How I Learned to Drive

by Paula Vogel

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B.B. See Cousin Bobby

Big Papa Li'l Bit's grandfather, the father of her mother and Aunt Mary, is a crude, offensive man who expects to be waited on by his wife. He is proud of the fact that he came and took his wife away, when she was fourteen, against her family's objections. His wife describes him as a big bull, wanting sex every morning and every evening and even coming home at lunch for it. Early in the play, the family jokes about Li'l Bit's developing breasts when she is seventeen, and her grandfather keeps making derogatory comments about what a waste it is for her to go to college: "What does she need to go to college for?" "She's got all the credentials she needs on her chest—" and ‘‘How is Shakespeare going to help her lie on her back in the dark?’’

Cousin Bobby He has no spoken lines and does not appear onstage, but the actor playing Uncle Peck speaks to him in a monologue. In a scene announced as ‘‘Uncle Peck teaches Cousin Bobby how to fish,’’ Bobby pulls in a pompano and then cries until Peck cuts the fish loose and releases it. Then Peck asks if Bobby would like to go to a secret tree house with him, drink beer, and eat crab salad. Peck's behavior toward Bobby is similar to how he treats Li'l Bit in that he gives her liquor and driving lessons and swears her to secrecy. There is no indication of where this scene fits chronologically with the rest. Bobby is first mentioned early in the play, as an example of how nicknames in the family center on genitalia. His nickname is ‘‘B. B.’’ for ‘‘Blue Balls.’’

Grandmother Li'l Bit's grandmother is accustomed to serving her husband, Big Papa, which she does with bitterness. Although he constantly has sex with her, she has never had an orgasm and believes that her daughters made the concept up; when they talk with her about sex, she becomes almost violently irritable, suggesting that her sex drive is repressed. She makes it a policy to make sex sound dirty, painful, and disgusting to Li'l Bit, with the hope that the girl will not want to try it, even though the same tactic did not help keep her daughter, Lucy from getting pregnant.

Greg Greg is a short, shy, courtly boy who frequently asks Li' l Bit to dance at the sock hop at Francis Scott Key Middle School. She is afraid to dance with him, suspicious that he just wants to dance with her so that he can watch her breasts.

High School Senior On a bus trip to Upstate New York in 1978, when she is nearly thirty, Li'l Bit is approached by a boy who introduces himself as a senior at Walt Whitman High. He is awkward, with large ears and a high-pitched voice. After some conversation, she takes him to her hotel room and has sex with him, which reminds her of the way Uncle Peck seduced her when she was young.

Jerome In ninth grade, when Li'l Bit's breasts are developing, Jerome, with the help of a female classmate, feigns an allergy attack and falls to the floor. When Li'l Bit bends down to help him, he says that his allergy is to foam rubber, and he squeezes her breast. Later, after gym class, a female classmate stares at Li'l Bit's breasts in the shower and, determining that they are real, tells her that this means Jerome owes her fifty cents from a bet.

Li'l Bit This play focuses...

(This entire section contains 1428 words.)

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on Li'l Bit, following her life from age eleven to nearly thirty-five. It centers on her relationship with her uncle by marriage, Peck, showing how that relationship grows closer and closer to a sexual one and how Li'l Bit's life becomes increasingly disorderly as she matures. When she is eleven and her mother does not want her riding in a car alone with Peck, she assures her mother confidently that she ‘‘can handle’’ him. She basks in the attention that he gives her throughout the years, posing for pictures for him and accepting gifts. When, at puberty, her breasts develop, her mother and grandparents make her self-conscious, and other children at school make her feel like an outcast, but Peck speaks to her sympathetically. When she goes away to college, Li'l Bit stops going to class and develops a drinking problem; removed from Peck, she can see their relationship for what it is, and she tells him they can't see each other anymore, even though it destroys him. In late her twenties, she picks up a high school boy on the street and has sex with him to feel the power over a younger person that Peck felt. In the end, as she drives off, she sees the image of Peck, long dead, in her rearview mirror.

Lucy See Mother

Aunt Mary Aunt Mary is the sister of Li'l Bit's mother and the wife of Peck. Li'l Bit describes her as ‘‘beautiful.’’ In a monologue announced as "Aunt Mary on behalf of her husband,'' she speaks to the audience, explaining Peck's good qualities: he is always willing to help out the neighbors, and he works hard to provide for her and even brings her furs and diamonds. She explains the psychological trauma that he must have experienced in the war. She is well aware of the relationship between Peck and their niece, she says. She blames Li'l Bit: ‘‘She's a sly one, that one is. She knows exactly what she's doing; she's twisted Peck around her little finger and thinks it's all a big secret.'' Her response to this is to wait until Li'l Bit goes away to school, so she can get her husband back.

Mother Li'l Bit's mother, Lucy, is skeptical of men. While giving Li'l Bit advice about how a lady should drink, she warns against particular drinks, stating vaguely, ‘‘Believe me, they are lethal ... I think you were conceived after one of those.’’ When she and her mother are talking about sex with Li'l Bit, she is the one to contradict the grandmother's warnings that sex is frightening. "It won't hurtyou—" she tells Li'l Bit, ‘‘if the man you go to bed with really loves you. It's important that he loves you.’’ She is angry at her parents for turning their back on her when she became pregnant, for telling her, "You Made Your Bed; Now Lie on It.'' She does practically the same thing, though, when Li'l Bit is eleven and wants to go on a long car ride with Uncle Peck. The mother gives in, even though she suspects Peck of having sexual intentions, telling the girl, ‘‘All right. But I'm warning you—if anything happens, I hold you responsible.’’

Uncle Peck Uncle Peck is the only one in the family who takes Li'l Bit seriously when the others make fun of her, and she is the only one to take him seriously. His wife, Aunt Mary, says that she understands his suffering but that she does not talk to him when he is feeling bad. When Li'l Bit is thirteen, he says that talking to her makes him feel better and gives him the strength to battle his alcoholism. When she agrees to meet with him to talk regularly, a quasi-sexual relationship is established: their meetings must be secret, and she must be allowed to "draw the line.’’ All future meetings between them lean toward sexuality. He takes pictures of her in his basement, planning for the day when she will be old enough to pose for Playboy. When she receives her license, he takes her to a restaurant that will serve her liquor. As she approaches her eighteenth birthday, when she can have sex legally, Peck sends letters, each with the number of days until her birthday, showing his excitement. When he visits her on her birthday and she breaks off their relationship, he starts drinking again. ‘‘It took my uncle seven years to drink himself to death,'' Li'l Bit tells the audience. "First he lost his job, then his wife, and finally his driver's license.’’

Waiter The waiter at a restaurant on the Eastern Shore is the only character in the play to interact with Peck and Li' l Bit when they are together as a couple. He is skeptical about serving alcohol to a sixteen-year-old girl, especially when she orders a martini, but he does it, hoping that he will receive a big tip.




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