I didn’t feel great about knocking on my dentist’s front door at 11 PM. This was less weird than it sounds—I knew where he lived because I was friends with his son and occasionally hung out there. I didn’t need an emergency teeth cleaning, or a complimentary toothbrush labeled, “Dr. Ken Weiss, Simply Beautiful Smiles.” I needed to use his phone to call my dad. It was about my car.
It was junior year of high school, and I was on my way home from a “college informational session”—those hour-long meet-and-greets with folding chairs set up in an auditorium and recruiters saying things like, “A typical University of Chicago student might enjoy having an intellectual conversation in a park after class.”
The promise of college had left me feeling anxious, as it does most kids this point in their lives. There was a future, and it would be brighter than the monotony high school had become by the time I was taking the SATs, even if it meant sitting on a bench and talking about Proust.
But that was two years away. I walked out of the auditorium craving novelty, and I wasn’t sure I could wait.
Earlier in the school year, I had seen a senior do a fishtail with his car in the parking lot. He had a new, cream-colored Acura RSX, and was dropping off a girl on the field hockey team at the practice field. The parking lot was mostly empty, so he accelerated, cut the wheel, braked. The vehicle skidded sideways across the concrete while the back of the car swayed.
The girl got out of the car amidst a cloud of smoke, beaming like she’d just stepped off a rollercoaster, and ran to her friends on the field. Checkered skirts bounced as the girls romped in excitement. I’m not sure they said anything besides, “Oh my God!”
My friend Jon and I watched from the tennis court in our white polos. I’m not sure we said anything besides, “Dude.”
The streets were desolate by the time I was driving home from the “college informational session” in my 1995 brick red Nissan Sentra. Recreational speeding turned into fishtailing after I almost missed a turn and tried to make it anyway. Jon was in the passenger seat, and wailed “holy shit!” after I straightened out. The smell of burnt rubber in my vehicle was intoxicating, and Jon’s gleeful reaction was rewarding. If only the field hockey team could see me now.
The fishtail seemed accidental, but was it? It’s as if I was impersonating the senior, who was a year ahead of me, just to feel older. This way, college college felt closer. I wanted more.
I accelerated, braked, and skidded through a neighborhood. There were soft hills, wooden animal mailboxes, unlit houses. TVs flickered in upstairs bedrooms. Suburbanites watched the local news as I wreaked havoc in the streets below.
When I braked too late and lost control, I remember the steering wheel feeling useless, like a racing arcade game without quarters. The car popped over a curb and landed in a front yard.
Once the car settled, Jon and I looked at each other. He said, “Dude.”
The front door of the house opened. A middle-aged husband and wife trekked out in pajamas. I backed up, my wheels digging deeper into their lawn as I yelled “sorry” out my window. Their eyes reflected my headlights and looked like white marbles.
Jon was silent. So was I. The car wasn’t. We heard something dragging. I put the car in park and walked to the rear. The exhaust pipe had partially detached and hung on the ground.
Jon told me we should call someone. Neither of us had cell phones, so I thought for a moment.
“My dentist lives nearby.”
Years later, I saw the film Drive. In it, Ryan Gosling’s character—credited only as “Driver”—fixes cars, drives stunt cars on movie sets, and moonlights as a getaway driver. When his neighbor and love interest asks what he does for a living, the answer is simple: “I drive.”
Driver wears a satin jacket with a yellow scorpion embroidered on the back, which feels more cool and emblematic than douchey and vapid. We never see him take it off. It’s not an outfit; it’s who he is.
There’s a scene where Driver is on the phone with one of the film’s bad guys after killing his partner by driving him off the road and drowning him in the ocean. “You know the story about the scorpion and the frog?” he asks. “Your friend Nino didn’t make it across the river.”
It’s a reference to an ancient fable: A scorpion and frog meet at a river, and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on his back. The frog asks, “How do I know you won’t sting me?” The scorpion answers, “Because if I do, I will die, too.” Satisfied, the scorpion and frog set off across the river. Halfway out, the scorpion stings the frog. Paralyzed, the frog begins to sink, their fates decided. In his last moments, the frog asks the scorpion, “Why did you sting me?” The scorpion responds, “It’s my nature.”
The fable existed before the film, but the film helped me understand the fable. I saw Drive while I was living in New York City, satisfying an interest in driving during a period of my life when I didn’t have a car.
The fable has several interpretations: One interpretation suggests you can’t change the nature of someone who’s inherently vicious; a scorpion will remain true to its violent nature even when a frog treats him kindly. Another interpretation, and the one that would resonate with me years later, is that people will remain true to their nature irrespective of external influences.
It was the day after I moved across the country to Los Angeles. I was driving the first car I bought since high school, and I was still acclimating to being behind the wheel again. I checked my rearview and saw a car speeding in the right lane. I was in the center lane, approaching the intersection. I needed to turn right. I started to switch lanes. I hesitated and checked my rearview. The other car was close. Could I make it? I had to. A car started passing on my left. An illegal turn from the center lane would be the only thing keeping me from getting hit. I took the risk. I accelerated and cut the wheel.
I made it. A clean getaway, or so I thought. I heard a single, short blip. A motorcycle cop—badge, sunglasses, helmet with the chin strap—pulled behind me.
I got a ticket. It had been years since the fishtailing incident in high school, and yet it brought me back to the same feeling: vulnerable, in the midst of change, and unable to control myself from taking a risk.
It’s in my nature to take risks during periods of change, and my risky behavior emerges when I’m behind the wheel. The ticket in LA happened a day after I had moved across the country to start a new life in a new city. The fishtail incident in high school happened when I was preparing to leave for college. Like Driver, I was succumbing to my human nature, even when it posed a risk to myself and those around me.
The fable of the frog and scorpion not only illustrates the constraints of human behavior, but the two sides of human nature: the frog is kind and passive; he observes the field hockey girl getting dropped off, submitting to the scorpion’s sting, accepting he lacks the tenacity of the senior in the Acura. The scorpion is vicious; driving recklessly, fishtailing, attempting dangerous turns out of haste.
Reality isn’t as rigid as the fable. Most of us have been the scorpion and the frog at different points in our lives, unable to control our primal urges. Using my life as an example, I’m the frog in times of stagnancy, and the scorpion in times of change, acting according to the human nature of each.
Which one am I now?
When I drive down my street at night, if the moon shines right, I can see the shadow of my Prius on the side of buildings. The street is lined with palm trees, and the shadows of the tree trunks meld with the silhouette of my car, resembling a tail. The hanging leaves form a point, and it looks almost like a stinger.
Whichever one I am, I’m always awaiting the other’s return.
Until then, I drive.