68 . . . 69 . . . 70 . . . I shifted into fifth gear as I watched the digital speedometer tick upward.
“How fast is it okay to go?” I asked, glancing at my friend in the passenger seat of his own car.
“As fast as you want,” he replied casually.
We were at a straight stretch of I-5 so I pressed on. 116 . . . 117 . . . 118 . . . I glanced over again. He grinned. For a brief moment I thought, “I don’t have to stop. I don’t even have to slow down. Straight on to Reno.” 119 . . . 120 . . . 121 . . . I watched the speedometer of the red Nisan Z continue to climb higher than the mercury on an August day in the desert. The orchards whipped past as if they were on another plane.
Then I let up on the accelerator. “I can’t do this,” I thought. “I’ll kill us both.” I watched the speedometer tick its way downward to a safer speed and thought of all I was giving up in that moment. We had been out for a day of errands and shopping and my friend proposed marriage. He wanted me to be the mother of his children. But I was pretty certain I was not his real interest. My friend always had a different woman on his arm, and my gut told me he wanted a wife to satisfy his family obligations while he continued to live the party life he discovered in college. He had told me about his mother and four sisters in Saudi Arabia, and I was fairly certain that if I changed my mind it would be for the support of their Sisterhood. I was smitten, and as one of my trusted study partners in a small academic department I respected him intellectually. At 120 miles an hour life as part of a Sisterhood a world away who I had never met seemed too exciting to pass up, at least for a few moments. But at our age, trying to create a life together would have been reckless.
It is only twenty-some years later that I really understand what I gave up.
At 19 years old I had some assumptions about the lifestyle my would-be betrothed had in mind. But it did not occur to me to come right out and say, “Let’s talk. What exactly do you have in mind? What is your definition of a partnership? How do you see my role in that? How do you see your own?” My instinct was talking loudly enough I would not have been able to have a real conversation, whatever the answers might have been. The older me could have found a way to have the conversation honestly. The older me might have been satisfied with a playboy spouse in an arrangement of give-and-take, assuming there was any substance behind my initial thoughts. It never occurred to me to wonder what my friend’s parents would have thought of their only son bringing home a blonde commoner, or that maybe he was ready for some stability and deeper trust. After 18 years of marriage, a mortgage, two advanced degrees, and a business I can more readily question my own assumptions and see the logic and satisfaction of a give-and-take relationship. All relationships are give-and-take.
I have been reflecting on these moments as many women in Saudi Arabia have been publicly getting behind the wheel as an act of protest. At 120 miles an hour I wanted to live in Saudi Arabia with my friend’s family, at least for a time. I did not think to ask my friend if he did. The prospect of living with the artifacts of women’s oppression in an unfamiliar culture did not even enter my mind. It is only now that I realize what an enormous act of trust it was when my friend offered me his car keys and then sat in the passenger seat smiling while the speedometer reached triple digits and continued counting upward.
Without speculating about a life I did not live, I suspect my freedom with my friend would not have been much different than I have now. I chose to take my friend’s keys when he offered them. I chose to drive both recklessly and safely. And I chose to stop and hand back his keys and carry on as if it had been an ordinary day. So many women do not have any of those choices. If I had chosen a life with my friend we could have chosen to live anywhere. If I found myself living in a community where I felt like I had no independence or control over my life I could have chosen to leave. And if I felt I was living a kept lifestyle and it was satisfactory I could have chosen to stay. These choices are beyond the reach of so many women.
I have chosen a lifestyle of privilege, one that has allowed me to choose not to be a parent. Had I chosen to keep driving that sunny afternoon I would have chosen parenthood. Parenthood would have been a fine choice at that time; my friend was clear about his desire for children and I had not yet made that decision. I would have planned and prepared for it. So many women do not get to choose whether, when, or how many times they become pregnant and have babies.
Ironically, now I choose, often, to walk or take the bus when I have my own car in the driveway. Symbolically, the car represents freedom to my generation in the United States. For my Sisters in Saudi Arabia – if you will allow me to call you Sister – the choice to drive is so much different than my choice not to drive. I suspect for many the car is a symbol of oppression more than freedom. There are real risks and consequences for symbolically demonstrating freedom simply by choosing to drive a car.
I am quite certain that as my friend watched the speedometer increase he knew I was having second thoughts. At 116 miles an hour I doubt it would have taken much of a nudge for me to change my answer. And that would have been my choice. After my rejection, though, we never studied or spent any time together outside of class, though we still challenged each other intellectually during seminar on occasion. I continued to see him with a different woman on his arm, which only confirmed my assumptions at the time.
Eventually my friend seemed to be with the same woman more often than others. About that time he got a much nicer car. I remember going someplace with him in his shiny, new, beige Jaguar one sunny afternoon. I think he wanted me to know what I had given up. “You are too outspoken,” he told me. At the time his comment just confirmed for me I dodged a bullet. I wonder now if he really meant it, or if he was looking for a way to return the rejection. My friend did not offer me his keys that day. All of it was my choice.
I do not at all wish I had chosen a different life than I have now. Life has been a lot of work and a wonderful series of choices, some of them very difficult. I sometimes wonder about the life my friend has chosen and built with his partner. When he is visiting family in his home town does he offer his car keys to the important women in his life? I hope so.