There are some things you can't say, like "Your baby is ugly" or "Maybe you shouldn't take the driver's test yet, given that bunny you just ran over." But sometimes you can't help yourself.
Tall for 16, he slouches in a seat pushed all the way back, one hand resting negligently on the wheel. I sit upright, surreptitiously clutching the door handle, grateful that this is the last son I'll have to teach to drive.
Years ago, I taught this one to tie his sneakers, carve a pumpkin, kick a soccer ball, hold a kitten, and fend off a bully on the school bus. Now he thinks he knows it all.
He hasn't yet learned to scan the sides for unexpected missiles like kids on bikes or kamikaze squirrels, so he never saw the little rabbit, probably born that spring, and he barely felt the bump under the front right tire. But his lips thinned at my comment, and he tightened his hands on the wheel, staring straight ahead.
We ride in relative silence for a few minutes, listening to the gentle sweep of the windshield wipers, the snick of tires on pavement, the occasional squeal of brakes, and the soothing tone of the radio commentator.
Then he leans over to switch the station.
"Hey, I was listening to that." And I had been, between gasps. It was an NPR story about professional mourners. I'd thought the last of those went out with Oliver Twist. But mourning the dead is big business in China these days, apparently. One grieving relative explained matter-of-factly to the reporter, "We need a professional, because children in China have forgotten how to cry."
"It was just some news program about how the world sucks. Why do you listen to that sh- . . . stuff all the time? It's boring."
I ignore his near-miss on uttering profanity, then decide to ignore the self-absorbed attitude too. You have to pick your battles. "My car. My radio," I say instead.
After a few seconds, he leans over deliberately, achieving an impressive level of condescension as he switches back to the wailing. In the closed car, I listen to the manufactured grief, envisioning dry-eyed teens standing on a motherless, barren cliff with their hands over their ears, the only weeping the hired kind, extravagant and professional.
And as he takes the next turn, the car bounces over the curb and closes in on an overgrown holly. At that moment, I imagine my own funeral, watching it play out in front of me: flickering candles, gleaming casket, cascades of lilies, and my son as pall bearer, smirking in a new suit. I even have time to hear the opening bars of the hymn before he swerves back on the pavement, leaving a muddy gash on the lawn. I look over at him.
"What?" he says.
What if his juvenile reflexes hadn't kicked in and we'd rolled down the embankment or crashed into that holly, my mangled body thrust through a shattered windshield? Would he have scraped me from the pavement before the crows lit to pick my bones?
Or worse—this thought makes my stomach hurt—what if he'd been alone, the night dark and the road icy, radio at ear-splitting decibels, deaf to danger?
I do not say these things. "Slow down," I say instead.
He slows, exaggerating his caution, signaling a block before the next turn, planting his hands at ten and two to appease me, glancing over and laughing.
I don't slap him.
Unlike him, I keep my eyes on the road. Ahead, a mostly-flat bird straddles the solid yellow line in the middle of the street. It waves one tattered wing when cars speed by. That bird once flew with two. I want to say, "Notice that dead bird. It could be that some newly-licensed, texting teen failed to swerve from his flight path. Look. That blackbird had a mother."
Bet she told him not to fly so fast.
But I say nothing. We inch home, every stop sign given its due, both his hands solidly on the wheel. Once in park, he engages the brake and grins at me. I smile back. But after he goes inside I stay in the passenger seat, just breathing.