The 1997 Toyota Corolla has never failed me. I believe in that car like I believe in breakfast. It has been faithful to me, enabling me to flee, find, and roam since my junior year of high school. It often pops up in my personal essays and short stories as an instrument of freedom. I wouldn’t say driving it is a sacrament, but through it I do experience a kind of grace that says you did not design me, build me, buy me nor pay for the gas that is inside of me, but I will go because you say “go” and I will stop because you say “stop” and I will heat you when you are cold and cool you when you are hot, bring you news when you are detached from the world and sing to you when you are sad. The word “love” means many things in the English language. I think it would accurately describe the appreciation I have for the Corolla.
The neighbors across the street love their cars, too. When my family moved to Michigan, we were quite impressed by the intimacy our neighbors share with their automobiles. They know everything about their cars’ inner workings and how to fix them when they fail. I, on the other hand, know nothing about what goes on inside the Corolla. I know how to put gas in it, which is more than I can say for most of my friends from Oregon, and I know how to pop open the hood—what the British call the “brassiere,” according to one of my middle school teachers. (I had to google “brassiere” in order to spell it properly. Lord have mercy.) Once the brassiere has been popped open, I know how to stare at its contents while looking completely lost and confused. I’m an English major.
It was this car that I drove to my orthodontist appointment yesterday. The lovely ortho people sent me a postcard last summer telling me that I really should come in just to make sure that my mouth hadn’t imploded or something since my last checkup. I didn’t go. But a month and a half ago, while in Seattle, one of my permanent retainers popped off. I figured I should have it looked at.
Earlier today I was walking from my survey of music literature class to the office building of my faculty advisor when I realized that I was the only student in that part of campus. But I was not alone. I was surrounded by figures shrouded in black from head to toe. It was the closest I’ve ever come to running into the mafia. It wasn’t the Italian mafia, Chinese, Swedish, or 3-6. It was a large group of crows—what has been eerily labeled a “murder.” All black, hateful stares, forced nonchalant demeanors, sharp memories, and when you get a group of them together you’re going to have a murder… mafia.
I’ve also heard that a group of lions is called a pride. When I hear “the pride of lions” I think that the lions must especially pleased with themselves for some reason. Or maybe one of the cubs is displaying great potential in training for the hunt, so she is regarded as “the pride of the lions.” If lion parents had bumpers, her parents would have “Proud parent of a gifted prowler” or something to the effect.
The only thing I really pride myself in is a personal record—a PR for you sports-minded people out there. I have not vomited since the Ravens won the Superbowl. That was, what, 2001? Nerves spit-ups, sure. Acid reflux, a little. But not a full blown PLUGHHHH. I bring this up whenever a friend mentions a bad case of food poisoning or the upward stomach flu. “My dad is the same way.” Just so they know.
When I first learned to drive I felt as if I had grown wings. I flew down the roads of rural and suburban Western Michigan like a gas powered Icarus, always approaching—but never reaching—freedom. The little Toyota Corolla has always felt safest on the more scenic routes. Take it to the highway and it starts to shudder. Sometimes it makes me wonder if my wings could just fly off while I’m driving, leaving me naked and embarrassed on the interstate.
I first experienced speed-freedom a couple of weeks into learning how to ride a bike. The first weeks I experienced more pavement than anything else, but once I became comfortable on the seat, I rode up and down the street in front of our home in Manchester, New Hampshire. When my parents were satisfied that I could pedal around safely enough, I biked around the block for the first time. “Around the block” really meant down the sidewalk, take a right, take another right and go until you reach the dead end—the house of my best friend. From there I could bike across his lawn into our back lawn, around our gardens and swingset, and then arrive back home. Even with my newfound freedom, home was always the final destination.
Walking down the hallway had never felt as victorious as it did on school picture day in second grade. Per usual, I was rockin the pinkish chipmunk cheeks and hair waxed into what the barber lady called the Macauley Culkin (back when that was a compliment). My mom had taken me to a thrift store across the street from my first violin teacher in downtown Manchester to search for suitable attire. I girded myself with the spoils of our hunt for that school picture—a tailored Italian khaki suit. Mrs. White said I looked like a little business man. I wasn’t exactly sure what a businessman was, but I figured they at least looked good.
The rest of my elementary school pictures didn’t quite live up to the standard I set in second grade. I peaked early. Around third or fourth grade—it depends on the person—many children lose their ability to be cute without any effort. Maybe this wasn’t your experience, but third grade was the year I first snatched the packet of school portraits from my teacher’s hand, glanced at them once, and slammed them on the desk with the little plastic window facing down. Besides perhaps one or two kids who always looked good (or felt so strongly that they always looked good that the rest of us believed them) most of the class did the same with their pictures. Some of the girls would let out a small sob and/or mutter something about retake day—an occurrence that became the first meaningful experience of redemption for many of us. The guys would either simply flip the pictures over like me or take them out, laugh, and show their friends. After seeing a few pictures from the latter group, most of us realized that we all looked a little ridiculous and felt better about ourselves. Trade with a friend, pass it around, laugh a little, stop laughing, grab the picture back, place it back on the desk face down until the bell rang. And, of course, sign up for retakes.