Not Exactly Driven: Confessions of an Autoneurotic

I've got a secret.I've carried it with me for more than 10 years, lying and covering up and otherwise hiding it from all but those closest to me.I can't drive.I'm a 26-year-old woman with a decent job, a college degree and É no driver's license.It's not as if I grew up in New York or some other big city where you can live all your life without getting behind the wheel of a car. Nor am I blind or otherwise physically unable to drive.I don't drive because I don't know how.Like almost every other normal teenager, I took driver's education in high school, then paid my 10 bucks and got my permit from the Department of Motor Vehicles at age 15. I even got behind the wheel of my family car a few times, Mom or Dad nervously barking commands from the passenger seat.We did the requisite time circling around big parking lots on Sunday afternoons during the summer I turned 16. Once, my dad took me out on a curvy mountain road, theorizing that it would be easy for me to learn where there were no other cars aroundÑnever mind the hairpin twists and sudden dips in the dirt lane.Then school started again, I got involved in other things and I rarely went out in the car again. Soon a year had gone by, my permit expired, and I still didn't know much more than backing out of our parking space.I took the written driving test and got another permit.By now most of my other friends had their driver's licenses, if not their own cars. But I lived across the street from my high school and within walking distance of what the small Sonoma County city I lived in considered a downtown, so it was easy for me to get around.The end result was I went off to college at 18 sans license, and with a growing chip on my shoulder because I didn't know how to drive.So why not just learn?Well, after two years of half-hearted attempts, I developed an immense fear of driving, or at least of my being the driver. I had nightmares about being out in traffic and not having a clue what to do.I don't know where this panic stems from. I've never been in a car accident; hell, I've never even run out of gas. The only thing I can think of is that driving a car is equivalent to going it totally solo; it's just me and the machine, with no one to catch me if I fail ... or crash and kill people. That same sense of self-reliance that draws me to driving keeps me from actually doing it.It's not like I didn't have multiple opportunities to learn. Friends offered to teach me time and again, and I'd nod and say "that would be great," but we'd never actually do it. My dad would offer to take me out on the weekend for a quick lesson. "I've got a headache right now," I'd respond, and another month would go by before someone would bring up driving again. Needless to say, that person was never me.After my freshman year of college, during which I lived on campus and my lack of driving skills never even came up, my parents started to put on a little more heat."So when are you going to get a license?" they'd ask. By now, the second permit had expired as well."I'll do it," I'd shoot back defensively. "Just not right now."We talked about driving school and I said I'd look into it.I never did.By my sophomore year I had moved to Sacramento and took a bus to the university every dayÑjust like any number of students who couldn't afford a car. I worked on campus and got a ride home with a friend in the evenings. My roommate didn't drive, either, and we would go shopping for groceries together, lugging our double-bagged parcels home as exhaust fumes from the passing cars choked our lungs.At this point, a few friends from high school knew about my not driving, but I kept it a secret from most new acquaintances. It became a sign of trust when I did tell someone; it meant we were truly friends when I felt comfortable enough with him or her to bare this embarrassing fact. They usually responded with disbelief and an offer to teach me the rules of the road.And so it went, year after year. By the time I graduated, I had set up my life so a car wasn't really necessary: I lived in a central part of the city and took a bus or walked to work, the store, the mall, wherever. My friends patiently picked me up when we went out (At least I never had to be the designated driver). I told my co-workers I just couldn't afford a car.And that has been my life for the past five years. It still feels as if there is a continual weight somewhere deep in my stomach; no matter what I accomplish or how happy I am with my life, I can't driveÑand that makes me abnormal. Sure, I don't know how to fly a plane either, and I couldn't care less.But not driving?That's just uncool.I'm missing out on the independence, strength, power and, yes, sex appeal of being behind the wheel.In my eyes, there is nothing sexier than a woman who drives. Yeah, I knowÑnot exactly a limited group. But the same patented image of the hot babe in the slick sportscar auto manufacturers and cigarette companies use to sell their products says to me "Here is who you could be."And here is who you should be.I watch my female friends step into their cars and dart out into traffic, exhibiting a daring and capability that may be otherwise absent in their everyday lifestyle. They can leave a place when they want, run out to McDonald's for a quick burger anytime they're hungry, take a sudden road trip to Mexico, should they so desire. They control their own destiny. They can do anything and everything.My male friends who drive don't affect me this way, though they have the same freedoms. So what's the difference?I found the answer last week in Ladies, Start Your Engines: Women Writers on Cars and the Road (Faber and Faber, $24.95). This recent compilation of poems, essays and excerpts from novels, edited by Elinor Nauen, echoes all the driving lust -Ñ and none of the fear -Ñ I have experienced throughout my life.The invention of the automobile was an equalizer for women, writes Nauen in her introduction. The physical strength necessary for managing a team of horses was no longer a factor, and since the first woman received her driver's license in 1899, women have been behind the wheel and around the world."What's here," Nauen writes "rebuts the idea that only guys, only Jack Kerouac's sons, can go on the road."Women ranging from poet Adrienne Rich to manners specialist Emily Post write about fast cars, wild rides and rough roads, with all the power and smoothness of a V-8 engine. For the 60-plus women who contributed to this collection, driving is life in all its difficulties and detours and ultimate destinations.There are even a few pieces about women who don't or won't drive. "[W]hat kind of adult might you be/never owned a car, got pulled over/ or had a flat/what kind of grown up/won't pollute and make gridlock," writes Cheryl Fish in her ode to not driving, "Freedom of Feet."Then there's Oona Short's story "One of Life's Passengers" about a licenseless woman who finally declares: "I want to drive! I want to be alone in a moving car ... I want not to be helpless."One of the strongest essays in Ladies, Start Your Engines is by Viola Weinberg. In "California Driving" Weinberg puts down in black and white the passion and power of driving."You know then it's not just a car you're driving; it's you and your restless spirit that loves the air, the space, and the insatiable mouth of the road that opens before you."It's that same restless spirit I hope to find in myself some day, that as yet undetermined time, when I, too, will get behind the wheel with all the confidence and courage of an experienced, licensed driver. For now, though, I take the bus, bum rides from friends, and try to figure out what it is about driving that scares me so much.I had a dream last night -Ñ perhaps inspired by all my auto-erotic thoughts this week -Ñ that stands out in clear relief in my head, as if it were illuminated by the headlights of a Mack truck:It's a sun-streaked day; dingy clouds occasionally block out the light. The paved road veers along black dirt hills, the soil loosened by winter rain. I'm in a convertible (of course!) and my hair thrashes in my face. The highway stretches, seemingly endless. I'm alone and I'm behind the wheel.It's not everything, but it will do for now.

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