I didn’t drive until I was thirty years old. Before then, I took the bus to work or rode with my husband. Waiting for the bus, I worried that I’d miss it or it would break down halfway to town or a stranger would sit beside me and talk the whole way. In the car with my husband I felt vulnerable in other ways. Cars hurtling by only yards away made me flinch and jam my foot to the floor, or place a warning hand on my husband’s arm.
As frightening as it was to be driven in a bus or car, my dread at the thought of driving myself was far greater. My safety, even my life, seemed to depend on my not driving.
Then my mother died suddenly, and my anxiety and depression deepened. At last I went to see a therapist, and together we began to question a life ruled by fear.
She kept asking me about my feelings about driving, and I resisted her until the day we talked about the business I dreamed of starting. “Shannon,” she asked, “do you have everything you need to open your shop?” I burst out crying. “No,” I said. “I have to learn to drive.”
The instructor from the driving school was used to phobic non-drivers. By the third lesson I could drive over Devil’s Slide and up Highway 1 to the freeway, exiting south of San Francisco for the return trip home.
Two weeks later I passed the driving test and got my license. I bought a yellow Datsun 710. It was small, but had a solid, tank-like feel.
I told my husband I would be driving alone to town the next day. In the argument that followed the real issue between us remained unspoken: that as our dependencies were unraveling, so was our marriage.
In the morning, I gathered my keys and bag with shaking hands and walked out the back door alone. In the car, I calmed myself with the routine: fasten seat belt, adjust mirrors, check gauges. I pulled out of the driveway.
After a few minutes on the highway, I loosened my grip on the steering wheel. A flat stretch of road opened before me, bounded by the municipal airport on one side, fields of green crops and a vegetable stand on the other, and the blue, curving bay and harbor ahead.
But it wasn’t until I looked in the rearview mirror that my heart rose in freedom, seeing as if for the first time the road under my wheels rushing away from me, becoming the distance I had traveled.
Half Moon Bay, California
“Dad, I’d like to take the car and drive out West.” I was fifteen, soon to be sixteen, and I didn’t think about the old Chrysler being the family’s largest material asset. Nor did I have any idea — until twenty-five years later, when my children asked for permission to leave home — how a parent feels about letting a child go.
My father was a horse smuggler in Europe at the age of fifteen; an immigrant to the U.S. at twenty; a wine-maker, brewer, sausage-maker, and farmer after that, uneducated but able to make and fix what he needed to survive in this new industrial world. In broken English he told me, “If you have the money and can drive through downtown Chicago, you can go.” I saved fifty dollars. I passed his driving test. Then I took the car — which had been bought with all the family savings, including the money in my penny bank — and left on my odyssey, accompanied by two friends too young to drive.
I grew tremendously from my father’s confidence, my confidence in myself as I fixed the numerous breakdowns, the contact with people: police who helped us find campsites, the gay man who let us stay free at his motel, the black man who pounded on my car window one rainy night, scaring us but needing only help with his car. (This was my first conversation with a black man.)
I’ll never forget waking up surrounded by deer, on the edge of the Grand Canyon; visiting the then-untouristed and unvandalized Petrified Forest and Carlsbad Caverns; eating berry pies at Knott’s Berry Farm; seeing the now-extinct Los Angeles orange groves; collecting discarded roadside bottles for the deposit money to buy our daily meal at Dairy Queen.
So much changed for me. The dream to move to California, realized six years later; the love for remote places and the knowledge that simple things bring joy; the faith to let my twenty-two-year-old daughter travel alone in remote China, Pakistan, and Mongolia, and to let my sixteen-year-old live with a family in Germany — all started with that car, that trip, and my father’s permission.
I miss that blue ’71 VW van. We had fourteen years together. She was my mobile home in between real homes. Every possession I had could be packed into her; if something couldn’t fit, I left it.
That van embodied a world of human spirit. We drank in her, smoked marijuana, played Country Joe and the Fish, ranted and raved about the Vietnam War. With two friends, I drove through Durango, Colorado, in a blinding snowstorm, three hours into a mushroom high, laughing hysterically.
I remember, when I buried my father, driving away from the cemetery, looking over my shoulder and thinking how strange it was to leave my dad in a hole in the ground. Somehow, it wasn’t supposed to be that way; he was supposed to come home with us. I looked back with a similar sense of dismay when I sold my van to someone who didn’t know her history, who thought she was only a van.
When I see a van that looks like her, my heart pounds and I peer at the license plate, as if it might read 945 DBP. I’m forty-five now, and I wish I could go back and reclaim some of that time, that experience, that intensity. Yet I know I can only savor the memory, let her go. She will make a great story to tell my one-year-old some day when he asks about those antique vans that hippies used to drive.
Dented, bug-spattered, hail-marked, my seven-year-old bottom-of-the-line Nissan Sentra nevertheless is the car of my dreams. Every dent has a history. One marks where a runaway Land Cruiser containing two unattended toddlers hit it. They’d managed to release the emergency brake. Their car rolled into mine and stopped, instead of hitting the large electric transformer box beyond.
I got the car during a period of mental and emotional crisis — a divorce — and I deeply resented having to trade my high-powered European luxury sedan for a stripped-down economy model. Like so many people during the mid-eighties, I identified myself by the things I accumulated. Perhaps I’m still doing it — because somehow that scarred but indefatigable vehicle symbolizes what I’ve become.
M. D. Williams
I bought the Olds in Reno back in 1987. She was young then, only seven. Me and the kids were on our way to Illinois. We’d gotten a ride to Reno with a friend from California — I figured I could get a good deal in Nevada. I paid cash, hundred-dollar bills I’d withdrawn from the bank account Mom left when she passed.
The Olds had eighty-five thousand miles on her when we pulled out of the lot. I managed to add ten thousand before we got back home. She ran great back then, never a bit of trouble. We used to drive her day and night, just for something to do. At night I’d tuck the kids in the back seat, light up a joint, pop “Rock Steady” into the tape deck, and cruise to my dealer’s house. When we got home, I’d line out some speed and party all night. She’d usually run out of gas just before the welfare check arrived on the first.
Then I met Dan and we parked her, left her sitting up on the hill at my old house collecting dust for three years. We went off to kick some habits and find a new place to live.
Last year, a friend offered to tow her down to Tucson. It was a homecoming. We gave her a bath and cleaned the battery cables and spark plugs. Then we siphoned some unleaded into the tank and I got inside. Never have needed a key to start her since I broke it off in the ignition. She turned right over. We all cheered. Then me and Dan and the four kids climbed inside. I popped Willie Nelson into the tape deck and lit up a Marlboro, then we cruised to the Safeway. When we got home I lined up some hot dogs for the grill, tucked the kids in bed early, and hit the sack.
Once, I decided to clean out her trunk, thinking I’d find some speed stashed up under the spare-tire hole. I didn’t. She didn’t have any secrets and neither do I.
She’ll be twelve this year. Older now and a bit more temperamental. Her horn doesn’t work anymore and the doors don’t open from the inside. You have to roll down the window and reach around for the handle to get out. She coughs a lot, the tires go flat, and the engine heats up if we take her out for too long. Her transmission drags once in a while. But she starts up every time and always gets us where we need to go. Unless of course we’re out of gas, which only happens the last couple of days before Dan’s check from the plant arrives on the first.
My first husband, J., bought me the white Fiat Spider to compensate, I suppose, for qualities he lacked. Sassy and irresistible, the car attracted as many suitors as speeding tickets. Top down and heart open, I’d race into moonful nights playing Bruce Springsteen and thinking that I, too, was born to run.
The car wasn’t very dependable. I don’t know who got more of my money — the mechanic or the marriage counselor. And it wasn’t exactly a family car. When I’d arrive at my child’s school, the other moms would look at me like I was some floozy. J. drove a Volvo.
I had that Fiat only eighteen months. One night when I was at my lover’s, J. found the car and disconnected something so it wouldn’t start. After the divorce, the Fiat began a troubling decline. Eventually I was spending as much on maintenance as I was getting in alimony. I sold it for a song to a lesbian couple and bought a silver Honda Accord. It was gray, actually, and my dad paid for it.
Palo Alto, California
Before John and I were married, I had a succession of cars with varying degrees of capability. (Calling a car unreliable is an indication that you’re not anticipating its needs, or that you can’t deal creatively with surprises.) I also had a succession of young men — and they really were unreliable.
I believe that cars over twenty years old develop character. Call it anthropomorphizing, if you will, but I honestly had a car that would not run if my then-fiance was in it; it knew he wasn’t the one for me. Then there was the ’63 VW Bug that had plywood floors and a downspout for a heat duct. I couldn’t get it inspected because no mechanic would go through the complicated ritual necessary to start it.
My first Bug was dubbed the Almighty Car Car. When the man who bought it from me ground the gears going up our hill, I started crying. My dad eyed the $350 in my hand and said, by way of consolation, “Well, the money will go faster than the car ever did.”
I did not so much repair as nurture all my cars. I felt in tune with them; they expressed my personality. I guess that made me worn down, beat up, idiosyncratic, ornery, and in need of a paint job. Finally, the time came for me to change that image; the cars horrified my mother, and my husband felt he’d outgrown his Bug days. So when we were buying a van to drive across the country, he insisted that it be new, worry-free, and therefore, to my mind, without character or joy. He wanted dependability; I wanted rhapsody and the passionate adventure of being on the road.
We went down to Toyota and tried to get the simplest van they had. We did take the four-wheel drive, because we’d heard there was snow in the Northwest, and we gave in and got the air conditioning, imagining South Dakota in August. But we absolutely drew the line at the ice-maker.
Almost four years later, this van remains disgustingly reliable. It’s been up logging roads to mountaintops, down the steepest canyons; it’s made three- and four-day dashes across the country, holding high speeds when North Dakota got too boring.
My van doesn’t handle like a sports car or even a VW Bug on the wooded Pennsylvania backroads of my hometown, but it rides well when it has a full load. It’s fun to be able to fit everyone in my car. There have even been times I’ve wished I’d bought that ice-maker.
I do get frustrated that I can’t get into its more secret parts. The engine compartment is so crammed full, it’s nearly impossible to change the oil filter. Other parts are factory-sealed. But it all works. I keep thinking I’ll sell it and buy something a little wilder, faster, or just plain goofy. I remind myself, though, of the time I wanted to buy a bright yellow ’55 pickup truck for $600. My dad said I just wanted it for my image and suggested I get a ten-dollar haircut instead. So practicality wins out; I keep the car because there’s nothing wrong with it. In its quiet, unassuming, unspectacular way, this car is a mainstay of my lifestyle — and my husband bought it for me.
I’ve considered getting rid of him, too. My brother once asked, “Does he beat you? Does he drink? What can possibly be wrong?” Well, there’s more to a marriage than that, I think. I get frustrated I can’t reach the more secret parts of his soul, but maybe I have no business being there. I do get to change his oil — listening to him pour out his anxieties and helping to refill him with optimism. Sometimes I wish he were wild and goofy, but perhaps I’m enough that way for both of us. Though I complain that he isn’t romantic, I’m beginning to realize that I haven’t recognized his particular kind of wooing.
I’ll drive this car until its odometer stops turning and I’ll grow old with the man I married.
I forced the steering wheel hard to the right and tied it so it wouldn’t budge. I wedged the accelerator in place. Then I opened the door and jumped onto the flat, dry lake bed. I walked, without looking back, toward the horizon.
When the sound of the humming engine faded, I turned to contemplate the scene before me. You can sense the curvature of the Earth out here, I mused, as I watched my distant van circle in first gear, a quarter of a mile away. I had come here to examine my relationship with this machine, this fantastic invention that I had thoroughly taken for granted since I was fifteen. How many hours, how many miles, how many birds and rabbits hit at sixty miles per hour, how much money, how much distraction, how much ozone destroyed, how much wilderness lost to make way for my car? I stared in stupid fascination at my circling spaceship, my mobile support system, my wheeled slave and master. “Oil sucking fool,” I murmured to the desert. “I’m addicted. We all are.”
What an act it would be to leave it circling and walk away. To where — a sailboat, a cabin in Alaska, a little farm with a horse and cart? I prayed silently for such courage and begged forgiveness for my impact on this tortured, sacred earth.
The Gregorian chants pulsing from the stereo grew louder as I approached my van. I noticed the heavy tracks left by the rolling tires — white, concentric rings in stark contrast to the gray alkaline earth. I stepped into the center ring and lay down, face up, my van orbiting me in the piercing sun, like a vulture awaiting my death.
At twenty-two I knew everything there was to know about sex. I had done it exactly three times, so I was an expert.
During astronomy class at Arizona State University, I strained to see the stars through smog and light pollution. I glanced up from the telescope and fell into blue eyes. “What eyes,” I whispered. He smiled.
The next morning at five, we were on our way to the San Diego Zoo. “You’re going to ditch school to go to the zoo?” he asked.
“The tortoises are mating,” I said.
For several weeks he left notes and flowers on my Ford Escort and poems in my books after carrying them. One day he came to see me where I worked showing apartments. When I took off my blouse, he caught his breath in a way that made me think I could love him forever, just to hear that, to be adored. We slid onto the bed, but the lovemaking was over before I could have said the word.
I knew we weren’t right for each other, or that first sexual experience would have been phenomenal. The blue eyes looked huge. He asked for a ride home to the dorm. We silently loaded his bike.
On the way, we stopped at Sky Harbor Airport to watch the planes land. He drove the Ford out to the end of a runway. The sun was setting into a gold desert sky. I leaned back across the car, then he was on his knees with his face between my legs. No one had ever done this to me. I throbbed, the car felt warm beneath me, and as a 747 took off into the setting sun, I came. Then we sank down and, shielded by the car, made love on the runway.
We were together for the next two years.
Van Nuys, California
City men take you to restaurants and a movie. Cowboys take you to the desert for target practice.
I liked the cowboy. He was careful to pick up the empty shells after shooting. He baked whole-wheat bread. When he hunted, he took only what he would use, always leaving some behind for the spirits. He changed my views on hunting. “I think if you eat meat,” he said, “you should at least once in your life kill, clean, and cook an animal. It keeps you in touch with the process of life and death.”
Our first time out together, I carefully balanced the rifle on the hood, just behind the little ridge that runs up the center where the Statue of Liberty is mounted. Steadying my aim, I peered through the sights, closed one eye, and fired. The bullet whizzed out, taking a chunk of my car with it. I looked with amazement at the smoldering dent, iron colored where the red paint had burned away. I ran my finger through the smooth groove. It was still warm.
I had missed the target by several feet. The cowboy ambled up behind me. “Congratulations,” he said, “you got a car.”
He was the first person to ride in my new car. I picked it up at the dealer’s that day, sparkling and new, and drove to the meeting. I knew he’d be there. That’s why I’d arranged to have a spot on the agenda.
We’d met a year and a half before on company business. I flew to his city and he met me at the airport in his big sedan. We drove for an hour; he talked, I took notes. Business over, we drove back, discussing books, our children, politics, adventures, aspirations. We seemed like old friends, or a pair from another life. By the time we reached the airport, we were on fire. He left me on the curb and drove away. We were both married, parents, committed, locked in. But this was what I’d searched for.
Eighteen months later, the day I got my new car, I set off for our second meeting. At the post-meeting cocktail party, I said, “I’ll show you my new car.”
During the next five years, for every moment of joy, there was an hour of pain. But we flourished. He was brother, father, son, and lover to me. He was my hero. I admired who he was, what he did, what he felt and valued, even though he drove a Chrysler and hunted deer. I was his mother, sister, daughter, passion goddess. He adored me despite my liberal views and rowdy streak. We were friends. We saw each other through crises, children’s injuries, legal problems, spousal conflicts, business setbacks. We took each other’s advice. We got each other’s jokes. We got physical when we could, where we could — sometimes in my car. “Your little bus,” he called it, and he loved it. It was our only home, scene of many dramas and comic moments.
One day a mutual acquaintance stopped me in the hall. “Did you hear about R.? He has several inoperable brain tumors.”
He died a year later. We spoke by telephone until almost the end. Once, I visited him at home with his family. His beauty and vigor had been devastated, but nothing was changed between us. His wit and clarity were undiminished.
He never said goodbye, not even to his children. He simply fought to live until the tumor invaded his brainstem and shut him down. At the funeral his wife distributed roses, white and red. Mine was white. I put it on the coffin with the rest.
Now, I’m facing open-heart surgery. A congenital defect, just discovered, which the doctors say must be repaired. It sounds like a near-death experience to me — heart-lung machine, big scar between my breasts. They want to try to fix my broken heart. His brain, my heart.
Early one brilliant morning last week, I saw, as I went down the driveway, a single, large, dark feather standing upright in the gravel, its quill wedged in pebbles. I got out of my car and picked it up. I know it’s a message. I’m waiting to learn what the message is.
When my husband first left, I cried in my car. I sobbed, I wailed, I screamed. I would go sixty miles an hour down the highway, keening.
Imagine if I’d been walking down the street. Someone would have felt the need to do something about this crazed woman, who sobbed till she nearly retched.
Even at home I wondered if the neighbors were worried about my sanity. Maybe they would call the cops when they heard me bashing my pillow again, yelling, “You asshole, you liar, you pig!”
But in my car I was safe, and anyone who saw my face contorted, streaming snot and tears, was driving by too fast to interfere.
A sensible, tan Volkswagen was what I went to buy with the five uncashed pension checks I inherited from two maiden aunts who died within days of each other. I drove away in a belching, vibrating, secondhand Morgan Plus-Four with two leather straps, two spare tires, and two six-volt batteries on a wooden plank behind the seat, sitting like jars of jam on a pantry shelf.
I averaged about a hundred miles between breakdowns. Nothing ever went wrong with the car’s vital organs; but with no springs to speak of, it shook itself — and me — into periodic collapse. When it was running, though, at dawn through the hills of Virginia, or on Sundays through the French Quarter of New Orleans, or in winter down Florida’s A1A past the scrub palmettos by the sea, I was deliriously happy.
I repaired it with whatever was at hand. Once, my friend Michael made a rope with our blue jeans and scaled down a New Jersey overpass to steal parts from a road-building machine. Another time I ran into a bale of hay which had toppled from a farmer’s truck, and spent an hour by the roadside plucking hay from the brakes with a Mark Cross manicure kit. Because it could never pass inspection, I pasted on the windshield an ornate chutney label written in something like Sanskrit and was waved through roadblocks for years.
Sadly, it was too conspicuous a car to take to a civil-rights march in 1964. The Morgan was destroyed by white supremacists’ knives and firebombs. I sold it for junk.
Now, some thirty years later, I still tell people about the Morgan, and how I almost bought a Volkswagen instead. I have a friend who’s in love with someone utterly impossible, a flamboyant hysteric, a five-star borderline who seduces and abandons him and brings him often to tears — but who also makes him write poetry late at night, play his tarnished flute again, and look searchingly into things like a kid with a magnifying glass. My friend is loved by another person, this one kind, loving, reliable, sensible — but who makes him yawn and want to watch TV. I can’t tell anybody what to do. I can tell him I’m glad I had that appalling Morgan, which took me to — and abandoned me in — places I never would have gone otherwise. My friend will tell me, with some justification, “Yes, but a car can’t break your heart.” I don’t say a word.
Bay St. Louis, Mississippi