At the DMV, seated on a green plastic chair, an African-American woman is using her smart phone as a mirror as she applies mascara to her eyelashes. Next to her a teenaged Asian-American girl, wearing mini-shorts and sandals, keeps her head down, her black hair falling over her face, as she checks her phone. A young Hispanic couple come rushing in the “Appointments Only” door—the woman holding a baby and the man looking baffled as to where to go or what to do next. Against the side wall are the restroom doors—a single restroom for each sex, and seven or eight people waiting on line to get into each, in a building that at this moment holds what seems at least a hundred people. I have been in the women’s rest room: there is no hook for a purse and the floor is always wet.
My husband sits in the front row of chairs, waiting with others to be summoned for an 8:15 AM drive-test and I sit in the row behind him.
Twelve years ago a macular hole appeared in his right eye and he had surgery to close it. As a result, the DMV has required him to take a behind-the-wheel driving test every year. Though his eye has been stable, and each year the required eye exam attests to it, the drive-test is required. I always accompany him to the DMV and I always wait here for him. I wear my shabbiest clothes and oldest shoes. As soon as I get home I shed and toss into the trash everything I wear in this environment.
When they call my husband’s name I go up to Window 22 with him. Of the two women at the desk, one, a black woman, wears a knitted cap low over her forehead, almost over her eyebrows. She is dressed in a gray t-shirt with a stretched-out neck. The woman beside her has breasts that are falling out of her blouse. In wonderment, my eyes cleave to her cleavage. “Your license, your insurance, your car registration,” the black woman says and holds out her palm. My husband, whose hand is shaking slightly, hands her the papers. She studies them. “Your current eye exam.”
He offers her the two page document he got last month from the ophthalmologist. She glances at it and hands it back. “You need a current eye exam, this one is from last year.”
“No,” I interject. “This exam was done last month! See the date?”
The woman takes the papers from my husband’s hand and shoves them toward me. The date on it is last year’s date, not this year’s.
“It’s a mistake! The doctor obviously made a mistake; we were just there last month.”
“Sorry,” the woman says, “We can’t accept this.”
“But we have a drive-test appointment. We had to wait months to get it. I swear my husband had his eye exam last month. I was there with him.” I am, to my surprise, close to tears, swearing to this woman in the crazy knitted hat that now seems to be down over her eyes.
The young woman with the breasts is listening in. “Can you contact the doctor and have him fax us a corrected exam?”
“I don’t know! I could try!”
The scheduled hour of my husband’s precious drive exam is slipping away. The woman hands me a slip of paper. “This is the fax number here.”
I don’t know how I will achieve this task. I dig my cell phone out of my purse. The noise in the DMV is rising around my ears like a tsunami wave.
My husband sits down, his head bowed.
“I’ll see what I can do.” I go outside where the sun is blinding, where some guy is smoking, though it is forbidden at the DMV. I begin the impossible: calling the HMO, asking for the eye exam department, asking the receptionist there if she can solve this dilemma. “Help me,” I say to her. “We are lost at sea. We are at the DMV and my husband can’t take his driving exam without his eye exam and Dr. So and So [your imbecile doctor, I am thinking] signed the wrong date at the bottom of the form and we are desperate.”
“The doctor is with a patient. I can’t speak to him till he finishes the exam.”
I give her my cell phone number and the fax number at the DMV.
“Please call me back as soon as he sends a fax,” I beg her.
I tell my husband what I have done. His hands are visibly shaking. We are so stressed that I now see this ordinary movement of his in a different, more sinister, light. My husband has what is called an “essential tremor”—not a disease, not Parkinson’s, not progressive, in fact it’s genetic, his mother had it. (And therefore, our children could one day have it. I am horrified, suddenly, at this dangerous inherited possibility. It’s his mother’s fault. So much of what is wrong with him is his mother’s fault. And she, who hated me till the day she died, lives on as one quarter of each of my children).
What further horrifies me is how we could have gotten to be such old people. My husband’s birthday is tomorrow, on which date his driver’s license will expire. In the DMV we see dozens of young people of various races, all here to continue their wild and fortunate lives of driving cars to places where they will do their sexy, healthy, exciting stuff and then there are just a few old folks, like us, whose freedoms could be snatched away in a second.
There are warning signs on the walls of the DMV declaring that threatening an employee will lead to an arrest and court date and a fine and conviction with prison time. Also that it is illegal to bring firearms into the DMV. People in front of various windows here are arguing with people behind the windows. There is a level of anger in this building that is palpable. At the least there should be more than one restroom per sex.
The endless drone of the loudspeaker bombards us. “Now serving G003 at Window Number 6. Now serving B013 at Window Number 11.”
I’m holding my cell phone in my hand. More than a half hour has passed since the scheduled drive-test appointment. A half hour later, I go outside and call the receptionist at the eye doctor’s again. No progress has been made; he is still with a patient.
We sit and we stare aimlessly forward. If I were home, I could be playing Spider Solitaire on my computer; I could be eating the one leftover donut in the box on the kitchen table.
So many young and handsome people pass before my eyes. In their short skirts, the girls have perfect thighs and adorable knees, the guys in their white undershirts are macho, sexy, powerful looking, many with mustaches. There is an incredible aura of sex in this room.
My phone vibrates. I run outside so I can hear who is calling. The receptionist informs me that the doctor has sent a fax. I rush to tell the woman with the hat that the fax has been sent. She leaves her desk. I indicate to my husband by hand motions that some progress is taking place. The woman comes back and shows me a note scribbled and signed by the eye doctor: ”Sir, the exam was this year. I indicated the wrong year.”
“We can’t accept this note,” the woman tells me. “He has to fax us a new, complete, eye exam form, filled out.”
“What? The doctor faxed a correction. He signed it.”
“Sorry, you’ll have to get a new completed exam form signed.” She lays the note on her desk. “I’m on break now,” she says and walks away. The woman with the breasts (and so soft and comforting they now look to me) says, with pity: “Maybe our manager will approve this letter anyway. I’ll be right back.” And she rushes away with the paper. I turn toward my husband who is watching me from his chair. There are times that time stands still and this is one of them. The breasts come back toward me. “I got it approved,” she says, smiling. “Your husband can take his driving test. Have him bring his car around the side of the building, and put these papers on your dashboard.”
“Thank you, thank you,” I can’t thank her enough, this angel who has managed to free us from these hard chairs. As we go out of the building, I see again the same black woman I saw earlier continuing to apply mascara to her eyelashes. How beautiful, exactly, does she, does anyone, need to be at the DMV?
The inside of the car is hot; this is the end of July in California. My husband drives the car around the building and gets on line for the drive-exam. His hands are trembling. Two cars are ahead of him. Waiting on a concrete bench nearby are parents or a buddies of a hopeful driver, each waiting for the car, with his person in it, to come back with the examiner. Their anxiety, if they have any, is invisible. Those with phones are texting away, or talking, or taking selfies. A guy in ragged jeans, wearing a helmet and a leather jacket, is sitting in full sun. A tattooed girl in a halter top, her back and arms covered with snakes, is applying lipstick to her pierced lips. If I hadn’t married my husband so long ago, I wouldn’t be in this hell now. There were so many young men who admired me in college. My life could have gone in any direction but this one.
Ahead I see a kind-looking female examiner with her clipboard introducing herself to the driver of the car at the starting line. She looks human, almost sympathetic, if only my husband could get her! But off she goes, and the next examiner comes to the car ahead. He looks Chinese. We watch the routine: brake lights, turn signals, hand signals, horn honking, and then the man gets into that car. Now it is our turn.
We move up slowly to the white line. A man comes toward our car and my gut clenches. He has a sour, fierce, dark, ugly face. He says to me through my husband’s open window, “Exit the car now.” This man is a Nazi. I grab my purse and get out, and go to the trunk to retrieve a folding chair I brought along for this very purpose. The man is speaking in harsh tones to my husband as he goes through his commands and then he gets into the car. Oh God, we are doomed.
I drag my chair to where there is a drop of shade in the waiting area. My husband is apparently listening to the man’s instructions. He releases the brake and drives slowly forward. Then he is gone.
The book I brought to entertain myself during this time is called “A Widow’s Story,” and is a memoir by a woman, my age, whose husband dies unexpectedly and her life is destroyed in the blink of an eye. This of course is my ultimate nightmare, the terror that my husband will die and leave me abandoned. In any case, one of us will surely lose the other. Several of the women I know are widows and have survived the brutal job of taking care of a dying husband (some for months and some, unimaginably, for years). .
The author of the memoir, though nearly insane with grief and terror, has many friends who support her, and who send her “grief baskets.” Deliveries of food arrive, health-fruit drinks and cheeses and huge pears and sausages; also potted plants and even trees. I take account of my friends, not so many after all, and realize none would send me so much as a banana.
I sit outside of the DMV reading, checking my watch from time to time: where is he now, what critical mistakes is he making? So much as bumping a curb will end the test. No matter how rotten and afraid I feel now, no matter how I fear that my husband will lose his license and we will both be shunted directly into an old age home, nothing I feel is as bad as the terror the widow feels in the book I am reading. She can’t eat. She can’t sleep. She imagines hideous basilisks beckoning her to die.
I close the book. Why didn’t I just bring along a New Yorker or a crossword puzzle? There is something wrong with me that I am so willing to jump into suffering with the pure certainty that I deserve it. I knew this since I was a little girl. Life will end badly, incredible pain will be my lot, I will be left alone and bereft.
A familiar form materializes in front of me. What? My husband is back, how can that be, it’s too soon. The Nazi is walking ahead of him to the door of the DMV and my husband says to him, “Will you tell my wife what you told me?” The Nazi looks at me with disgust. “Your husband has a severe, dangerous tremor, he should not be on the road, I am going to recommend that his license be revoked, I will report him to the Safety Division.”
He goes in the door and shuts it in my husband’s face. “What did you do wrong?” I accuse him.
“He said I drove not up to speed on Orange Grove. He said my hands were shaking.”
“Did you tell him you don’t have a disease? That you’ve had a perfect driving record for sixty years?” I look at my beautiful, handsome, beloved husband and he seems beaten, diminished. I adore him. I would kill for him.
“I have to make an appointment to take another drive test, if they let me.”
I follow him back inside the DMV, he gets on a line, he gets an appointment for a month hence. He then has to go to the “Photo Room,” where they take a picture to put on his temporary license. He looks like a dead man on the picture. His face is sunken and white, his eyes are blank.
We drive out of the DMV. I ask my husband if we can go to Chang’s Garden for lunch. Some antidote to this poison is required. He just points the car toward home. We are on borrowed time here. He may have only days left to be my personal driver who takes me on our adventures, takes me to visit our distant children, takes me (rarely) to the beach so we can walk on Santa Monica Pier and let me play Skee Ball in the arcade.
Do I drive? I drove till a year ago when a big rig hit me on the freeway, spun me around into oncoming traffic whereupon two other trucks crashed into me. I had been on my way to the watercolor painting class at the Cancer Support Center. Painting was thought to be helpful and calming to those recovering from cancer treatment. My car was destroyed, I was banged up badly but not killed. The shatter-proof glass of my Maxima shattered in little jewel-like pieces all over my lap. As I sat there facing three lanes of oncoming traffic, as I waited numbly for a Highway Patrol Officer to reach me, I gathered up some little glittering pieces of my windshield and put them in my pocket for a souvenir. I knew was never going to see this car again. So yes, I drive. I just don’t go far, not more than a mile or two and only when necessary. I drive to my Depression Solutions group once a week. We talk about suicide there, and other desperate matters.
We get home alive. In the garage, I step out of my shirt, my pants, and my old sneakers and toss them in a pile. For good luck, I peel off my underpants as well. I enter the house naked. I don’t explain the reasons for this to my husband.
Within days, the US mail brings an official letter from the DMV. “The Department of Motor Vehicles has the responsibility of evaluating drivers to ensure the safety of the motoring public. You must have the enclosed medical forms completed by your doctor. If your medical condition indicates an immediate risk to the public safety, your driving privilege will be withdrawn and you will be notified by mail.” A six page medical evaluation form is enclosed, asking if my husband has psychiatric disorders, types of dementia or cognitive impairments, Alzheimer’s, impulsive behavior, impaired language skills, depression secondary to dementia, impaired visual spatial skills, and is he currently taking addictive drugs.
“Kafka had the same problems,” my husband, the professor that he is, says to me. But did Kafka have a wife like me who had to call an HMO and arrange for all these forms to be filled out?
Life at home has changed considerably. My husband spends hours at his computer playing “Free Cell,” his jaw set. We don’t talk. We are under siege here and we are helpless. We are in a totalitarian state.
In a few days, we go to the HMO to pick up the form completed by my husband’s doctor. Under “Prognosis” he has merely written the word: “Fair.”
“Fair?” I cry to my husband, as we examine the form in the waiting room. “Couldn’t he have written Good?” My eye travels to the bottom of the page. Where it says “Date” the doctor has stamped his name and address, but he has not filled in a date. We go back to the desk, give the form to the receptionist and ask that the doctor date the document. Of course he is with a patient. Of course we have to wait another hour.
“Could we go to Chang’s Garden for lunch?” I ask my husband. He doesn’t seem to want hot and sour soup or fish in black bean sauce. He has hardly been eating these last days. His manhood is under threat. Sinister forces want to remove him from his vehicle, which in California is like being removed from your basic freedom to breathe.
My husband puts his arm around me. “Maybe tomorrow we can go to Chang’s Garden.”
There are lots of jokes about bad Chinese drivers. In Toronto, my friend Wing Ning tells me, a bumper sticker with the letter C on it adorns the cars of some Chinese drivers. I have read about an Asian woman who took the driving test 950 times before she passed!
At Chang’s Garden I get fish filet with sweet and sour sauce, and my husband gets fish filet with black bean sauce. All around us sit Chinese diners—a sign, my husband says, that the food is good and authentic. What I feel, however, is that it’s a sign that Chinese are taking over America, and that I am becoming the lonely outsider.
My husband has decided to take a refresher driving lesson and he makes an arrangement to do so. “Natividad” is going to be his date for this experience, and he goes off to the driving school in his car. He takes two lessons with her. Natividad gives him a letter stating that he is a good driver.
Another legal letter arrives –my husband must appear at the Licensing Operations Division of the DMV to be interviewed under oath. A determination will then be made about his ability to take yet another driving test.
We drive there, to an unfamiliar distant city, and when we get near to the required address, the GPS says, “Make a legal U-turn and then make a legal U-turn.”
We have no idea what this means. Are we lost in some nightmare of DMV tricks? “Make a legal U-turn and then make a legal U-turn.” The voice insists upon this. “Do it,” I also insist. “Maybe she knows something we don’t know.”
I watch my husband make a legal U-turn and then as soon as he is able he makes another. But the GPS is right. After we make two legal U-turns, we find ourselves right in front of a huge building that says on it “STATE OF CALIFORNIA.”
My husband’s examiner, the letter says, will be Mr. Medrano. After a long wait, my husband is called in by Mr. Medrano. He is a short, dark-haired man, slightly balding.
“May I come in with him?” I ask and Mr. Medrano says, “Why, does he need your help?” Is he another Nazi? I see a sign on his office wall echoing one in the DMV stating that anyone threatening a state employee may be arrested and go to jail.
“This interview will be recorded, and we will now begin. Raise your right hand. Repeat after me—‘I swear that everything I say is the truth and nothing but the truth.’”
My husband swears. I don’t see a bible. Maybe this is not the “so help me God” kind of oath. Mr. Medrano states that everything said here is for the record. He asks my husband his name, his address, his age. He stamps various things on his desk as evidence that must go into the record: the verified eye exam and the many-page medical form from my husband’s doctor. There is also a note from Natividad of the driving school attesting that she has administered a two-day driving course.
Mr. Medrano asks my husband how bad his tremor is, does it get worse on different days, does it keeps him from holding his hands on the steering wheel , does it interfere with his steering the car. My husband hesitates. He’s thinking. I poke his thigh hard, out of sight of Mr. Medrano, to urge him to answer. Answer now!
Mr. Medrano announces that my husband will have to take a special drive-test with a specially trained instructor who is an expert on medical illnesses that impact driving safety. This examiner will have the ultimate decision about whether my husband will lose his driver’s license.
We are dismissed. As we stand to leave, I venture one question.
“What if my husband fails that driving-test–will he be allowed to take another?”
“Not if he makes a serious mistake that could put someone’s life in danger.”
This time, when we get into the car, I wonder, could my husband actually kill someone? Kill me? The GPS voice says: “Make a legal U-turn.” But only one legal U-turn is required this time, and when my husband makes the turn, we are skillfully pointed in the direction of home.
When I can’t sleep, I pick up “A Widow’s Story,” and allow myself to imagine my husband dead. But he isn’t dead. How lucky I am! We could go on for years, we could live to a hundred. In bed, he still holds me tight.
The desperate widow is feeling abandoned, unprotected, stranded in her house that she once loved but now hates to enter. Still, friends surround her, feed her. She even gives a little dinner party in her own house and someone brings along a man she doesn’t know, a professor at her college. This happens toward the end of her book where she is shown in a photo with her dead husband, and the words: “Of the widow’s countless death-duties there is really just one that matters: on the first anniversary of her husband’s death the widow should think I kept myself alive.”
On an impulse, I Google the writer’s name. I discover that within a year of her husband’s death, she eloped and married again. She married a good-looking Jewish guy from Brooklyn. Brooklyn, where I was born! I check her name under “Images” and there she is, the new bride, dancing with wild happiness at her wedding celebration given by friends, wearing a brilliant red satin coat, and kicking up her feet in joy.
How fair is that? How likely is that? If I were widowed, what are the chances of my finding a good looking Jewish guy from Brooklyn? In fact, I am married to a good looking Jewish guy from Brooklyn. Let me not go there. I never want the opportunity to find another. I have been in love with my husband for more than sixty years—may we live, as the saying goes, to 120.
My psychiatrist, who is a pretty young woman from the Philippines, wants me to add Melatonin to the Trazadone I take for sleep. She is dubious about my wanting to discontinue my anti-depression drug which, as we have discussed before, has, in her words, “serious sexual side effects.” Yes, this medicine kills all sexual desire in a tradeoff for a less depressed state of life. The puzzlement is this: how can one be less depressed if sex has flown from one’s bed? She only allows me ten minutes, which is what the HMO permits for a checkup of one’s psychotropic drugs and any adjustment that be required. “Do you have any stressful situations that may be coming up in your life?” the psychiatrist asks me, typing quickly on a keyboard in her lap as she speaks.
“Oh, not at all. Nothing stressful is coming my way.”
In my Depression Solutions group, we do discuss the sex lives that are now our lot. One guy says that fifteen years ago he used to look like Brad Pitt and got laid twice a week. Now he gets all the affection that his mother never gave him from his dog. I love this group because even our therapist shares her troubles. She tells us about a theory of sharing pain, it’s called “Tonglen.” When we are suffering, we can do good in the world if we agree to take on the burdens of all others who are suffering and take the pain from them so they can be free of it for a time. We acknowledge this way that not only do we suffer, we all suffer. There’s a breathing exercise that goes with this idea: take a deep breath, inhaling all the pain in the world, yours and others, and then blow it out, blowing away pain, freeing ourselves and others. Our therapist confides that she wants to have a husband one day, badly enough to take two weeks off for a little face lift and time to henna her hair. She, who is really young and gorgeous, says to our group that she envies me that I have been married so long. Is being envied a true satisfaction in life? I don’t think so. Is my depression improving? I definitely am not going to take antidepressants any longer.
On the morning of the scheduled drive-test, I change my tactics. For breakfast, I make my husband French toast with fresh blueberries and pure maple syrup. I play a CD of Pachelbel as we eat and drink our coffee. I shower and apply coconut scented hair conditioner. I dress in my flowered chiffon dress with a lacy neckline and the wavy, uneven hem that moves delicately with every step. Finding a pair of gold and pearl earrings, I clip them on and slip my feet into my leather sandals. My husband, picking up the spirit of my mood, goes outside to polish the car. I help him by pointing at places he missed, little streaks on the windshield, a powdering of dust on the dashboard. We empty the back seat of all the bags now required to carry groceries out of Trader Joe’s.
I pretend that we are not going to the DMV but on a road trip to Big Sur. My heart is light, my spirit excited, this will be a kind of honeymoon trip. I don’t let my thoughts wander; I have blinkered them like a race horse’s eyes to keep my focus.
I suggest to my husband that he wear the bright Hawaiian shirt I got him in the thrift shop. While he’s in the bathroom, I use the attachment to his shaver to clip his sideburns neatly. He is so handsome, with his square jaw and his thrilling brown eyes. How lucky we have been all these years.
Nothing is going to stop us enjoying the rest of our lives, not some petty bureaucrat interfering in our plans. If he can’t get his license he’ll just drive without one, he’s never been stopped even once, ever, by a cop. We are going to overcome our troubles and transcend them.
While he gets dressed in his Hawaiian shirt and his brown dress pants, I go out in the yard and watch the hummingbirds dip into the sugar water in the hanging feeder. I practice “Tonglen” breathing, taking into myself all the suffering and troubles of the world, including ours, and then exhaling all the bitterness and pain upward to the exalted heavens.
Please, I say, let these troubles be lifted from us. To whom or what am I talking? It could be a hummingbird, what does it matter? It’s out there or up there or in here.
“Okay, let’s go,” he says, “I’m ready.”
“I’m ready, too.”
This time I am not going to enter the DMV. Let my husband manage his necessities. When he parks, I wish him Godspeed and I take my little folding chair and my Kindle to a place in the shade and set myself up for the duration. I check the books I have recently downloaded: Being Mortal, Why Norma Jean Killed Marilyn Monroe, The Joys of Uncluttering Your House with Feng Shui, and You Are Always Safe With Me. The latter is a romance set in Turkey. I’ll go for that.
I have a pretty sun-hat with me in case the glare gets too bright. I feel some sense of exultation which I do not question. There is a breeze coming over the tops of the cars waiting on line. Eventually I see my husband’s car come around the corner. I just keep reading about the handsome Turkish captain sailing his little gulet through the inlets of the Turkish coastline and his attraction to the pretty woman who is one of the guests on the boat. By the time the other members of the cruise have gone on a shore excursion and the captain and the woman he loves are left alone on the deck of the boat, I am totally engrossed. There is a love scene, both delicate and sensual that takes place after the two of them kayak in the blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Though she may not be able to remain in Turkey with her lover, is it possible she might conceive his child? This is her desire and dream. The gulet rocks softly in the peaceful waters, the sunset sends a glaze of beauty that encloses them in a cocoon of love.
When my husband taps my arm and I look up, he nods at me. The examiner is walking ahead of him and holds the door of the DMV open for him and then he follows my husband inside.
Later that evening, my husband and I sit by the pool and appreciate the pandemonium of screaming parrots that cut across the streaks of sunset in the sky. My husband takes my hand—I feel no tremor in his. We are being mindful that summer is coming to an end, that the full moon will be overhead at midnight, that this winter El Nino may lessen the drought and our trees may not all die, but just a few. Later, when we go to bed, could it be? I have a shimmering sensation that the sexual side effects of my drug may be lifting.