It took me seven years to find the right teacher. I admit that in my cheapness I determined that the first and best option was a family member. I tried my wife but she used the wrong tone (panicked). My brother-in-law was too much like Mr. Rogers. I approached my 12-year-old nephew. I figured if someone that young smoked, as my nephew did, he also probably knew how to drive a car. I was right and things were going well until my wife caught on. She put a halt to it, said it was not appropriate. I feared sometimes for my wife, she could be so bourgeois. I mean who says words like “appropriate” besides a member of the middle class or maybe a fourth grade PE teacher.
My wife, Joy, was expecting our first child at the time and did not want to drive herself to the hospital when she went into labor. She said it would not be safe. She gave me an ultimatum — get a driver’s license, even if I had to pay, and if I didn’t, she would ask her sister to drive her and be with her during the delivery of the baby. As it turns out, I hate my sister sister-in-law.
I finally settled on a driving school called Bulldog Enterprises. The school’s owner, Ralph Ensign, was a discharged vet, African-American, who had lost his right arm in combat. The Bulldog of the school’s name, I learned while talking to Ralph that first time, referred to his determination to learn to drive with one arm and his fight with the state to allow him to set up a driving school.
“It was not easy,” he explained to me over the phone before we started our lessons. “I had to demonstrate to the state that I could be steady while driving. You can be if you place your one hand on the top and center part of the steering wheel, always.”
I asked, “Do you take students who have two hands?” And Ralph said he did and we scheduled our first meeting.
Our first lesson took place in the same church parking lot that my nephew took me to. I had to admit that there was some relief in not having to inhale secondhand smoke while learning the difference between Park, First and Second.
I was jazzed after my first lesson. Ralph and I had quite a bit in common. I sensed this; I did not actually talk with him about it. Ralph and I were marginalized. We both had challenges. Mine were class-related — this was my assessment of my difficulties, this was before my diagnosis. I will get to that later. As an example of the class strife my wife and I had, let me explain how we disagreed on where to eat hamburgers. She preferred expensive hamburgers and to have them brought to you on a plate, Dijon mustard and homemade potato chips on the side. I said why not get the cheap ones you can get at the drive-in.
There was not much difference and with free refills it could be quite a good deal. She didn’t like the noise or the saltiness. This was alienating me, except for the salt part, which I thought could be dealt with the next day by drinking plenty of water. I thought her love of expensive hamburgers was silly and played into the silly thought that expense equals value.
I like to look at what the middle class does and do the opposite. I have been diagnosed with a manic-depressive disorder after a spending binge at the dollar store, admittedly, not the first time. Which is why Joy, I later learned, had the owner call her. It was her call to take me to the doctor. We received the diagnosis the same day Joy’s pregnancy test came back positive. My diagnosis, I thought, gave Ralph, my driving instructor, and me even more in common. His physical disability and his veteran status and his skin color. Traditional life for both of us, I assumed, was challenging.
The reason why I never got my driver’s license was due to my fear of other people’s lack of, well, intelligence. I understood the rules of the road, but did they? Fundamentally, I did not want to share anything like laws or restaurants with my fellow citizens. Joy accepted and forgave this attitude of superiority, though she did on occasion call it bullshit — fearful and arrogant. She could get going when angry. If she wasn’t terribly angry she redefined my behavior as “hostile shyness.” She loved making things layered and complex. In her world I was an undiscovered planet of nuance and texture. I thought she was full of it, not rational but a rationalizer. I knew who I was more than she knew who she was. I have been called arrogant, I know. My world was different than the one Joy was familiar with. Raised by drunks and the underclass, I had to invent myself. I had to hide and pursue my love of ideas and culture. Joy, like many in the middle class, had those handed to her. I am arrogant, but I earned my arrogance. I am also scared as shit, I admit.
Joy, I thought, could probably handle my diagnosis, manic-depression. Frankly, she had a long list of disappointments and shocks. She had a mother who hated her, and her favorite friend died at age 18. Not just died, but murdered. In my case, she got so she could tell when I was going over the edge. For instance, when I was decorating the front yard with used bike parts she took me to the doctor. My resentment and appreciation toward her alternated. In more lucid moments, I understood she suffered my mania with worry and fear, especially for the children. Other times, I felt so punished by her with her plans to get me well and eventually to keep me away from the children. I knew I could be unrecognizable to her and to myself. It was beyond being disembodied. If you are disembodied you can watch yourself but I could not. Something else had completely moved in and taken over. I was not recognizable to myself. My mental illness during these moments took over not just my life but also our life. Manic-depression was just the first diagnosis. Later, after I started being hospitalized — my idea to be placed in psychiatric units, not Joy’s — the diagnosis would change or be added onto. It has been determined on different occasions that I have bipolar disorder with schizoid tendencies. Then there is psychotic, and narcissistic personality disorder.
My cooking habits were another sign Joy used to calculate my instability, though, Joy admitted, a bit more challenging, in those moments when we could be lighthearted. She loved my cooking. I introduced her to Thai eggplant and taught her how to use a peeler to get at the heart of cumin or garlic. When the curry became too hot or too many dishes were used, seven pots when the meal required only two — the doctor was called.
Her self-assignment to monitor my mental health made her cranky, especially while she was pregnant and my diagnosis was new. Eventually, scrutinizing my behavior for the signs of my instability became second nature to her. I was aware that she was aware of my “signs.” But I got so I was no longer sensitive about this psychological cat and mouse game. It was just the way it was. Joy and I had a long conversation and I finally agreed that it would okay to send the doctor a note asking about the possibility of our child having my mental health challenges.
“Oh, why not put off worrying about it for now,” the doctor advised. We tried even as it remained a shadow that was not large but rested softly between us.
After three driving lessons, Ralph called my wife. I learned this many years later. “Listen, I really need the money, but if your husband does not quit talking during these lessons he is going to fail his driver’s test and I have a 100% success rate. I am thinking of dropping him.” I guess Joy cried. After what must have been a great deal of negotiations with Ralph, Joy joined the two of us on the driving lessons. She lay down on the back seat with a black silk shade over her eyes. Her large pregnant belly a nice arch I could see in the rear view mirror and that was why she wore the shades. She and Ralph both agreed that she should not watch. But her presence did quiet me down. “River Road,” Ralph said, “is the best place to learn to be steady. Frank, place your hands on the wheel at the 10 and 2 position and have your eyes guide you, not your hands, through any curvy road like River.”
Joy knew that I was nervous, I am sure, and could feel the car get jerky. After several tense moments, Ralph told me to pull the car over and said sternly, “Relax, own the road. Focus on the road just a few feet ahead of you.”
After three false starts, Joy suggested, with her blindfolds on, that we pull over. She said, “Frank, get out of the car.” She took my hands in hers and practiced the Lamaze breathing we had been reading about in the evenings. Her blindfold was now resting on her forehead. Her strategy worked. I relaxed and with a few exceptions I began to hug the curve. Fairly or unfairly, I don’t know, I usually dismissed Joy’s ideas. Her strength is not her rationality. Her persistence is her strength. Doing Lamaze breathing may have been a good idea and it may have been a bad one. In Joy’s hands it was inevitable — breathing and hugging the road, I did them both.
Joy fully expected my malfeasance to change once the baby was born. I mean, she had changed, she argued. She did not like children, but after holding her newborn niece she changed her mind. There was nothing more beautiful than the smell of a newborn’s skin and nothing so well earned than the red splotches on her niece’s scalp because of her arduous passage through the birth canal, Joy insisted. We read Walt Whitman on the night the baby was conceived, “The Wound-Dresser.” I know that Walt, as Joy and I called him, is famous for “Song of Myself” and roaming and being at one with men, women, and children, etc. But “The Wound Dresser” is inexplicably heartfelt for this egocentric guy, gorgeously generous to the wounded and the horror they have experienced on our behalf.
Eventually, I received my license. To celebrate I bought two cases of mangoes at the farmer’s market. Joy had never had mangoes before she was pregnant. She ate them all in one sitting. I took pictures. I had never seen such a thing. Joy was quite large at this point and sucked on the large seeds very thoroughly. We made jokes, etc.
We still owned just one car and out of habit, Joy was the default driver. The Saturday before our son, Jake, was born she dropped me off at the grocery store for sale items. She went to the grocery store across the street for other store items. When she was done she drove to the grocery store that I was at but unfortunately I had left to meet her at the grocery store where she was shopping. This was a common problem for us — forgetting to check in regarding life’s essential details — where you will be and when. We finally caught up with each other after crossing paths for nearly an hour. It was me who found Joy. She was in the car crying. “What’s the matter?” I demanded. Joy said, in between gulps, “I began to wonder what it would be like if you were dead. I wondered what life would be like without you.” She was laughing and crying, “I would need to learn to cook. No one would ever find me beautiful again. I would miss your voice,” and finally, “You’re OK?” She was half demanding and half scared. “Yeah and I found a deal on mangoes.” “Oh,” she said, “how good was the deal on mangoes?”, she asked. I told her.
Jake was born a week later. Followed two years later by Tess and two years after that there was Mia. I think it was a good run. I am a manic-depressive and I learned to drive.
— “Frank Learns to Driver” is the first chapter of Barbara Allen’s first novel, entitled “Joy Falls.” She has an MFA from the University of Arizona and her poetry has been published widely. She currently works and lives in Tucson, Arizona, with her three children and husband.