I cracked the car’s bumper last week. I was pulling out of an unusual spot in our parking garage and hit a railing. The unappetizing crunch left a sizable smudge of red paint.
Two reactions emerged in such swift succession that it’s hard to say which came first. One was How could I? The other, Good timing.
After surveying the fissure I headed out on my errands, directing my energy toward the Good timing side of the coin. I’ve had this little red Neon for nearly 14 years, and I don’t expect it to last much longer. If I’m going to crack something, this is the right time and the right car.
Naturally, the How could I? line of thinking nudged Good timing out of the way by the time I made it to the grocery store. What had happened back there? Could I blame it in part on the unusual angle of the parking spot, or was it a shameful lapse of judgment on my part? Did this make me a Bad Driver? The last time I bumped into anything was in 2008, when I dented the passenger side while parallel parking next to a rock wall. I chocked that error up to stress and exhaustion; I’d just split up with my first husband.
Somewhere between the produce aisle and pasta, I journeyed back farther still in the Neon’s history, to the collision of 2004. It was a spring evening, and I was making a left turn I’d made hundreds of times before. To this day I swear that the oncoming SUV appeared out of nowhere, as if aliens had dropped it out of the sky to delay my dinner plans. I wasn’t talking on my cell phone or adjusting the stereo. As the airbag blossomed into my chest, I felt nothing but consternation. I was certain I’d had plenty of time to make the turn.
In the days that followed, I could tell that my family believed me as much as the cranky police officer who arrived on the scene and wrote me a ticket. It sounded like a pitiful lie even to my own ears, but it was the full truth of my recollection. Ten years later, I wager that the cognitive dissonance presented by the scenario was too great for my 23-year-old mind to handle. I was a straight-A person, and straight-A people don’t cause car accidents, ergo my mind overrode reality with its own clandestine version of events.
Either that or the alien thing. It’s hard to be sure.
On the way home from the grocery store last week, I wondered how people perceive my car as it chugs through the streets of Wichita. In 2009 I plastered the bumper with stickers, most of my own design. Some of the lettering was too small to begin with, and for the most part they’ve faded into indecipherable enigmas. Forget shiny and sleek; the Neon can’t even pull off clever and quirky any longer.
That’s when I saw it. A bumper that looked even worse than mine, attached to an ancient vehicle puttering at the stoplight ahead. I can’t tell you the make or model, because I hardly registered the car itself. What I noticed instead was the driver: a middle-aged black woman with her right hand swirling through the air and her head pulsing to unheard music.
It couldn’t have been more than five seconds that I sat behind her. The light changed. She drove straight; I turned right. Suddenly I noticed how blue the sky was. I rolled down my window (I can’t tell you how many kids have exclaimed “Cool!” when they’ve played with those old-fashioned cranks) and let the day in.
I thought about all the times I haven’t dented this car: near misses and close calls. I thought about the lucky collision of 2009, when a friend’s teenage neighbor backed into my car, leaving a dent that deposited a $1200 insurance settlement into my savings account. The boy’s mom wrote me the sweetest card to thank me for being gracious to her son. She even sent a gift package that included Trader Joe’s trail mix. (Sometimes in Wichita we really miss Trader Joe’s.)
For some a car is a status symbol. For some it’s a toy. I’ve got friends whose cars are pragmatic and friends whose cars make a statement. At this point, my car is a collection of dents and dings; each one with a story.
We are not our cars. We’re more than shiny exteriors; more than cracks and faded stickers. I don’t know about you, but I hope that people hardly glance at the vehicle I’m in. I hope what they see is a woman with her window down, pulsing her head to unheard music.