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Published Oct. 9, 2005

There were no parking places.

I had circled the lot for more than five minutes: No spots in sight. The screenwriting class I was teaching at Florida State was about to begin. If nothing turned up in the next 60 seconds I would have to park down the hill and hike a mile back up in the heat. I'd arrive late for class, perspiration pouring off me.

A small sedan rolled into the lot. It started to circle, nice and slow, like a shark. The driver's eyes raked the rows right and left. A religion professor. He waved. I waved back.

He drove out of the lot.

I was about to leave, too, when a red car pulled out of a spot up ahead. Hallelujah! I shouted and drove toward the space.

Then I saw it: a white mini-van rounding the corner at the opposite end of the lot, a sleeker van than my own, one of those new plastic models that would look more at home on the monorail tracks at Disney.

The parking space was halfway between us.

Oh, no way, I thought. I've waited too long. I stepped on the gas and beat the other van by a length. I pulled into the space and turned off the engine, a little amazed at myself, a little ashamed _ I'd never done anything like this before _ but I pushed the feeling aside and adjusted the rear view mirror to put on some lipstick.

The white van had stopped right behind me. The driver was a woman about my own age. She was staring at me.

Oh, now what? I thought. Was she going to kill me? Or worse, key scratch my car, a new Mazda van, the first new car I'd had in a decade?

I decided to stall. My students would just have to wait. If I stalled long enough, she'd give up and go on.

I feigned nonchalance and put on some lipstick. I brushed my hair. I gathered my books. I brushed my hair one more time. I pulled out a small pump bottle of hair spray I keep in my purse. I sprayed my hair. I touched up my lipstick.

She was still sitting there.

There was no way around it: I would have to walk past her to get to my class. I steeled myself and got out of the car.

"That was so rude,"she shouted.

I mustered all the calm that I could. "Look," I said, "I was waiting for more than five minutes."

"I was waiting for 20!" she shrieked and pointed toward the lot entrance. "I was parked over there, at the end of that row. The driver said I could have that space when he left."

Oh, right, I thought. Calling her bluff, I held up my keys. "Would you like the space? I'll move my car if you want."

"No, that's all right," she snorted. She drove on to the spot where she said she'd been waiting.

"Wimp," I thought to myself. I'd offered the space. She'd backed down. Well, then, so be it. I walked on to class.

Halfway there, my cockiness faded. What if she'd been telling the truth? What if she had been waiting that long? If so, I was no better than those women in Fried Green Tomatoes.

I began to feel guilty. The feeling surprised me. A guilty conscience, I thought, was a thing of the past, something my parents invoked to keep me in line. Quaint, you know, like Jimminy Cricket.

My students were waiting, a bright rowdy bunch.

"You're late," they razzed me. I told them why, confessed what I'd done, and asked whether I should feel guilty for taking the space.

"Nah," they said, "she's a wimp." I wasn't so sure.

When I returned to my car, there wasn't a key scratch. That made me feel worse.

A week later, I returned to Tallahassee to teach my screenwriting class. Anne, my daughter, came along for an orthodontist appointment. She'd heard the story about the parking space in the faculty lot. I'd titled it Car Wars.

We drove into the lot and there, right before us, sat the white van. The engine was off. The windows were down. The woman was reading a book, waiting for the next space to open.

So, she'd been telling the truth.

"That's her," I whispered to Anne. "That's the woman. I have to say something to her."

Fourteen years old, Anne looked horrified. Bad enough to be seen with her mother, but the thought of a scene made her pale.

"No, Mom, please don't." She slumped down in her seat.

I pulled up beside the white van. The woman glanced up from her book, did a small double take, then went pale herself. She had no idea what I was going to do.

I mashed the button and lowered my window. She swallowed. I let her sweat for a moment, then I shot her a nice friendly smile.

"Look," I said, "I'm sorry about what happened last week. I shouldn't have taken that space."

"No, I am," she said, exhaling relief. "I shouldn't have shouted at you. I was in a terrible mood. I've felt awful about it all week."

We both laughed. Anne sat staring at us.

I told the woman she could have the next space, then I drove out of the lot and parked down the hill.

Claudia Johnson, recipient of the first PEN/Newman's Own First Amendment Award, lives in Live Oak and teaches at the film school at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Private Lives is edited by Mary Jane Park.

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