‘Shut up and drive’—Rihanna
‘Who’s gonna drive you home tonight?’—The Cars
‘Let’s drive’—Shannon Noll
‘Little red corvette’—Prince
‘White mustang’—Lana Del Rey
‘Get out of my dreams, get into my car’—Billy Ocean
Recently my partner Jackie and I road-tripped around Aotearoa. But really I drove the whole way round the North Island, 2000 kilometres with stiff legs and neck, eating ginger kisses with one hand on the wheel, traversing roads choked by excessive works. We were waiting to cross a one-way bridge and I let the hatchback on the other side go first. I heard a crisp knock on my window—was there something hanging out of the boot, were the brake lights out, were we in danger?
I looked. A white man in a white singlet, middle-aged, thin, had jumped out of the truck behind, moustache bristling as he screamed in my face: ‘Don’t you know the fucking road rules!!’
I accelerated, wheels screeching, white-hot terror, over the bridge. I watched him behind us, his green truck haunting my rear-view for half an hour. I wanted to stop but I couldn’t; I was too afraid he would pull over alongside me. I tried to make out his number plate so I could report him to his boss. I tried to steady my breath, my stomach pushing determinedly in and out: whoosh whoosh whoosh. I tried to hold it together while the road ahead blurred with tears—shame—fear. And then Jackie kind of took the guy’s side for a moment and I gritted my teeth.
I don’t care if he was right. That was abusive behaviour. You have to be on my side. When we arrived at Tongariro, my depression descended like a fog.
• • •
I have always feared driving. I didn’t get my licence until I was 24. I was so anxious about it that I failed the test five times, unable to concentrate on the road. I went over the curb twice. Each failure was a black mark against my ability to become an adult. Each time the disappointment of my parents fell upon me like night. It was just another on the innumerable list of my failures to launch—I couldn’t even launch a vehicle onto a street. I couldn’t even quash my discomfort long enough to pass a test that any normal human could pass.
I felt like Cher in Clueless, accused of being a virgin who can’t drive, and was similarly bratty about it. The shame riddled through me like a cute nineties two-piece laced with mould.
There are so many male-centred road movies. In Easy Driver the wide-open road is like a woman’s legs, loosely draped around a man. Open, receptive, submissive, solitary, but never lonely. They are a void onto which the viewer can project their desires, fantasies. The appeal of the open road: freedom; guitar music and male vocals, born to be wild; masculinity, leather and the inability to be tied down. Freedom is signified through women’s bodies, what were considered to be the only acceptable kind of women’s bodies—monolithic, cis, curvy, naked—soaked in the psychedelic spectrum of the sexual revolution. The sexual revolution, signified by the pill, gives men the right to sow their seed inside these women without putting down roots. Women are just stop signs on a perpetual journey—like a destination, you can ignore them if you choose. Like a shark, if you stop moving, you die. Responsibility is the only real death.
• • •
Grandy also didn’t get her licence until she was 24; my grandpa preferred that she didn’t drive. Even when she was 24 with five children tugging on her skirts; 24 after five bouts with pre-eclampsia, sweating in hospital sheets for months; 24 and working in a factory at night while Gordon worked during the day. Buying is voting. Buying petrol is voting. Vote with your lead foot. What year did women get the licence?
Anxiety around driving is pretty commonplace. On the Beyondblue forums there are many discussions around this topic. Some posters are unable to get in the car to do things to enhance their life like going to an Adele concert; some are terrified of the reality that cars are required for many jobs. There is a fear of judgement by other people if their ineptitude is discovered. They are terrified of being stuck on a freeway with no way to get off. Terrified of other drivers, and the social pressure just to put their damn pedals to the metal, to steel themselves against the fear.
I remember being in a car accident with my grandmother when I was a child. The man behind us wasn’t concentrating and shot straight up our arse at a red light. We crashed into the person ahead of us and they into the person ahead of them. Afterwards I had a headache and my nose ran. Grandy flicked the gushing snot out of my nose like a bug while talking to the tow-truck driver, only looking at me out of the side of her eye. I didn’t have to go to school that day.
I began to fear driving less when Rhonda taught me. She was a 60-year-old chain-smoking grandmother with box-red hair who transformed every one of our lessons into a gossip session. She spoke about her many children, her grandchildren and their various arguments and conflicts, each more detailed and longstanding than a Bold and the Beautiful plotline. The familiar smell of her cigarette breath and the stories about her grandkids forced me into presentness. One time we tried to do a drive ‘under test conditions’ and she didn’t speak for all of two minutes. When I got my licence, finally, I got 100 per cent on the test.
In The Simpsons, Marge goes to traffic school for road rage. ‘Here’s an appealing fellow. They’re a-peeling him off the pavement right now.’
My anxiety has gotten better as I have matured, but the car is still an ambivalent space. I get overwhelmed by a feeling of purposelessness when I’m driving—as someone who is constantly moving, there is nothing I can get done in the car. There is nothing to be done. I’m halfway to nowhere or somewhere in between.
I’ve started a job where I tutor kids in the outer-western suburbs. This means a lot of time spent alone in a car. I get lost in my thoughts or immersed in the radio. I look ahead while Raf Epstein grills an unfortunate guest, not letting them get a word in, or while Jon Faine humours another caller about their mangled and highly personal take on a local council dispute. I listen to school kids on the Student Youth Network who have no idea what they are doing, or what they’re saying, or how to fill dead air. I listen to the hosts on Triple R who mutter under their breath about a local outfit’s EP that I’ve never heard of, or the kind of eighties house music that dudes obsess over as a way of excluding women. I pick at the scabs on my scalp, which I try not to do but catch myself doing and then it’s too late. I bite the dry skin from my lips; I pick my nose. I cycle through all my nervous tics; I settle and unsettle myself at the same time.
In Twin Peaks: The Return the road possesses a mystical blankness, whirring in a symmetrical grey circle of headlights, as if it were directed by an evil Wes Anderson (which I guess David Lynch sort of is). Laura Palmer is lost to her parents and can only return home under the guidance of a man, an FBI agent who controls time and space, who wields dominion over the road and the Black Lodge. When she gets there she doesn’t know who she is any more.
In Thelma and Louise, one of the few iconic female road films, the protagonists’ journey ends when they drive off the road into a wide-open chasm. Female bonding is a void, a lack. Women who love each other have nowhere to go and nothing to do when they get there. Woman-on-woman thanatos.
In the film clip for Ride, Lana Del Rey is the siren of weathered bikies, sucking them along an endless, desert highway. She croons about having a chameleon soul, ‘an inner indecisiveness as wide and as wavering as the ocean’. No autonomy, no inner voice, her wishes ‘dashed and divided’, like cocaine on the surface of a pinball machine.
She shudders on such a pinball machine, as she is rooted from behind by a careless, bandana-clad man. ‘I just ride,’ she sings.
In car ads where slick bodies tear through desert, across streams, the landscape is a woman, a horse, an unknowable exotic property to be tamed. Four-wheel drives slick with mud, like the wet, slightly parted lips of a woman in beauty advertisements. A recent ad for a new 4WD urges the viewer to ‘free your SUV’. In an ad for a 4WD/ute, a more Aussie-rock version of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘You can go your own way’ blares as a suburban family man tears across stream, through forest, over ground on his weekend, taking his daughters on a rugged adventure of unbridled freedom—within the confines of the status quo. Weekends are for driving; weekdays are for work.
A life is just a series of places done in the right order, on the right terms: you do Europe, you do South-East Asia, you do other people’s homes. Take only hook turns, leave only skid marks. The car is both sex object and sex toy. It is sexy in itself and it is a dimension of our own sexiness, its outside smooth and clear like a mirror, a phone screen. It is both the hammer and the nail you are throwing it at.
In The Simpsons a gamut of seedy men approach a woman standing next to a display vehicle at a car show—the car wrapped in ribbon, she in tight red fabric. They murmur insipidly, ‘Do you come with the car?’ and to each of them, she smiles and winks conspiratorially, as if they are the cleverest creep in the room: oh you, hehehehe!
• • •
One day when I am 24 or so I am walking home from the train station and I notice a car slowly creeping beside me. My whole body tenses but I keep looking straight ahead. In the car’s headlights, the fresh rain on the asphalt sparkles with menace. I get my phone out of my pocket and open my housemate’s contact details, ready to dial. The man in the car is still following me when I get to my house. I amble around the block so he doesn’t discover where I live. Eventually he gives up and drives off.
A week or so later I tell this to a colleague at work and she says she has heard about young women being pulled into cars around where I live. She tells me I should be more careful.
When I am a teenager my father jokingly gets called the ‘taxi driver’ in our household, because he is either hurtling like a rally driver or crawling at a snail’s place, inexplicably. Lately he has taken to pumping the brake pedal over and over so that the driver behind cannot miss the fact that he is braking. This results in a catastrophic feeling for the passenger, as though you are about to crash through the windscreen at any moment. He says that he feels vindicated by the fact that he has never had an accident, unlike my mother.
We go on road trips together, just he and I, to Adelaide, East Gippsland, to Tathra. I remember him smoking out the window when he thought I was sleeping. When we were driving back from Mallacoota he got me to drive the whole way back, for my driving experience, he said. Later he admitted that he thought that he had had a transient ischemic attack: a mini-stroke.
One day when my mother is exhausted from night duty she hits a tram on the road. Years later she tells me that she took on lots of extra night-duty shifts, not for her own convenience, but because she found it too hard to say no. She says that I should be careful of that.
In The Great Gatsby, Jordan is a woman and a ‘rotten driver’. This says a lot about her character. Daisy is the object of the titular Gatsby’s unrequited affection. She is a rich, married woman with whom he embarks on a haphazard affair. In a later scene, after their affair is revealed and then defused in one blunt motion by Daisy’s brutish husband Tom, he encourages Daisy to drive home in Gatsby’s car. On the way back from the city, she runs over a poor man’s wife, and Gatsby takes the blame for it.
The subtext is that the rich are careless people, careless drivers, but mainly it is the women, and men are allowed to take women ‘ravenously and unscrupulously’ and to have thick colonial legs in jodhpurs and believe in racist myths about white people.
When I was little I was a chronic car vomiter. Every time we drove down the freeway, I would go silent, my face pale. I felt that if I concentrated the urge to vomit would dissipate. I wouldn’t realise it was coming, like really coming, until it was far too late, and then I would explode all over the back seat of the car. When we had kittens they would roam around the back seat, sometimes shitting, pissing or vomiting on the stiff carpet.
One family road trip there is a huge traffic jam on the freeway and we find it’s because someone hit a cow. My sister and I do not look but we feel chunks of its body as the car thumps over them.
On another family road trip we leave at four am because it’s going to be 48 degrees in the heat of the day. As we drive the sky vanishes under grey clouds like fish scales and the sun soaks them, ghostly and red. We get off the freeway just an hour before it closes. It turns out to be the day of the Black Saturday bushfires. When we get home the chickens are panting like dogs.
The road trip is a time and place of rampant idyllic nostalgia. The car, too, is inextricable from the nostalgic lens of Americana: think American Graffiti, Happy Days, On the Road. The design of the interstate is similar to that of the internet, roads branch off one another exponentially like hyperlinks, so in the event of an emergency there is an alternative route. Something about this design implies more capital-F Freedom than is actually the status quo in that country.
In The Simpsons (and I keep returning to this show, because its nineties episodes are perfect extrapolations of the indivisibility of the car from American mythology) four boys leave town on a road trip, pretending that they are going to a ‘Grammar Rodeo’ in ‘Canada’. In lieu of Disneyworld, they attempt to go to the world fair after reading an outdated guidebook that spruiks its wares. When they arrive, the site of the world fair is a ghost town, the iconic sun sphere now cracked, old and decrepit, nothing in town but a wig shop. The boys buy wigs with their remaining money and sit, destitute, by the side of the road. The sun sphere collapses and crushes their car. I can’t think of a more potent image of the decay of the American dream.
Roadside memorials are rarely fresh. When a shock of magenta flowers emerges in my peripheral vision I unintentionally inhale, the sharpness of banal death swelling inside my chest like too much pollen. These objects are usually muted: an old cross, dry and shrivelled flowers, hastily handwritten messages dribbling down marbled perspex, steaming plastic pockets and crumpled sticky tape. They are a reminder of how frequently rain comes, how quickly the things we leave out in the world deteriorate.
On a bench near a roundabout in Geelong, two stuffed bears keep a constant vigil. They’re rain-soaked, probably riddled with mildew. I mentioned it to my mother once, saying that they looked creepy, and she said that it was a memorial for two children who died in an accident. I felt bad. I wonder what shape the parents of those children conjure them into since they’re gone. I wonder how often they drive by the bears they left.
The memorial reminds me of the song ‘Seaweed’ by Phil Elverum. It’s from the recent album under his current project name, Mt Eerie, which he wrote very quickly in the aftermath of his wife’s death. Each song viscerally contemplates loss. These vignettes are reminiscent of deeply personal love letters, directed to her. In ‘Seaweed’ he takes his wife’s ashes to the place they had been planning to move to. He sings:
I brought a chair from home
I’m leaving it on the hill
Facing west and north
And I poured out your ashes on it
I guess so you can watch the sunset
But the truth is, I don’t think of that dust as you
You are the sunset
A couple of years ago, when we were first dating, Jackie and I went on a trip to Apollo Bay. When we were driving through the Otways, miles from anywhere, we took a sharp curve and out of the darkness a car came into view. A man was standing beside it in the middle of the road, waving us down. The hairs on the back of my neck
He said that he had run out of petrol, that someone had driven off to go and get him some from the next town, but that they’d been gone for ages. Jackie and I nodded slowly. He didn’t seem to be asking us for anything but he also didn’t seem to want to let us leave. I said, well, hopefully he’s back with the petrol soon, and then I drove off. Jackie said, thank God you felt the bad vibe coming from that guy too.
I am often worried about what could happen on the road, about who I may run into. I am worried that one day I may go Wolf Creek and disappear right off the face of the earth, made into a flesh puppet for a less-attractive real-world John Jarratt. But really, as a white person, I will be mainly fine, my privilege acting like an airbag.
Ted Bundy drove an orange beetle. Aileen Wuornos didn’t drive, but was driven by truck drivers, whom she shot point blank. Ian Brady and Myra Hinsley drove a Morris Minor, because they were British and of course British serial killers would drive the most British car possible. Robert Lee Yates drove a brown van because sometimes a serial killer would choose the scariest and most banally dodgy-looking large transportation vehicle for their sprees.
Cars are inextricable from the Ozploita-tion film. Think The Cars that Ate Paris, Dead End Drive In, Wolf Creek, Wake in Fright, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Mad Max. There is nothing more Australiana than a rusted old Ford out in the red desert, empty and haunted by colonial guilt.
The most horrifying scene in Wolf Creek, I think, is when the two women backpackers are attempting to escape from the killer’s property. The lot is filled with car after car after car, a huge junkyard in the middle of the desert—the number of cars signifying the magnitude of the carnage this land has seen. They go from car to car, desperately attempting to start one with a seemingly infinite ring of keys.
Death Proof upheaves the conventions of the exploitation film. When we meet the stunt driver, Kurt Russell, he murders a young woman, protecting himself in the death-proof partition inside his vehicle. Following the genre’s logic, we think that we are about to witness a creepy old dude committing the classic spate of murders: young, sexualised women gratuitously meeting their end, punished for their looseness, their aloneness, their recklessness, their gendered sin.
This turns out not to be the case. Stars (and arguably queer icons) Rosario Dawson, Rose McGowan and Zoë Bell (a real-life stunt driver) unite to beat Russell at his own game. They turn his death car against him and bludgeon him to a bloody pulp, just like the damsel trope the film eviscerates. The film’s director, Tarantino, is, however, no saint in this regard. According to the actress (who was interviewed in a New York Times article), he insisted on Uma Thurman doing her own stunt in Kill Bill, despite her being unsure about the safety of the vehicle. She had an accident that she claimed was covered up. The video footage shows her swerving out of control, hitting a palm tree, her body careening back and forth, her fingers clutching at her injured head.
In his twenties, my uncle accidentally ran over a pedestrian. The man died. My uncle’s hair went white overnight.
One day I exit a car park carelessly and scratch someone’s car. I drink a bottle of wine, file an insurance claim and pay the excess, but the owner didn’t make a claim and I eventually get a refund. I figure they must have felt sorry for me because I was crying.
• • •
Before I really knew how to write I wrote a story about my cat dying. Mookie was a big, proud house cat, part ragdoll, we thought. He was black and white in patches, soft and round and yielding; inviting-looking, but quick to startle, to sprint away from overwrought touch. He would often be out all night, hunting. We tried to keep him in but it was hard, or maybe we didn’t try hard enough. Sometimes it’s hard to split truth from overworn narrative.
One morning I came back from clubbing with friends, high. I went to sleep. An hour later, mum came in and told me that Mookie had been run over. He was bleeding from his arsehole, and couldn’t move his back legs. He sounded more pissed off than in pain.
We took him to the vet. They said that he would never walk again, and to stay alive he’d need expensive surgery. Equal-parts bratty and unaware of the finality of his situation, I insisted that he have the procedure. It never came to that, because he died overnight at the vet’s. I imagined him there, alone, in a cold metal cat carrier, bleak muffed mews.
In the story, I wrote that when we got him back he was wrapped in a towel, stiff and cold, like metal pipes; that we installed him in the ground accordingly.
One day my mother told me that she was going to pick me up from kindergarten. For some reason she couldn’t make it so sent Grandy in her place. I screamed and cried and kicked. I kicked the car door until I dented it from the inside.
Later, in the dismal afterglow of animal emotion, I told Grandy I felt like a handbag, always being passed around, and she repeated this to my mother, and they both sort of laughed. I felt betrayed that they were playing up my childlike cutesiness, that they denied the deepness of my darkness. Embarrassment still courses through me as I replay this memory in my mind.
• • •
In the recent film Hereditary (spoiler alert) a family is ravaged by grief following the loss of Toni Collette’s character’s mother, which is quickly followed by that of her young daughter. The daughter dies as her brother, stoned and speeding in a panic, tries to take her to the hospital: she can’t breathe. She has her head out the window, panting like a dog. There is something on the road and the brother swerves, the daughter’s head smashing into a power pole. She is decapitated. The brother, shell-shocked, comes home and goes straight to bed. In the morning the mother goes out to the car to go shopping. Finding the body, she howls uncontrollably, abjectly.
Later the mother, an artist, creates a miniature model of the accident: the car on the dark road, the power pole, the child’s head propped unassumingly on the side of the road, like a hat someone had dropped carelessly out their window. Her husband walks in and recoils at the sight, disgusted at his wife’s lack of due mourning process.
But why shrink from it? You are much more likely to die in a car accident than in any other form of accident. The car makes us feel the thrill of autonomy when we have none. We are all in the passenger side of our best friend’s ride, and our bestie is the Grim Reaper. We are all sets of keys in God’s swinger’s bowl waiting to be plucked from the illusion of control.
When I went to my friend’s dad’s funeral last year, the hearse broke down on the way to the burial. I remember driving up the Monash freeway, seeing the hearse plonked like a shining black sarcophagus in the middle of the road as traffic whizzed past. We sent incredulous texts to the other drivers: did you see that??? The hearse has broken down??? Wth!!!
When we got to the funeral parlour, we had to do the wake before the burial. My friend said that it was because her father’s spirit wanted us to all eat before we did the deed. But it also meant that everyone left in tears, exhausted, desolate. Like them or lump them, there are reasons for the ordered traditions of grief.
• • •
In a later scene in Gatsby, Jordan calls out the narrator Nick about his hypocrisy, his complicity with the rich carelessness of his cousins, his unreliability and his dishonesty:
You said a bad driver was only safe until she met another bad driver? Well, I met another bad driver, didn’t I? I mean it was careless of me to make such a wrong guess. I thought you were rather an honest, straightforward person. I thought it was your secret pride.
We all want to believe that we are the exception, when chances dictate we are much more likely to be the rule. We know death is coming yet we do not see it for ourselves. We think that the journey we carve out is all that counts, but the destination it leads to erodes everything. We think of our lives like a misreading of Robert Frost, two roads diverging in a yellow wood. We pretend that the path we take is meaningful, when there really is no difference at all.
We know that the last ride we will ever take is probably in the back of a long black car with tinted, mirrored windows. We keep this thought at arm’s length. We barely graze it with our outstretched though tentative fingers.
Most clearly from the day of my friend’s father’s funeral I see the hearse, static on the roaring freeway. The funeral directors stand alongside the vehicle, their starched suits distorted in the black windows. They squint into the March sun, shoulders hunched in embarrassment, mobile phones held tight to clenched lips. Lips that look like a brick wall, stiff with denial of any personal fuck-up. The boot of the hearse yawns, spent from the journey. Atop the glossy coffin, lilies beacon strangely in the harsh sunlight. •
Eloise Grills is an award-winning writer and artist living in Melbourne. Her illustrated chapbook, Sexy Female Murderesses, is out with Glom Press in December 2018.
Lyrics reproduced with kind permission of Phil Elverum.