Like most of my fears, my fear of driving began more as a fear of the unknown. Being behind the wheel seemed to offer infinite possibilities, but I preferred to live in my bubble where I didn’t need to worry about gas prices, directions, and not running people over. When everyone else got their license in high school, I sat out, figuring I wasn’t ready and had nowhere to drive to anyways. I continued stalling in college, when I mostly stayed on my small campus, and the possibility of driving became buried in my mind beneath schoolwork and other distractions. Driving was just one of those things that I randomly didn’t do, and asking for rides or backing out of possible social events because I couldn’t travel to them was the norm. I grew accustomed to sitting in the passenger seat of life.
My initial fear of driving was left unchecked over these years, and in that time it evolved and mutated, growing extra layers of complexity as it festered in my brain. I had been afraid of driving for so long that I felt if I started to drive, I would surely die in an accident as some twisted form of poetic justice, and people would stand over my casket at my funeral, shake their heads, and say “I knew we never should have let him drive.” I was no longer just afraid of driving; I was afraid of my own fear and also afraid of my fear of my fear.
Nonetheless, I realized after college that I would eventually have to drive. I needed a way to get to work and it appeared that civilization was still years away from inventing a hovercraft or any form of effortless tubular transportation. I was put in touch with a friend of the family who works at Midway Driving, a school that specializes in teaching “nervous adults,” which makes me wish every place of business had a version for “nervous adults,” like grocery stores and banks where everyone is nice and you don’t have to talk to anyone, but can instead communicate in a series of anxious grunts.
My instructor’s name is Bob, and he’s an older squirrely man who makes a lot of odd jokes and talks to me about sports while I try to focus on keeping the car on the road. My first lesson behind the wheel is terrifying and I feel on the edge of disaster at every moment as I try to process all the different things that are happening. The hardest thing to get used to is the feeling of having total control over this crazy machine, and my mind frequently wanders over to the infinite possibilities that driving presents and how everything can change in a second with one ill-timed swerve.
The best advice Bob gives me is something to the effect of “don’t be afraid of the other cars, because they’re not trying to hit you either.” Which sounds obvious in retrospect, since we aren’t playing MarioKart, but it alleviates my fear of fiery accidents and makes me realize that driving is about cooperating with your fellow human beings. Instead of viewing the other drivers as enemies trying to murder me, I start to see them as friends and collaborators.
Under Bob’s tutelage, I continue to improve and even start to think of myself as a good driver. After initially being timid and afraid of being the bad driver that everyone honks at, I start internally berating others for going too slow or not using their turn signal. I discover that I’m a prodigy at signaling my turns. I never forget to do it and always make sure to signal promptly so that any traffic behind me is aware that a turn is about to commence. Bob never comments on it, but I can tell he’s thinking that I’m one of the best damn turn-signalers he’s ever seen in all his years in the business.
While I am a natural turn-signaler, I still struggle with the parallel and 90-degree parking, which is the part of the upcoming driver’s test that stresses me out the most. Bob warns me that basically nobody ever gets a good score on the parking and that I should just ignore it and make sure I don’t crash into the cones, but I have a weird perfectionist streak that pops up on occasion and I really just want to nail the parking. I have fantasies of putting on a total clinic on the driver’s test and showing whoever administers the test how a real adult handles things as opposed to the little teenagers they usually have to deal with.
Bob takes me for another full lesson before our scheduled appointment at the DMV, and before we get there unveils a diagram of the test course like he’s showing me a map that leads to buried treasure. There is only one one-way road on the course, which is otherwise a basic rectangle of two-way roads with some stop lights and stop signs. I pull up to the starting point, at which point Bob has to exit the car and leaves me by myself and I feel my confidence and adultness start to drain out of me and the fear that I’d tried to squelch for the last few weeks returns, now accompanied by an extra layer of fearing failing this test and embarrassing myself in front of the guy from the DMV who has just taken over in the passenger’s seat.
The test begins, with the guy from the DMV instructing me around the course. Up first is the 90-degree parking, which goes roughly as expected; I nudge one of the cones as I pull in which immediately puts my brain into disaster mode. I continue to be flustered from there and am driving too slowly, but I’m too nervous to go any faster. The road is also covered in snow thanks to my brilliant decision to get my license in the middle of winter, so I’m not entirely sure if I’m even driving properly in the lane I’m supposed to.
Eventually, I arrive at a green light where I’m supposed to take a left turn. I slowly approach and promptly put on my turn signal, which I know had to impress the DMV guy, to see someone who is so on top of their turn signaling, and check both sides for traffic, which Bob told me the DMV people like to see even on a green light. I do all this preparing for the turn, but forget to check back on the light, and it’s not until I’m halfway through completing my turn that I realize it’s red. This is probably not good, I think to myself, but it all happens too fast for my body to get the memo to abort mission, so I lamely complete the turn.
“Uhh…. that was a red light,” DMV guy observes.
I have a few options for how to respond to this:
A) DENIAL: “No, it was green. It was definitely green. You think I would go through a red light on my driver’s test? Please. Let’s not be ridiculous.”
B) FOREIGN BLUFF: (In thick accent I haven’t shown before that doesn’t sound like it belongs to a country anyone has ever traveled to): “Yes, this is how we drive where I come from. Does red mean something else here in the United States? I just immigrated here this morning specifically for my driver’s test and hadn’t actually seen a road before this one.”
C) EXISTENTIALISM: “When you think about it, what are ‘red’ and ‘green’ really? Aren’t these just artificial constructs that we have created to make sense of the world? Who’s to say which color is which, or who is right or who is wrong?”
D) WHATEVER INSTANTLY COMES TO MIND BECAUSE I DON’T CARE ABOUT THIS TEST ANYMORE AND JUST WANT TO GO HOME AND SLEEP AND PRETEND THIS NEVER HAPPENED TO ME: “Uhh… yeah. It sure was.”
In the heat of the moment, I end up going with option D, which I regret in hindsight. At this point, I start to strongly suspect that I won’t be passing the test and am unsure if it even continues after a moment like this, or if I’m supposed to just jump out of the car while it’s still moving and never show my face in the DMV again. The exam pointlessly continues, but at this point I’ve completely checked out mentally and am only focused on getting this nightmare over with. I botch the parallel parking (obviously), continue to drive too slow and shakily, and cap it off with a flourish by putting the car in park before we get to a full stop, bringing the test to an unceremonious conclusion.
DMV guy explains to me that no, I won’t be getting my license today, since that whole “going through a red light” thing is discouraged and generally frowned upon in the state of Minnesota, and that I legally can’t take the test again until after a week has gone by, which makes it sound like I’m barred from the DMV premises until the stench of failure is completely off of me. He exits the car and I move to the passenger’s seat so Bob can drive me home, and I contemplate if I’ll ever feel more pathetic than I do while being dropped off at home by my driving instructor after failing my driver’s test at age 24. On the way back, we have a post-mortem on what went wrong with the test, and mostly agree that things started to go south when I drove through a red light instead of a green light when red means “stop” and green means “go.”
I go home and sleep, and then have to tell my parents how I failed the test and I get to relive this event many times in gruesome detail. I think about all the dumb high-schoolers who are barely smart enough to breathe, yet are able to pass this test easily at age 16 so they can drive to school instead of taking the bus and go to parties or whatever. There is no worse feeling than being unable to do something that high-schoolers do. If I can’t even pass this driver’s test that basically everyone on earth passes when they’re a kid, is there anything I can do?
My 25th birthday falls during my quarantine period from the DMV. I don’t really feel like celebrating, since I’m becoming more aware of how each year makes me sound so much older than the previous one while my accomplishments hold steady at zero, ever. But my parents take the initiative and invite relatives over, which means I get to have several versions of this conversation:
RELATIVE: Hey, how did your driver’s test go?
ME: I failed.
RELATIVE: Aw, that’s too bad. It happens to a lot of people, though. I mean, not me — I passed easily — but I’ve heard that it happens. Did you not come to a complete stop at a stop sign or something?
ME: No, I went through a red light.
RELATIVE: ….Oh. Wow. Jeez. That’s really bad. I did not expect you to say that. Damn. Well, yikes. I’m going to walk away and talk to someone else now, I guess.
If this were a movie, there would be a Rocky montage of me training for my second go at the test, where I master the art of driving with intensive study. But my life is much more boring than movies, and I spend the next couple of weeks trying to not think about cars and driving. I stay inside as much as possible and even avoid watching the Pixar film Cars and its sequel, Cars 2. And I think about how embarrassing it was to fail the test, then realize how brutal it would be to fail again. It becomes clear that my second attempt at the test will be a battle for what remains of my self-esteem, and I start to have nightmare visions about what my life looks like if I don’t pass.
EXT. ST. PAUL DMV, 5/10/2060, 1:30 p.m.
The DMV, after many budget cuts, is now reduced to a small building that only fits a pair of long-time employees, JAKE and BILL, who are both immersed in their virtual reality headsets as they spend another long, uneventful day at work. Outside, the road course has faded street paint and is surrounded by overgrown grass. A car approaches, driven by a man in his early 30s with an old man, around 70 years old, in the passenger’s seat.
JAKE and BILL remove their headsets.
JAKE: Looks like Old Man Epstein is here to take his test again. Do you want to do it or should I?
BILL: I had to do it last week and barely survived. I think you’re up.
JAKE: I’ll give you my day’s pay if you do it.
BILL: Hell no. Some things are more important than money. I have a family at home that needs me.
JAKE: So do I, but whatever. I’ll do it. I don’t even know why we still have this stupid road course here, or why this guy still wants to drive. Who gets a driver’s license, anymore? It’s easier to just teleport.
BILL: He can’t even drive, what makes you think he can teleport?
JAKE: Well, I’m saying he should be focusing on learning to teleport, not on driving an automobile. But I guess he’s too old to learn teleportation. Really, he should just give up altogether.
BILL: Well, here he comes.
JAKE: Alright. If anything happens to me, tell my wife I love her.
BILL: No problem, man. Good luck out there.
OLD MAN EPSTEIN: Hey, Jake. I’m here for my driver’s test again.
JAKE: Nice to see you again, Josh. I think by now you know the drill, so let’s just get started. Good luck.
The car pulls onto the road course, traveling at a very low speed, skids off the road into a ditch, and crashes into a tree, leaving a noticeable dent at the front of the car.
OLD MAN EPSTEIN: Oh dear, not this again.
JAKE: I don’t even know why we put that ditch near the road course. Anyways, I’m sorry Josh, but you failed again. Though I have to say, this was a marked improvement over last week.
OLD MAN EPSTEIN: Yes. At least there wasn’t any fire this time. I’ve been working on that.
JAKE: It shows. You’re making really good strides. Still, I have to ask: why do you keep showing up here when all you do is fail? Not to mention that we stopped administering driver’s licenses five years ago when all the big car manufacturers went out of business.
OLD MAN EPSTEIN: I don’t know. I guess I just want to prove that I can do it. But maybe I can’t do it. Maybe I can’t do anything.
JAKE: Yeah, it certainly seems that way from my vantage point. But even though I’m tired of seeing you here every week and watching you fail makes me embarrassed for you, I do admire your determination, kind of.
OLD MAN EPSTEIN: I just need to get my license so I can finally be a grown-up and start living like an adult. Now, how are we going to get the car out of this ditch?
JAKE: Oh, we figured you were coming today, so we have someone on stand-by to teleport the car away or put out any fires that may occur. Don’t worry about it.
I barely sleep the day before my second test. Bob picks me up again and we run through the basics one more time before driving back to the site of my initial humiliation, the DMV. Bob exits the car again, a different DMV guy takes over in the passenger’s seat, and the test begins. I joke that the test can’t possibly go worse this time, and I feel my fear and nervousness fade away. I know what to expect this time, and the driving feels smooth and natural, the way I assume it does for functioning driving adults. I do a decent job on the 90-degree parking and the parallel parking. I manage to not drive through any red lights or run anyone over. As usual, I signal my turns in a way that can only be described as incredibly impressive and professional. After the first test felt like it took a lifetime, this one flies by quickly. I pull over and put the car in park after coming to a stop to complete the test, and wait to hear my fate from the DMV guy.
“Congratulationsyou’vepassedyourdriver’stestandarenoweligibletoreceivealicensefromthestateofMinnesotawhichyoucandorightinthatbuildingtherehereisyourscoresheethaveagreatdaythanks.” He exits the car and disappears seemingly mid-sentence, leaving me sitting in the driver’s seat, alone.