I don’t consider myself an adventurous person. I have the nasty habit of assuming the worst will occur at any given moment. The thought of climbing a mountain, exploring a vast jungle or shooting myself into space causes me to immediately break out in hives which are the kind that don’t go away for a week. Picture a grown man with hives. It’s not fun. My face looks like an old baseball glove that’s been run over multiple times by an American made automobile.
Cars are actually one of my most potent sources of terror, and getting in one is as close to “adventure” as I can stomach. Cars represent all the things I dread. Like most women I’ve dated, they’re larger than me, they’re stronger than me and most importantly, getting inside one could mean certain death. I currently do not possess a driver’s license. I’ve never even had one. I ride public transportation or take cabs. All of the horrible calamities that can occur on a subway or in a taxi will at least not be my fault, which I find comforting. If there’s a horrible bus accident and I’m mangled, at least I wasn’t behind the wheel and cannot be blamed by the authorities. I imagine that part of the appeal of organized religion is having the option to similarly assign responsibility for disasters to a callous, thoughtless authority figure.
I’ve been in LA almost seven years now, all sans “ride.” It’s a challenge to not have a car in a city known for its auto-centric culture. The many awkward moments where I tell a date I don’t drive are ones I would gladly forget. The expectation is that the male in the heterosexual dating dynamic will have a car. Revealing to a woman that you don’t have a car is akin to describing all the ways you like to torture adorable woodland creatures in your spare time. It’s a surefire way to not get a second date.
Despite this challenge, I lucked into finding a woman who would take me as is…for the most part. We’ve been together eight months, and even live together, but recently, she started ringing the bell for me to hurry up and get my driver’s license. Her strongly worded requests usually include references to our eventual children and her irritation at having to drive all the time. These are not unreasonable, yet they do reveal that being able to drive is important to pretty much everyone.
When you’re in love, you take your significant other’s feelings seriously, so I took the permit test and was granted the right to drive with a licensed driver in the passenger seat by the state of California. After getting my permit, I had to start taking driver’s training. For those of you who forgot what driver’s training is like, a social outcast or ex-convict barks orders at you while telling you where and how fast to drive a car whose driver’s seat cannot be adjusted. Driving is terrible enough without also being made physically uncomfortable. My instructor wouldn’t even let me bring my Big Gulp in the car, and I never drive without my Big Gulp. Full disclosure, that rule was one that I instituted that day, as I had never driven before in my life, be it with or without a Big Gulp.
My instructor’s name was Henry and he had a thick, graying mustache and the roving eye of a sex maniac. At every intersection, he would yell at female passers-by, assaulting them with lewd innuendo before I sped through the green light. I wasn’t really sure if it was my place to chastise him or not, considering my check hadn’t cleared yet. He must have been doing this particular shtick for years. I was not the first person to hear him wax philosophical on how “only bitches drive black cars,” nor would I likely be the last. I just let him enjoy his gas station hot dog while I white knuckled it through Brentwood.
From the driver’s seat, everything in the car looked and felt different. I felt the constant churning of the engine in my ample backside, I could anticipate the changing of the traffic lights for the first time, and a sense of power washed over me. It was thrilling to be in charge, to be the one ferrying me from point A to point B. Riding a bus or a train is a passive experience, whereas driving is a very, very active experience. In this particular case though, the sensation of having to listen to an insane person’s degenerate ramblings was replicated.
After the first recorded incident of a man actually whistling at a woman walking down the street that did not occur in a cartoon, we parked so that Henry could finish his gas station hot dog. The break gave me time to reflect on my first driving experience. I made a list of my initial thoughts in a notebook. Allow me to read from the bullet points I scribbled down:
• LA drivers really are terrible
• Why is it called a “break pedal”? That just makes me think of damaging the car.
• I really wish I could push my seat back.
• Does Pizza Hut still have the Stuffed Crust Pizza? Also, as an addendum, how do they get the cheese in there? Do they inject it with some kind of mechanical device? If so, how can I purchase one? I’d like to stuff other things with cheese besides pizza.
• I should probably write a story about this experience.
• Has anyone ever written a story about Stuffed Crust Pizza?
• How much more driving do I have to do?
• Can we stop at Pizza Hut?
• If dogs could talk, would they complain about the clothes we make them wear?
• I hate soup.
Before we got back on the road, Henry said the one potentially sincere, definitely not sexist thing of the entire day. He said, “good job out there. You’re a natural driver.” I was taken aback by his compliment. Driving had always seemed like the one thing I’d be most terrible at other than oral sex. I wanted to thank him for believing in me, for giving me the strength to go on through such a trying exercise, for instilling in me the confidence I had so sorely lacked. Ultimately, I decided not to say anything for fear that my show of emotion would elicit a negative response from him. By “negative response,” I mean him calling me a “goddamn pussy.”
After another hour of catcalls, whistling and a smattering of actual driving instruction, we parted ways. I never saw Henry again, probably because my check finally cleared. For people like me, taking charge of life and not succumbing to worry is an adventure in itself. When I finally get my license in a few months, driving will become a mundane activity, like it is for everyone else, but until then, if you see me behind the wheel of a student driver car, please give me a few extra car lengths of space on the freeway. You’ll be doing both of us a favor.