Driving Lessons

Pai is not a fan of the blue sedan in the driveway.

It is not, objectively speaking, a bad-looking car; nor does the dent in the left side door show too prominently when looked at from most angles. But it’s supposed to be his—his parents bought it for him, a hand-me-down from his cousin Jie, for his seventeenth birthday—and he’s supposed to sit behind the wheel and make it move.

“Ready?” Ba ducks out of the garage, and Pai’s stomach clenches. Four weeks before he heads off to college, which means Ba wants to go driving with him every Saturday morning.

Because the one time Pai went alone, he crunched the side of the vehicle into a concrete pillar in an underground parking lot.

Traveling all of two miles an hour.

“I don’t think—” he starts.

“You just need practice.” Ba claps him on the back, and Pai pushes down a flinch. His father has gotten better, lately, at asking permission to touch him, but physical contact comes so naturally to Ba that sometimes he forgets. “It’ll be good for you. You’ll be able to get around your new campus by yourself. Learn some life skills.”

Pai swallows, rocks back on his heels. He has life skills, he wants to argue—he can cook a perfect sunny-side up ten times out of ten, even if Ma complains that the several years’ worth of breakfasts that went into building that ability resulted in close to zero variety in his diet. He can recite every single plot beat of the fifty-two-episode show Inferno in Paradise from memory, complete with time stamps. But learning to drive means he’s trying: that he’s ready to become a real adult; that he is more than the frustrated murmurs he hears from Ba’s office late at night when his parents think he has gone to sleep.

And, too: he cannot imagine what it would be to stop.

“Okay,” he says, shuffling toward the driver’s seat, and Ba tosses him the keys.


He goes wrong at his fourth intersection.

His subdivision’s streets are long and winding, all rolling green lawns and pristine pastel houses, but then he turns onto the main road—left, around the lane of cross traffic—and a horn blares and a car barrels toward him on his left and Ba shouts “not that one, the other one, turn, turn,” and adrenaline lances through Pai’s stomach another horn incoming and Ba gesticulates wildly and they swerve, the world a sickening grey lurch, a chorus of honks trailed behind them.

An open driveway, on his left. Pai pulls in and slams the car into park. His hands are shaking; electricity spikes through his skin.

“You have to say how to turn,” he says, his voice too loud in the cramped cabin. “I can’t just—”

“I was telling you,” Ba snaps.

“You weren’t, you just pointed like—”

“I’ve told you a dozen times already. You stick to your lane.”

“I know—”

“Then why didn’t you—”

“Cos I didn’t see the lane line, I didn’t hin—sh—ngh—” Lightning splintering through his middle, his vision fractured to color and edge. He clears his throat. Clears it again, his face burning.

“Pai,” Ba says: a warning. “Calm down. You’re fine.”

“Sorry.” The word comes out garbled, its edges blurred, and Pai rocks back in his seat, gulping air. “Sorry. You drive. I ca—an—nh—”

“Pai,” Ba says again, lower, and Pai’s entire body flushes with shame. “Fine. Let’s switch seats. Practice again in the evening, after my meetings. Okay?”

Pai stumbles wordlessly toward the passenger side, curls into himself as his heart slams against his chest. The world has gone serrated—nausea rising in his stomach as the sedan wheels out of the drive; shard of blue sky through the windshield, menacing in its purity.

The lines beginning to deepen around Ba’s eyes and mouth, from seventeen years of disappointment at what Pai has failed to become.

Pai pushes the heel of his palm against his sternum, drags in a breath. He cannot do this. Cannot maneuver a two-ton death machine down multi-lane roads of impatient drivers. Cannot go off to college an hour and a half away—far enough that he’ll truly learn to live on his own, according to his parents—and pretend he has even the barest chance at surviving.

“You know,” Ba says, as he starts the car, “when I was six, my brother—your First Uncle—made me take the train back from school by myself.”

Pai’s entire body is twisted, wrung out. A pressure behind his eyes like tears. “Mm.”

“He was five years older than me—fifth grade to my first—and we were supposed to go home together. But that day, he had Boy Scouts or some shit, and he just waved at me and told me to go by myself.’” Ba turns back onto the main street, hands sure around the wheel. “I was scared out of my mind at first—cried, yelled, punched him in the stomach, the whole bit.”

Pai breathes out through his mouth, slow. Tries to imagine Ba at six years old—a tiny, dark-haired kid, flinty eyes and quick fists—but the image slips away as soon as he tries to hold it. “You h—you punched him?”

“Hard as I could.” Ba grins, briefly. “There were two transfers, to get from our school back to our house. But I put myself back together, asked some people for directions. And then I rode the train. I didn’t even need him, after that.”

“Oh.” Pai’s hand is still fisted against his chest. Ba rarely tells stories about his own childhood—for him, there is only the bright shining future, in which Pai hares off to college glad to be rid of his stodgy old parents; becomes the kind of person whose backseat fills every weekend with boisterous, carefree friends.

“Sometimes you just have to learn,” his father says, glancing at him. “It won’t always be easy. But once you know, no one can take that away from you…and I want you to be happy too, you know?” Ba’s voice as quiet as Pai has ever heard it, as if he was not shouting just a minute ago. “I want you to get where you need to go.”

Ba keeps talking, but Pai drifts—loses himself in the curling edges of clouds, the shimmer of distant trees. The steady hum of the engine beneath him, his father’s voice falling into a familiar cadence, and all he knows is that he’s going home.


He opens the front door to find Ma at the kitchen counter, scrolling through a spreadsheet on her laptop.

“How was it?” she asks as he stumps past.

“Not—nh,” he says, and pushes his palm into the hollow of his chest. His head feels full of cotton, the world softened to an exhausted haze. He just wants to lie down. “Ask Ba.”

Ma pushes out of her chair—slowly, as if afraid she will startle him. “Pai—”

“We lost it at a left turn,” Ba says gruffly, closing the door behind him. “No broken limbs, though. Or tickets from the police. Though I would have had words with them if they’d tried.”

Pai rocks back gently, the word we snagged on the edges of his attention. The room comes in fragments—the kitchen lights a soft incandescent glow, clean hardwood floor beneath his feet. The beveled corner of granite countertop pressing into the soft of his stomach.

Ba clears his throat. “Well then. I have a meeting at nine thirty.”

“We’ll talk about this later?” Ma says, looking from him to Pai, and Pai shrugs.

And then Ba is walking away, whistling, his back already to them.

Pai’s heart squeezes. When he was a kid, his father often left in the middle of the night for emergency work meetings; Pai would be tucked into bed when the garage would thunder open beneath him, headlights cutting through the tiny crack in his blackout curtains, and he’d press his face against the window and stare out into the dark and wonder if Ba was going to come back.

“Wait,” he forces out just before Ba turns the corner.

Ba stills. “Yes?”

Pai sways back on his heels, and then forward again. His father standing there, hands shoved in his pockets, hoping for Pai to be easier about things than he is, and in four weeks Pai will be a hundred miles away and driving alone and it will be too late for all the things he wants to say.

He wills his tongue into shape, forces the words out between his teeth. “Tha—ank you,” he says. “For h—for taking me.”

Ba smiles thinly. “Anytime. Let me know when you’re ready to go on the highway.”

Heat flares through Pai’s cheeks. Never, he wants to say, forget about college, give the car back to Cousin Jie, but Ma has closed her laptop, concern written all over her face, and he flees upstairs to his room before she can push him further.


“When you’re ready, merge into the lane immediately to your left. Check over your shoulder—there you go.”

The next weekend, coasting along the expressway: Pai rigid in the driver’s seat, drenched in sweat, and he regrets knocking on the door of Ba’s office at eight that morning, regrets asking to try this at least once before he must cross these lanes himself. But he has only three weeks, now, until he leaves. Three weeks to pack everything he owns into corpse-sized suitcases, to scroll through the hundreds of incoming emails and checklists and course catalogs; three weeks to look his parents in the face and not lock down at the thought of being so completely alone.

“Good,” Ba says. “Now just keep going straight.”

Pai glances up at the rearview mirror: a truck on his tail, its grille glinting chrome. His windpipe closes. “There’s a—in the back—”

“Go at your own speed,” Ba says evenly. “Don’t let anyone drive you.”

Pai exhales slow, loosens his fingers around the steering wheel. The sky is a searing, cloudless blue today, the road velvet-smooth, and he can almost see himself a year from now, dashing back and forth between campus and his house, dirty laundry piled in the trunk like his cousins used to do. Can almost imagine crossing lane lines with a single glance over his shoulder, the turn of the car intuitive as a second body.

And then he thinks of Ba gone from the passenger’s seat—thinks of the tours he has made of his cousins’ dorms, grungy hard-edged rooms reverberating with drunken shouts and other people’s music—and his breath catches in his throat.

“Ba,” he says, braking gently as the car in front of him slows.


The truck passes him, all thunder and shadow. Pai swallows, adjusts his grip on the wheel.

I’m not ready, he wants to cry out. I need another month, another year.

Don’t leave me. Don’t go.

But his eyes blur dangerously, and all that comes out is a half-choked, “Uni’s—kind of far.”

“The more you go back and forth, the shorter it will seem,” Ba says. “And Ma and I, we’re not going anywhere.”

“I know, but—”

“Take the next exit—there.”

Pai turns onto the ramp, the knot between his shoulders loosening marginally as the car slows. He’s lightheaded, the entire back half of his body sweat-damp against the seat, but he’s not all the way gone. The words are intact on his tongue, and he can still feel his arms and legs.

“You did great,” Ba says as Pai parks in front of a small strip mall, and that hollowness rings through him again—of sunlight beaming unhindered across the empty passenger seat, of the familiar roads and houses and trees he will no longer drive past each Saturday. It feels like dying.

“I kn—I know.”

“So why are you crying?”

Pai swipes furiously at his eyes. “I’m not.”

“If you want to talk about it—”

“No,” he snaps, rocking back in his seat. His chest is tight, his breath coming too fast, and he wishes the world would stop spinning—that he could stay anchored here, in this car, in this parking lot, beneath this ache-blue sky, and never move on. “No, I just—let’s go home.”


Three weeks later: his room bare, closet empty, all his boxes and suitcases piled up in the living room. It’s all wrong, he thinks as he stands at the base of the stairs—the walls tilted into strange shapes, his knees bruised from ramming hard surfaces where there should have been none. The dissonance jangles beneath his skin.

Ma and Ba sit side by side on the sofa, a bittersweet twist to their mouths as they survey the small hill that is his belongings.

“All ready?” Ba says, too jovial. “Let’s start moving things to the car.”

Nausea surges up Pai’s stomach like a tide.

“No,” he says, and walks out of the room.

The sedan sits in the driveway—the keys on a hook beside the garage door, and he snatches them up, hard metal teeth against the soft of his palm; slams the door on his way out. He needs time to think—to find some way he can stay. To leave the house for long enough that none of this will be real when he returns.

The low thrum of the engine is almost familiar now—as is the click of his seatbelt, the neighborhood streets he turns down too quickly, left and right and another left. Here is the intersection where Ba shouted at him, and the driveway he pulled onto when he lost his words, and then he’s peeling down the main road, trees and other cars flickering past in spritzes of meaningless color.



A minivan on his tail, but he lets it pass—don’t let them drive you. The air-conditioned breeze sears his nostrils. An orange light blinks on beside the speedometer—low on fuel—and he pulls into the nearest petrol station but the nozzles aren’t the bare silver ones Ba showed him, they have crinkled plastic tubing that flares at the end, and when he jams the apparatus into the fuel valve it won’t fit, it won’t fucking fit and heat pricks his eyes, a strangled sob working its way up his throat, and he slams the fuel tank door and parks along the side of the station, tips his head back against the headrest and gasps and gasps and gasps.

Ma and I, we’re not going anywhere.

His heart hurts. He can’t get enough air.

I want you to get where you need to go.

He doesn’t want this, he thinks, rocking back hard against the seat. Doesn’t need to go anywhere.

A tap on his window, and Pai jerks away, static crackling through his hands.

Ba. Bent toward him, mouthing words he cannot hear.

Pai rolls the window down. “How did you—” he chokes, and his father’s lips thin into a line.

“Did you know you forgot your phone?”


“You can’t do that,” Ba snaps, “you can’t just leave. What if the neighbors hadn’t seen you going this way? What if I hadn’t remembered that the car was low on fuel?” and something crumples inside Pai and he’s holding his head in his hands, a high keening out of his throat, Ba’s voice scrambled into a nonsense of syllables.

“Pai.” Distantly, as if muffled by thick cloth. “Pai—”

The car door swings open—Pai nearly tumbles out, only the seatbelt cutting across his torso saves him—and then his father’s arms are wrapped awkwardly around his shoulders, anchoring him to the ground.

“I’m here,” Ba murmurs, and Pai presses his face against his father’s shirt, tries to remember how to breathe. “Hey. Hey. Calm down. The world hasn’t burned yet—” and Pai wraps his arms around Ba and tries to stop shaking.

I’m afraid, he wants to say, but the words won’t come, the words are thorns in his throat. I don’t know how to do any of this.

“I’m here,” Ba says again, patting Pai’s shoulder clumsily, “Hey, I’m right here—” and Pai holds him and holds him and doesn’t let go.


P. H. Low is a Rhysling-nominated Malaysian American writer and poet with work published or forthcoming in TERSE. Journal, Mithila Review, and Flash Fiction Online, among others. Low serves as a first reader for khōréō, a speculative fiction magazine featuring immigrant and diaspora writers and stories, and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Nevada, Reno.