica, here are the keys. The car is at Mario’s. Pick me up at the art school. Just wave the security chip under the dash before you start the car.”
Okay. I’m gonna do this, because I volunteered that information willingly. I was so eager to please, as always, and I had willingly volunteered the information that now, 20 seconds later, had me walking up the hill to Mario’s with a tight throat and sweat dripping down my temple.
I hadn’t driven in three and a half months.
Even if this had been an automatic, I would have been in trouble.
Even if this had been a manual on a flat road, I would have been in trouble.
As it was, this car was a manual, and I needed to pick up Aaron at the art school… conveniently located uphill.
I unlocked the car, got in, and scooted the seat as far forward as it could go. Aaron is about 7’4″, so that was a bit of a change.
I put my foot on the brake and felt a lurch.
I quickly took my foot off of the brake.
I gingerly put my foot on the clutch. No lurch.
I turned to my compañeros Erik and Jeremy and said, “I know you guys don’t drive stick, but do you happen to know which pedal is brake and which is clutch?”
Erik muttered through clenched teeth that left was clutch, middle was brake, right was gas. Jeremy moaned “Oh God,” quickly putting on his seatbelt.
After figuring out the pedals (it had been three and a half months, mind you), I prepared to turn the car on. I turned the key, waved the security chip under the ignition, turned the key again and… nothing happened. I tried it again. Nothing happened. I waved the chip somewhere else. Dead.
Feeling panicky now, I looked at Jeremy and Erik for support. Erik grabbed the security chip and did exactly the same thing I had done a moment ago. Lo and behold, I turned the key and the car started up.
After a moment of confusion, I disengaged the emergency brake (after consulting my compañeros on the correct technique) and slowly, slowly began to roll down the hill.
My mission was to roll down the hill, turn left into the flat alley, avoid any chuchos (dogs) in the street, make another left onto the uphill, and drive up to the art school.
The silver car crept forward as I rode the clutch and the brake the whole way down the hill, nimbly evading Erik’s host mother in the process.
Hey, all Aaron asked was if I could drive a stick shift. There were no qualifications on that statement and he took no excuses after the fact.
Ever so carefully, I turned left into the alley and let off the brake a smidgen. Neither chuchos nor small children died as we drove down the street.
But now we were coming nearer to the hill. As we approached that hill, my heart rate approached its maximum capacity. I whispered a prayer under my breath (or maybe that was just the terror-induced delirium speaking) and turned left uphill as I let off the brake, hit the gas, and eased off of the clutch.
The engine screeched in agony before grinding into first gear and (thank you, Jesus!) beginning to pull itself up the steep hill. The silence from my two companions was palpable, but I was so pleased at my successful shift into gear that their smirks bothered me not a bit.
As Aaron watched from the driveway of the art school, I slowly drove up to the school, pulled over to the side of the road, put on the clutch and the brakes, eased into reverse, yanked up the emergency brake, turned the wheels, and turned off the car.
I was shaky, sweaty, and pleased as punch.
I thought that that test of character and stick-shifting ability was over.
Foolish, foolish Erica-child.
The next day dawned brilliantly sunny and peacefully warm, giving no hint of how the day would proceed. So far, I had been lulled into a state of complacency by several ordinary home visits.
“Come pick me up at the market. The car’s up at the art school.”
Well… sure. I can do that. I remember which pedal is which now, and with some help I can work the security chip. I can drive downhill, and I can avoid hitting pedestrians. That’s really all I need.
…I’m not always an optimist, but when I am, I’m wrong.
The three esclavos walked up the hill to the car. I noticed immediately that it was facing uphill.
Silly car, why are you parked the wrong way? You’re not supposed to sit like that.
I saw the sideways glances of my companions and powered on. I unlocked the doors and sat down, preparing for takeoff. Seatbelts? Helmets? Protective goggles? Ready to go.
I turned the key. Nothing.
I waved the security chip again and turned the key. Nothing.
Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
I had literally touched this chip to every area of the car that it could touch while still being attached to the keychain. Something was not right here.
I put the car back into park mode and, once more, initiated the launch process. At the correct moment, I wiggled the security chip. Nothing.
After struggling for a period of time that was entirely too long to be acceptable or respectable, I leaned back in the driver’s seat and sighed in frustration.
Once again, Erik leaned over and performed voodoo magic on the chip. I turned the key and the car started up. Peachy.
Now I needed to be sly. I wasn’t going to back down the hill in full sight of the entire town of Magdalena. I had to turn around. But where?
Simple, I figured, as I began to inch down the hill. I’ll back into the dirt alley in front of the art school, about twenty feet down from where the car was parked.
Thinking ahead, I did not want to turn too quickly and ram the right fender into the corner of the art school. This was a little car. It would have a tight turning radius. I held straight for a moment longer and then began the process of inching backwards and to the right into the alley.
As I turned, I was evaluating the flatness level of the alley and gloating about how easy it would be to shift into first gear, get moving forward, turn the car, and whiz down the street to where Aaron would be waiting with a pleased smile.
As I turned, I realized that I had forgotten to check for potential obstacles on the left side of the car. I had a change of heart and prayed for the tightest turning radius possible as I watched a light pole creep up behind my left bumper.
In one fell swoop, I realized that the car had a wider turning radius than I had thought, that the alley was not as flat as I had thought, and that I was currently wedged in a 45-degree angle between a house and a light pole, with the front of the car tilted up on the hill enough that I was pressed back into the seat.
This was not exactly how I had planned this little maneuver.
I swore calmly. I then shifted into first gear, tried to remember those long-ago starting-on-a-hill lessons with Daddy, kept my left foot on the clutch, and covered both the brake and the gas with my right foot.
I pressed down on the gas with the ball of my right foot as I ever-so-slowly let up on both the brake and the clutch. With an angry roar, the car lurched backwards. I jammed my feet back onto the clutch and the brake and swore less calmly.
Erik and Jeremy took the opportunity to give me some helpful advice, like, “You’re really close to that pole.” “No, you’re really close to it. You’re probably, like, four inches away from it. Or less.” “Don’t roll backwards when you start.”
I nodded, grinned tersely, and burned holes in the windshield with my laser eyes.
Once again, I tried the two-feet-three-pedals approach. Once again, the car groaned in fury and rolled backwards. More desperate now, I threw my weight onto the brake and the clutch.
As I less-than-quietly panicked, Carlos, the teacher from the art school, wandered outside to see what the fuss was about. I swallowed the shards of my shattered pride, put on the emergency brake, and said good morning to him.
He warned me that the back of the car was quite close to the light pole. I nodded, smiled, and explained to him that I had not driven a manual in quite some time and was having trouble starting uphill without rolling backwards. The light of comprehension dawned across his face as he took in the bleak situation. Beaming with grace and mercy (or maybe just poorly restrained amusement), he offered to help turn the car around.
I quite willingly vacated the driver’s seat, moving to the side of the road after inspecting the final distance between the pole and the bumper (three inches, for the record). Carlos deftly pulled the car forward without so much as a peep from the engine. Putting my cautious turn-radius analysis to shame, he swiftly backed the car into the dirt alley. He then drove the car forward and to the left until it sat facing exactly forward and downhill.
He exited the car, grinning at the flustered and scarlet-faced gringa. I managed to pull my wits together. “Esto,” I said slyly, “nunca pasó.” (“This never happened.”) He smiled broadly and agreed with me. As he walked past me and I moved toward the driver’s seat, I nodded to him and said, “Gracias por salvar mi vida… y mi reputación.” (“Thanks for saving my life… and my reputation.”) He laughed out loud, waved cheerfully at us, and walked back toward the art school.
Still a little shaken, I easily drove down toward the market. But after a moment, I saw Aaron standing in an intersection, hands on hips, watching the car roll toward him. My heart clenched as visions of rebuke flashed through my head.
As I got out of the car and relocated to the back seat, Aaron blithely said, “So, how’d you manage to turn the car around? I thought you’d be backing down here for sure.”
My eyes widened. Jeremy and Erik both stiffened, but remained silent.
After a split second, I responded, “Well, it was kinda tricky, and I couldn’t have done it on my own, but these two had some good advice for me.”
So, moral of the story? Don’t ever say that you can drive a stick shift if you can’t reliably start on an uphill. Your friends will have embarrassing stories to share about you.
(P.S.: Aaron, I’m not allowed to drive your car anymore. Becky said it’s against the rules. And no, I didn’t pay her to say that.)