Erogenous zones: the ride home
October 19th, 2023
Vivien Lee on the thrill of being driven.
Once, I thought I fell in love with someone who drove one of those vintage Mercedes that only played cassettes. The night of our first date, we listened to a tape of Steely Dan’s Aja on his wood-paneled stereo, though if you ask him, he’d never admit that it was a date. We were always only just friends (more on that later).
“I think I believe in God,” I told him as we approached the intersection of Broadway and 42nd Street. The light turned green. “I think...” He shifted to second gear and applied his foot on the accelerator. “I do too.” His hand reached for the car cigarette lighter, and for a split second, brushed against mine.
Maybe at that moment, I confessed to being a believer because it suddenly dawned on me that I was made powerless, finding myself in both an emotional affair and in the passenger seat of this person’s car, knowing that it would be the closest we could be without crossing an invisible line. He released the clutch and pressed on the pedal again, building speed. An aromatic bouquet of diesel, leather, and tobacco filled my nose as I watched his subtle movements out of the corner of my eye. The easy confidence of his developed muscle memory was imprinted on my psyche, fueling fantasies of all my unholy lust the whole ride home and beyond.
Driving, manually, is a lot like sex. Every move is deliberate and requires your whole body to commit. When done well, you perform without consciously thinking about it. I am naturally drawn to repetition and patterns, which would explain the abstract pleasures of watching someone you love—or in this case, someone you could love—drive a stick shift. All of those delicate little hand motions. All of that vibrating and pulsing and throttling. Cars are environments built for sensory stimulation and haptic touch. Sometimes, telling someone to drive me home at the end of the night supplies enough excitement as if I were to actually bring them home and just fuck them.
Being in the passenger seat of another person's vehicle also brings into focus the kind of power dynamics that we enter in a romantic relationship. It’s ironic to me because, unlike most people I've dated, I have yet to obtain a driver’s license, which puts me in a state of submission. As a pursuer, I like to drive and be in control of my desires. I’d rather know where a relationship is headed than seek direction from the other or ask, where is this going? As a passenger, however, I enjoy releasing control while watching the object of my affection have the fate of my life in their hands, clutching the steering wheel. Oh, you drive stick? I say, twirling a finger in my hair. Hot. Sometimes, they might even do something stupid enough to impress me (shit like doing a wheel spin on the highway) and in my younger days, I’d allowed myself to go along with it, letting out a few flirtatious screams.
Pop culture has a strong fetish for eroticizing danger, especially where heavy machinery is involved, which explains why there are so many movies about auto collisions. I think of that famous scene in Vanilla Sky, where Cameron Diaz is at the steering wheel of her 1970 Buick Skylark with Tom Cruise sitting in the passenger seat. She tells him that happiness, for her, means sitting with him in the car together, before confronting him about why he’d told his friend that she was merely a fuck buddy, proceeding to scream hysterically, “I FUCKING LOVE YOU! YOU FUCKED ME FOUR TIMES! I SWALLOWED YOUR CUM! THAT MEANS SOMETHING!!!” In that pivotal moment, she asks whether he believes in God, before driving the car off a bridge, bringing Tom down with her and fucking up his face (and love life) forever. Poor Tom.
Famously on the fringe of this phenomenon is David Cronenberg’s Crash, which, one would argue, was the predecessor to Julia Ducournau's Titane. The stories of the latter films, I’ve learned, are set around a specific paraphilia known as symphorophilia, or the arousal one feels from staging and watching a car crash. There was, of course, nothing erotic about Tom Cruise losing his perfect facial symmetry to a car crash. To most people, unless you’re living inside a Cronenberg film or that one song by The Smiths, there is usually nothing amorous or sexy about the real dangers of collision. But the fantasy is potent.
When he became vice president of General Motors, party-loving playboy and father of the muscle-car era John DeLorean publicly credited his upward success to his high sex drive. With fast cars and fast women at the crux of American society, I often wonder if the arrival of self-driving vehicles signals—to quote political theorist Herbert Marcuse—a certain de-eroticism of culture, or an attempt to tame our animalistic impulses with straitjacketed convenience. Horses are to power as machines are to impotence.
For a time, I equated my obsession with dangerous emotional situations as a mere fact of being a love addict. And the most memorable of these situations almost always took place on the road maybe because of the symbolic significance it gave to the transient recklessness of the emotions themselves. In my naive years, there was nothing more alluring than the intoxicated high of riding on the backseat of a motorcycle or being driven home by a crush, especially if the vehicle belonged to someone I had no business getting involved with: a friend, an ex, a friend’s ex, or a lover who wasn’t my own…accidents just waiting to happen.
I suppose for me, unlike Cameron Diaz, God had no plans for wreckage to occur the night I found myself in the passenger seat of that vintage Mercedes, except for the fatal delusion I held long afterward that this person might have felt the same way, eventually driving our friendship apart. Back then, I was freewheeling, in life and in love or limerence, unbothered by destination or consequence. And aren’t the risks of entering any romance like being on a car ride, anyway? You’ve consented to being driven, a way of temporarily suspending your autonomy. There’s no instruction manual when it comes to yielding to our desires. All you can do is buckle up and enjoy the ride because, at any point, it could all crash into flames.