I first met her around the time of my nineteenth birthday.
She was a present, in the same way that getting clothes for Christmas when you’re eight is a “present”. I didn’t have my own car, so tensions between my brother and I were running high as we fought over the use of the white one with increasing frequency and furor, and this was the solution.
Of course, I got the new one, which left a bitter taste in my brother’s mouth, but he didn’t complain too loudly – he’d already junked his up to his liking and no longer had me in his hair.
I swore that I’d never seen anything as gorgeous in my entire life, and she was mine if I would only finish college.
College saw her as a part of my personality. Not many people had a “mint wintergreen” car, and it gave more rides to more fucked up people than most buses in poorer neighborhoods. I remember putting Levi in the trunk once, and exceeding the weight limit many, many times. When I left college, no one took her away, despite the fact that I didn’t live up to my end of the bargain. I think dad was just happy to see me making very good money and following in his footsteps. Either that or he didn’t want to feel like an Indian giver.
I didn’t really bond with her until after college.
I spent about a week a month in that car, easily, if you count driving back and fourth across the lower half of Louisiana every other weekend like clockwork. For years, it was just me and a pack of smokes and some Gatorade and one of the four or five stereos I went thorough (as demure as she was, she always managed to catch the eye of the late night cat burglars. She just had that girl-next-door quality, I guess).
I think she was in her prime during these years. The post-collage, pre-California years. Maybe it was just that we were both in our prime: young, hungry, always looking for an adventure. We were inseparable… always on the road to Lake Charles, to see about a girl. We saw and did things together that most people either don’t believe, or will never get to see. Me and her have seen a truck eat an older Cadillac, sparks and engine bolts flying thirty feet into the air, glowing orange with heat. Me and her’ve been part of one of the biggest police chases I’d ever seen. We’ve seen people die on the road. We’ve seen cars on fire. We’ve seen the University of Dallas’ Brick Dick, Pensacola’s white beaches, the piss/fuck/fight tree in Crowville, LA, and the great flood of Lake Charles. We’ve been off-roading, camping, underwater, in the air, and sometimes, when we were really lucky and alive, we’d be speeding the wrong way down the interstate in the middle of the night.
So many things happened because of her. I became friends with ToppledGod as we both sat inside her, driving who knows where, and I asked TG to tell me a story. Suicide was considered and re-considered by many under her roof. H and I would sneak off to park in a dark place, under a tree, where we’d laugh and kiss and sixty-nine in the back seat, coming up only when we realized that we couldn’t see out of any windows.
She made everything possible, like legs make walking possible.
When I filled her with as much of my stuff as she’d hold, and we drove away from the junkyard of memories that was now my ex-apartment… when I saw my friends and brothers get smaller in the rear view, waving sadly, thinking about what of what I’d left they’d go home with… I think she knew. I think she knew things were going to change. But, this was the biggest adventure yet, and she and I were going to make it all the way across the country, just us, so fear would have to take a back seat, but it couldn’t, because my CD’s and clothes and cartons of cigarettes were in the way.
I swear she’s never handled better than she did during those three days across the desert. She’ll certainly never go faster than the 110? 120? We did down the side of that mountain.
Maybe that’s what started the decline. Or, maybe it was the emotional abandonment. As I spent more and more time in California, I spent more and more time on the bus. She became H’s car more than mine – I’d sit in the driver’s seat, and she and I would sit there, in the silent cold of a desert night, trying to get used to each other again. She was familiar there, but… cold. Distant.
I only drove her for pleasure when it was late, and I was high. On those nights, things were like they were before. On those nights, it was just her and I and the dark, dark night and the road and the stereo and the cigarettes and we could live forever at seventy five… but only for the twenty minutes it took me to get home.
Things started to get clunky, unreliable. The speedometer was the first sign; I still remember thinking that my baby was dying when I heard that high-pitched whine, and saw the needle jump up to 100 while I was only doing maybe thirty on a residential street. That only happened that one time during the trip, and I didn’t see that behavior again for months… but it became a constant. I got used to it, we got used to it. We’ve spent entire road trips with her speedometer telling me that we were doing about forty miles more than we really were.
Her condition didn’t become serious until I sent her in to get prepped for the drive back to Louisiana. I didn’t know it then… I just knew I’d seen the oil light come on and that’d never happened before. Still, nothing was desperate. We got used to my weekly under-the-hood violations, pumping her full of fluids like a cancer patient. I think she even began to enjoy it, and maybe so did I. All this new time I was spending on her, making her better, and with the blessing of my wife, even. She knew I still loved her, and she was happier. She must have been thrilled when I practiced new ways of driving her, so that I could learn to deal with her clutch pedal problem.
I wonder how utterly destroyed she was when she saw the new girl. The hip girl. The roomy girl. The more powerful girl. The one that everyone ooh’ed and aah’ed over, and climbed into and drove off with, leaving her in the parking lot. The one who not only COULD pass the state emissions test, but didn’t even have to try for at least two years yet.
I wonder how much it hurt, to sit there in the parking lot, unused, for weeks, wondering what that failure on that test meant for her future.
I swear I could feel her stare at me when I walked past her in the mornings for my run.
We talked. On that last day.
“So nice of you to drop by,” she said, sourly. “Where are we going?”
“We’re going to Lake Charles,” I said. “Just you and I.”
There was a pause. I started her engine.
I said, “we’re going to see about a girl,” and I patted her gently on the dash.
“Just you and I?” she said. I nodded. I think she understood. I think – I hope – she’s always liked it there.
I was wrong, before. I was wrong. Yesterday. She has never, ever handled better than she did yesterday, on the way to Lake Charles, to see about a girl.
A nineteen year old. Who had just celebrated her birthday. And who didn’t have a car of her own. I envy her. That broken-down old Tercel is the best car anyone could ever wish for.
Its the best goddamn car in the whole fucking world.
I took all my junk, two screws, and the dented Lakeside Toyota license plate frame off of her. I’m going to fasten my new plate on my new car inside of that frame, and with those two screws. That way, maybe when I ride, her soul will ride with me.
Good luck, old girl. Take care of AM, and let her take care of you. And, for what its worth… thanks.