In the wake of debate, ongoing and maddening, about how women and girls “should” behave in dodgy situations, I’ve been remembering one of the least dramatic of my own #MeToo moments, one I’ve never shared with anyone until now.
The year would have been 1997 and I’d have been somewhere between sophomore and junior year in high school. Being young for my class, there weren’t many kids who hadn’t already been liberated by their parents’ borrowed 4 wheels. I was still 15, training to get my driver’s permit in the Fall when I’d turn 16.
The remembered image of my driver’s ed instructor is of a 40something year-old man, maybe pale haired and balding, maybe with a paunch and a cheap button-down shirt. But, really, I don’t remember altogether what he looks like.
I do remember when I was in his car with two sets of brake and gas pedals—one on the driver’s side where I was sitting and one on the passenger side where he sat—that as we approached a gas station pump, I got panicky and began to press the gas pedal so we accelerated toward the pump! He slammed hard on his own brake pedal and I finally remembered which foot did what.
He also had a system where he said that he could tell when lights were about to turn red. That there was a moment when a yellow light turned a little orange, so you could time whether to accelerate through the intersection or eat the light. As we drove around my small suburban town, he would make predictions about stoplights. …
Sometime on this particular day when I was learning how to drive, he said that he needed to stop at home for something.
While unplanned for our route, I said okay because it didn’t seem to make much difference. It took a long highway to get there, I remember. I drove the car into the parking lot of this subdivision, probably rental units, pale beige siding with blue trim. And as far as my memory goes, he said it would only take a minute and to come inside with him.
So I did. What I remember of the inside of the apartment was again pale beige walls and carpet and window-height venetian blinds of the kind you’d find in cheap condos or rentals.
He told me to sit, that he’d be right back. I seem to recall I was on a sofa.
It was at this moment that a woman (dirty blond hair, white button-down) let herself into the apartment. She seemed quite surprised to see me there and the man who was apparently her husband came back into the room, also surprised and perhaps flustered.
He pointed at me, arm extended, “She had to go to the bathroom.”
The wife nodded quizzically, and the man and I left back into the car with two sets of brake and gas pedals.
Now, it would be simple to label this story entirely benign, except for the fact of the lie. The mixed stories. He’d told me he needed something from his house. He told his wife I needed to use the bathroom (which I hadn’t and did not use while there).
What to make of this disparity? Was there something nefarious here?
It’s impossible to know, except that this memory has stuck with me for 20 years as not quite smelling right. It has never felt clear enough to share, its heinous nature never obvious enough or easy enough to articulate.
So, what did I do? Nothing. I got back in the car and drove back to school with this balding 40-something man. Nothing more “happened,” nothing else went weird.
Was it a #MeToo moment? What could have been the motivation of a man during his work hours to invite a 15-year old girl into his home several miles away and then lie about why we were there? Were there other girls he made “swing past” his house? Were there other times when the wife didn’t walk in at just that moment?
While my catalogue of #MeToo moments later plunges into the black-and-white of rape and assault, it’s this one here sitting right at the edge of gray that niggles at me. The other experiences are clear and obvious, and have been processed with the right people.
But when it’s like this, when it’s unclear whether there was a monster teaching driver’s ed to scores of young people in suburban New Jersey in the late ’90s, that I feel most unnerved.
“Caution, Student Driver.”