You are so certain your daughter will beg you to take her to the DMV for her Learner’s Permit the moment she turns fifteen, you’ve already thought up a couple of conditions, a little technique you employ in order to get things accomplished. You’ll say, “Sure, Honey, just as soon as you clean your room,” which looks like an episode of Extreme Hoarders. Maybe you’ll casually deliver a list of items that have recently “disappeared,” i.e., your sage eye shadow, grey cardigan, blush brush, which might be returned first, no questions asked. But funny, she doesn’t mention it. So you wait a week, then two, and when she still doesn’t ask, you ask her.
“Don’t you want to get your Learner’s Permit?”
She doesn’t look up from her phone. “Mmm,yeah.”
“When?” you ask.
“As soon as school gets out for the summer.”
School gets out for the summer and she says she’ll do it before camp. After camp she says she’ll do it before she goes back to school. She goes back to school.
Meanwhile, you drive her everywhere. She likes to sit in the back seat, her iPod permanently attached like a delicate appendage, saying things like, “God, Mom–do you have to drive so bumpy? I’m putting on mascara back here,” or “Could you turn down your radio? I can hardly hear my music.” Suddenly she’s fifteen and a half and no matter when she gets her permit she must have it a full year before she can drive on her own. You envision driving your twenty-five year old daughter to work every day because she never got around to getting her license. And in that imaginary scene you picture her in a business suit still sitting in the back seat saying, “Did you have to take that turn so fast? I almost spilled my cappuccino!” and this frightens you enough to resort to your best parenting tool, which is, of course, bribery.
“How would you like to get your hair highlighted?” you ask.
“For real?” she replies.
“Yup. As soon as you get your permit, I’ll make the appointment.”
Twenty-four hours later you are in line together at the DMV.
You look forward to sharing this milestone together. You’ve been arguing too much lately; over her grades, her compulsive use of the computer, her attempts to change the high school dress code one detention at a time. Resentment simmers between the two of you and flares into hostility at almost every interaction. More than once recently you’ve shouted, okay screamed, the most hurtful thing you can think of which is, “I hope someday you have a girl!”
Then you complain to anyone who will listen.
Sometimes you try your mother, but this is never very satisfying. She had four children in four years, an experiment in Catholicism that went terribly wrong. “You’ll get through it,” she’ll say, “I did and I had four teenage girls at one time.” You think you sense a little pleasure in her voice, but you’re sure you are inventing it.
Your younger sister always listens but she has boys and they are a different species all together. “As long as X Box is working and I keep feeding them, they’re pretty docile creatures,” she says.
“Lucky,” you say. “I think she hates me.”
“Don’t you remember how we used to feel about Mom?” she reminds you. “We couldn’t even stand the way she chewed her toast in the morning.”
“But we were never disrespectful,” you say. “We never told her to chill. The word chill wasn’t even in our vocabulary.”
“No,” your sister says, “but we did drink and steal her car.”
“Well, there was that, I suppose.”
You check in at the desk at the DMV. You sense your daughter’s excitement in the eager way she scans the room. You begin to feel excited, too. The woman at reception has her take an eye test.
“Lean your forehead on the bar and read the fourth line.”
“Which line?” your daughter asks.
“I can’t really see it.”
“It should be highlighted.”
“There is nothing highlighted.”
“You have to push your forehead against the bar.”
A small line forms behind you.
“A, E, S—“
“No, the next row.”
The line grows. It occurs to you, in a slight panic, that you may not make it past the reception lady, who arches a concerned eyebrow at you above her reading glasses. Why is this simple task so difficult for your daughter? Perhaps you have allowed too much texting, and her eyes are shot. Maybe her brain is unable to process letters that don’t form acronyms, like OMG or LMFAO.
You become more irritated. This is a frequent and familiar sensation that often invades your time together. This, you think, will end like almost every other mother-daughter shopping trip or lunch date. Any thin thread of camaraderie will snap at the slightest negative force. She’ll accuse you of being critical; every eye-roll will bruise your heart. You’ll leave exasperated, but even more frustrating, you’ll be left yearning for connection, and feeling as if you’ve been being robbed of something you can’t quite put your finger on.
“You may want to help her, Mom,” Reception Lady says. “Push her head against the bar.”
Doesn’t she know the rule? Isn’t it a universal law? You are not allowed to touch your teenager! Especially in public! But there are seven people behind you now. They are having trouble getting in the door, and one sighs loudly. You flash forward to your daughter at thirty, still living at home, half-buried under heap of unwashed jeans in the room you are secretly waiting to turn into an office, because she still doesn’t drive. You take the back of her head and push it into the machine.
“F,D,F,C,Z,P.” She passes. Reception Lady gives her a number. You’ve made it to the next level, waiting in the grey metal folding chairs until you are called, but the anticipation you both felt when you first entered the DMV has vanished.
“God, Mom. You’re so embarrassing.”
“Yeah, well, that’s my job,” you say.
When her number is called you approach station three where Joey, a slight, tattooed boy who looks about fourteen, will be processing your forms. Joey wears one of those earrings that will eventually produce a giant hole in his ear lobe, a practice you equate with Japanese foot binding or tribal African neck elongating. You immediately wish for another clerk. You don’t expect any one at the DMV to be especially warm, but maybe the soft cushiony woman at station five would be a better fit. She has paired her regulation white polo shirt with a roomy navy sweater, and you spy a photograph of a baby, a grandchild you presume, taped to the side of her computer. But Joey is already reaching for your envelope of documents, and while he types into his keyboard, speaks directly to your daughter.
“Do you remember the rules about driving with a Learner’s Permit?”
Your daughter shifts back and forth from foot to foot. “Um-I have to have someone in the front seat twenty-one or older. I can only drive until ten o’clock.”
She is nervous. Why? She’s already taken her tests online and only has to answer a few questions and have her picture taken. What is the big deal? You want her to hurry up so you can get out of here. You are thinking of what you need at the grocery store, what you will fix for dinner.
“Good. Now just sign your name in the box where the X is.”
In front of her is a small screen, the kind you find at supermarkets and department stores. She takes the fake pen and attempts to sign but the height and angle of the pad, combined with the way she’s always held a pen—two fingers on the tip, her wrist hooked like a lefty—makes it difficult for her. On the first couple of tries she doesn’t push down hard enough.
“Push a little harder,” Joey says.
“It looks like a kindergartener wrote that,” your daughter says. “Can I try again?” You look at Joey. He does something on his computer and the signature is erased. She tries again. Same result. Joey erases. She tries again but only fits her first name on the line and there is no room for her last. She looks at you.
“Can I do it over?”
“Ask Joey. It’s his time we’re taking.”
Joey swivels in his seat and looks at the clock behind him. It’s two-thirty. He twists back to look at your daughter. “I have to be here until four o’clock. If you are my last customer, that’s fine with me. I’ll erase as many times as you need me to.”
You want to reach over the counter and hug Joey’s skinny, pierced, ink-covered body because the atmosphere around you and your daughter is now palpable with relief, and even though he has just met her, you realize Joey gets her. You feel guilty now, for even thinking about the clerk at station number five. Joey is your guy.
After the ninth try, she is satisfied with her signature. It’s picture time.
“Go to the end of the counter and stand in front of screen number three.” Joey says. You gather up the documents. You are on the downhill stretch. Joey looks at the end of the counter. He looks at you. Your daughter is wandering around the end of the room, between three clearly labeled screens, not quite sure where to stand.
“I’ll be right back,” you say. Before you set out to help, you turn back to Joey because you sense the concern in the tilt of his head, and say, “Don’t worry. We’re not really going to let her drive.”
It dawns on you that you’ve only considered the process of obtaining your daughter’s Learner’s Permit as one step closer to not chauffeuring her all around town. You haven’t given much thought to the process of actually teaching her how to drive. There is no time to dwell on that nightmare. Right now you are focused on simply getting out of the DMV.
You position your daughter under the proper screen, a risky move since you’ve already touched her once today. The image is captured and you go back to the safety of Joey. He pulls up her photo on the computer and lets you both take a look.
“I don’t know,” she says, studying her perfect smiling face. You see the straight white teeth against her olive skin, the eyes, your eyes, looking directly at the camera, her coppery hair hanging in loose waves around her face. “I look Asian here, and I’m not Asian, I’m Italian. Can I re-take?”
Are you kidding? you want to shout. We are so close! Take the permit and run! But you know anything you say will be met with annoyance. This is Joey’s show now.
“Well, you can,” Joey says, “but once we erase this one, we can’t get it back, and you may be stuck with a picture you don’t like as well.” Under the fluorescent lights of the DMV while they calmly debate the pros and cons of the present photo, you try and see your daughter the way Joey does. You consider this lovely, self-conscious girl treading unsteadily on the edge of adulthood, shifting her weight nervously, as if literally testing the ground underneath her. You see a unique individual. Isn’t this what you’ve always hoped for?
Your daughter leans in closer to Joey’s computer. Neither of them seems to be in a rush. They are not thinking of the next task to be completed, the next check mark on the to-do list. Your daughter is getting her Learner’s Permit, on her terms and in her time. If you hadn’t been there, she would have figured it out. You take a big breath and try to relax.
“Okay. I guess I’ll keep this one,” you hear your daughter say. Within minutes, Joey hands her an official Florida Learner’s Permit and you finally push through the door into the parking lot. The afternoon sun is filtering through the branches of the oaks that line the swale, its bright warmth a sharp contrast to the dull grey interior of the DMV.
You’re weary, as you often are after an outing with your daughter. What is it that compels you to keep trying? Maybe it’s simply in the habitual act of mothering. Perhaps there is a more primal source, a magnet-like anchor in the shared DNA that keeps mothers and daughters boomeranging back together after flinging themselves apart
“Hey, Mom, can I drive?” she asks.
“No!” you say. You both laugh and take your regular places in the car.
“That’s okay, Mom. I’m chill with that.”
You glance at her in the rear view mirror. Her phone and iPod lie neglected on the seat beside her and she is staring at her newly minted permit. Just for a moment the space between you is full of lightness. It is a moment so rare and so sublime you have to sit for a minute before starting the car.
You think, I hope someday she has a girl.
Betty Jo Buro is a graduate student at Florida International University. She will receive her MFA in creative nonfiction this spring. Her essays have appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Cherry Tree, and will be forthcoming in The Lindenwood Review and Hunger Mountain. She lives and writes in Stuart, Florida.