I bought my first new car shortly after my 40th birthday, which was a reckless move on my part since I was again a college student. I had visited the dealership on my husband's whim (he liked to window-shop) and the car, my car, drew me into its spell. Fortunately, my husband had a good business year and he sensed my desire to be un-frugal for once. He knew about my hand-me-down childhood. He owned an older BMW M5 and that influenced my M3 choice. I wanted vehicle equality, but chose power steering, proud of my lack of stick. This elegant black vehicle was nothing like my past junkers.
My old cars used to carry spatters of bird poop, mud and dust for months, but I washed my new car weekly. I used my latte and snack money to have it done professionally, complete with a wax, so that the car actually gleamed. What a sense of Zen it gave me to peer out into a parking lot while it sunbathed.
This pride of appearance extended on to me. I deserved, indeed, required, to find pride in my own right. Why hadn't I realized this before? My car made me think of myself as an extraordinary lady, rather than an ordinary nobody. I pressed wrinkled jeans and shirts, and polished my shoes before I went out.
My new college involved a one-hour California commute of stressful honking horns, unmoving lines and aggressive cars veering off asphalt to the shoulder in order to worm ahead. My habit was to travel in the slow lane, seldom passing, and to never drive more than 5 mph over the speed limit. However, my new car did not tolerate passivity. I heeded its need and took new risks, feeling a buried instinct emerge. I moved out of the slow lane. When obstacles showed ahead, I zipped into the fast lane with a racer's sense of strategy. Once or twice, I heard a "beep" like a snooze alarm on an alarm clock. I wondered what it might be, but then the road game would again draw my attention. Sometimes, I even joined the cars that ran along the shoulder.
This boldness showed up in my school life, too. I bypassed my middle-row desk one morning and took a seat front and center. Instead of my normal ducking below radar when an instructor asked a question, I challenged myself to raise my hand. Why not, as half the time I might be correct, which gave me 50 percent more confidence than my silence.
Through my car, I got a kick of horsepower, as though, with some effort, I could be better than average. Some classes, such as biology, were difficult for me. Instead of accepting a "C," I asked other students if they wanted to work together, and I organized a study group, a move that landed me at the top of my class.
I volunteered for a charity event instead of simply thinking I ought to do something like that one day. I joined the staff of the school's literary journal, became treasurer, and eventually the editor. I took on extra-credit projects in each of my courses because I realized that any enthusiasm on my part transferred not only into my grades, but to my overall success. I felt sharp and focused, as if my mind was finally getting its proper laps around the track.
Driving home from school was a new high point to my day, but the "beep" appeared more often. I finally mentioned it to my husband while we ate dinner. "It's really odd," I said. "I don't see any warning lights. It doesn't do it regularly, but enough that it has me concerned."
My husband leaned back in his chair and gave me an admiring look. "Wow."
"When I read in your owner's manual about the speed caution tone last year, I set it at 100." He took a bite of his broccoli and chewed. "Maybe the next time we go to San Francisco, you can drive."
He hated to be a passenger in anyone's vehicle. And thus we had reached an epiphany in our relationship.
I graduated with top honors and set my sights on a master's degree. But the decision meant additional school debt. My husband's business was slowing down, and I knew I'd have to relinquish the car.
Before I sold it, I took it on a trip, just the two of us. I packed books-on-tape from Toni Morrison and others, and we zoomed north, stopping overnight in Ashland, Ore., where I saw Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. We meandered along the Oregon coastline and continued on to Seattle, where I attended an intensive writing retreat, my reward for a college degree. Two weeks later, we returned home, and I felt ready.
I was forlorn as we parted, but the excitement in the young woman's eyes when she claimed ownership of my sleek friend made it easier. What borders they might cross together.
Katherine Heimann Brown teaches English and creative writing at College of the Redwoods in Northern California.