My friend Greg spent his summer fixing up this old old convertible. Hours of garage time, oil blackening everything, ranks and files of little bolts, carburetors, dip sticks, lynch pins, rolling on the floor, spent working towards the day when he could take that ole girl, sleek red and topless, out for a spin. It was his sister’s birthday, he told me, and he decided to let her tag along for the car’s maiden voyage.
Everything was fine until they got up to 40 miles per hour. Then the hood started smoking, they smelled something funny. Greg pulled to the side of the road, and they got out as the car burst into flames.
They watched the car burn a big black rectangle into the pavement. Greg, bachelors in philosophy, studier of dead languages, said that it was a lesson for him about the temporary nature of material things and the dangers of holding them too dearly.
With this in mind, I approached the mechanic’s prediction that my car had only three more years to live. It’s just a thing, I thought philosophically.
Three years? I remember when my parents brought it home from the used car lot when I was in high school.
“Well, I wasn’t planning on buying a car,” said my dad, walking into the kitchen as he dropped his keys on the counter. What? Surely not.
I, like most other spoiled middle-American teenagers, wanted – needed – a car so badly. I was 17 after all, what was the hold up?
In the dim cold garage, smelling faintly of rust, garbage, and dog food, sat a gray ’99 luxury-version Camry in its ubiquitous underwhelming glory.
“The car is not yours,” my dad reminded me. “But I will let you drive it.”
That car was good to me. I drove it back and forth several times from home to college, 1,000 miles each way. Mitch and I took a road trip out to New York the summer before we got married and another one last spring break from Spokane to North Hollywood. We camped in the red woods and, in the morning, when we got on the 101, the ocean burst into view on our right for miles.
It was one of those things where its flaws and idiosyncrasies made me feel special because I knew what they were and how to maneuver them. For example, the spring on the gas tank flap was broken, and it was comforting to me to think that if the Camry got stolen, the thieves would only make it so far. When they ran out of gas and went to fill up, they wouldn’t know about the small metal rod I kept in my door pocket for wedging under the gas tank lever so I could go around and pry open the flap with my fingernails.
Or they would wreck themselves on an unsuspecting speed bump. My car’s suspension system has always been lousy. My mom says driving the Camry is like driving around in a hole. It rides super low, you can’t see over anybody, and the protocol for clearing a speed bump is to get all the passengers out, surmount it carefully, and then let everybody back in on the other side.
The other thing is that once you role the driver’s-side window down, it’s tough to get it back up again. So I just avoid that in general.
Cosmetic things went wrong, but I didn’t see why the Camry wouldn’t run forever. Mitch did not take this view.
For a long time I couldn’t figure him out. Every time he got in the car he was hearing a noise he didn’t like or he thought the pedals were sticking or he’d forget and roll the driver’s-side window down. He kept saying, “We need to get stuff fixed. The Camry’s in bad shape.” And he’d get me to buy it by saying, “I want to keep this car running for a long time.”
Finally, after he insisted we get the belts replaced, and, while they were at it, got the water pump replaced and the damn brand-new water pump, which replaced the old not-broken water pump – started leaking, I confronted him.
“Do you want this car to die?” I said nastily. “It’s like you are putting a negativity curse on it. The car was fine until you came along.”
“Of course I don’t want the car to die,” he said. “I want to get it fixed. I want it to last for a very long time.”
Well, I wasn’t buying it anymore. No, I saw right through him and his distrustful, anti-Toyotal tendencies. Prejudice – that’s what he was. Why else would he refuse to see that this was a beautifully running machine with an extensive service record and a long life ahead of it? I had never seen such automobile-directed malice in anyone before.
It took me a while to realize that I was expecting Mitch to have the same attitude as my childhood friend Lee, who until he died a little over a year ago, was my go-to guy for any car-related problems. His parents owned a Subaru and Toyota specific junk yard, and he regularly owned vehicles he made Frankenstein-style out of the cars that people dropped off. He helped me fix my battery, change my oil, I even called him to pick me up once, out of reflex, when I had run out of gas. Lee was one of those people whose extreme confidence irritated me in all circumstances except where my car was concerned. He believed that he could fix anything. All I had to do was bring him a problem and he would take it without hesitancy, without question.
I had become so used to this approach, to Lee’s attitude, that I took what Mitch said as an affront. I realized this as Mitch and I drove the Camry to the nearby Firestone to fix that broken pump.
We had fought in the driveway before leaving. Mitch’s dad had gotten home from work and was eager to help us out by driving to Firestone as well. He assured me that it was no problem, I could stay home, run on the treadmill, watch Star Trek, while they got this taken care of. But I was furious at myself for being such a negligent Camry parent. Things were going to change around here. I wasn’t going to let Lee and his memory down.
And then I cracked. I couldn’t give up on these seats where I had spilled coffee and crumbs. Stickers that my mom had progressively pulled off her coffee cups and stuck to the dashboard were still there years later. I thought about Lee wrenching the dead battery out from under the hood and helping me replace it with a new one, about him, Mitch, and me trying frantically to figure out how to disable the after-market alarm system. The car insisting, “Honk honk ho-nk honk! Honk honk ho-nk honk!”
I felt I had decided too late to take an active interest in this car’s life. And now it was having its parts pulled out for the second time in a year, one system after another needing to be replaced, and I no longer had my friend to help me fix it.
We pulled in to the Firestone parking lot and approached the man behind the service desk. Mitch’s dad was still wearing his suit and tie looking the quintessential business man, man of power with pieces to move. The three of us crowded the desk. I couldn’t keep tears out of my eyes and had to keep excusing myself to the drinking fountain or to browse through pamphlets on snow tires.
I’m sure this was a confusing amount of hoopla for three people to be making over a leaky water pump.
“Do you see a lot of Toyotas, Toyota Camrys?” I asked the Firestone guy, my voice cracking. He started to look concerned for me. “I’ve got a great guy, 30 years of experience, coming back from vacation tomorrow. He’s seen everything. I can put him on your car first thing in the morning if you’d like.”
“Thank you, that would be great if you could do that,” Mitch said solemnly.
We left him the key, and Mitch’s dad took us to Chipotle for dinner. I wept in the burrito line. We came home, I cried in my room.
I finally made myself feel better by imagining a call the next morning saying, “We’re finished with the Camry. It’s going to take a little time to recover, but it’s resting right now, and it’s going to be fine.”