Determination, Things I Can

89. Things I Can Seal: The Deal


The car I drive is the first I bought and the third I’ve owned. In 2011 when it seemed to breathe its last, I chose to keep it on the road. Here is that story. It is pushing 16 years now and finally failed its emissions test, revealing fatal injuries deep in the machine.

The registration expires at the end of the month. As the clock ticks down, the stress ticks up.

Maybe decisions like this are simpler for others. Or less fraught. Or — though it defies imagination — more fun? Here at Chez Smirk, the car quest has unearthed a staggering load of emotional chaos.

It’s just a car! Chill out, girl.

Except this:

  • A skinflint’s car outlives addresses, job titles, and even marriages. I am heir to a great family legacy of beater love. What I buy now needs to fit the next 10 years at least (insha’Allah).
  • The earth is dying. In this small corner of it, I do what I can to consider and conserve resources. The choice of which vehicle is as critical as how the vehicle is used. If a car is indeed necessary, then small is good, hybrid better, and plug-in best.
  • Plug-ins only work if you live somewhere besides a condo complex.
  • Hybrids are expensive unless they are several years old, and everyone selling a several-years-old hybrid has already put 180,000 miles on it. The new ones are getting cheaper but economies of scale have yet to reward my patience.
  • I am a single mom living on an almost-enough university administrator income in one of the higher priced areas of the country.
  • Interest steals from my son’s college fund so I only pay cash.
  • A little bigger for traveling and growing, or a little smaller for fuel efficiency and economy?
  • Type in “Honda” on Craigslist and you’ll get 300 cars from today alone within 20 miles of my address.
  • What the hell does a person look for in a used car?

All of this (and more) all at once (and repeatedly) every time I turn my attention towards this inevitable purchase. I also mortifies me to notice the ripples of self pity lapping at my ankles. The whole experience is quite lonely, and I still (ugh) ache for someone to rescue me.

Meanwhile, help is all around. But a girl’s got to know what to ask for and then work up the courage to ask. It’s easier to resort to excuses, which most often manifest as a state of overwhelmed agitation: Craigslist harbors just as many crooks as a used car lot, and my mechanic and my bank are open almost exclusively during the hours I need to be at work, and work is a deafening, mewling menagerie of stresses right now, and and and.

I try the logical self-talk I would give any girlfriend attempting this task, because from the outside, what could be simpler? “It’s just buying a car, people do it all the time.” Yet this approach makes me feel even more incompetent and out of my depth.

It’s easier to stick with what I know I can handle. Thumb through seller ads and haphazardly send brief emails of inquiry. After the occasional test drive and glance at a labyrinthine engine, say, “Let’s figure out a time I can take this in to get looked at.” Then add another line to the maybe-but-unlikely-to-do list, and eventually delete the seller’s info.

This is avoidance at its best. The illusion of progress accompanies my march across the calendar while I sing myself strangely comforting lullabies of defeat. I don’t know I can’t This is too much I’ll screw up What am I doing I can’t I can’t.

Doubt is an addiction with its own cunning hooks. It keeps me fixed and frightened and small and safe.

Except this:

I can’t is off the table.

This experience is baffling and difficult, sure. Learning most anything important is. But there really is only one choice.

I can.

I can study YouTube videos on how to inspect a used car. I can ask my parents for a no-interest loan. I can compare prices and skim reviews. I can assess the gleaming backsides in parking lots and traffic jams, and I can begin to build a private transport taxonomy. I can pepper my mechanic with questions, and carry an oil rag in my purse, and duck out for an hour in the middle of the day to go test drive a car.

I can inch my way to confidence with small — almost immeasurably tiny — steps.

And then it’s today and here, and another equivocal Craigslist inquiry leads to another sort-of plan for a test drive.

On a Saturday afternoon with banks and mechanics all closing in two hours? With my dad en route to Tucson, my mom in Scotland, my Mister incommunicado, and my boy in the back seat?

This is absurd. I can’t do this.

So I do it.

We shoot across town to check out a Corolla with only 49K miles on it. As if I’m outside my own skin, I watch myself stride up the walk. I marvel at the command this gritty mama takes. It’s like the time she removed the chutney jar from the ineffectual hands of the man at the party and twisted it open on the first turn.

The two middle-aged guys selling the car stand and shuffle at the curb, trying to catch up to her questions. She pops the hood, checks the threads on the oil cap then the treads on the tires. She runs her fingers along the seals in the trunk. She starts it cold and listen for pings, blasts the AC, make two hard turns and slams on the brakes.

All these weeks of dawdling and ooching along, she’s been picking up skills.

And now I step back inside that skin and press the gas.

I talk the guy and his brother into going with Bug and me — yes today, now — to the mechanic. I spin the mechanic’s emphatic “no time” into “we can squeeze it in.” Bug and I hop back in my car. With our bellies rumbling and gas light blinking, we slog through jammed Beltway traffic to my online bank’s sole financial center, arriving minutes before its 3pm closing. In the lobby, I get the skinny from the mechanic by phone (“This car is actually in great shape”). While the bank rep makes cocoa for Bug, I call up the seller and talk him down a few hundred bucks.

At 3:05pm, my phone pings. The VIN comes through. They lock the bank doors. I sign for the cashier’s check.

On Monday morning I’ll be at the DMV trading it for a title and a new set of keys.

It staggers me to know this single mama is managing this all on her own.

It steadies me to notice the many hands lifting me towards this version of myself.

Image: A Nine Pound Hammer


Children, Happy Days, Parenting, Purpose

Happy 100 Days: 39

Being cross for a week does not make a lady enjoyable company. Every time my son goes away, my fretful nature hijacks the controls and takes me for a joy-ride (or a doomride, as it were). Solitude leaves me with too much time on my hands. The long-awaited freedom to “get some work done” takes me on a detour where thoughts spin out at 95mph and the engine burns into the red zone before sputtering out.

It is these sorts of weeks that have me deciding it is time to pursue a PhD or get a second job, start dating or never date again, expand my social circle or remove my broken self from the friendships I am surely already screwing up. Without the ritual of waking to his sleepy voice, without the practical choices the day sets before us (Waffles or pancakes, Buddy? Should we ride the metro to DC or go cut a Christmas tree?) I notice long-ignored pings in the engine and go wrestling the whole beast up onto the hydraulic lift.

What good does it serve, plunging my hands up in there? Still, who can resist? I poke into every dark corner seeking the missing piece and come out choking on grease.

Then he returns.

Every time my son comes home, I tuck my arms around him to sing him down to sleep. Everything slides back to ground level. The engine chugs to life.

It is a wonder how quickly I forget that Bug’s absence is the trigger for all my wrongness. It is a blessing how easily his presence restores me.


Beater Love, Part II

Part I, wherein the son and father makes his appearance.


It was a 1979 Honda Civic, the silver weathered down to a dull, bruised gray. It had a hatchback and faded fabric seats the color of old theater curtains. In the summer months, you could catch a whiff of Oklahoma road dust and old man sweat. The wheezing thing had belonged to my grandfather, my father, my sister, and finally, me.

It amazed me to crawl into the tiny bucket seat and feel the weight of my old man’s old man still there. He had been a giant, a gnarled oak, all red dirt prairie and World War II battlefield scars. Why such a fellow would have chosen a tiny Japanese car made out of tin foil and pipe cleaners is beyond me. When so many of his fellow grizzlies were driving Ford pickups, why would he have squeezed his bulk into a motorized foot locker?

Unless, of course, that was the point.

The hillbillies who sat around his restaurant pontificating to maddening pointlessness may have paid his bills, but that didn’t earn them his respect. He made a living for his family in that two-bit town despite what they all thought of his no-account daddy. For as long as I can recall, my grandfather kept a soggy, wooden toothpick forever jammed into the corner of his mouth. Maybe it helped him hold his tongue in the company of his neighbors. The car let him thumb his nose instead.

None of this mattered to me when I was little. I just remember his lap. John Deere, semi truck, VW bus, and who knows what all else – all my earliest driving experiences found me perched on the massive trunks of my grandfather’s legs. A muscled arm sheathed in hog bristles and tree bark slung casually around my belly kept me upright. The effortlessness of his might was both a marvel and a source of great comfort. Even as a wisp of a thing, I could grip the wheel of whatever beast growled its restrained power at me, and I could surrender to the thrill of driving. As ever, the pointed end of a toothpick hovered near the back of my dopey, bobbing head.  Every time I drove with him, I came out unscathed. Granddaddy never seemed to be surprised by this.

When the Honda made its way down to me, it came complete with the busted seat springs and an ancient cylinder of Grandaddy’s toothpicks still in the glove box. The problem was, the old fella kicked the bucket before he had a chance to teach me how to drive stick.

In July of my 16th year, I finished driver’s ed. My instructor came away with a heart condition and no desire to see me in the remedial lessons I doubtless required. He gave me the nod, and I hounded my mother to ferry me to the DMV. She had to take the morning off work to get me there. Twice. When I finally passed, my mom whisked me back home just ahead of the perpetual cloud of exasperation that follows working mothers everywhere. She sped off and left me standing in the driveway, keys in hand, staring at the little gray package of manually-operated freedom waiting just out of reach.

Damn. Summer day. Nothing but wide-open streets, a full tank of gas and. . . ?

Get to it, girl. A car wasn’t the only thing your granddaddy left you.

I marched up the block and knocked on a neighbor’s door. Glory be! Marco was home. So what if he was three years older? And already a college man? And couldn’t care less about a dingbat teenager from his old neighborhood? Marco’s mama had raised all three of her big, Italian boys to be courteous, and I was hungry enough to take full advantage of his mandatory chivalry. He sighed and followed me back down the block.

Whiplash, teary hysterics, a fried clutch, and several dozen unrepeatable four-letter words later, I jolted and screeched up to Marco’s curb and deposited him home. He went tumbling out the door before I had even come to a complete stop. “It’s just a see-saw,” he called to me from the safe remove of the sidewalk. “Remember, easy does it. You’ll be fine.” Neither his forced smile nor his hoarse voice echoed the confidence of his words.

It was okay. I didn’t care if I had to stall and jerk along the highways for next hundred years. I settled myself into the easy grip of the caved-in seat and took the wheel. I worked the pedals and got the thing moving. In the glove box, Grandaddy’s toothpicks rolled right along with me.