September 19, 2020. How many times I wrote those numbers this weekend, signing my name on snowy sheets of paper and crystalline e-documents. Buying a new car for the first time made me feel both like a grown-up and a child.
I remember how our car looked with the tree on its back, leaves everywhere, glass on the blacktop. It had been waiting there to take us home. All the other cars got driven away that afternoon, and then even we — after taking our tissue boxes and maps and DVDs — left it there to get picked over for parts. I wish I had said good-bye.
“Let’s see — you had a Honda Pilot…” the guy at the rental agency said a few days later as he looked at his computer. “The only thing we have left with 8 seats is a minivan. I’m sorry — with Labor Day coming up, we’re all booked. But I’ll try to upgrade you on Tuesday.”
When Virginia, 16, climbed into the rental minivan in a sequined see-through dress and string bikini, she said, “Why don’t we just get this one?”
“Yeah, there’s so much space!” Mark, 12, said climbing in and playing with the sliding doors.
“Whoa, these seats are so comfortable,” said Luke, 10, from the back, sitting with his arms spread over the seatbacks as if it were a sofa. “The seats in our old car were so hard!” he said, and I thought of all the road trips we’d taken in that hard-seated but cool car.
“Sometimes it’s better to look good than to feel good,” I used to say when someone asked why I was wearing 4-inch heels to go to dancing all night, both defending and acknowledging the ridiculousness of my choices. That was 25 years ago — have I come very far?
In the days that we waited for the insurance company, I decided black was my minivan gateway color. Black, the color of absence, the shade of night.
Lately I have had the urge to disappear. The same urge I had in high school and college that drew me to the chemical compounds in alcohol. I don’t let myself drink anymore, because I saw how I wanted to dissolve, one molecule at a time, detaching from myself until I had tunneled so far into the darkness that no one knew me, not even me.
I found a black 2016 Toyota Sienna on Cars.com at an auto mall in Chantilly. It had 85,000 miles on it, but the price was right and there was a DVD player for the kids.
The first time I saw a TV playing in a car, it was nighttime and a neighboring car on the highway slowly floated past us, even though we were all going 60 miles per hour. Inside there was a lighted slab full of moving pictures. It looked like candy being spun at a fair.
The next time we needed a car, we got one with a TV that opened from the ceiling. It made me feel like a child at Christmas to be with my family cradled in a car at night listening to Burl Ives telling the story of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer as we flew over the hills, knowing good things were to come.
On Thursday, I left four kids at home with their online writing workshops and U.S. Government classes to check out the used car. As I test-drove it up and down Pleasant Valley Road, I became aware of an odor that made my stomach queasy, and I thought about the CarFax report, the high mileage, and the Jersey City owner, picturing an Uber driver in Manhattan carting around toddlers wielding cups of milk, and bachelorette parties like the ones I was once a part of where someone always threw up in the back seat.
This is partly how we ended up inside the new car showroom of a Honda dealership. Red, white, and blue balloons hung in bunches from the ceiling over a handful of cars whose coats looked like freshly painted nail polish. Songs from the ‘80s — You Give Love a Bad Name, Glory of Love, and Every Rose Has its Thorn — played over the sound system hour after hour without a truce as we sat at faux wood desks, waiting for salesmen and credit checks and staring out at a cloudless sky over Lee Highway.
“This is my dream car,” Luke said, when we took the 2020 Odyssey for a spin around Cherrydale, and he discovered the headphones stowed in a fancy compartment and how the back row could recline like a first-class seat on a 747. Back at the dealership we let the kids have choco-milk from the coffee machine while we talked with salesmen about incentives and warranties and interest rates for this car from 2020, a year that has been so destructive, so full of chaos and pain.
I don’t know what this means except that it will be a souvenir, from the year of broken ties and broken promises, faces disappearing and re-constituting pixel by pixel. A year of disillusion and glimmering hope, the kind that shines through the cracks, the kind you don’t see when the day is bright and everyone is full.
A second cup of choco-milk spilled during a scuffle over the Boogie board, so I sent the kids outside, telling them not to roughhouse in the parking lot. After another hour of waiting for finance and service, I found the kids at the bottom of the stairs swaying so hard on plastic rocking chairs that they were almost tipping over. They ran up the stairs chasing and grabbing each other by the landscape roses and Diana got a thorn in her finger.
The longer we sat in that glass office, the more the numbers mounted, and when I stopped and looked up, I felt like I’d climbed too high on a rock face. In one of the pauses when my husband and I wondered if we should just walk away even though we had already spent almost 5 hours there, Diana, who was small enough to stand up tall inside the minivan, said in her prairie dog voice, “Let’s get the car.” We all laughed.
I thought buying a new car would be exciting, I thought I would feel happy. That would come days later when the car was touched up and ready to drive home. When Mark would play my favorite songs ‘kind-of softly’ as we drove out of Arlington, when Luke would tell me that the rear screen says ‘how long ’til we get there’ and the finish line flag was in sight, when the sun was setting and the world was beautiful and I pulled into the driveway without even scratching once our brand-new car.
But first I had to understand what little I knew. How can I tell the way things will turn out, how long this will last, if we’ve done the right thing? Sometimes you just have to pick up a pen, sign your name, and begin again.