"Over there, the red Jeep. Park!" Ben, my gentle Filipino driving instructor, has suddenly become severe, abrupt, commanding. A slight man, he now looms in his seat; his usually soft voice has acquired a threatening edge. In a scenario that we have repeated dozens of times, and that has kinky overtones I don't even want to think about, he is pretending to be the test examiner, barking out orders as we tool along the streets above Columbia University in the early morning. "Pull out when you are ready!" "Bight turn!" "Left turn!" "Straight!" "All right, Ms. Pollitt, pull over." He doesn't even need to say the words. From the rueful look on his once again kindly face, I know that I have failed.
What did I do this time? Did I run a red light, miss a stop sign, fail to notice one of the many bicyclists who sneak up into my blind spot whenever I go into reverse? Each of these mistakes means automatic failure. Or did I fail on points? Five for parallel-parking more than fourteen inches from the curb, ten for rolling when I paused for the woman with the stroller (but at least I saw her! I saw her!), fifteen for hesitating in the intersection so that a driver in a car with New Jersey plates honked and gave me the finger? This time it was points, Ben tells me: in our five-minute practice test, I racked up sixty. New York State allows you thirty. "Observation, Kahta, observation! This is your weakness. "This truth hangs in the air like mystical advice from a sage in a martial-arts movie. "That and lining up too far away when you go to park." The clock on the dashboard reads seven-forty- seven. We will role-play the test repeatedly during my two-hour lesson. I will fail every time.
Observation is my weakness. I did not realize that my mother was a secret drinker. I did not realize that the man I lived with, my soul mate, made for me in Marxist heaven, was a dedicated philanderer, that the drab colleague he insinuated into our social life was his long-standing secret lover, or that the young art critic he mocked as silly and second-rate was being groomed as my replacement. I noticed that our apartment was becoming a grunge palace, with papers collecting dust on every surface and kitty litter crunching underfoot. I observed - very good, Kahta! - that I was spending many hours in my study, engaged in arcane e-mail debates with strangers, that I had gamed twenty-five pounds in our seven years together and could not fit into many of my clothes. I realized it was not likely that the unfamiliar pink-and-black striped bikini panties in the clean-clothes basket were the result, as he claimed, of a simple laundry-room mixup. But all this awareness was like the impending danger in one of those slow-motion dreams of paralysis, information that could not be processed. It was like seeing the man with the suitcase step off the curb and driving forward anyway.
I am a fifty-two-year-old woman who has yet to get a driver's license. I'm not the only older woman who can't legally drive - Ben recently had a sixty-five-year-old student, who took the test four times before she passed - but perhaps I am the only fifty-two-year-old feminist writer in this situation. How did this happen to me? For decades, all around me women were laying claim to forbidden manly skill - how to fix the furnace, perform brain surgery, hunt seals, have sex without love. Only I, it seems, stood still, as the machines in my life increased in both number and complexity. When I was growing up, not driving had overtones of New York hipness. There was something beatnik, intellectual, European about being disconnected from the 2 car culture: the rest of America might deliquesce into one big strip mall, but New York City would remain a little outpost of humane civilization, an enclave of ancient modes of transportation - the subway, the bus, the taxi, the bicycle, the foot. Still, my family always had a car - a Buick, a Rambler, some big, lumbering masculine make. My father would sit in it and smoke and listen to the ballgame in the soft summer evening, when he and my mother had had a fight.
"I am trying so hard to help you, Kahta," Ben says. "I feel perhaps I am failing you as your teacher." In a lifetime in and out of academia, I have never before heard a teacher suggest that his student's difficulties might have something to do with him. The truth is, Ben is a natural pedagogue - organized, patient, engaged with his subject, and always looking for new ways to explain some tricky point. Sometimes he illustrates what I should have done by using a pair of toy cars, and I can see the little boy he once was - intent, happy, lost in play. Sometimes he makes up analogies:
"Kahta, how do you know if you've put in enough salt and pepper when you are making beef stew?"
"Um, you taste it?"
"Riiight, you taste it. So what do you do if you've lost track of which way the car is pointing when you parallel-park?"
"I dunno, Ben. You taste it?"
"You just let the car move back a tiny bit and see which way it goes! You taste the direction! Then you - "
"Correct the seasonings?"
"Riiight . .. You adjust!"
Because it takes me a while to focus on the task at hand, Ben and I have fallen into the habit of long lessons - we drive for two hours, sometimes three. We go up to Washington Heights and drive around the winding, hilly roads of Fort Tryon Park and the narrow crooked Tudoresque streets near Castle Village. What a beautiful neighborhood! we exclaim. Look at that Art Deco subway-station entrance! Look at those Catholic schoolgirls in front of Mother Cabrini High, in those incredibly cute sexy plaid uniforms! I am careful to stop for the old rabbi, I pause and make eye contact with the mother herding her two little boys. It's like another, secret New York up here, preserved from the forties, in which jogging yuppies in electric-blue spandex look like time travellers from the future among the staid elderly burghers walking their dogs along the leafy sidewalks over- looking the Hudson. In that New York, the one without road-raging New Jersey drivers or sneaky cyclists, in which life is lived at twenty miles an hour, I feel sure I could have got my license with no trouble. I could have been living here all along, coming out of the Art Deco entrance at dusk, with sweet-smelling creamy-pink magnolias all around me.
I spend more time with Ben than with any other man just now There are days when, except for an exchange of smiles and hellos with Mohammed at the newsstand and my suppertime phone call with a man I am seeing who lives in London, Ben is the only man I talk to. In a way, he's perfect - his use of the double brake is protective without being infantilizing, his corrections are firm but never condescending or judgmental, he spares my feelings but tells the truth if asked. ("Let's say I took the test tomorrow, Ben. What are my chances?" "I'd say maybe fifty-fifty." I must be pretty desperate - those don't seem like such bad odds to me.) He's a big improvement on my former lover, who told a mutual friend that he was leaving me because I didn't have a driver's license, spent too much time on e-mail, and had failed in seven years to read Anton Pannekoek's "Workers' Councils" and other classics of the ultra-left. Ben would never leave me because I don't have a driver's license. Quite the reverse. Sometimes I feel sad to think that these lessons must one day come to an end - will I ever see those little streets again, or drive around Fort Tryon Park in the spring? "Will you still be my teacher, Ben, after I get my license, so I can learn how to drive on the highway?" Ben promises that he will always be there for me, and I believe him.
In at least one way, I am like the other older women learning to drive: I am here because I have lost my man. Most women in my situation are widows or divorcées who spent their lives under Old World rules, in which driving was a male prerogative and being ferried about a female privilege. My lover's mother lived in the wilds of Vermont for years with her Marxist-intellectual husband. With the puritanical zeal for which German Jews are famous, she kept the house spotless, grew all their fruits and vegetables, and raised her son to be a world-class womanizer - while earning a Ph.D. which would enable her to support her husband's life of reading and writing, and, of course, driving. She didn't learn to drive until after his death, when she was over sixty. To hear her tell it now, the whole process took five minutes. When she asked if I'd got my license yet - which she did every time we spoke - she adopted a tone of intense and invasive concern. It was as if she were asking me if the Thorazine had started to work.
Ben is not my first driving teacher. When I was twenty-seven, I took lessons from Mike, a young and rather obnoxious Italian-American. "That's O.K., I can walk to the curb from here," he would say when I parked too wide. After a month of lessons, I took the test in the Bronx and didn't even notice that I'd hit a stop sign when I parked. Automatic failure. Mike drove me back to Manhattan in hostile silence and didn't call to schedule a lesson again. Ben would never do that.
That was it for driving until four years ago, when I bought a house on the Connecticut shore and signed up for lessons with an instructor I'll call Tom. He was Italian-American also, middle-aged, overweight, and rather sweet, but liable to spells of anger and gloom, as if he had raised too many sons like Mike. On bad days, as we drove around the back roads and shopping centers of Clinton and Madison and Guilford, Tom would seethe about the criminal propensities of the black inhabitants of New Haven. On good days, he liked to talk about religion. For example, he believed that Jesus Christ was a space alien, which would explain a lot - the Star of Bethlehem, the walking on water, the Resurrection. Besides, Tom said, "no human being could be that good." He made me memorize his special method of sliding backward into a parking space, failed to impress upon me the existence of blind spots, and, like his predecessor, lost interest in me when I flunked the road test.
I should have taken the test again immediately, but instead I spent several years driving around the shoreline with my lover in the passenger seat, as Connecticut law permits. He had special methods, too - for instance, on tricky maneuvers at an intersection he would urge me to "be one car" with the car in front, which means just do what that car is doing. Ben looked a little puzzled when I told him about that. What if the car in front is doing something really stupid? "Listen to your inner voice," he tells me when I continue going back as I parallel-park even though I know I am about to go over the curb, which is an automatic failure on the test. "You are right, Kahta, you knew! Your inner voice is trying to help you!" You can't listen to your inner voice and be one car, too, is what Ben is getting at.
What was my lover thinking, I wonder, when we cruised Route 1, shuttling between our little house and the bookstore, the movie theatre, Al Forno for pizza, the Clam Castle for lobster rolls, Hammonasset Beach to watch the twilight come over that long expanse of shining sand? Was he daydreaming about the young art critic, thinking about how later he would go off on his bicycle and call the drab colleague from the pay phone at the Stop & Shop? Was he thinking what a drag it was to have a girlfriend who couldn't pass a simple road test, even in small-town Connecticut, who did not care about the value-price transformation problem, and who never once woke him up with a blow job, despite being told many times that this was what all men wanted? Perhaps the young art critic is a better girlfriend on these and other scores, and he no longer feels the need for other women. Or perhaps the deception was the exciting part for him, and he will betray her, too, which is, of course, what I hope.
Now as I drive around upper Manhattan with Ben I spend a lot of time ignoring the road and asking myself, "If I had got my driver's license, would my lover have left me?" Perhaps my procrastination about the road test was symbolic to him of other resistances. "In the end," he said as he was leaving, ostensibly to "be alone" but actually, as I soon discovered, to join the young art critic on Fire Island, "our relationship revolves around you." "That's not true!" I wept. He also said, "Every day you wake up happy and cheerful and I'm lonely and miserable." "No, I don't!" I stormed. He continued, "You never read the books I recommend." I protested that I was reading one such book at that very moment - "A World Full of Gods: Pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Roman Empire," by Keith Hopkins. "I mean serious political books," he said. "Books that are important to me." O.K., point taken. Then came the coup de grace: "I finally saw that you would never change."
What can you say to that? Change what? If I had read Anton Pannekoek's "Workers' Councils," if I had given up e-mail for blow jobs at dawn, if I had got my license, would we still be together, driving north to buy daylilies at White Flower Farm while learnedly analyzing the Spartacist revolution of 1919? Perhaps, it occurs to me, as a demented cabbie cuts me off on Riverside Drive, it's a lucky thing I didn't get my license. I would still be living with a womanizer, a liar, a cheat, a manipulator, a maniac, a psychopath. Maybe my incompetence protected me.
New York State puts out an official booklet of rules of the road, but there are no textbooks that teach the art of driving itself The closest is a tattered test result, much passed about by teachers, from the days when examiners filled out a form by hand. "I know his mother!" I exclaim when Ben gives me a copy, The test result happens to belong to a young writer, sometimes written up in gossip columns as a member of an all-boy fast crowd. "You see, Kahta! He failed to anticipate the actions of others. He didn't stop for pedestrians. And he forgot his turn signals, too." Ben shakes his head sorrowfully over the young writer's terrible score - seventy points off! I find this failure oddly cheering.
Mostly though, driving is a skill transmitted by experience, one to one. In this, it resembles few activities, most of which can be learned from a book, or so we tell ourselves - think how many sex manuals are published every year, not to mention those educational sex videos advertised in high-toned literary publications aimed at people who were fantasizing about Mr. Rochester and Mr. Darcy while their classmates were steaming up the windows of their parents' cars. That was another accusation my lover flung at me the day he left: "You bought 'The Joy of Sex,' but you just put it in a drawer!" "Why was it my job to improve our sex life?" I retorted. 'You could have opened that book any time." I suppose the truth was that, given his multiple exhausting commitments, he didn't need to.
Sometimes when I am driving I become suddenly bewildered - it is as if I had never turned left or parallel-parked before. How many times have I turned the wheel while angling back into my parking space? I become hot and flushed and totally confused, and for some reason I keep turning the wheel until it's maxed out, and then look frantically at Ben.
"What do I do now, Ben? How far back do I turn it? How do I know when it's where it's supposed to be?"
"Beef stew, Kahta! Remember?"
"You mean I should just let it go back a tiny bit to see where it will go?"
"Riiight. You see, you are learning! Beef-stew it!"
But what if I get my license and I have one of these episodes of befuddlement when I'm alone at the wheel? Ben often has to remind me not to zone out, as I so frequently do even while I'm telling myself to stay focussed. For example, I'll be staring at the red light, determined not to let my mind wander, and then I start wondering why red means "stop" and green means "go., Is there some optic science behind this color scheme? Is it arbitrary? Perhaps it derives from an ancient custom, the way the distance between railroad tracks is derived from the distance between the wheels on Roman carts. I think how sad and romantic street lights look when blurred in the rain, and how before electricity no one could experience that exact romantic sadness, because nothing could have looked like that. I savor the odd fact that a street scene that seems so old-fashioned now is actually a product of modernity, and then it hits me that this is the sort of idea my lover was always having, and I wonder if I will ever have my mind back wholly to myself or if I will always feel invaded, abandoned, bereft.
"Kahta," Ben says gently, "the light has been green for some time now. Please, go!"
My lover used to joke that I had missed my chance to rid myself of my former husband forever by failing to run him over while an unlicensed, inexperienced driver. Actually, my ex and I get on very well. He's an excellent father, and when I have a computer problem he helps me over the phone, although he refuses to come and fix the machine him self. Now when I am careering up Riverside Drive I sometimes fantasize that I see my lover and his new girlfriend in the crosswalk. I wave my arms helplessly as the car, taking on a life of its own, homes into them like a magnet smashing into a bar of iron. Sometimes I put the drab colleague in the crosswalk, too, and run all three of them down. No jury would believe it had been an accident, although Ben would surely testify in my favor. I'd go to jail for decades, and the case would be made into a movie for one of those cable channels for women - "Out of Control: The Katha Pollitt Story" What a disappointing end to my struggle for personal growth! Yet one not without consolations: in jail, after all, I would not need to drive. I could settle into comfy middle age, reorganizing the prison library and becoming a lesbian.
Twelve years ago, I saw a
therapist who urged me to learn to drive to set an example for my
daughter, who was then a toddler. She pointed out that my mother had
never learned to drive, and waited in silence, as they do, for me to
see a connection. Well, it's obvious, isn't it? My mother was a kind
of professional helpless person. If she was alone in the house and
couldn't open a jar, she would take it to the corner bar and ask one
of the drunks to open it for her. "Don't be like your mother," my
father would say in exasperation when I displayed particular
ineptitude in the face of the physical world. And, except for the
matter of driving, I'm not. I'm meaner and stronger and I'm not
drinking myself to death. I own a special tool for twisting
recalcitrant lids. Unlike my mother, I can time a meal so that the
rice, the meat, and the vegetables all come out ready together. But
it's true that my culinary skills deteriorated precipitously while I
was living with my former lover, a fabulous cook who had once prepared
dinner for the mayor of Bologna and who took over the kitchen the
minute he moved in. Gradually, I forgot what I knew and lost the
confidence to try new recipes, nor did I ever learn to use any of the
numerous appliances he collected: the espresso machine with cappuccino
attachment, the Cuisinart mini-prep, or the deep-fat fryer he bought
the day after I said I was going on a diet.
My father made my mother sign up with a driving school. In fact, she was taking a lesson at the very moment word came over the car radio that President Kennedy had been shot. She claimed that this event so traumatized her that she could never get back behind the wheel. I didn't believe her - she'd never liked J.F.K., who had invaded Cuba and brought the world to the brink of nuclear war with the missile crisis. I think she was just afraid, the way I am - afraid of killing myself, afraid of killing someone else. I was fourteen when my mother gave up on her license, the same age that my daughter is now, but I give myself bonus points, because I'm still taking lessons. 'You can do it, Mom," my daughter calls to me over her cereal when I dash out the door for my lesson. "Just keep your hands on the wheel." In a weak moment, I mentioned to her that sometimes at a red light I forget and put my hands in my lap - that would earn a warning from the examiner right there. I am trying to set her a good example, as that long-ago therapist urged - the example of a woman who does not fall apart because the man she loved lied to her every single minute of their life together and then left her for a woman young enough to be his daughter. "I'm going to be a little obsessed for a while," I told her. "I'm going to spend a lot of time talking on the phone with my friends and I may cry sometimes, but basically I'm fine. Also, I'm going on a huge diet, and I don't want any teenage anorexia from you."
"Mom!" She gave me the parents-are-weird eye-roll The truth is, though, she's proud of me. When I do something new - figure out what's wrong with the computer without having to call my ex-husband, or retake the big study I vacated for my lover when he moved in, or give away my schlumpy old fat clothes and buy a lot of beautiful velvet pants and tops in deep jewel colors - she pumps her arm and says, "Mujer de Metal!"
Ben is not just a great driving instructor; he is an interesting conversationalist. On our long lessons, he tells me all about growing up in Manila: the beauty of going to Mass with his mother every day, and how sad it was to lose touch with his sisters when they married and became part of their husbands' families. When he says that he prays for me to pass the driving test, I am so moved - I picture him surrounded by clouds of incense and tropical flowers, dressed in ornate robes, like the Infant of Prague. "Do you think I'm a weird Asian, Kahta?" Ben asks me. "Not at all," I say firmly, although how could I tell? Ben is the only Asian I know. He tells me that Asians repress their anger - which makes me wonder if he is secretly angry at me for making so many mistakes - and that Westerners don't understand their jokes. I tell him that mostly I know about Asians from reading ancient Chinese poetry and the novels of Shusako Endo. "What about the Kama Sutra?" he asks, and we laugh and insist we've never read it, never even looked at it, and then we laugh some more, because we know we are both lying. "See that pedestrian? He's Bob Marley's son," Ben says, pointing to a handsome young black man with short dreadlocks who's entering Riverside Church. And while I am wondering how Ben would know that - maybe Bob, Jr., took lessons from him? - he cracks up: "You believed me!" Ben can be quite a humorist. And yet sometimes I worry about him, going home after a long day to his studio in Floral Park, Long Island. He's forty-four, and it will be years before he can marry his fiancée, who is forty and a schoolteacher back in the Philippines. When he gets home, he has three beers, which seems like a lot to drink alone. ("It used to be two, now three.") If I believed in God, I would pray for him - to get his own driving school, and be able to bring his fiancée over and move with her to a nice apartment in Castle Viiage, on the side that looks out over the river.
Some mornings, I know I mystify Ben. "Did you notice that hazard, Kahta? That double-parked S.U.V.?" I admit I have no idea what he's talking about. 'Always look ahead, Kahta. Look at the big picture, not just what's right in front of you. Observation!" Other days, though, I know I'm making progress. I zip up West End Avenue, enjoying the fresh green of the old plane trees and the early-morning quiet. I perform the physical work of driving, but with a kind of Zen dispersal of attention, so that as I am keeping an even pace and staying in my lane I am also noticing the bakery van signalling a right turn, and the dogwalker hesitating on the curb with his cluster of chows and retrievers. A block ahead, I see a school bus stopping in front of the same Italianate apartment building where my daughter, my lover, and I used to wait for the bus when she was in elementary school, and I am already preparing to be careful and cautious, because you never know when a little child might dart out into the street. At that moment, it seems possible that I will pass the driving test, if not this time, then the next. One morning soon, I will put my license in my pocket, I will get into the car, turn the key, and enjoy the rumbly throat-clearing sound of the engine starting up. I will flick the turn signal down, so it makes that satisfying, precise click I will pull out when I am ready and drive - it doesn't even matter where. I will make eye contact with pedestrians, I will be aware of cyclists coming up behind me; the smooth and confident trajectory of my vehicle will wordlessly convey to cabbies and Jersey drivers that they should keep at least three car lengths away, and more should it be raining. I will listen to my inner voice, I will look ahead to get the big picture, I will observe. I will beefstew it. I will be mujer de metal.
**Katha Pollitt is a poet and essayist and the author of Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture.
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