obstacle

I’m on my way to the airport at sunrise. A taxi comes to pick me up at the corner of a cobbled street, swerves abruptly sideways, then parks. Despite the morning blur, I notice a conspicuous absence of any type of obstacle. No stray cat, pidgeon, rock, asphalt bump or other geometric or organic protuberance that would force a car to adopt a hard evasive tactic. I jump in the cab and forget about it.

The driver is a veteran of the wheel. His face is made of leather, delineated by asphalt and nicotine. He asks me to sit in the front due to “spilled water” in the back. We set off and within minutes I’m reintroduced to the mystery of the absent obstacle. He yanks the wheel counterclockwise and back on a straight road, calmly, as if we’re inside an imaginary asteroid belt and dodging invisible rocks is part of the flight routine.

They say taxi drivers have especially well developed frontal cortices, but this man may be tuned into a parallel world. I scan the road ahead to see if I can learn to see what he sees. Ten seconds later, I spot the first clue. A dark patch on the road. But it’s not an obstacle. It’s an old pothole that has been fixed with asphalt-emulsion crack filler. It’s got a completely smooth surface. Like driving over dried paint.

Swoosh! He decides to avoid the patch anyway. I’m thrown sideways for the umpth time. At least I understand his rationale now.

A minute later, he swerves again. But this time it’s not even the remainder of a former pothole, but a perfectly fixed crack, maybe no more than a few inches long, barely recognizable. It’s just shaded. Does he dodge shadows, too? Imagine mines under the shades? See holes that lead to China? What exactly does he see?

Like an alarmed goose that keeps a sideways glance at the prowling fox, I follow him on the edge of my peripheral vision to make sure he doesn’t shake like the asylum patients in Jacob’s Ladder or manifest any other behavioral ticks or obsessive-compulsive patterns that could prevent me from reaching the airport in time. He seems fine and stable in every other respect, except for his relationship with the wheel. He even looks smart, at least in a specific subject area, such as the comparative attrition factor of rubber tires.

I decide to broach the topic of his driving style discreetly.

“It’s a beautiful morning, jaa? Did your car recently hit a bump and explode, or why are we zigzagging the asphalt?”

Except I only say the first sentence.

The conversation takes off cordially about the intricacies of traffic in the early hours of the morning and then lands on the topic of the dark patches.

“Bumpy problem,” the Latvian man tells me out of his own initiative and points the index finger in several directions. The “bumpy problems” are everywhere. I nod, gently aghast, feigning understanding. After a long strategic pause, I decide to lance the abscess.

“But, err, avoiding all the bumpy problems also causes a bit of bumpiness, no?”

I use my hands to signal the difference between vertical and lateral motion. There is a g-force that’s related to jerky sideways motion, too. And in the present system, the lateral g-force is certainly higher than the vertical force that’s involved in crossing a shaded patch on asphalt, which even in the worst-case scenario is no more than a millimeter or two above the asphalt lining.

But my dialectic strategy implodes.

The man falls silent. A reddish glow develops on his cheeks. His right foot tenses up on the gas pedal. The car begins to accelerate, and I realize I may have hit an emotional trigger point, something that could date back to an event involving potholes in his early childhood, or maybe an improvised explosive device (IED) during Operation Desert Storm. The trip to the airport has become a lot more precarious than I bargained for, as he may be identifying me as the perpetrator of his trauma, without even realizing it.

By the time we sverwe into the airport at formula speeds, I just want to get out of the car in one piece.

We come to a screeching halt. I pay the driver, thank him and get out. He is still steaming as he steps out of the car and hands me the luggage without eye contact. Relieved that I’m standing on firm ground, I walk into the terminal with a cartoon smile on my face, happy I’m not in a metallic inferno on the side of the road being roasted into a kebab.

Later, as I sit in the plane, I wonder about the power of the mind and feel a bit of empathy for the driver. For him, the obstacles were as real as stone statues, probably. I wonder how prevalent this knack is in our lives in general, when it hits me.

All obstacles are imaginary. They’re mind initiated and controlled. Imaginary obstacles define behavior in all modern people, who are routinely traumatized, simply because our bodies are still not — after 20,000 years of agriculture — used to living within four walls and fences in asphalt and concrete jungles. We just pretend we’re cool about it because everyone else does too.

I think of my own obstacles, past and present. I can’t come up with a single example that’s somehow real, that doesn’t originate from my emotional cortex.

I fall into a hypnotic slumber during the flight, my head nodding like a small Elvis statue on a car dashboard, and briefly enter a mental state that represents an absolute absence of obstacles.

The peace and perfection are like cold vanilla fudge ice cream with hot raspberries.

When the plane lands, I instantly melt back into the asteroid belt. But this time I remember it really is just an asteroid belt in my mind. A sense of peace accompanies me even when I need to dodge stuff.

I decide to thank the driver with a bottle of Lagavulin if I see him next time.