The history of my life can be counted in cars.
In Boston, we had no car.
But then we moved and there was a series of nice and not-so-nice cars in my childhood that all get twisted, and crushed, and melted down in my memory.
And then came the cars of my early adolescence — the cars that took me to junior high and the first couple years of high school and fell, mostly, in the not-so-nice category.
You see, when I was in junior high my dad quit his job as a corporate attorney at a big firm in Atlanta to start a desktop publishing company called Interstate America. It went well for a while.
Until the recession hit and the business started to fail and a company from Japan bought him out. I don’t know how long my dad was out of work. Maybe six months. I only found this out later, because every morning he dressed for work, left the house at the normal time, and went to the McDonald’s up the street until we were all at school.
And then we moved to Greenville in a beat up, inherited Chevy Impala so he could take a job with the Wyche Law Firm. When I say we I mean my dad and me — our Atlanta house hadn’t sold yet, so my dad and I moved and stayed with friends while my mom and brothers and sisters stayed behind. (On the day I moved, the Atlanta Journal Constitution headline read: “Emily Heads to the Carolinas” and I felt glad they noticed.)
Every day my dad took me to school in the beat up Impala. One morning, he tapped the steering wheel impatiently, ran his hands over the cracked vinyl dashboard, glanced over at me, and looked back at the road.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said. He tapped a rhythm on the steering wheel. “I know. You’re way too cool to be seen in this car.” His tone of voice said he was joking, but his hands tensed on the steering wheel.
“I’m way too cool to care what kind of car you drive,” I said.
It wasn’t true. The same way it wasn’t true when I said I don’t like boys every time my dad said they were crazy for not beating down my door. The truth was I was excruciatingly nervous about whether or not anyone would ever ask me on a date. Ever in my life. And the truth was I was the furthest thing from cool. But I saw my dad smile when I said this and the words felt good, so I said them again.
“Way, way, way too cool.”
By that December, the world had righted. My mom and my brothers and sisters moved up from Atlanta and there was a new car in the driveway for Christmas. The dream of entrepreneurship and the death of the dream wiped away by a couple of months at an elite law firm.
And, by the next year, I was in my own cars. My first car was a white Toyota Camry that had been my dad’s before he gave it to me. White because my dad always bought white cars — they don’t show dirt and they don’t bake in the sun, he said.
The Camry got me through high school and half of college.
Then came my series of unfortunate cars.
There was the maroon Mercury Sable that a missionary family gave me before they went to the field. It had three-fourths of an expletive keyed into the passenger’s side door from when the missionaries had double-parked. Because nothing says Bob Jones University Senior like a car with FUC and half of a K scratched into the paint job. My dad tried to hide the near-expletive with a maroon marker, but somehow it only made it more obvious. The Sable got me through college.
Then there was a Smurf-blue minivan that my uncle and aunt gifted me during my in-between year, which I replaced with a champagne Honda Accord when I went off to grad school at Miami of Ohio. The Honda Accord caught fire and nearly blew up as I drove home after my first year.
I replaced the Accord with a light blue, 1990 Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight Royale that I bought off a friend’s recently-deceased grandfather for five hundred dollars. The car was thirteen years old but had only twenty-thousand miles on it. This is the car I had right after my dad finally got his Lyme disease diagnosis. The car I had when we were all trying to figure out what that meant.