On learning to drive

The driving instructor blasted his horn outside my flat as arranged at 8.00 am on a Thursday morning with the intention I drive him to work. I came out flustered. He took one look at my platform heels. 

‘Go back inside and get some proper shoes,’ he said. ‘You can’t drive in those.’ So I went back inside the flat which I shared with my boyfriend who was away in Sydney, slipped my platforms off into a plastic bag, and then dragged on my runners. 

I had driven in my boyfriend’s automatic, but this was to be a whole new experience. The stuff of pushing in the clutch and slowly easing it up in conjunction with a small purr of acceleration. 

I was never one for physical coordination and felt sure my instructor regretted taking me on from the get-go. He was an old man from my twenty-three-year-old perspective, as old as my father, and just as gruff. He was also determined.

‘Once you’re in first gear, you indicate. When the coast is clear weave your way out. Then turn left onto Dandenong Road.’ 

The man was out of his mind. Whatever gave him the idea I could take this yellow streak of fire into peak hour traffic on Dandenong Road where trams rushed by like roaring elephants and pedestrians held up drivers at every traffic light. 

I gripped the steering wheel at quarter to three on the clock face as instructed and planted my feet, one on either side, accelerator, and break. The stop start movement crippled me. Sweat poured from under my arm pits and my heart rate shot to the sky. 

By the time we pulled into the side street at the far end of the Prince Henry’s Hospital I had done a day’s work anxiety-wise and was ready to turn around and go back home to bed. ‘We’ll do this again next week,’ my instructor said. 

Repeat it we did for all the remaining weeks I worked at the hospital. But life has a way of waylaying our best plans and by the time I had failed my driving licence for a third time, this time under the care of a new instructor – I had sacked the first one – I moved into a different flat in Caulfield, said goodbye to my boyfriend of four years and was living with a younger sister. I also had a new job in a counselling agency in Glen Waverly where I was to hone my skills as a counselling social worker helping disadvantaged families who lived in and around Brandon Park. 

The year I turned twenty-four was the worst year of my life. What makes this one year stand out so boldly from others? This year when I was finally living as an independent woman, no longer in the thrall of a boyfriend I once thought I could not live without. Away from a family home from which l once longed for escape from the time I was fourteen.

This was the year when I lay alone in my double bed in a room opposite my younger sister’s often empty room. She, almost five years younger than me, left school early and took a job as a teller with the Commonwealth Bank. in what felt like a heartbeat soon after we moved in together, she had found a boyfriend. Within a year they launched into marriage. Years later, she told me she had imagined that she and I would spend our spare time together. We’d party together, cook together, make friends together. But it never happened. Not in this brown box second floor flat, rented from a wealthy landlord in Caulfield. The place was unfurnished beyond a long red couch we bought around the corner from a second-hand store; our beds; a television; a table, two chairs and fridge in the kitchen. The fridge was empty except for cheese, milk, butter and wine and the cupboards hollowed out to hold only half eaten packs of Salada crackers and vegemite jars, which my sister ate topped with her favourite plastic cheese. 

I ate elsewhere, if at all. The worst year of my life. The loneliness that snaked through my body like a poison and left me after work each night in search of companionship. 

I stood one Saturday morning in the laundromat on Inkerman Road and watched the washing machine cycle through its paces. The swish of clothes reminded me of the endlessness of my life. Somewhere out there, there was someone who would want to be with me as much as I wanted to be with them. 

At night I set a tape recorder within arm’s reach so I could replay Janis Ian’s sad voice. She learned the truth at seventeen that love was meant for beauty queens and high school girls with fresh skinned smiles who married young and then retired. Jonie Mitchel set my tears flowing with her laments to the men who had wronged her. All the mystery men in her life, while I longed to find someone just for me. And I was scared of invasion. Even though this apartment had a stairwell that was sealed off from the ground by a closed door system at the entrance, I still imagined someone sneaking through and climbing the stairs to get in through my locked door. 

Once a week in the morning my new driving instructor honked his horn to alert me to our trip this time to Glen Waverly, and this time in his turquoise Datsun 180Y. I liked him for his casual approach. 

‘You’re phobic about driving,’ he told me one day as I bunny hopped my way out of the driveway. You just need to relax.’

How to relax when the monster beneath my body had a life of its own, entirely outside of my understanding and control. I had learned to do things by rote at school. Learning the movements without understanding the why of things. It leaves an uneasy relationship to experience. As if you’re scooting through, going through the motions, but at risk of something shifting unexpectedly in the process and not knowing what to do. Once on a roll I was okay, into fourth gear, if no objects impeded. But I hated to stop unexpectedly. I hated any requirement to shift down the gears. 

It was not until years later when I turned myself inside and out on my analyst’s couch that I began to understand the why of things. The way things worked. Even the way bodies worked. I had completed two years of biology by the time I left school. I had rote learned every part of the body and its essential purpose but even then, I could not understand the female reproductive cycle. All these curious follicle stimulating hormones, oestrogen, progesterone, the purpose they served. 

Not until I came to recognise my fears of my body on my analysts’ couch, when I came to understand why I might avoid so much knowledge, as of it was too much of a threat to the one inside of me who had met difficult concepts of sexuality and human bodies well before her time, that I came to realise it was safe to go into understanding. That I would not lose my mind in the process. 

The third time I went for my driver’s licence, again I could not fathom the dimensions of parallel parking. Again, I could not calculate the rule of turns and calculations necessary and from what angle to wriggle the car into the space, but the examiner took pity on me. 

Perhaps he saw how timid I was behind the wheel. Perhaps he figured I would not be a danger out there on the road, too slow and feckless. Perhaps he decided I needed a break or that I was basically a good enough driver. 

He gave me my licence and I drove of home. Then in a state of terror at the thought of driving my car alone through the streets of Melbourne with no one at my side telling me what to do, I loaned my car to a man I had met a few weeks earlier at a party. 

This man had crashed his own car and needed wheels. He could have mine for a time I told him. I was okay on public transport. It took months before I was able to get the strength to reclaim my car and begin the long slow process of getting control of my own ability to drive. 

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