"What I don't understand is why you never got a license in the first place. What happened?"
I have been avoiding writing about my driving lessons. It had seemed like a bad idea to analyze what I was doing while I was still in the process of doing it. I think I had mentioned last week that, for now, I needed driving to just be driving, and not a metaphor. I even told my therapist this when it seemed like we were veering dangerously close to unpacking the latest lesson. "It's something that scares you, but you're showing up and doing it anyway," she had said (or something like that). I was like "let me stop you right there." I don't need my success or failure to continue to show up to do this thing that scares me to be a referendum on anything other than my ability to drive a car. Those stakes alone are far too high.
But now for some reason it seems like I need to write about this in order to be able to write about anything else.
So the glib practiced answer that I've been trotting out for the last 20 years is that I failed the test as a suburban teenager several times and then just ... gave up. My friends had already fallen into a routine of chauffeuring me around because they had all turned 16 a few months earlier than I, with my October birthday, had, and so I just kept relying on them til I went off to college and then, halfway through college, moved to NYC, one of the few places in America where you mostly don't need a car. Totally reasonable, right? It just never seemed like the right moment, at any point in the past 20 years, to learn how to drive. Certainly there were times -- like the month and a half we spent living on the suburban outskirts of Washington D.C. in 2019, or when traveling pretty much anywhere -- I regretted having made this dumb life choice as a 15 year old. But none of that dumb life choice's consequences ever seemed like anything other than passing inconveniences. I have walked around a lot in places that were not designed for pedestrians. I once showed up at a meeting at an office in West Hollywood extremely sweaty and a bit late after not being able to find an entrance to the building because the most obvious way to enter the building was via the underground parking garage where literally everyone parks the cars they arrive in. Did I need validation? the receptionist asked me on my way out, after the meeting. I did, but I was not about to find it there.
The real answer is longer, darker, and more boring, probably. One factor, I'm thinking, was my ADHD, which has made it it hard to learn skills that don't come easily to me. It has also made me incredibly anxious about any kind of test. And of course, it has made it hard for me to multi-task -- to drive, essentially. Check your mirrors and your blind spot and signal and put the car in reverse and turn the steering wheel all the way to the left, SIMULTANEOUSLY? What?? What kind of genius polymath can do that? (The vast majority of adult Americans, but somehow knowing that is the opposite of helpful.)
Of course, I didn't know I had ADHD when I was 15, any more than I did when I was 38. And while I don't think it's some decoder ring thing that I can use to explain everything in my life that's been hard or that I've fucked up, I also don't think it's negligible or unimportant. It's just more complicated than that. I don't get to blame ADHD for my failures or thank it for my successes. Everything I've ever accomplished has been accomplished in spite of my brain's innate vagaries. I have also only been able to accomplish those things because I am me, and ADHD is part of what "me" has historically entailed. This is a complicated idea that deserves more than a paragraph but unfortunately I am only able to devote a paragraph to it at this time.
The other thing that happened to me when I was sixteen (don't worry not a trauma) was that I went to art camp at Pratt Institute, roughly .6 of a mile from the apartment where I currently live (a coincidence?? do those exist??). This was a bananas formative experience for me. I did so many stupid things for the first time, like use the credit card my parents had given me for emergencies to eat a very overpriced meal in Soho, smoke marijuana on a rooftop and then have to climb back down, high and terrified, via a rickety metal fire escape, and cheat (makeout sesh, scandalous) on my long-suffering high school boyfriend with an art camp Lothario who, if memory serves, was named "Cain" for some reason. I got my ear cartilage pierced! I took the subway and got off at random stops in order to learn where the subway went. The subway was a revelation. In D.C. we'd only had the Metro, which smells like carpet cleaner and requires a traveler from Silver Spring to Wheaton to detour through the entire city first. In New York you could get anywhere on the subway. I had unlocked the key to my future: I would grow up to live in this wonderland forever and, in addition to all the other amazing things I would experience there, I would also, conveniently, never have to learn how to drive.
I'm not going to belabor this but I wrote my college application "personal essay" about this experience, SPECIFICALLY about how I was never going to have to learn to drive. I proceeded to get into college absolutely nowhere that I wanted to go. I am sure that the essay was what doomed my applications. "I set out to do this difficult thing, realized I could probably get away with avoiding it, and then gave up" is not a great narrative arc! It also doesn't show what I think admissions personnel are looking for in a college essay which is ... maybe more along the lines of 'triumphing over adversity' or at least 'being aware that triumphing over adversity is something you should convincingly pretend to be interested in for the sake of your college applications.' But Emily-at-17 was more like, "This is ME, you're WELCOME," and obviously that doesn't work.
I would go on to not-learn this identical lesson again about my "personal essays" again and again throughout my life.
I hadn't anticipated how much learning to drive would change my experience of being a passenger.
For one thing, I am now aware of how much the condition of being a passenger has defined my life. If I let myself think about this for too long I will start crying and never stop about the years of my life I have wasted by being metaphorically not in the driver's seat. Hahaha!!!!!! if this were a therapy session I would deflect the horror of what I just said with a joke and the therapist would say "Let's stay with that for a minute" and I would still somehow find a way not to.
Anyway, the other annoying thing is that now I can't go back to the Edenic state of never thinking about driving. In the past, one of the nice things (I hope) about being in the car with me, apart from my excellent DJing, sub-par but enthusiastic navigation, and top-notch child wrangling skills, was that I would never ever backseat drive because I didn't know how to drive. Make whatever idiotic decisions behind the wheel you wanted! You could count on me to barely even notice (except if it was glaringly obvious that we were about to die.) Unfortunately this asset is no more.
I am also aware of how this lacuna in my lived experience has affected my fiction. Amy, in Friendship, couldn't drive (her mom has to drive her to her humiliating job interviews when she moves back in with her parents temporarily) but Bev could, and yet, does she really drive? Do we see her driving? I don't remember, which means probably not. And in Perfect Tunes, Laura drives to Massachusetts to rescue Marie, but I'm having a hard time remembering any scenes with her behind the wheel of a ... car ... that she ... owns (what kind of car? why do they own it? where do they park it? Etc). I guess this isn't necessarily a big deal - there are lots of ways to get characters from point A to point B without explicitly detailing the process. But still, does this mean I didn't do an accurate job of imagining these characters? On some level, it must. Being able to drive seems so fundamental. I think not being able to render driver-consciousness, but pretending to be able to, is fraudulent on the level of making a character a doctor with a specific specialization, then doing only first-page-of-Google-level research. Or maybe it's more like making her fluent in a language that I don't speak.
Then again, when he wrote The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen had never been to Lithuania. (This is apocryphal and if I'm wrong I would love to be, um, corrected.)
This is all very unsatisfying, I realize, because it doesn't culminate with me getting my drivers license, the way a published essay on this topic ABSOLUTELY WOULD HAVE TO. If I do manage to become a driver, though, I will -- let's hope!!! -- gain some kind of wisdom in the process that will release me from the obligation to find any more meaning in the experience. I would prefer not to find any more meaning than I already have, to be honest. This is already way too much.