My first car was my second car, a white Volvo 240 wagon that mattered to me the way my actual first car, a tinny Subaru wagon with a troubling oil leak, never did. My dad bought me the Volvo when I was in grad school, but it wasn’t in the contract for him to buy me a car, and I was deeply grateful. I might have felt a little spoiled, getting this car in year two of relative financial self-reliance, but it was seven years old, and white with beige interior, and my fellow grad students referred to it as the white whale. I had no illusions about the car’s sex appeal.
The car’s steering wheel was the size of a garbage can lid, and the front end stuck out so far, I had to pull halfway into an intersection to get a good look at the traffic. Driving that car was like driving a truck, except without the added height. I loved the shape of it though, its kid’s drawing squareness. I drove that car between Tuscaloosa and Cincinnati where my family lived.
Pingponging between campus and a second job at Manna, a natural grocery store, that I took in order to keep the phone connected, I drove that car. I rushed out from class one day to find the left-rear bashed, a gut-shot courtesy of those pink button down students in their late-model Broncos and Cherokees who threw trash from their car windows and smashed every restroom mirror in every bar and restaurant in town. I drove that car with this painful besmirchment, too strapped to pay the deductible to get it fixed.
The car’s tape deck had been installed by the previous owner and so it stuck out of the dashboard and tipped to the right in an uncommitted way. At Christmas, with my hound Henry as copilot, R.E.M.’s Out of Time on repeat, I drove that car from Tuscaloosa to Tupelo to Memphis, followed the Mississippi up to St. Louis, and halfway across Missouri, got pulled over next to a billboard for cheap dentures going 74 in a 55 zone. I followed the cop, a woman, to her cruiser, watching her holster ride the crests and dips of her hips. “Is your dog okay staying in your car?” she asked. We turned together to see Henry’s dome head facing out from the Volvo’s passenger side. “He’s okay,” I said, and got in the front seat. She wrote the ticket and sent me on my way. By the next afternoon, we drove into Chadron, Nebraska, the town my boyfriend, James, had holed up in to work on his master’s thesis. Christmas day was unseasonably warm and sunny, and we drove that car to the Badlands where Henry barked warnings at the milling bison from the back seat.
By that spring break, James had joined me in Tuscaloosa, and with my friend Madeline along, we drove that car on day trips, to Columbus, Georgia in search of Carson McCullers landmarks, and to Oxford Mississippi, where we saw Faulkner’s plots written on the walls of his study. Listening to Throwing Muses and They Might Be Giants, The Replacements and Jonathan Richman, we drove that car five hours to New Orleans, bought sandwiches in the French Quarter and ate them in an above-ground graveyard in the Garden District. Then we headed back up the pine corridor to Tuscaloosa. Somewhere around Hattiesburg, I lost my mind. I was halfway through a semester of teaching and taking classes, studying for comprehensive exams, rushing from school to Manna and back, and fending off AA-fueled efforts at amendment from an ex. I made James pull the car over to the shoulder so I could eject from the way back a pineapple plugged with bourbon that he and Mad had thought was a good idea. The pineapple bourbon fumes had haunted us all the way to New Orleans and now that baby-sized abomination was in danger of making a round trip. I slammed the door, then stretched out with my nose pressed against the crack of the backseat, breathed deep the scents of dog and grub, and tried to calm the fuck down.
The following summer, we drove that car to Red Lodge, Montana, playing tapes of Camper Van Beethoven and old Bruce Springsteen, more R.E.M., XTC and Los Lobos. We planned to live in our tent and work in town, but it rained some every day in June and most of July. At night, we drove out to the forest and piled our clothes, boots and cooler, books, notebooks, and toothbrushes in the front seats, put the seats down and slept in that car while our tent stood soggy in the forest, sagging with disuse. I sat in that car reading after work, waiting for James. I read Camilla by Fanny Burney and The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker. I read Joan Didion’s Democracy, and then I read it again, next to a field of fuzzy, lowing cows. We had a lot of sex in that car. One night, stretched out in the car, the seat hinge pressing into my back in a familiar way, I heard a mountain lion scream the way it sounds in movies right before a pounce. At the end of the summer, we drove that car back to Tuscaloosa.
I drove that car to New Orleans for New Year’s Eve with James, and drove it back to Tuscaloosa. About six weeks later, we drove that car to buy a pregnancy test, and afterwards, stunned, to a bakery where we ate éclairs and discussed the options. We moved our things to New Orleans, and James lived there with Henry while I drove that car back and forth to Tuscaloosa for the rest of the semester, fighting drowsiness with books on tape and rest-stop naps since I couldn’t have caffeine.
That car died. We went to a mechanic someone we talked to had been to before. He rewired something. I drove back to Tuscaloosa. The next morning, the battery was dead. I got a jump. I drove back to New Orleans. The next morning, the battery was dead. I found another mechanic. He wore a silver lightning bolt earring and his office was coated in oily dust. The problem was the wiring job the first guy did—it was putting a draw on the battery, even when the car was turned off. Now, we popped the hood and pulled out a fuse on the driver’s side every time we stopped the car for more than a few minutes.
During thunderstorms, I drove that car up onto the wide sidewalk in front of our building and watched anxiously as the water leapt the gutters and inched up my hubcaps.
I drove that car to the doctor, where I was the only white patient. I drove that car to Loyola, where I taught English.
Right on schedule, we drove that car to the hospital, and a few days later, drove it home with our baby in her regulation car seat.
I drove that car around New Orleans with our baby in the back listening to Liz Phair and Belly and Uncle Tupelo. We drove to the beach in Pensacola, camping in Mississippi. We drove to Cincinnati and Omaha. Under the car seat, a bunkers worth of cheerios and apple slices.
The hydraulics wore out on the trunk struts, and we had to use a broom handle to prop open the trunk door.
Eventually, we crammed every spare inch of that car with our belongings and drove it to Seattle.
We replaced the muffler, but there was a missing part, something they didn’t have at Midas. Some sort of Y support we would have to get from the Volvo dealership. I didn’t go to the Volvo dealership. I was busy. Also, it would probably cost $700.
I drove that car when it was my turn for the work carpool, from Seattle to Bothell along Lake City Way. One morning, the car was rumbling; incrementally, we spoke louder, to be heard over the noise. On the way home that night, there was a sudden release. I pressed the gas and the car sounded like a hot rod. No muffling anymore. People stared as they passed. We crept home. At Midas, they put the two parts back together, no charge, and reminded me about the special Volvo bracket. The next time, James slid under the car and wrestled the muffler back together.
We drove that car to the hospital to have another baby.
A couple years later, we drove that car to a park on Queen Anne where we got married.
At the end, there was a diagnosis. The wiring was terminal, a fire hazard. We should not have been driving that car anymore. We should not have children in that car. It wasn’t even smoking. There were no funny burning smells.
I traded in that car on a Saturn. I thought we’d have a few minutes at the end, where I could sit in the driver’s seat and say goodbye. It was whisked away, gone by the time I finished the paper work.