The Truth, Mainly - 05/09/1994

On backseat driving and sexual politics
by Leon Satterfield

Since my back went out on me during our Christmas travels, my wife does most of the driving. I lie in the backseat and whimper a lot. I also give her instruction on how to shift the gears of our five-speed manual transmission.

"Fourth," I say, rising up from my bed of pain so I can see better. "Shift up to fourth. Ow."

"Down shift," I say. "There's a stop sign up there. Down shift. Down shift! Ow!"

"Don't shift up yet," I say. "We're going uphill. Give her more gas. Don't ride the clutch. You'll wear it out. Ow."

"Look," she says. "I've been driving a stick shift since I was 15. You don't like the way I shift, you shift."

"I can't," I moan. "My back went out on me."

"God knows I'm aware of that," she says. "So just be quiet and let me shift. Just lie there and be shiftless."

Then she laughs. She thinks that kind of cheap wordplay at the expense of the infirm is pretty funny.

"Heh, heh," I say in as nasty a voice as my pain will allow. "Heh, heh, heh. Ow."

But it's not my wife's sadistic wit or the pain in my back that causes me the most distress. What really gives me the fantods is the fear that someone will see me not driving. That's why I lie in the backseat.

"The front seatback folds down," she says. "Why don't you ride there?"

"Someone might see me," I say.


"They might think there's something wrong with me," I say.

"There is something wrong," she says. "As you occasionally remind me, your back went out on you."

"Not that," I say. "They might think there's something wrong with me."

She looks at me in the rearview mirror.

"This is a boy-girl thing, isn't it?" she says. "When you get that note of panic in your voice and cross your legs, it's almost always a boy-girl thing."

Where I grew up back in the 40s and the 50s, the boy drove the car and shifted the gears. The girl sat in the passenger seat. That's the way it was on the first date, that's the way it was during courtship, and that's the way it was during the first 50 years of marriage.

The girl could drive when the boy was out on the John Deere in the wheatfield where she could bring him iced tea and baloney sandwiches. The girl could drive to the grocery store when the boy was taking a nap. The girl could drive the kids to church when the boy had to stay home because his back had gone out on him.

But the girl could not drive when the boy was in the car. If she did, people who saw them would wonder if the boy had lost his license, or if he had some gawdawful testosterone-depleting disease, or if the girl was Wearing the Pants in the Family.

And that would be the end of the boy's masculine standing in town. High school jocks would cross their legs and study their chocolate malts when he walked into the drug store. The barber shop would grow quiet when he came in for a haircut. When he walked into the pool hall, there'd be murmuring, then snickers, and finally guffaws from the back snooker table.

The only time the girl could drive with the boy in the car was when he broke his leg in the football game or when he shot himself hunting pheasant.

You never really get over growing up in a place like that.

So yes, I tell my wife, it is a boy-girl thing.

"Boys are supposed to drive," I tell her, "because it's part of nature's plan. Driving is boy destiny. Riding in the passenger seat is girl destiny. That's why boys are better drivers than girls—just like fish are better swimmers than birds."

"I suppose that's why car insurance costs less for girls," she says. "I suppose the car insurance companies are just so sensitive about bruising our delicate psyches that they charge us less so we won't feel so bad about being such lousy drivers."

She can be pretty sarcastic when she wants to be.

"Heh, heh," I say. "Heh, heh, heh."

"You want to know the truth," she says, "it's really a matter of control. Boys think they're in charge if they control the steering wheel, the gas pedal, the gearshift, the radio, and the heater. Boys can't stand it when girls run those things. It makes them feel impotent."

I cross my legs and tell her that's the most juvenile thing I ever heard. She tells me that if I hadn't insisted on doing all the driving on the Christmas trip, my back wouldn't have gone out on me and I wouldn't be lying in the back seat whining about the way she shifts gears and wondering if I'm still anatomically correct.

I hate it when she tries to be logical. I double clutch my intellectucal transmission and slam my massive male brain into rebuttal gear.

"Ow," I say. "Ouch. Owie."


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.

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