My friend Amrita and I joke that there are two ways to respond to trauma. The first is to become reckless – she points at herself. The second is to become excessively risk-averse – that one’s me. Of course there are many more and other ways to respond to trauma; this is just a joke. It need not be imbued with excess meaning.
In late 2019 she is living with me, and because she is only working part-time, she decides she needs a project. She has a lot more energy than I do, moving through life at a pace I find relentless. Again, she and I have evolved in two different directions: I have to sleep for at least ten hours a night, and meanwhile she has to burn herself out every evening, like an excitable terrier, or else she’s too wired for rest.
She decides to funnel this excess energy into me, and it’s decided that I must finally learn how to drive. I’d tried several times over the years: my former partner took me out in 2013, had me turn circles through the parking lot of a park in Cherrybrook. I booked lessons with multiple instructors in the years following, never making it to the stage of showing up for any of them, often cancelling at the last minute and yielding the cash I had laid down. My mother is infamous for having given me a card for my 25th birthday that read, ‘Congratulations on passing your driving test,’ a dig at the fact I had never managed to get to the stage of sitting one. I wrote some stray snatches across a few different essays about this dimension of what I saw as the Gunaydin family curse: that my mother had never learned to drive, and she maintained that her two daughters couldn’t either because we were smart, like her, and smart people knew better than to drive. We were too intellectual for something so base, and could never turn off that part of our brains – in the way that only stupid people could – that reminded us that the world was not a safe place and this was not a safe activity. Soon my inability to drive became tied up with my defectiveness schema. Driving was something that was for other people, a way of interfacing easily with the world that I would always lack.
These are all the protestations that I made to Amrita, and to my psychologist, neither of whom seemed interested in how intellectually and emotionally laden I had managed to make the task seem. When I raised it with my psych, convinced we were going to discuss the topic for at least half an hour, which I had earmarked, really thinking we would get to the bottom of it, she brushed me off: ‘Anyone can drive, Eda. I’m serious. Anyone can drive.’ I wanted to tell her that I’m not just anyone: I’m worse.
Amrita prints out the driver’s manual for me, and I take to carting it around in my backpack. She volunteers her car to the cause and, on our drives, we wheel slowly through the back-streets of Stanmore. She shows me the steps for reverse parallel parking, which I commit to memory. As I am practicing one day, a cop car idles behind me, waiting for me to complete the manoeuvre, and when the path is clear an officer passes me by and jerks her thumb out the window: good job! I feel giddy, embarrassed. Later, when I nearly crash, Amrita is basically un-reacting, advising me in an even tone to maybe hit the brakes. Only much later does she reveal she’d been terrified. Her calm makes me calm. We have this way of levelling each other out. I think that I convince her to slow down, sometimes, and she convinces me to speed up.
Amrita moves to Melbourne a few weeks later to start her career as a lawyer, her car packed to capacity with all her belongings. We exchange a tearful goodbye at my front door and when she backs out of my driveway, I watch her for a long time like a proud parent. With her help I’m sufficiently desensitised to book in lessons with an instructor, and, for the first time, I genuinely intend to go. I opt to receive lessons from a woman, figuring that there’s some element of fear of being alone in a sealed space with a man that is preventing me from taking this step. Maybe I just want to be yelled at by a woman.
I should have known to fear Maria, my middle-aged, Portuguese instructor whom I meet in February of 2020. She is impossibly punctual, always wears a blouse and sensible slacks to our lessons, and her hands are strong and tough and able, and she adores her son and her community: on weekends she goes to church, or volunteers with the local Portuguese club. She takes drivers’ safety so seriously that when she herself is about to go on a long trip, particularly a drive she hasn’t done before, she forces her entire family to leave the house at 3am so that they can take advantage of the clear highways. I learn all of this throughout the duration of our relationship, which lasts nine months.
Our first lesson she takes me, again, through the calm streets of Stanmore, making prolific use of her set of brakes every time I over-steer. That’s my worst habit, borne of the fact that I can’t understand the choreography required to master hand-over-hand steering. I insist there’s something wrong with my ability to reason spatially, or my coordination.
‘It’s in the name,’ she says, like it’s obvious. Without any other option I learn to pass one hand over the other hand, and never turn the wheel more than about ninety degrees – if you need to turn it more only then may you turn it more. Otherwise, you’ll drive head-on into traffic. I joke that maybe that wouldn’t be so bad. She doesn’t entertain my patter, remains stern, takes the tight grip I keep on the wheel and my frenetic energy as markers of nerves.
‘What do you have to be anxious about?’ she says, every time. ‘I’m here.’
One day, during a lesson, tears fill my eyes, as I try to explain that I’m not actually even a nervous driver, really. What I am is an ashamed driver. I’m ashamed that I am twenty-six and – as the story I tell myself goes – I never merited receiving lessons the way that other people did when they were younger.
Sometimes, when I am walking in Rozelle Bay, and I see a father walking behind a bicycle, holding onto the base of a tiny seat upon which sits an uncertain toddler, I feel this same teary feeling. Only recently did my father explain to me why he stopped riding bikes in his adolescence. The last time he had done so he had stolen one from the man who lived next door to him in the köy, who took one everywhere. This man would usually be passed out in his house by the evening, so my father thought one night that it might be easy to steal it without him noticing. All he had to do was run over in the dark and wheel it away. His plan had been to ride it down the biggest slope in the village. So he did so, building up speed as he neared the bottom, only to find that when he went to hit the brakes that they were faulty. Panicking, he steered himself into a low wall to curb himself, and flew over the handlebars. When he stood up, he tells me, his arm was floppy and was resting at an angle: broken. Unable to make a sound, he’d wheeled the bike all the way back up the hill, trying to replace it before the sun rose and anyone noticed it had been taken. If anyone found out what he’d done he’d be beaten. He hid the broken arm for weeks, unable to tell anyone that he was injured either. It had healed crooked, and it, he tells me, still hurt from time to time. In Grade 4, when I had been the only child at the bicycle safety course organised by my primary school who did not know how to ride, my classmates took to mocking me by calling me ‘Training Wheels’. I don’t explain all of this to Maria – I am trying to go through the motions of driving, after all – but I do say, ‘No one ever taught me,’ and she looks at me like I am a child, and just says, ‘I’m teaching you right now.’
Moments later, when I fail to brake, she yells, ‘I’m on the brake, why aren’t you on the brake?’, which does nothing for my nervous system.
It’s true that this task is not difficult. I don’t have to do anything else other than mimic her, according to the rules as she sets them out: when we get to a left turn we stop and we prepare the wheel. Then, when it’s clear, we need only go. When we are going to turn right without a turn arrow, we roll forward into the intersection and we wait until it’s clear or the traffic signal turns orange or red. Sometimes we stop and pull to the side of the road so that she can flip open her copy of the driving manual to an important passage. She can recite practically the entire book, and finds every significant page from memory. I memorise it too. Our goal is chauffeur driving: to drive so smoothly, never taken by surprise, such that if we had a demanding client or a sleeping baby in our back seat, they would never be jolted. When it rains we lower our speed by 5km/hr. When we change lanes we indicate, we look back over our shoulder into our blind spot, and we go. If I’m about to err, she stops me.
My psychologist once explained what the role of a parent should be. It’s Attachment Theory 101: the role of the parental figure is to provide a safe place that the child can return to after they make increasingly large forays out into the world. They dart out and explore, forage, and discover things, and if something happens that affects their ability to regulate, they return to the parent, who provides a container to process those big feelings. Children need containers, she said, not to be containers.
The majority of my driving lessons with Maria occur during the thick of the first Sydney COVID lockdown. During my third lesson, in March, Maria and I had driven through the quiet streets of Marrickville, whose shopfronts had been shuttered overnight. When we passed by the Centrelink, it had taken an eerily long time, driving at a crawl, to reach the end of the queue. It was not technically required that I slow down in school zones – virtually no children were in usual attendance – but Maria still made me do so, and I was often overtaken by fully-licenced drivers hurling the kind of abuse that L platers attract. Maria usually shouted back.
During the confusion around whether driving schools could continue to provide lessons, or if these were against public health restrictions, Maria and I became briefly separated. Desperate to capitalise on the momentum I had built, I turned elsewhere, taking three maybe-illegal lessons with a private instructor named Veronica. Maria and Veronica shared superficial similarities: they were both rare women in a male-dominated profession, and had both become instructors after surviving traumatic collisions.
I never told Maria about my short stint with Veronica, whom I had never come around to loving or liking. Soon Maria’s driving school re-opened for bookings, and she was released back to me. We spent this first lesson back catching up about our lives, what we had missed in the brief window of a month spent apart, and I shared a few details about my relationship with my mother, taking advantage of the way that, when you drive, your eyes can only look forward, subtracting some of the intimacy from the moment in order for it to be bearable. She is angry about what she hears, and when we pull up to my house and she puts the car in park, she doesn’t let me leave for fifteen minutes.
I said that I do what daughters are obligated to do, couldn’t step away even if I wanted to. Maria said, ‘Eda, I’m telling you as an old mum. That is not acceptable.’
‘I’m serious,’ she said. ‘You cannot live her life for her. You have to go focus on your family, your friends, your relationship. You are you and your mum is your mum.’
We both stared at each other, watery-eyed, but didn’t hug: we weren’t allowed. For hygiene, Maria was wearing nitrile gloves, even, and after each lesson she had to wipe every surface of the car down with a hand sanitiser mixture that she brewed herself, such was the speed with which she went through it, and so severe were the product shortages precipitated by the pandemic.
I get my Ps in September of 2020. My friend Tim takes me for the test, primping and fluffing me like a show parent, wiping down my car – a second-hand 2010 Toyota Corolla that I buy off Maria, when she upgrades – and dumping all the refuse (used bottles, empty food wrappers) out into a bin. Big smiles, big smiles. Deep breath.
I pass, barely. The examiner makes a point of telling me that I haven’t done anything that would technically allow him to fail me, which suggests that he wants to. He’s probably right: there is a moment during the test where I accelerate by accident during a three-point-turn, and gasp theatrically. But you cannot be failed simply for having a flair for drama.
Tim takes a photo of me plastering the red plate onto the front of my car, and prints the photo out and gifts it to me for Christmas later that year. We drive back to his place in Newtown together, and he insists on sitting in the back instead of next to me in the front. ‘So that I’m your first passenger,’ he says. ‘You don’t need me up front any more.’ We blast Stevie Nicks’ Edge of Seventeen during the ride, and at his house, Maria calls in between students to find out how I did. I put her on speaker and we celebrate together briefly before she has to leave.
‘I’ll let you go,’ I make myself say, before I slip and ask her whether she’s proud of me. In most other circumstances I detest that phrase, find it to be an example of an insufferably indirect Anglo communication style. If I’m the one who wants to go I should be a big enough person to admit it, not put the decision on my interlocutor. An unvarnished communication style is probably what I appreciated the most about Maria: she always said what she felt, and at the volume she thought was appropriate. These days my girlfriend jokes that I’m so emotionally regulated you’ll never catch me raising my voice anywhere except in the car, which is my place to yell.
That phrase – you are you and your mum is your mum – replays itself often in my head, alongside Maria’s other more mundane mantras, such as: I’m on the brake, why aren’t you on the brake? Whenever Maria and I completed a turn correctly – I put one hand over the other, turned the wheel just so, released and let the car glide forward with my foot off the brake, remaining in my lane – she would tap the mirror, and repeat, Ease the wheel, check the mirror.
Whenever someone breaks a road rule, I summon Maria every time I tsk and say, ‘Illegal manouevre.’ When in April of 2021 I receive a letter in the mail advising me that my licence is suspended – I have been caught on a camera going 60 in a 50 zone, which triggers an automatic suspension for provisional drivers – I am aggrieved. In my heart I believe that I am a much better driver than everyone else – although no evidence of this claim exists – or at least that my licence had been harder-won than anyone else’s and so should be harder to lose.
The suspension becomes the flash point of a nervous breakdown that pulls into its great swooping orbit many other facts and occurrences that have befallen me in the surrounding months, and I knit them together into a tight story, featuring me as the main character: I was driving to a party in Queen’s Park – a part of Sydney I’m not bourgeois enough to spend much time driving through, you see, and whose streets I am therefore not familiar with. And the only reason I was driving instead of taking public transport is because I was moving five chickens – sorry, that’s roast chickens, not live chickens – to a friend’s party, because I’m such a good person and he asked me to help cater. And the only reason I was speeding home is because at this party, I felt so under-dressed, so out-of-place, that it inspired in me the urge to flee. I relay this story now with the same incoherence and freneticism with which I told it, regularly, to friends, who often asked humdrum questions like: ‘Don’t they have signs that tell you what speed to drive at in every suburb?’
The situation becomes grimmer, and the power and intensity of my perceived victimhood only grows when, during the height of the 2021 Sydney lockdown, my partner and I suddenly break up. The timing is, to me, Shakespearean: he moves out a day before the court date of my suspension appeal. That evening, I drive to receive the second dose of the COVID vaccine, one of the only reasons to leave the house, and then I spend the night lying alone, for the first time in eight years, feverish and keenly aware that from now on I will have to learn to stand on my own two feet, without anyone to even wipe the sweat from my brow.
I awake the next morning – from uneasy dreams, to quote Kafka, feeling if not looking like a cockroach, an abject thing unwanted by family and love interests alike – and resentfully pull on the outfit Tim, a lawyer, has advised me to wear: navy corduroys and a sensible black jumper. Riding the bus to court, I feel momentarily gleeful that I have a reasonable excuse to be exempted from lockdown restrictions for the day. It is soothing, to some degree, to be able to be surrounded by other people, if only for a few hours, fellow losers like me, loitering in the courtroom’s antechamber, waiting to be heard.
When I am finally called up before the law, I try to say what I have been coached to say: to take responsibility, but also appeal for clemency. I wish most of all to emphasise to the magistrate that my path towards learning to drive is not routine, and that therefore I should not be treated in a routine manner: I have done all my hours with an instructor. I learned as an adult. I know better than anyone how serious an undertaking it is to drive, and I would never flout such a privilege. The magistrate just shrugs her shoulders, asks my age, and deems me young enough to merit taking the NSW Safer Drivers Course. I want to insist I’m not a young hoon, but it’s a generous decision in reality, and spares me a suspension for the time being. Still, when I stream out of the court-room, I open Spotify and hit play on Fleetwood Mac’sLandslide, and complete the walk to Railway Square wondering if this mood will ever pass.
In a fit of spite I complete the Safer Drivers Course, all twenty-five hours of it, in one day, sitting in Fisher Library at the University of Sydney, which is the only space on campus that we are allowed to work out of in light of COVID restrictions. I alternate between bouts of diarrhoea in the bathroom – vaccine side-effects, inter-mingled with grief and disgust with my life – and fast-forwarding through videos I privately believe that I shouldn’t have to watch, absorbing lessons I thought I had already learned.
On Christmas Day, 2021, I am driving down the Western Motorway, ten minutes away from my parents’ home in Blacktown, when my Toyota Corolla – who I have since named Kaan, as in, Kaan the Car, a good strong Turkish name, so-named after the musician Kaan Tangöze – starts to billow smoke out of the front of the engine. My reaction is no reaction: I’m ethereally calm as I intuit that Kaan wants to be pulled over into an emergency bay, which I execute flawlessly, cleanly changing lanes as I lose speed. I glide to a stop in just the right spot, remove all my valuables from the car in case it explodes, call my father to tell him I won’t make it, and wait. He arrives only twenty minutes later, hefting an enormous, sloshing bucket of water. Coming from the opposite direction, but not wanting to waste time, he dashes across four lanes of traffic moving at 100km/h, while I peek through my fingers with horror. Kaan guzzles almost ten litres but cannot be resuscitated. My engine has over-heated so much that the rubber seals have melted, so the water just leaks out the bottom, evaporating instantly in the heat. I’ve done what the hundreds of students who used this car under Maria’s supervision over the years have failed to do: fucked it beyond repair.
My father asks, ‘Why didn’t you ever fill the radiator?’ and I shrug and laugh and respond that I didn’t know I was supposed to.
Ten months later, when my insurer voids my policy for failing to inform them that I received a three-week suspension (I exclaim: ‘It was 10 kilometres over the limit!’), they indicate that a committee might be willing to review the decision pending my explanation of my reason for non-disclosure. But I don’t have one: he suggests that sometimes, if someone else usually handles these things, then that might be an explanation—
But I cut him off.
‘My reason,’ I state, ‘is sheer ignorance.’
I let my father berate me a little more until the Department of Transport arrives. They are monitoring the highways for breakdowns, a shit gig to be working on Christmas Day. But I’m grateful that they’re here, because they help to turn the tables and back me up in chastising my father for running across a highway.
‘That’s so dangerous, mate,’ says the guy, while I nod and jerk my thumb at him as if to say, see!, but my father just responds, ‘That’s my daughter, I had to.’ And then he quips, ‘Maybe I want to die.’
I snort, struck by how similar we are, and then call a tow-truck, whose driver promises to be back from a job in the Central Coast within three hours. We have been told it’s illegal to abandon the vehicle despite the wait, so we hunker down, camped out in the dirt by the side of the road, drinking out of tiny Department of Transport-supplied bottles of water, trying to wait a respectful amount of time before we do indeed abandon the vehicle and head home. By the time Kaan, my baby, is delivered to my parents’ address, I have already sold him to a wrecker, who takes the car away to be dismantled for parts.
In June 2022, my girlfriend and I are sitting in my Yaris, running errands. The car’s name is Barış, which is an eye rhyme with Yaris, but also means peace in Turkish. Two of Kate’s good friends have come down with COVID, so we are on our way to deliver them a care package. I’m behind the wheel. When we turn right onto Illawarra Road in the pouring rain, and Kate questions some road decision I have made, it makes me scoff.
‘Babe,’ I say, ‘you have to understand that I’m classically trained in driving.’ I tell everyone this: I’m classically trained in driving. I think what I mean to say is that I’m formally trained in driving, but I suppose I am not classically trained enough in joke-making to know the difference between those two things.
‘What does that even mean?’ she says, and I respond, ‘Like, I learned from the book. I learned everything from the book. I know that thing back to front. Everything I do is regulation.’
‘What book?’ she says. ‘What’s the book? Like the Bible?’
We both burst into laughter, and then a treacherously-turning bus clips my mirror, almost taking it clean off. I’m, of course, stupidly, farcically proud that I can drive. Look, mum, look at me, no hands! What makes that fact painful, sad even, is that I want to be recognised for cresting peaks that others reached years before me at an easy pace and without breaking a sweat. My ten-year high school reunion was held last week – on the eleventh anniversary of my graduation, delayed in light of the pandemic – and I almost went, wanted to go in order to be able to showcase to others that ‘I’m normal now’. I want to say it’s remarkable that I’m unremarkable. My friends comment this often: wow, you’re well-adjusted, considering… Thank you, I am. I put my pants on one leg at a time just like anyone else. Like you, I ease the wheel and then I check the mirror.