When I learned to drive, I also learned how to adult

I had never been terribly interested in cars,with the exception of a story my parents love to tell about how I excitedly sat in a red Miyata at a car show as a toddler. It seems this fascination burned fast and fierce, because at this point I don’t think I’d be able to tell the difference between a Miyata and a Macchiato.

While everyone else clamored to the DMV for permits and licenses the minute they came of age, I was more hesitant to enter into the four-wheeled world. I held onto my permit for two years, logging countless practice hours driving my family to the mall and taking on a leg in our southeastern family road trips. Even then I can’t say that I necessarily liked driving— I had heard too many horror stories from friends about crazed soccer moms following them home to want to get on the road with any particular urgency.

Still, when I was finally ready to take my driving test, I made sure to stack all the odds in my favor. I made an appointment at the DMV out in the boonies where it was rumored the road test was easier. I did my hair and makeup carefully to ensure my ID picture game would be flawless. I had taken all the courses, driven all over the country. I was ready to get my license. So, naturally, I was utterly shocked and devastated when I failed the test.

I was just turning back into the DMV when my nerves finally got the best of me, and I took the turn a bit too early across a four-lane highway. This miscalculated maneuver was “dangerous” enough for my instructor to fail me. My makeup ran and my hair became knotted as I, someone two years over the legal age to drive a vehicle, proceeded to throw a tantrum.  I cried for hours, mourning the loss of my picture-perfect coming of age moment. My friends texted me to ask how everything had gone, and all it did was make me sob harder.

The clouds parted when my best friend’s boyfriend, Danny, instant messaged me offering to commiserate. He had failed the test more than once, and in consolation told me how during one exam he had been so nervous he accidentally turned the windshield wipers on and then, in a panic to turn them off, shot wiper fluid onto the windshield. The image made me laugh, which snapped me out of my funk. The minute the tears dried, I resolved to get my license the next day. So, puffy-eyed but determined, first thing the next morning, I marched into the nearest DMV and I got my license.

Having my license was a nice badge of pride, but I still didn’t have a car. When I went away to college, I had to rely on the campus buses to get around and call friends and family for a lift when I needed to get back home. I found this especially frustrating as I often got tired of the campus parties on the weekend, and aside from the small strip of bars and restaurants “downtown,” there was nothing surrounding the University of Georgia but wide open country for miles in every direction. For a girl who had always envisioned college as an opportunity to really grow, this lack of freedom was especially disappointing. I was so reliant on other people, in a state I felt I had outgrown.

The chance to break out of my rut came in the form of an intercollegiate exchange program: for a year, I would go to school across the country at San Jose State University. And so, with my life compactly packed in the back of a blue Toyota Corolla, my mother and I drove cross-country. As we marveled at the endless stretches of flat highway and wound our way through red rock formations, my mom told me stories of her time before my dad, about family I barely knew in San Francisco. We bonded behind the wheel, listening to burned CDs and taking turns napping. She was even understanding the night, both of us ravenous, I inexplicably dropped our pizza dinner face down in the parking lot of our hotel—a true sign that we had grown close.

While I had dreaded driving in Georgia, I loved driving in California. It often felt like a video game. Everyone drove fast but moved with precision, and I would speed down the highways in the longer drives between San Jose and Fremont, where my aunts and uncles lived. I had a part-time job at Valley Fair mall, and I spent half of each week there, fighting for parking spots in the crowded lot and going grocery shopping at the Safeway nearby. I kept pairs of work heels in the back, and I often ate hurried meals of fast food in the driver’s seat. I had a collection of Broadway cast albums I would sing along with at the top of my lungs. I would make impromptu drives down to Santa Cruz and once took myself on a date to see a show downtown. For the first time in my life, I felt like an adult.

Nearing the end of my academic year in California, I was wrestling with what to do next. I didn’t want to go back to Georgia, but I didn’t know if staying in California was what I wanted either. One night, on a post-work grocery run at my favorite Safeway, a woman stopped me in the checkout line. She said she was a psychic and asked if I wanted a reading—she said she could sense from my aura that exciting things were in my future.

I declined the offer and headed home; but pulling into the parking garage at my dorm I managed to scrape up against the wall, denting the back door and scraping paint off in wide streaks. Out of frustration, I cursed as loud as I could and hit the steering wheel, which caused the windshield wipers to turn on and furiously swat at the glass. I winced as I backed up and peeled the car off the wall, but then I had to smile at the ridiculousness of the incident—I fleetingly wondered if this was the “exciting thing” the psychic had seen in my future. Then, a few weeks later, I received news that I was accepted as a transfer student to NYU—somewhere I had applied as a long shot— and I came to see my scrape-up with the garage as a humbling experience making way for what was to come.

Now that I live in New York, I never drive. In fact, I’ve gone so long without driving that I have a tendency to get nauseous on prolonged car rides. I like the communality of riding public transit (for the most part). I like knowing I always have a ride, a designated driver always available, even when I’m sober. Having a car had always provided me with an option, an escape. Now, when I sit on the subway, I can just zone out, knowing that I have a set destination.

Still, sometimes I find myself in the occasional car—in a taxi or getting a ride from a friend— and I find myself watching the road as though I were in the driver’s seat. I check the other lanes before we merge. I feel my heart jump a bit as we lean in. I gauge the distance between our car and the car in front of us. It’s not necessarily that I want to be at the wheel, but sometimes I just need to remind myself of how it feels.

(Image via Reveille Productions)