I pull up alongside the blue Chevy Caprice, creeping forward until I see its back fender in my rear passenger window. As soon as I do, I hit the brake, shift into reverse, turn my wheel 180 degrees, and eyeball my passenger, who gives an encouraging nod.
It’s not the Caprice that has me sweating bullets. It’s the gray Mercedes in my driver’s-side mirror—the one parked behind the spot I’m trying to squeeze into.
As I continue backing up in slow motion, I keep checking my side mirror until I see the Mercedes’s front as well as a glimpse of the curb. Then I forget what to do. Is it time to straighten my wheel or turn it in the other direction? Should I be looking in my side mirror or my rearview? I freeze, holding the steering wheel in a death grip. My companion, who has so far been communicating with affirmative head bobbing, begins to shake his head.
No, he shakes—no, no, no.
“I’m headed straight for the Mercedes!” I say in a panic.
“Just take your time,” he says, offering no further help. I must do this alone. Everything has led up to this moment.
After 15 agonizing minutes, cranking my wheel one way and the other, backing up so slowly that my maneuvering should be captured with time-lapse photography, I finally nestle into my spot.
“Let’s get out of here,” my passenger says. “People will start to get suspicious if we spend any more time in front of their houses.”
Before we drive off, I wonder: What am I doing here?
I haven’t been behind the wheel of a car since moving to Washington nearly a decade ago and witnessing the mayhem that is the Beltway. I’m almost eight months pregnant, and though this baby isn’t even born yet, he’s already changing my life. (Actually, being 45 years old and pregnant was life-altering in its own way.) Before my pregnancy, taking up driving again was always a vague plan, like learning to speak Italian. It was why I always renewed my DC license. But once it dawned on me that mothers do most of the carting and depositing of kids, I realized I’d no longer be able to avoid the inevitable.
Even on foot, I’m not the most spatially aware person. I often hit my head on low branches or whack my hip into the corners of tables as I make my way through a restaurant.
Back when I did drive, I was the person in the slow lane. I gave extra-wide berth to bicyclists. My car, a family hand-me-down, advertised my abilities with a vanity plate that read grandma.
The way I saw it, “Grandma” had no business cruising the mean streets of Washington, where, according to a 2011 study by Allstate, drivers have more auto wrecks than in any other city in the country. Drivers in the Washington area average an accident every 4.8 years, while the national average is one every ten. Given all this, there was no way I was getting behind the wheel again without a crash course in driving.
All roads led to Peter Dibiaocha, the owner and sole instructor of Rock Driving School. I found him the way I find most things: Google. There was something comforting about his website, which featured a soft-focus photo of autumnal trees lining what looked like the Mall. He specialized in refresher courses. “We help licensed drivers OVERCOME all fears due to nervousness or lack of confidence behind the wheel,” the site said.
I composed an e-mail to the address listed on the site: “I am a middle-aged woman with a valid driver’s license and a baby on the way, and I’m scared to death to get behind the wheel. Especially in Georgetown, where the streets are so narrow and the drivers are such jerks.”
I felt a therapeutic release in every keystroke. I was freaked out enough about becoming a mother, but at least I would soon be a mother who could drive without freaking out.
“On a scale of one to ten, how scared to death are you?” Dibiaocha asks when he calls me later that evening. His voice is deep and carries an accent I can’t place.
“Seven.” I’m actually a ten, but I don’t want to scare him off.
“Okay,” he says, “no problem. We can work with that.”
I hang up, write a check for $350 for three behind-the-wheel lessons, and draw up my personal “challenge list”: all the treacherous streets, parkways, and circles I want to conquer.
“I think I’m a ten now,” I tell Peter when he pulls up in a Toyota Corolla for our first lesson.
“It’s okay!” he laughs. “No problem.”
Easy for him to say. It’s 8 am on a Tuesday and my street in Georgetown is not only under construction—with orange cones designating improvised lanes and men in hardhats milling about—but it’s also loaded with hotheads trying to get to work on time.
Fortunately for me, Peter drives us out of the mess. He’s dressed in beige cargo shorts and a blindingly white T-shirt—what will be his uniform for all of our lessons—and is so tall that his knees practically straddle the steering wheel. He shows me his laminated identification card, which reads professional instructor, and asks to see my driver’s license. To become an instructor, he explains, he had to pass a written and driving test, keep his license up to date, and submit to a yearly criminal-background check.
“Do you have our route mapped out?” I ask as we cross the Dumbarton Bridge toward Dupont Circle.
“We’ll see how we start, and then we’ll know how we end,” he says.
I take this to mean he’ll see how many cars I almost hit before deciding exactly where he’ll drop me off on the side of the road.