Stop Signs

Never get into a car with a stranger.

This is a warning that’s drummed into us as kids. I ignored it once. But since I was 28 at the time and the driver of the car was a driving instructor I figured it would be okay.

The audio of this story originally appeared on the RISK! Show podcast on July 19, 2012 (Episode 337, “Treacherous”). Listen to RISK! on iTunes or at risk-show.com.

I’d attempted to learn to drive as a teenager but hadn’t gotten the chance to practice much so had ended up failing my driving test. Then I moved to New York City in my late teens and couldn’t afford a car, nor did I need one, so I lived for years without a license. I only missed having one sometimes, like when I had to actually go somewhere beyond the reach of the subway system.

For years I made do by bumming rides off of people. But eventually I wanted to move out of the city and buy a house and it was then that I realized that it was going to be impossible to house hunt – or live, for that matter – in the suburbs without a car. Before I could get a car I needed to get a license. Before I could get a license I needed to learn how to drive. So I called up a local driving school and arranged for lessons, a block of twelve spread over six weeks.

My instructor was a heavyset guy who looked to be in his fifties. His name was Ron and he was the school’s owner. He was friendly enough. A little too chatty, actually. He had a tendency to ramble on about himself and his interests. The act of operating a one and a half ton projectile while deciphering lights, signs and the intentions of other drivers took all of my wits and concentration. But I was too polite to ask him to stop talking so much.

You see, I was raised to be deferential; to put other people’s comfort first; to not make waves in social situations.

For several weeks I met up with Ron in his dual-braked car with the little sign on top. We’d drive around various neighborhoods on the northern end of Staten Island, where I lived at the time. As I got more comfortable at the wheel, we went further afield. So did our conversation. Or, rather, so did the subjects, such as Civil War history, that Ron was talking about to me. I mostly listened, so focused was I on the task of driving that it was a struggle to offer much more than a monosyllabic response.

The shift in conversation happened gradually but noticeably. One week Ron was pointing out various sites of the Underground Railroad, as well as homes of abolitionists, around Staten Island. The next he was starting to share more personal information about himself. It began with a vague statement concerning marital discontent.

“Things get old after a few years,” he sighed. I just nodded as I struggled to remember the rules of right of way in an intersection.

“Or you just realize you married the wrong person,” he continued, somewhat dolefully. I wasn’t sure where he was going with this, but to me he just sounded like a sad sack.

Then he said, “My wife isn’t a very adventurous person.”

“What do you mean?” I said, noting the light ahead turning yellow and slowing. I thought he was talking about scuba diving or something.

“She’s not very sexually adventurous.”

Was that the sound of screeching tires? No. Those were only in my head.

I don’t think I said anything in response. I was too dumbstruck, wondering if I’d really heard what I thought I’d heard. He backed off. But he started up again the next time we met for a lesson.

“Hey, do you take vitamins?” he asked me, apropos of nothing in particular.

“No. Why?”

“I take vitamins,” he asserted. “I take a lot of vitamin B especially. That helps with blood circulation. And that helps with erections.”

Okay. Now I was getting uncomfortable. This guy was clearly either clueless or a kook. But I only had two lessons left before my driving test, which was already scheduled and that had taken a month. Ron gave me the creeps, but I couldn’t take the risk of dumping him and trying to find another instructor on such short notice. So I let it slide.

The next week, my penultimate lesson, I got in the car with Ron and we headed over to the Silver Lake area, one of the quieter neighborhoods.

“Make a right here,” he said casually.

I made the right and drove down a street that was thin on houses. After a couple of blocks I realized it was a dead end street with no houses at the end of it.

“Pull over here and park,” said Ron.

I did as he instructed.

We sat there for a few moments.

Then Ron turned to face me and said, “If I was to rape you right now it would be your word against mine.”

My mind reeled, taking in his words, what they meant. But I couldn’t react. I was frozen in my seat. This, I thought to myself, is how people get raped. Some part of me thought I needed to treat him like a wild animal. If I showed fear, he would attack. But if I stood my ground, he’d back off. This wasn’t logic at work. This was instinct.

I couldn’t look at him.

Instead, I turned the key, reached for the gearshift and put the car in Drive.

“I’m driving home now,” I said robotically.

Then I did a quick K turn and drove back to my neighborhood. We covered the miles in complete silence. When I got out of the car I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t. I was too shaken up.

For days I wrestled with what to do about this situation. On the one hand, I knew there was a chance he was dangerous. On the other, I figured if he was going to try something it would have been during that last lesson. I also remembered, with a great deal of retroactive alarm, that he’d had his own set of brakes. He could have stopped me from driving back down that street. But he hadn’t.

Mostly, I thought about all the plans I had made and how I didn’t want to let some jerk screw them all up. I needed to get my license. I was on a schedule. So I decided to just get through my last lesson and the driving test with this guy.

This was one of the dumbest decisions I’ve ever made. Where I’d listened to my instincts and gotten lucky, I would go on to totally ignore my instincts just one week later.

The day of our last lesson arrived and there was Ron, waiting. I got in the car with him. This was going to be a long 45 minutes. It could end badly. I was gambling and I knew it.

I drove. As I drove, Ron began to talk.

“You know,” he offered, “Some women get the wrong idea about things I say sometimes.”

I was listening.

“One time I was teaching this lady and I said, ‘Hey, we’re going to have a good time today!’” He laughed. “She misinterpreted and thought I was saying something sexual.”

I kept driving.

“Anyway,” he said, waving a dismissive hand, “I just want to make sure you didn’t get the wrong idea about me or anything I said. It was all in good fun.”

He was worried. That much was clear. Somehow that removed my own worry, although I was still wary enough that I wasn’t going to agree to turn down any side streets on this drive.

At the top of the hour we were back on my street. As I got out of the car he said, “Okay, Julie. I’ll pick you up next week for the test.”

A few days later I found a friend willing to take me to the test and let me use her car for it. Then I called the driving school after hours and left a message on the machine there. I never saw Ron again.

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