Learning to Drive Standard

That symbolic boundary separating those who know and those who don't

Written by Le Brunette Smurfette

I don't know what I'm thinking when I plop myself into the driver side of a tiny Toyota Tercel, my fiancée sitting in the passenger side, and the stick in between us. A line drawn in the sand. A very symbolic boundary separating "those who know" and "those who do not know".

"How did I end up choosing this again?"

"You said you wanted to learn."

"Yes. I did, didn't I?" I don't touch anything in the car and sit with my hands in my lap, my legs together.

"Yes, you did. And it'll be great! I'll be your teacher." He's incredibly enthusiastic. A man who probably learned how to drive a car with a standard transmission by reading a manual about it in his mother's womb. He is brimming in what should be my self-confidence but having grown up as the eldest child with every move questioned it's hard to believe I can control machinery.

All of a sudden, I become hesitant. I know cars (don't I?). I've been driving since I was 16 but all of a sudden sitting here in this little red car with three pedals and a thing-a-ma-bob to make it go seems like too much. My forte isn't math and ratios; it's words (I think). Even when I ride my bike, I still have trouble comprehending switching gears. The fiancée, always patient, usually yammers on about it trying to help me learn while he smoothly sails by on his bike. "The lowest gear is for hills, so switch up the front gear and adjust your rear gear to compensate for the resistance but if you're going down the hill you should change your front and back gears to this-and-this because that'll help drive you insane to the point of getting naked by the Don River and smearing your faeces all over the bridge" - or something similar to that. Most of the time, it's about the struggle and remembering that cocky Australian who whizzed by me with the words "you can do it!" as I panted for air while riding up a hill. Maybe he wasn't being cocky but when your heart is racing and you're just trying to stay alive everyone should just shut the hell up.

My heart is racing. To make matters worse, I actually purchased a new car with manual transmission hoping to learn and become an avid stick driver. And it was coming. Soon. The fiancée drives a tiny Tercel and he's constantly playing around with the car, making all kinds of engine-y noises and it looks so cool and the car sounds like it's taking us somewhere QUICK. The pathetic part is that he's the most law-abiding citizen I know and still refuses to go 10 kilometres over the speed limit. I've always gone with the automatic transmission because I never knew anything else and thought why the hell would I go with something harder to learn when car companies are currently trying to make cars do everything for you, including thinking, and Xzibit is pimpin' out your ride?

I've gotten older and from my experiences with the little Pontiac cars I've had I guess I just wanted a challenge. Practically speaking, I was marrying the fiancée and eventually I just knew I was going to have to learn for the future time when he's sick or maybe drank a little too much at a birthday and I'd have to drive us home. And, you know, I can be a bit frugally suburban and I despise the thought of paying for a taxi when there's a perfectly good car in my possession.

Vroom vroom

Selfishly, I thought knowing how to drive standard was...well, it was just cooler and would make me feel cooler, too. A friend began driving standard and says she'll never go back. So does this other woman I know, and this other woman. I'm not counting men because in my stereotypical view of men, all men know how to drive standard and there are more men in the world that drive standard than women. Naturally, when I went to Europe last year, standard was the way or no way. Though, when I reflect, my female cousins refused to drive standard and wanted to only drive automatic. I really couldn't blame them when they are forced to drive through curvy roads through mountains and on the one side of the road is the precipice to death. Even Europeans are getting sick of stick (I think). Or so I thought. But everyone drives standard cars there and it's like breathing. Plus, it's cheaper just like it is over here.

Okay, I can try to do this in the back roads, in the dark, without many people driving and the leaves in the trees blowing lightly in the wind.

"Okay, start the car..."

I go to turn the key until he finishes his sentence with "...press down on the clutch and turn the key."

"What?"

"The clutch, the pedal to the left, press down on that and turn on the car."

"Why?" I ask.

He replies with something that makes sense to him but goes through my ears.

"Okay," I repeat, "I press the clutch and turn the key."

I do it and nothing happens.

"Press down harder. It's an old car" he advises. Holy hell, what the hell did I sign up for? In my current car I simply turn the key. One step. Not two. Who ever heard of two steps to start? Starting, in and of itself, is a step. Why the pre-step? Again, he says something but at this point I want to make sure I turn on the car without ruining it.

The car makes noise! Victory! Let's go!

"Okay," he advises calmly, "keep your foot on the clutch and shift into first."

First of all, about first: when everyone on earth tells you that getting into first gear is the hardest part I want anyone who is bothering to read this to know it's the damn truth. The only problem is that on this lonely stretch of road he's taken me to that I still don't understand where first gear is. I let his hand guide me like the first time I touched him and wonder to myself if driving stick is just a way for a man to have his hand on his penis all day. I kinda can't blame men; I bet if I could have my hands on my boobies all day I'd very much indulge. As I go into first, feeling the stick slot itself into narrow space, I don't know how to describe it, but it feels so different as if I violated this poor thing. I had this heightened sense of awareness of the stick moving into first and feeling the stick pass through the metal made me think I was taking advantage of this little tiny Toyota Tercel; there was a bit of resistance but I managed to break her in. Oh, promiscuity; she was used to it!

"Now, as you press the gas let go of the clutch but do it so it's even otherwise you'll stall. Not too much gas," he says.

Okay, I think to myself, not too much gas and don't feel crazy by the whole "do it evenly" thing and I begin to let go of the clutch slowly and press gently on the gas. Gently, very gently and then the whole car rocks back and forth as if it wanted to vomit us out. I feel I'm so close to whiplash.

"Whadidido? Whadiddo?! Whahappened?" I'm a little panicked as I think I ruined the car for good and now his grandmother is going to have to purchase a new car. Did I mention that this was his grandmother's car? Did I mention it was his 92-year-old grandmother's car? His 92-year-old grandmother drives standard very easily. A woman who still uses a cane to get around her home is able to move her legs and feet in synchronicity with her hands to drive a standard car. Plus, she lived through World Wars. I am ashamed. I am nothing.

For automatic drivers this is a completely new experience. I had to think about it. I'm sure that when I first started driving I had to think, except that I didn't feel the need to worry about much. I also didn't have to question the act of "going". I could "go" or "go!" or "GO" or "GO!" at the turn of a key and a press of the pedal. This was different. Some sort of processing was at work. There was a third pedal. Like the third eye, all knowing, all seeing, very powerful and something we probably all have yet deny. And everything rested on this stupid third pedal.

I begin moving along the road parallel to Lakeshore while asking questions aloud about when to switch gears. Third! Fourth! Fifth! I can do it. He's amazed as well at how quickly I can switch gears when driving but I still ask questions and he answers all of them patiently.

"Okay, there's a hill so you can take it in third because it puts more force on the front tires and helps grip the road better something something something or you can do it in fourth because you're not something and the hill isn't something."

"So, basically, I gotta get familiar with the topography of Ontario now."

"No, no," he says without feeding into the sarcasm, "you'll learn this but it's basically about understanding what the car can do."

I move into fourth after the little hill and continue talking. This ego of mine is very content.

"You'll understand it eventually. Listen to the car."

"But...what about listening to the radio?"

"Well, you can do that and eventually you'll feel the car. The car will tell you what it needs so you can change gears."

So now what I've gotten myself into is a back-talking car. Gimme this. Gimme that. You're not doing it right. More. Less. No. Not that way. Seriously, if I wanted to drive my mother then I could have gotten her fitted for a damn saddle. Oh, the sweet, sweet bitterness.

No radio. Just the sound of the engine, the windshield wipers, my panicked breathing.

After a few lessons and more lurches in the car, the fiancée explains that he's amazed with my progress and that his lovely student really didn't stall the car all that much. We speak about our honeymoon and if the need arises to rent a car we can both drive throughout Europe with a little standard European car. I mourn slightly that the stick prevents any hand-holding during our drives but he tells me that eventually we'll get to that point when I'm comfortable enough with driving. We have to start from scratch. Boo.

I almost believe him about the roads of Europe and the hand-holding but panic when he takes me out into the real world. With the others. Including some of those that know. Brilliantly enough, he's quick. I do mean it. Quick. Reflexes like a cat. There's some idiot who is way too close to this little red car while I'm on Greenwood and I don't remember what happened. I either had my foot on the brake when pressing the gas or I had my feet on the clutch, the brake, and the gas which can't happen because that would mean I somehow grew a third leg which may have happened because I don't know how else to explain what happened. I see exhaust out the car and it sounds like a maniacal Ferrari forced to sit in one spot. The fiancée pulls the handbrake because somehow I think I'm rocking backwards. Backwards.

Automatic cars do not go backwards unless you tell them to go backwards. They don't just decide "Hey, you know what? I'm gonna just take a step back because you're not telling me what to do here and I'm going to assume that even though we are facing this way you probably really wanna go backwards on this busy street." Standard cars do. How stupid is that? Very stupid. This stupid car. What a stupid issue. This shouldn't even be an issue. I think through this while he tries to walk me through getting the car to move while we sit at the green light and I'm waving the cars behind us to keep moving. I get lights flashed at me, and get honked multiple times. You know what? Fuck you, too!

"I feel like I'm damaging this car!" I exclaim at the intersection.

"No, you're not. Don't worry about it. This car can take it. It was made when Toyotas were still good."

"Are you sure?" I need him to be sure. I need him to make me sure.

"I'm sure. The only way you could damage this car is if you grind the gears."

I steal glances at him and repeat in question format "grind the gears? I don't wanna grind these gears!"

His patience is infinite and he explains that no, his little student hasn't done that yet, and no, the likelihood of me doing that is small. Oh, how little he understands my understanding.

This is too much but I persevere and keep driving. My teacher thinks I can do it and shouldn't get nervous when the Toronto bullies come out to play, too. I will not let those prejudiced angry automatic minivan drivers intimidate me when they're depressed with their lives because of their ugly minivans. Which, by the way, minivans don't come in stick (I think). So there. And even if they do, it's still a minivan. I think to myself I should start purchasing funeral wreaths for the single life the angry minivan driver must depart with, keep them in the trunk and start throwing them at the passing minivans on the roads yelling out with my window down: "MY CONDOLENCES TO YOUR HAPPINESS, ASSHOLE!"

I somehow in the chaos and my fear stall the car a few more times but begin experimenting with the world of neutral and sometimes successfully get through stop signs with his steady encouragement. Translation: no stalling. The road is dark and the bright lights are everywhere, skimming the dash of the car, lighting our faces. The side streets are bordered by sleeping trees, the leaves are gone, and the grass in the lawns and parks are crisp.

"You're actually stopping at the stop sign!"

"I know!" I reply enthusiastically!

"I'm afraid of what you'll be like when you get comfortable driving standard. You're already pretty aggressive; you don't let anyone stand in your way." He sounds slightly afraid and I have fleeting visions of his body stiffening when I'm behind the wheel.

"I know!" I reply enthusiastically!

At the end of our lovely driving lesson, my heart awoke. A lovely revelation about our relationship and the commitment I was making to this patient man sitting beside me. I suddenly realised I was starting something between him and I in this little red Tercel. In the cold, the two of us. A new stage in our relationship. I don't come from a family of stick-drivers. He did. His grandmother is a stick-driver, his father is a stick-driver, his cousins are stick-drivers, his grandfathers were stick-drivers. I had none of that in my cultural make up. I was seriously taking a leap forward, a commitment that no one else in my automatic-transmission practising family had ever taken. I was going to become a stick-driver. I was going to learn something from him and carry it forward with me. Here I am in this little car still debating to take on his last name when we get married in a few months but willing to dive into a foreign practice forever changing the paths of our future children so they would continue the proud tradition of stick-driving. There's more to learn but we'll work on it together. We lean over the silly stick and give each other a kiss, a reward for a job well done on both our ends.

This can definitely work.

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