My brother is trying to teach me to drive a manual car; we go around and around the empty lot down at the local high school. When I was younger, my band teacher taught us a trick on the snare drum, where you throw the drumstick in the air and catch it again without interrupting the drumbeat. He said if you have the coordination to do this, you have the coordination to drive a manual car.
Originally published in Farrago Edition Two (2022).
My brother is trying to teach me to drive a manual car; we go around and around the empty lot down at the local high school. When I was younger, my band teacher taught us a trick on the snare drum, where you throw the drumstick in the air and catch it again without interrupting the drumbeat. He said if you have the coordination to do this, you have the coordination to drive a manual car. I can play the snare drum, but I still can’t drive a stick. I don’t have the instinct for it, that intuitive understanding of the inner workings of the car. Listen to the engine, that’s what everyone tells me. But the sounds coming up from under my feet are as mysterious and unintelligible as another language.
Sometimes, when people ask me how old I am, I have this strange, weightless sensation, a feeling of falling upwards, like a balloon drifting into the ether. I tumble helplessly, fingers scrabbling at the edges of twenty-five, twenty-seven, twenty-nine, until I remember how old I am, and my feet find the ground again. I had a dream the other night that I was thirty-five. I was looking back at my twenties and thinking, how did they go by so fast? Then I woke up and remembered they had barely begun.
I'm sitting in the car, trying to put it in first. Again and again, we jerk forward, hurled against our seatbelts. I am searching for the rhythm of the switch, the transition, but I can't find it. When I was younger, my piano teacher played chords for me and asked me to hum the middle note. All I could ever hear was the harmony, not the individual parts. Sometimes, when I try to do something while people are watching me, I feel like my brain is fogging up, like the car windshield on a frosty morning.
I’ve been looking at cars recently, preparing to buy one so that I’ll have one when (if) I get my license. I sit in the smoke-choked interiors of cars, cars with mismatching tires and ill-fitting parts. You’ll never get the smell of cigarette smoke out, my mum says. So I don’t buy that car. In fact, for every car, there’s a good reason not to buy it. So I don’t.
But recently I updated my search criteria: I’m no longer looking at manual cars. I’m not a manual driver, I can see that now. I don’t even remember now why I ever wanted to learn to drive stick. I suppose I always thought there’d eventually be a situation where a manual car would need to be driven, and I would know how to drive it, like in the movies.
Now, though, I do know the trick to finding that middle note. Now, I play chords for myself at the piano, and I hum them from top to bottom. The top note of the chord is like a steady hand hold in my grip
and I use it to lower myself down,
I find the next rung under my foot;
it was there all along.
So I do speak this language after all. I lacked confidence though; sometimes, all it takes is a blind stab in the dark, a leap of faith.
Because, in the end, I never was able to execute that snare drum trick on performance night. No matter how easily I could do it in practice, I was too afraid to attempt it on the one night where it would really matter if I couldn’t pull it off. So I taught myself a trick within the trick, a kind of half-flip where you don’t actually let the stick leave your hand. No one can tell the difference if they’re not looking closely. And, most of the time, I think it was the right decision to stop learning manual. But other times I equate it with this paralysing fear, the unwillingness to let the drumstick ever leave my hand completely.
My brother gets out of the car and I practise by myself for a bit. Once I get going, I’m alright, but it’s getting started that’s the problem. So I jolt ungracefully around the parking lot. Starting, stopping. Starting, stopping.
Once I dreamt that I was driving with my family at night but, somehow, I was left behind on a dark road in the middle of nowhere. Tall trees rose on either side; headlights glanced through the trunks from cars that were out of sight.
Sometimes, when I sit in the passenger seat of my friends’ cars, I catch myself mimicking them, leaning forward to check that the way is clear before they drive across the intersection, like a child copying their parents from the backseat. And I have this strange reverence for people my age who can drive, as though it is them, not me, that is abnormal in this regard.
The problem is, I don’t want to be left behind, but I’m not quite ready to grow up either. I know I am not the only one who feels this way, but that doesn’t stop me from believing that I am alone in this, the only imposter on the stage who doesn’t let go of the drumstick.
Sometimes, I think of a memory that feels recent and realise it was from years ago. In those moments, it feels like the years between have sped by, swept by, spun me around and left me dazed. And when I do forget, momentarily, how old I am, the re-remembering is always a relief, it grounds me, it’s like a handhold to cling to when gravity has let go of me. I know that I am ageing, but sometimes I feel that, if I hold tight enough, maybe I won’t. But I don’t think this tight-knuckled grip on the fact of my age, which changes regardless, changes all the time, is a good thing.
I know that I need to let go.
But I am also sure that, if I do,
I will simply float away,
at an ever-increasing,
until I disappear into the atmosphere.
Sometimes, when I catch my reflection at an odd angle, I think I see an older version of my face emerging, pushing out my young face like adult teeth burrowing relentlessly out of the gum.
Red P-Platers account for more car crashes than any other group; I think about this sometimes when I imagine myself, in the near or distant future, driving to a friend’s house or down the coast or to the shops by myself.
Young adults are more likely to crash their cars because they think that they’re invincible, that they can’t die. Or at least that’s what everyone says. That’s why they drive fast, drive recklessly. And this is because your prefrontal cortex, your decision-making faculties, don’t fully develop until you’re at least twenty-five, or so I’m told.
But I don’t think that I am invincible. I do recognise in myself, though, a certain resistance to the idea that I am ageing. Which is why I don’t bother to put on sunscreen, sometimes; part of me still isn’t convinced that I will ever be old enough for the consequences of this to catch up to me.
So I wonder if for me, and other young adults, accepting the reality of death isn’t the problem. It is accepting the reality of ageing—of which death is a part—that I cannot do. And this, perhaps, is what holds me back from crossing that border that would make me a fully-fledged, well-adjusted adult. Because I do often feel that something is holding me back. I’m just not sure if it is actually me, holding on.
No, I don’t think that I am invincible, but sometimes I need to convince myself of the importance of looking before I cross the road. The danger of not looking, like the fact of my ageing, is something learned by rote, not truly felt.
So maybe I am wrong. Maybe being young does mean a belief in invincibility, even a flawed one. Because I am young, and even when I recognise this delusion of immortality in myself, I can’t quite dispel it. And maybe this delusion is why I reverse out of the driveway too fast and ding my mother’s car, and why I wouldn’t apologise for it, or maybe that’s a completely different blind spot of mine.
In any case, if all the psychology is right, soon enough my frontal lobe will develop and I won’t feel this way anymore. I will have a perfect understanding of the ever-present possibility of death, and I will always look both ways before I cross the road,
and left again,
and I’ll never hesitate at the intersection because I don’t know if the gap in the oncoming traffic is safe, I’ll push off across the dotted line with confidence, drive effortlessly and readily down the road.