The black BMW had a problem. It had an aggressive posture, that sense of agitation that a car exudes when its driver is raging behind glass at all the other jerks on the road, or maybe raging about some private distress, but in any case raging. It was midafternoon on River Road and not yet crowded; it seemed a little early for bad tempers.
Pretty quickly I got the sense that it wasn't all the other jerks on the road who had drawn the ire of the BMW driver but your humble correspondent in her deeply unfashionable minivan. With traffic moving at a relatively swift 45 mph, I felt as much as saw the car pull close to my back bumper. Then it darted into the right lane and began to pull even with our vehicle, very close indeed.
I felt a surge of guilty anxiety. Had I cut off the other car? Had I failed to give sufficient warning when I was changing lanes? Gosh, I didn't think so. It was a normal afternoon, all very sedate and straightforward. I had two girls in the car -- one reclining in the front seat with her feet on the dash, the other in a booster seat behind. What was going on with this guy?
Now the BMW had drawn even. A glance to the right showed that the driver was looking into our car with furious intent. At that point I turned my eyes forward again; I was not going to get into any kerfuffle going 45 mph, thank you very much. God willing, I would just drive home peacefully and safely and hope that the man's mysterious wrath would dissipate well away from us.
My own days of road rage ended more than a decade ago after an incident in Georgetown during which I actually shook my fist and screamed at a woman who had nosed her car in ahead of mine, when anyone could see that it was my turn, in a horrific jam at the corner of N and 34th streets. As the sound of my shriek faded, the red mist lifted from my eyes, and I realized that I had just performed this puerile act in front of my (then) two small children.
From that moment forward, I have practiced as much zenlike tranquility behind the wheel as a mother of five can muster, which, I'm glad to say, is quite a lot. When you are driving a car full of children, it is wise to keep your equilibrium.
Back on River Road, the other driver had finished goggling into our car and had pulled ahead. We followed. Whatever fury that had possessed the BMW seemed to have passed. But I soon saw that it was taking all the same turns we were going to take. Uh-oh, was he a neighbor?
Phew, no, he wasn't. As we arrived at a red light, he was evidently going straight when we would be turning right. By ill fortune, the light meant that our cars would briefly be side by side. To forestall whatever F-bombs he might still want to launch, I braked gently to keep him ahead of us.
But it was not to be. His side window rolled down, and the BMW reversed so that I could not avoid contact.
Oh man. I looked straight ahead in apparent unconcern, but, reader, a river of adrenaline was rushing through me. Then he jabbed his horn and gestured at me.
There was no avoiding it. I had already decided that I would of course apologize if I had unknowingly committed an infraction; no need to fuel the man's rage, and anyway, one should have the good grace to apologize if one has wronged another, shouldn't one? Still, I was scared.
The BMW driver was a middle-age man, and, as I'd feared, he was infuriated. But what he said took me totally by surprise.
"Don't you realize your kid could die driving around like that?"
I'm sure my face showed my confusion. "I'm sorry?" I blinked.
"Driving around like that with her feet up! If the air bag goes off, bang, she's dead!"
My mouth fell open, the light changed, and the angry man in the BMW roared off.
"What's his problem?" said the girl with her feet up, and, with the adrenaline still rushing through me, I wanted to feel the same. Actually, I wanted to fight; my limbs were tingling, and I felt a strong urge to dismiss the man as a nut and in this way put myself in the right. But the truth is, I'd never once thought of the danger he had identified.
It had never occurred to me. I had often let my children put their feet on the dashboard, or wave their toes out the open window, and never once imagined what the effect on them would be if the air bag went off.
I wondered what the BMW driver had seen, or experienced, that would have caused him to become so distressed at the sight of a stranger's child sitting that way. His anger seemed excessive. A kind word would surely have achieved the same ends. But perhaps it was not possible for him.
"I'm putting my feet back up," my daughter said.
"You know what?" I said to her. "Don't. That guy may not have been very nice, but he was right."
Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.