(performed at Story Lab on January 15, 2014)
“Make a left on Elston. No, a left — why are you using your right turn signal?!”
My driving instructor was yelling at me again. As usual, she was right. I did have my right turn signal on. I fumbled, switching to my left.
“Too late. Just drive straight for now.”
She closed her eyes for a minute, weary. I felt a stress headache bloom behind my eyes, and wondered why I had decided to learn to drive at age 27.
It’s not like I’d never tried. I’d taken a weak stab at driving in high school. I went to driver’s ed, where I zoned out a lot, thinking deep thoughts about Livejournal drama and various brands of maroon lipstick. I was there because my parents wanted me to be there, which seemed weird: my mom didn’t know how to drive. She was from San Francisco by way of Manhattan and Queens, and moving to Minnesota had not inspired a desire to learn. On the rare occasion my dad was around and speaking to me, he wouldn’t let me near his 1996 Saturn Wagon. What would happen after I learned to drive was vague: there was no mention of me being allowed to borrow the car, driving anyone anywhere, or doing anything with a car, ever.
I completed the course well-prepared to muddle unhappily into behind the wheel training. I kind of liked my instructor, a former alcoholic and born-again Christian in his 60s with the biggest sweet tooth I’d ever seen. We went to a lot of bakeries and convenience stores, with the occasional fast food side trip, and he asked what I would do if I had an unwanted child. “I don’t know,” I replied between clenched teeth, trying to make a left on Minnehaha Avenue. “I’ll think about it when it happens.” He tried a few more angles then gave up, returning to the baked good of the day. “They never put enough frosting on these,” he grumbled. I gaped at the solid inch of buttercream on a giant cupcake. I liked listening to some of his stories over gas station pastries and White Castle sliders, but the expressway moralizing made me queasy.
My forays into real-life driving didn’t go very well. I didn’t understand when I should make a turn. I screamed bloody murder if someone honked at me. I had a lead foot when making turns, yet 20 miles an hour driving straight felt blindingly fast. I drove my then-boyfriend’s Honda Civic exactly two times, then was done. He never mentioned it again.
I graduated and went to school in Chicago, where the trains and busses and cabs felt like childhood and home. Over the years, friends would occasionally offer to teach me: “I can show you and my little sister at the same time,” one said, spurring nightmares of being outdone by a sophomore at Kenwood Academy.
I never followed up with them. I never left the city, and wasn’t planning to. I would never have a car of my own, and you needed a license for two years to use iGo or Zipcar. These weren’t excuses, I told myself. They were facts.
But like so many other things, not driving worked until it didn’t, and then it couldn’t work any more. It didn’t happen fast. I was a pro at avoiding what scared me, I had been doing it for years. It was the culmination of a few things: with the help of a therapist, I decided I was going to start looking at why I was afraid of so much. I got a job that regularly required travel to the Minnesota suburbs, and stayed at my mom’s house during these work trips. My mom’s house, where twelve boxes of VHS tapes blocked my high school bedroom door, the garage couldn’t fit a car even if there had been one, and trying to throw out bottles of lotion that expired in 2008 resulted in tense arguments.
A co-worker picked me up in the morning and dropped me off at night. For the first time in a long time, I felt the suffocation of being housebound. My world narrowed to an office park and rooms you could barely walk through, in a state where winter temperatures dropped to thirty below. Not being able to go where I wanted, when I wanted was suddenly unacceptable. I felt as crazy and restless as I had when I was 14, stuck in every sense of the word. I made a decision: when I got back to Chicago, I was going to learn to drive.
My friends were supportive, and helpful. But I needed more. I signed up for driving lessons. I put the woman from Illinois Driving School who drove up to my house at maybe 60. Dominga was Puerto Rican and had lived in Chicago her entire life. She was what my mom would affectionately call a ball-buster, kindly but firmly kicking my ass up and down the North and West sides. “Tire for distance,” she would murmur if I inched too close to the vehicle in front of me. “If everyone used tire for distance, no one would be in any accidents.” Or: “What are you doing? Why are you going so fast? You’ve got nowhere to be!” when I sped up during turns, a habit that hadn’t faded in the last decade.
The first few lessons were brutal. My skills hadn’t magically improved. I made hairpin turns, then barely broke the speed limit. “Speed up, speed up! Move with the flow of traffic!” Dominga would yell, exasperated. “Why are you slowing down?” “Because you told me not to speed up!” I yelled. “I meant during turns! You drive too fast when you’re nervous! You’re in love with being afraid!”
I gritted my teeth, furious. I started crying as I walked into the house. My boyfriend stared at me. “She’s right.” I sobbed. “I don’t know how I’m going to do this, I hate her, but she’s right. I wasn’t meant to do this.” He hugged me. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, “but you can do it. You’re not meant not do anything. And stupid teenagers do it.” I called and scheduled my next lesson.
Dominga took me through the worst intersections: Logan and Western, Lawrence and Elston, Fullerton, Elston, and Damen. We went to the Jewel parking lot on Division and Ashland, where she’d tell me to look around, look around, adjust my mirror, look around again, account for people meandering through the shifting sea of cars. She told me to watch out for bikers and pedestrians and never to pull up in the middle of the crosswalk, even though a lot of people did.
“Slow down before you stop, or you’ll get hit from behind — you’ll get a kiss, a kiss you won’t like!” she cackled. She liked checking out guys jogging in tiny shorts, and if they were shirtless, even better. “Mmmmm,” she’d say, “that’s sexy. What do you think?” I’d smile big, corners of my mouth twitching, not letting myself laugh for fear I’d lose an ounce of white-knuckled concentration.
I almost always knew where I was going, and she liked that. We drove through Humboldt Park. “This is where I grew up,” she said, “you probably don’t come here very often.” “I’ve been here,” I replied. “Hmmmm,” she said. “Turn right at Kedzie. You know where that is?” I made a face. “We’re going to Belmont and Kedzie, right? I hate that intersection.” She cackled again. “I know you do, that’s why we’re doing it. It’s good for you.”
We took Belmont west to Milwaukee, then headed south towards Ashland for more parking lot training. As we made our slow way past Wood, then Wolcott, she told me how the long, diagonal street used to be all Jews up around this part when she was young, how she worked for a Jewish tailor in high school and liked it.
When she first picked me up, she asked me if I lived there with my parents. “No, I live with my boyfriend.” She nodded. As we drove down Damen, making a right on Belmont, she asked if I liked the Mexican place we were passing, and told me how she would split burritos with her grandson, how he always thought he could eat the whole thing. “Do you think you’ll have children?” she asked. I’m not sure what it is about driving instructors and that question. “Yeah,” I said, quickly scanning the side mirror for nothing — another nervous habit. “Why are you looking there?! You don’t need to be looking at that,” she snapped, “Keep your eyes on the road.” Then, switching tones “How old are you?” “27.” “Aaaaah,” she waved her hand, “you’ve got time. Plenty of time.” I smiled, and made a smooth right onto Kimball.
I took eight lessons, two more than the recommended six. I got better — not great, but at the end of our eighth lesson she asked when I wanted to take the behind the wheel test. I signed up the next time the Department of Motor Vehicles in Jefferson Park had available. “If you have work you don’t want to do,” my mom had always said. “Do it fast, before you think about it too much.” The lesson had stuck.
In my head, the behind the wheel test would take hours, and be somewhere between the The Fast and the Furious and Drive in terms of activities and difficulty. Right before I started, Dominga whispered to me: “I’ve had worse students than you pass.” She patted me on the shoulder.
The test took about 15 minutes. I blundered the last part hard, parking at an awkward angle that nearly grazed another car. “Stop,” the instructor said. “Put it in park.” I stared at him, eyes red and teary. “You need to be more careful with that, you don’t want to hit another car.” I nodded, holding my breath.
“Go get your picture taken, you passed.”
I started crying in earnest. He looked incredibly uncomfortable. “Thank you, thank you so much.” He nodded again, still not facing me, a flush of red creeping up his collar. I took that as my cue to get out and leave him to his next, less emotional driver. I hugged Dominga, promising to refer others her way and leave a good Yelp review. I couldn’t stop touching the piece of plastic in my pocket, running my fingers reverently over my awkward photo and inaccurate weight.
I’m still not a great driver. But I love it. Doing something you thought was impossible, no matter how mundane, is powerful and heady. Driving is about more than multiple bags of groceries, as incredibly cool as that continues to be. It’s about waiting in the cold because you don’t feel you have a choice. It’s about doing something and making it your own, being the adult you always wished had got on your case about it when you were 16.
“Step on it!” Dominga used to yell when I waited too long at an intersection, and it’s about that, too: making a decision even when you believe deep in your bones that you’re going to fail. I think that’s why every time I pull onto my quiet street, I feel like a million dollars, and a little less in love with being afraid.