When I'm driving around Asheville, I find that I'm thinking about my friends, family, acquaintances, former coworkers, even old boyfriends. Anytime I see a car in the color, make, and model of that owned by someone I used to know, or a such a car that was once owned by someone I still know, it's like I'm seeing that person. The other day I saw a dark blue Mazda driving up Hazel Mill Road and I thought, "there goes Maria" - never mind the fact that (a) Maria doesn't live in Asheville and (b) Maria doesn't drive that car anymore. It's funny how there are certain cars that have come to symbolize certain people - and that symbol often outlasts the actual ownership of the car. It makes no sense to think that someone I used to work with at the law office or the ex-boyfriend I broke up with over 9 years ago or the neighbor I lived next to in Ohio is driving around Asheville. Somewhere in my brain, though, car ownership gets frozen in time along with all those other memories rattling around up there, and I find myself waving at strangers because I think I know their cars.
I was wondering the other day if this is something that only I do, or if this is just part of the human condition - at least in the industrialized world. In Tibet, do 30-something women think of their teenage ex-boyfriends when they see a guy on a black horse with a white blaze? Perhaps. Or, maybe this is just another oddity of mine - one of those unusable skills like being able to remember the plotlines, stars, and titles of movies for which I have only seen the trailer. I was wondering this the same day I thought I saw my friend Maria driving her old blue car. I was on my way to pick up Dora from school. I'd been sick all week, finally feeling up to a trip to the gym, where we were planning to meet our friends Aurelie and Clara. I tried to entice Dora about the trip to the gym by mentioning that Clara would be there to play. As we drove back into the setting sun on Patton Avenue, we settled into line behind a red pick-up truck. "Clara truck!" yelled Dora. It took me a minute to decipher what she was saying, and realized the was pointing to the truck in front of us. Though it wasn't actually Aurelie and Clara, it was a red truck, the same color and almost the same size as the truck they drive. I knew then - if nothing else, the oddity of mine was at least hereditary.
I am now contemplating getting a new car. The car I'm driving now is about to pass a mileage benchmark that signals an expensive but necessary preventive maintenance repair. I have to decide if we want to make that investment or move on, and it's a much more complicated decision that you might think. For one thing, I do like this car, and I get to run it on biodiesel which is really important to me philosophically. It has some things I don't like - it's automatic, for one thing - but it also has a sweet sunroof and a turbo that really kicks on the highway.
The other thing this car has that complicates the prospect of getting rid of it is memory. I have always attached sentimental value to vehicles. Even as a kid, I remember feeling sad about cars "dying" - like my parent's mustard yellow Volvo station-wagon, in whose un-airconditioned backseat I rode on countless trips to the Outer Banks. That car would keep running after my dad turned off the ignition and took the key out. What a great car.
My first car was also mustard-yellow - a VW Dasher - a tank of a car that had power nothing. When it died on my last trip back from school in Iowa, I was truly heartbroken. I cried as we drove away from it at a Volkswagen dealership in Indiana, comforted only a little by the fact that the replacement car, a used Honda Accord, had been purchased from someone who also owned a Dasher. I had seller's remorse when we traded in my maroon Golf for the silver one I now drive - we had fallen in love in that car, driven it home from our wedding, taken it on our honeymoon. It was the last car my mother and I had ridden in together. It was time to let it go, but it broke my heart anyway.
The silver Golf I drive now carries within it the biggest memories of all. It was our first big purchase in Asheville, and we drove it around together carefree and in love, driving out to Bent Creek with our bikes on the roof rack. We drove it around Asheville looking for a home to buy, a tiny flashing light riding around in my belly with us. Brian drove me to the hospital in that car, our doula behind us snapping pictures, me breathing through the pain and cursing the bumps. Why oh why, I wondered, was my usual speedy husband driving so, so SLOW? I was in labor for God's sake! A few days later, shocked by the August heat after days of frigid air conditioning, three of us walked out to that car to drive home. It was no longer a car for a couple of people in love - it was a car for a family. Brian drove us home the same way we went to the hospital, me turning anxiously back every few seconds, hoping the bumps weren't causing injury or worse to my precious perfect newborn. We mused over our new baby's name as we drove up the hill from Amboy to Haywood. Will she get teased with that name? Will the kids say, "Isadora is a ____"? In that car, I became a completely different person. In that car, I became a mother - anxious and scared and exhilarated and in love and, eventually, a new, more scattered but also deeper version of myself. The rear-view mirror of that car was transformed along with me - becoming a window into Dora's world, from helpless infant to babbling baby to willful, talkative toddler.
It's not possible that a single car can contain all of these memories - it's not rational to think that something inanimate like a car can somehow be a symbol of something larger. But there is a part of me that fears that letting go of the venue in which these things happened is letting go of those events in a way, too. Dora's getting bigger every second - she's in the other room sleeping right now, growing and changing while the crickets hum in the dark. This might be her last night in the crib. She's thrown herself out of it twice now, and needs to transition to a toddler bed. If I let the car go, too, isn't it just one more step away from her babyhood, one more step away from being able to hold her close, breathe her in, be everything she needs just as myself?
I don't know what to do about this yet, but I do know this: I have never before taken a lot of time when choosing a car. There's always been some emergency, or some sense of urgency, in the decision before, and I've always felt a little uneasy when making the purchase. I've always ended up happy - crying when you sell a car is probably a sign that you liked it - but I've never started out feeling like I was 100% sure about the new car. Knowing me, I'm not going to feel 100% sure the next time I buy a car, whether its now or later. But this time, I'm giving my internal high-pressure used-car salesperson a vacation. I'm comparing fuel economies, I'm weighing options, I'm making my list of deal-breakers and checking it twice. This is a big decision I'm making - it's not just my car I'm choosing, it's my environmental impact, my statement to the world, my instantaneous identity to anyone who sees me driving it. It's the place where new memories will be made - new versions of myself created, new songs sung, new sights seen. In all likelihood, it's going to be the place where three become four. It's no small decision, so I'm taking my time, and hopefully, I'll do it right.
Zoom zoom, my friends. Zoom zoom.