“Andy would bicycle across town in the rain to bring you/ candy and John would buy the gown for you to wear to the/ prom with Tom the astronomer who’d name a star for you/ but I’m the luckiest guy on the Lower East Side/ cause I’ve got wheels and you want to go for a ride”
–From “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side,” Magnetic Fields
It could be said that one of the major reasons I have never gotten my driver’s license is because there have always been people around to do the driving for me. And by people, I mean boys. These boys weren’t my boyfriends, they were other boys, boys who were content just to have company as they glided over the roads in the most satisfyingly corporeal proof of adulthood imaginable. I don’t know why I never wanted a piece of this for my own, or why I equated the cars of boys with freedom when I was not the one doing the driving. But ever since I was finally old enough for my parents to allow me to get into the cars of my peers, I have been an avid passenger: all rapt eyes and enthusiasm, even when we weren’t really going anywhere. The same could be said for these not-my-boyfriends and their company. I wanted the sensation without the commitment. And the times that I have been able to obtain that have been among some of the happiest and most terrifying moments in my life.
First came Josh, in high school. He drove me to school (or, often, not) every morning in a secondhand white-and-wood-panel Wagoneer like the very privilege of owning a car was a dare from the universe to drive it as fast as he could. I wasn’t scared. Josh was an honor student. He had a mix tape that we used specifically for driving called “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.” This was my first exposure to bands like Archers of Loaf, Man or… Astroman?, Stereolab, and Shudder to Think. I had a copy of it to listen to at home, but it only seemed to work its indie rock magic when we were going somewhere: the mall, the lake, High Rocks, some faraway diner. I have always thought that music was best experienced in someone else’s fast car; I still do. The freedom of being able to get Josh (who never needed much coaxing) to drive somewhere other than school was freedom as pure and absolute as I have ever known it. As Ntozake Shange would say, “WE WAZ GROWN. WE WAZ FINALLY GROWN.”
Eric was a Jersey boy, a pragmatic Virgo in an avant-garde prog band who made my acquaintance when he walked up to the coffee shop table where I was sitting with my college girlfriends and asked us if we wanted to go smoke some weed. From that point on, he and his car were mine, all mine. He’d drive into the city from Jersey at the drop of a hat, get me stoned, and play bootleg tapes of bands whose names I wouldn’t be able to remember even if I’d been sober. Eric was wise to my specific form of crack: he knew I just liked to ride, didn’t matter where. So he’d just drive anywhere. Sometimes we would go to his band’s practice space and I would lie on the carpet while they played, feeling the music’s vibrations through the floor, and it was almost as good as riding. We lost contact for a year or so and then I heard that he died in a car crash. This news reverberated deeply: I’d often experienced such passive ecstasy in his car that I’d thought if I died, it would be a good way to go, with the stereo up and the windows down. But I’d never thought it would actually happen, not to me or to him.
By the time Derek made his big move, my affinity for the cars of boys I was not necessarily going to even kiss must have been notorious, because he knew all about it already. He waited until he had a vintage navy-blue Benz in his driveway before beginning his campaign of phone calls and flowers left on the steps of my job. In the end, all he really had to do was let me see it. As soon as I was situated inside this beautiful beast with the seatbelt buckled firmly across my chest, Derek demonstrated the sound system by blasting Ink and Dagger so loud that I couldn’t even hear my own protests as he drove wildly over the bridge and into New Jersey in the space of about three minutes. This was a trip that should have taken at least ten. I almost pissed myself. It didn’t help when he started screaming over the music, “I’m Batman and you’re Vicky Vale!” I was grateful that I made it home to slam my front door in his face. Later I learned that he had been flush in the middle of a bona fide psychotic episode. Later still, I would get into a different car with him and hold his hand that wasn’t on the steering wheel. Later than even that, I would understand that a passenger was probably the last thing Derek needed, in his car or otherwise.
Bader drove me out to Ocean City one afternoon in October with the sun setting spectacularly beyond the bridge. I was wearing a fuzzy white sweater. My boyfriend did not understand why I would do a thing like this to him, even though Bader was just a friend. He wasn’t just a friend, really. At least, he didn’t want to be. I didn’t care. It was shortly after September 11th and I felt this painful but irresistible pressure to live my life the way it was meant to be lived: the edges blurred, as though glimpsed through a passenger’s seat window. My boyfriend drove me all over the city, wherever I wanted, on his Vespa, and it should have been enough. But it wasn’t. I needed Ocean City, too. Mostly because it was such a luxuriantly long drive. To the amazement of probably all parties involved, I didn’t cheat on my boyfriend that night. But the damage to that relationship had been done. My boyfriend knew all about me after that; he knew I’d get into a car with anyone regardless of where they were going.
PJ was the last of my great platonic chauffeurs. I’m not quite sure where I get off calling him platonic, either, except that he was always someone else’s and therefore not to be taken seriously. He had one of those special cards that police give to their friends to keep them out of trouble and put a lot of faith into this thing. PJ was like that generally; prone to discarding reason for superstition. You couldn’t convince him that the reason police stopped people in the first place was because they were already driving dangerously. I didn’t like this, but I liked the way it felt when he drove like we were in a video game, like the road might suddenly drop out from beneath us and his SUV would just rise into the sky like a shiny black bird. It was like we were eighteen even though we were both much older. Something about the combination of his recklessness and the fact that he was so pretty that he turned everything around himself into a movie soothed me. I knew how these things went; I did not have to worry about permanence. All I had to do was go along for the ride.
I’m not sure whether to be wistful or relieved that there hasn’t been a solid boy-with-car situation in my life for a few years now. My last boyfriend had one, but he doesn’t like to drive and lacks, mercifully, that romantic outlaw quality that makes for what I used to consider a good driver. If he is any evidence, it would seem that I am ready to slow down a little and take in the scenery from a more stable point of reference. By my own rules, though, boyfriends don’t count for this sort of thing. The boy has to be a not-my-boyfriend, has to be willing to work without return, and the conversation has to be tense and hormonal. And the simple fact is that unless I want to take up with someone much younger than myself, these boys have all grown up. Which makes me think that it is high time I grew up myself.
My risks have already been considerable, if prosaic enough. It’s worth noting that I have never found these risks more dangerous than the one I would take by learning how to drive myself. I worry about being my own kind of bad driver–a nervous, joyless one who slows down at approaching curves in the road and keeps the music low so they can concentrate. I worry that even this won’t save me from accidents, disaster, death. I worry that I will be one of those people who never truly feels comfortable behind the wheel. But mostly, I worry about my potential passengers. How will I ever keep them happy?
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