The VIPs

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At camp, the kids build a miniature city out of sticks and grass in the dirt. Audrey explains there are houses and buildings and trees and military bases and two lakes. She pauses for a moment and corrects herself, “No, three lakes”. She tells me this once we’re already in the car and now the business-like manner in which I saw her speak with another girl by the picnic tables after I’d signed her out makes sense. They were probably going over construction plans for the following day. 

She says all the kids involved in the city project have titles like President, Vice President, VIP (which makes me chuckle until I stop myself), and Major Major Major Major. Before I can ask why all the Majors she says everyone starts at Minor Minor Minor Minor, like this explains everything. I ask her what her title is and she says VIP and then corrects herself and says “I mean VP. That stands for Vice President. Next summer we’ll hold another election.” I get the feeling she’s already campaigning.

We’re riding in the car with her older sister at the wheel and it occurs to me that the kids might run out of suitable sticks near camp base and want to rummage in the woods for more. “Stay out of the woods,” I say. “There’s poison ivy.” 

“There isn’t,” she tells me. “Anyway, I know what it looks like. It’s light green.”

“No it’s not,” her older sister says. “It’s bright green this time of year.”

“It can also be shiny,” I add, knowing I couldn’t pick poison ivy out of a line-up even after suffering repeated, crippling cases of it throughout childhood. One summer when I was about Audrey’s age, I went to camp and came home with poison ivy and head lice. To be fair, we weren’t sure where I picked up the poison ivy.

I used to have a soft spot for those brown and cream striped caterpillars that are suddenly everywhere mid-summer. I’d line a cardboard box with shiny, soft green leaves picked from the woods across the street from our house. Then I’d lean sticks against the box walls like a series of intersecting catwalks and pluck dozens of caterpillars from trees and drop them into the box. I kept them as outdoor pets for a day or two or until they figured out they had always been free to climb out of the box. I took them out of the box and let them crawl across my hands and arms and even my face. I can’t tell this story now without wincing.

A week later I found myself at the doctor’s office with a case of poison ivy so bad I needed steroid injections. My mother cut up old pillow cases and wrapped them around my hands at night so I wouldn’t scratch in my sleep. She applied wet oatmeal and witch hazel and calamine compresses at all hours, but nothing stopped the itching. 

We had already planned an overnight trip to New York City and I wore blocky dark sunglasses to disguise my swollen, misshapen face. The subway attendant took tokens for my parents and brother but frowned when he saw me and said “She can ride free.” We joked afterwards that maybe he thought I was blind or had Elephant Man’s disease, and I fought the urge to run back and explain I was just a normal kid. The only blindness I had was an inability to distinguish poison ivy from other leafy green plants.

I never played with caterpillars again after that summer. They were still everywhere – chugging along at a maddening but determined pace across sidewalks and dangling helplessly from low branches – but they became invisible until just a few years ago. I had been jogging along a paved path when I noticed a few crawling across and thought “Oh!” in delight and then “Oh” in a more guarded way.

***

“Just watch out for plants with leaves of three,” I tell both daughters in the car, satisfied this is the best advice I am qualified to give. I still don’t know how I got the job of teaching our older daughter how to drive. Years ago I struck a deal with my husband that he would teach Vanessa and I would teach Audrey. I may have planned on seven more years to prepare, but life happens and his work schedule doesn’t align with hers. Weeks slip by with no driving practice while her expectations about getting a license and buying a car with the money she’s been saving are still there. I start taking her to drive tentative circles around empty parking lots. 

The first time I take her out on a real road, I grip the passenger side armrest until my knuckles ache. I bark things like “Slow down!” or “STOP!” as if a child has just wandered out between two parked cars, when really it’s nothing more than a pair of red taillights up ahead, not even that close. Part of the dread I feel towards these driving lessons comes from my own poor reactions. 

Vanessa doesn’t quite get up to the speed limit and a white SUV tails too close behind. I think to myself Vanessa is driving too close to the right shoulder but keep quiet (miraculously!) until she brushes against an overgrown hedge by the elementary school. I say “Pull Over” in what I mean to be a calm tone but couldn’t be. She remembers her turn signal at the last minute and sheepishly pulls into the school lot while the hovering white SUV blares its horn and speeds past.

I consider cutting her lesson short and putting myself back in control. I don’t remember going out to drive much with my own parents when I had a learners permit. I do remember the time I borrowed their car and swiped a parked car and then lied about it, poorly. My parents figured it out the same day and I wasn’t allowed to drive for weeks, which felt more like a gift than punishment.

I take a deep breath and tell my daughter to get back on the road and try to drive closer to the yellow line, though not too close, obviously. I try to give shorter instructions and watch my pitch and volume. Once we are safely home, I feel shaky and weak but not relieved. It feels like the time I got chased by a dog through a neighborhood I shouldn’t have been walking through late at night in the first place and managed to hurl myself over a fence just in time.

I go online and browse car magnets that say STUDENT DRIVER in bold black atop a bright yellow background. I see some that also include Please Be Patient! underneath but already the regular ones remind me of those Baby On Board signs that were popular in the 80s. Even as a child I wondered why the safety of a stranger’s baby was more important than my own infant sister hurtling through peril in our unmarked car.

I usually take the time to read a few customer reviews and questions before buying anything. This is where I might learn, for instance, that the 3-pack of Student Driver magnets I am considering don’t actually stick or maybe they are only 3-inches wide. My eye draws to a question someone posted: “Do you think three of these will be enough? I’m tempted to cover my car in them. I don’t want anyone honking at my precious angel.” I laugh out loud and add the magnets to my cart and only then feel something like relief.  

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