I Got My 1st Driver’s License in My 20s — and It Saved My Relationship
I earned my first driver’s license on Valentine’s Day in 2012. I was 23. Like most teenagers, I’d suffered through driver’s ed in high school, but, once I had permit in hand, I lost all desire to drive. The perils of stick shift on my parents’ ancient VW seemed overwhelming to my bookish teenage self, and I abandoned driving practice within a month of starting.
I was 16, set in my ways. When friends, adults and teachers would ask why I didn’t want to drive, I’d rattle off a variety of lame, literary excuses: For instance, I was the next Sarah Vowell, a self-proclaimed non-driver and New York Times best seller, or like Amory in This Side of Paradise. I thought of myself as someone who was articulate and cultured, but uninterested in the drudgeries of everyday practical life.
As you can probably guess, it wasn’t long before my teenage pretension came to a head. Two years after I was supposed to get my license, I went to UNC-Chapel Hill for college and fell for a guy just as he was moving back to my hometown in Asheville. Between the two of us there was not one car to be had and so, for two long years, I frantically called old classmates every other weekend, hoping for a ride back home to visit him. When that didn’t work, I even trawled Craigslist, looking for a lead. Those two years I weathered a snowstorm in a yoga instructor’s old Subaru, sat quietly next to two different friends as they received their first speeding ticket on I-40, woke at four in the morning to catch the train in Raleigh, and covered as much small talk as miles on the road. When that relationship ended, I turned toward a new one a couple of months after my college graduation… and, for the first few months of the budding relationship, a majority of it was spent in his car.
Matt raced motorcycles. Our first morning-after, he drove me home on the back of his Buell, his gloved hand cradling mine pressed into his chest. Matt lived three hours away, yet almost every weekend he made the commute, picked me up, and took me to visit friends in Tennessee, spend track days in Alabama, Virginia and Georgia, and stay with his folks in a small town close to my alma mater. I yearned for those hours in the car when we listened to PJ Harvey, ate Cheetos and were intimately bound by the close quarters of the vehicle, discussing movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the art of Yves Klein. The poet Linda Gregg once wrote of two horses in a paddock: “The privacy of them had a river in it. / Had our universe in it.” Conversely, the privacy of our universe existed between the humid seats of his 2000 red Toyota truck.
The love affair was as much with the open road as with Matt: The summer gloam when the sun hovered between the precipice of the green earth and the cloud-swept sky, the dissipation of tourist traffic when we veered down country roads, the endless new discoveries and places visited. One evening, close to midnight, with five hours of driving under his belt, Matt pulled his parents’ 2010 Tahoe to the side of the highway exit ramp. We groped, hungry for one another in the dark, and fell asleep, damp and dreamy in the back. A police officer woke us at dawn, smiling vaguely as we frantically (and apologetically) rummaged for our clothes. I have never been so enamored with the automobile as I was during this gas-guzzling, summer honeymoon.
Eventually Matt and I moved in together. I started a job at an independent high school teaching freshman English, we adopted an affectionate pit bull named Crumb and things, on paper, seemed grown up and good. But, despite my romance with the open road just a year before, I still never considered getting my license, much less a car. Every morning I woke Matt up at 6:45am to drive me down to my parents,’ who then drove me to school alongside my 14-year-old freshman sister, next to the book bags in the backseat. But finally, that Christmas, we came to the conclusion that I NEEDED to get a license… or our relationship couldn’t last.
And so, I employed my mom to teach me the driving basics. I practiced daily with palms sweating. Once I had mastered the rudimentary mechanics of operating a large vehicle, Matt rented a small Honda Civic with an automatic transmission. Under his tutelage I was able to refine my skills; on the second attempt, I plopped in the DMV chair with tears in my eyes as I smiled for my first license photo. Yet, despite the hours of practice, stress and expectations, when we arrived home, my first license safely tucked into my wallet, I collapsed in tears of despair rather than tears of joy. Matt was flummoxed. Hadn’t this been the culmination of our auto-related desires?
At that moment, on our second Valentine’s Day together, the license wasn’t as much for me as for us. It jump-started our relationship when the sparks seemed to have flared and gone out. But this newfound freedom and independence wasn’t something I felt ready for, despite being seven years overdue. To avoid highways and busy thoroughfares, I instead opted for a 30-minute commute on back roads to work, rather than the much more efficient fifteen-minute straight shot down bustling Patton Avenue. I only took routes that were absolutely familiar. And when Matt asked me to pick him up from a motorcycle repair shop, I desperately considered calling him a taxi, though it was only a 10-minute drive on the freeway from our house. I was not the modern woman I had envisioned myself to be as a child: I had the career and the relationship, but I couldn’t navigate my own autonomy. I was stuck in the driveway of my own life.
As a child, my role models included the most outspoken (or outrageous) of female vixens and intellectuals. I danced to Madonna, screamed alongside Courtney Love, chanted with feminist rebel grrrls Le Tigre and devoured sharp and controversial women’s writers like Sylvia Plath, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Camille Paglia and Louise Gluck. Here were women, however flawed or imperfect, who were prolific, active, self-sufficient — women, to paraphrase the poet Basho, who didn’t just write poetry, but lived it. And with relationships (platonic, sexual, romantic and otherwise), one must always have the fortitude to maintain a clear sense of self in the face of a life full of hunger, desire and action. Blame the economy or blame every romantic comedy ever made for women, but now, as a 21st century 20-something, I didn’t know how to transition the gears between intellectual sovereignty and the independence of a life well-lived. Ralph Waldo Emerson may not have had a driver’s license in mind when he wrote “Self-Reliance,” but man, that line “trust thyself: Every heart vibrates to that iron string,” is the perfect hashtag for autonomy and action in the face of stasis.
I found my iron string when I attended a conference at Bard College in the spring of 2013. The afternoon my plane landed, upstate New York experienced the worst blizzard of the winter thus far, and with Albany Airport almost two hours from my hotel, I was forced to navigate the ice and snow on my own. Despite my fears, I didn’t get lost, even when my GPS failed 30 miles from my hotel. And I didn’t crash. And I did it with nary a parent or beau in sight. Perhaps this, more than anything else, quelled my sense of helplessness (or hopelessness), sending a vibration of confidence down to my self-reliant core.
Five years ago I gave Matt (and myself) what might possibly be the best Valentine’s Day gift I could ever offer: my independence. The REM lyrics to “Drive,” repeatedly sung by my teenage self, became illuminated as if in the headlights of my newfound freedom. Here, at last, “Nobody [told] me where to go.” I was the one finally navigating the instincts and decisions of my own paved path. That year, due to conflicting schedules, our Valentine’s Day didn’t include a fancy dinner, dessert or roses. Though I traded sweatpants for lingerie that night and takeout for scented candles, the true gift was simple: I had made my own way home — driving every mile myself.
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(Illustrations via Marisa Kumtong)