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  • Lauren Sauer

An Ode to My Many Cars

In a previous post, I mentioned that Summer Roberts, my new Kia Optima, is the fourth car I've driven. The more I think about it the more I realize how much of my heart once belonged to the quirks and emissions failures of the once-noble steeds who came before her. A mere sentence or two in a blog post barely does them justice; after all, what's a better metaphor for traveling through life and reaching certain milestones than an automobile? Plus, it's the day after Valentine's Day and I'm very single, so I missed out on yesterday's declarations of love. And thus...


1) The Albus Dumbledore Years (February 2012-October 2012)

I didn't realize until I wrote out those dates how short our love affair was. It seemed like Albus and I were an item for much longer than eight months, but that's young love for you. Albus was a 2001 Nissan Sentra that my mom originally bought for herself. I vaguely recall going with her to the car dealership as a six-year-old, wondering why the process took so long. She got a few good years out of Albus until she eventually graduated to an SUV that we could drive to the beach on vacation. Albus then was passed on my stepdad, and then was passed on to our driveway, where he sat collecting dust as I patiently awaited my driver's license.


Most people have the experience where their first car is the car they learn to drive with, but I mostly mastered the NoVA roads behind the wheel of mom's aforementioned SUV. Once I finally got my license (by "finally" I mean got a temporary paper license within days of Virginia law allowing me to do so, because by that point I was so over asking for rides) I was under the impression that the keys to Albus--and my freedom--would be forked over that evening. Not quite. Though my driving instructor deemed me suitable for the open road, my parents did not. No matter how much I whined and begged, it took another two months before I got the keys, which honestly were probably buried in the back of the junk drawer or something. It was then that I found out Albus hadn't really been cleaned since he was last used by my admittedly quite cluttered stepfather, but it didn't matter because he was mine. I proudly careened the half-mile to my high school, the floorboards carpeted with fast food wrappers, and found a parking spot on the side street all the juniors were forced to fight over.


That day in school I kept checking the pocket of my backpack to confirm I still had my keys and anxiously awaited driving myself home. Since September, I was bumming rides from a friend of mine who was not so subtle about wanting me out of her passenger seat, so she was equally excited as we walked to our respective cars that afternoon and parted ways. I buckled my seatbelt, stuck the key in the ignition, and...nothing. The engine didn't even begin to turn over. I tried a few more times, thinking maybe I was just doing something wrong, and on the 7th try Albus would miraculously spring to life, but no such luck. My friend and once-concierge didn't even try to hide her annoyance when I ran up to her car window and knocked before she took off asking for just one more ride home. Apparently if a car lays dormant for years the battery will die pretty much immediately; who knew?


I should mention that Albus got his name obviously from my love for Harry Potter, but also because he was silver (a la Dumbledore's beard) and dented in many places (like his nose). Some of the dents were from before my time, but I definitely contributed my fair share of unsightly dings and scrapes. I even managed to shatter both of the sideview mirrors, which is an impressive feat for even a bad driver. The right mirror broke when I was in a rush to school and scraped up against the side of my stepdad's truck in the driveway. I thought if I just kept reversing while the mirror was rubbing up against the length of his car I could still be in the clear, but (surprise!) managed to litter the ground with shards of glass and left him with a lovely racing stripe. The left mirror I fractured in the driveway of McDonald's; I pulled up too close to the second window while retrieving two chocolate milkshakes for myself and my friend Ashley one day after school. Why my parents didn't get me a brand new car as a teen is beyond me; I had amazing spatial awareness and logical reasoning skills. I also once left raw chicken under the front seat after picking up groceries and didn't realize until a hot day later that week, when I had to drive with all my windows down and a can of air freshener by my side. That's not related but just another time I was with a license and without a clue.


Albus's last hoorah was a night in August. One of those summer nights when you're newly seventeen and your friends want to drive around and listen to the radio with the windows down. In Virginia you're only allowed to drive with one other non-relative in the car as a minor, which the police officer kindly reminded me as she pulled me over on the side of a busy road. I saw the flashing lights behind me as Demi Lovato's "Give Your Heart a Break" (a very popular song at the time) was blaring on the radio, which is ironic because my heart started jackhammer beating in my throat. She was pulling me over for expired registration, which she caught on her LiDAR* gun; me breaking the "too many passengers" rule was just adding insult to injury. One of Albus's other cute quirks was the fact that the glovebox had about a 50/50 chance of staying intact when opened, so of course when she asked for my information it fell to the ground with a thud. I also want to take a moment here to tell all parents and driver's ed instructors to burn it into the memory of your young drivers what a registration looks like, because I handed the officer a fat stack of paperwork. "I don't know what a registration is," I said with an embarrassed smile and tears in my eyes, "so here's everything I have that looks...official?"


Once I got home I was bawling enough to escape much of a lecture about driving with too many people and being more careful behind the wheel. Turns out the registration was in fact expired, and upon taking it to get inspected (a crucial step in re-registering), every body shop and gas station in the area wouldn't give poor ol' Albus a pass. After a few months of replacing parts and trying to make it work, my parents sold the car to a waitress who lived in a nearby county that didn't require passing an emissions test to be registered on the roads. I would imagine she managed to barely squeeze any more life out of Albus (because I mean come on, he had glass shards for sideview mirrors), and I hope when she laid him to rest she did so in a respectful way that honored his long life and didn't just drop him off the side of the astronomy tower. That joke will only make sense if you have a working knowledge of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince; sorry.


2) The Ezra Fitz Years: October 2012-March 2016

When I started driving this car, Pretty Little Liars was very popular and Aria's creepy inappropriate teacher-boyfriend didn't raise any red flags. I just want to point that out and move on right up top. My parents bought Ezra from our neighbor; it was a 2003 Mazda Tribute that was actually pretty tricked out for its time. Sunroof, leather heated seats, a 6-disc CD drive: the works. My personal favorite feature of Ezra's was the two parallel lines of rust that ran from windshield to windshield; matching four-inch wide streaks I jokingly referred to as skid marks. Ezra was by far my longest and greatest relationship. Ezra and I went to work together at the mall when I folded t-shirts at Justice, during my sophomore year we went to college together, we went to Philly and back in a single day just because, and plenty of pitstops in-between.


Ezra was a solid and reliable set of wheels until it all of a sudden wasn't. We kind of knew the car was a little bit of a lemon, seemingly always needing something topped off or replaced, but it didn't seem like that big of a deal until I took it to get inspected one day before class. Y'know when you're away at college in your first shitty little student apartment and you try to act like an adult just to watch your efforts crash and burn? I thought I was doing the responsible and noble thing taking Ezra to a body shop (that I even Yelp'd! How adult is that?!) but I was informed I couldn't get a shiny new set of stickers until $700 worth of repairs were done. I'm not going to pretend to know car terminology, but I recall something being wrong with some cables and the tires needing to be replaced, like, yesterday. I only remember the tires because that prior Valentine's Day it randomly snowed, and driving home from my best friend's house the streets turned into a skating rink and I almost crashed a good handful of times. After those $700 repairs (ahh, fond memories of sitting on the public bus anxiously yelling into my cell phone "I just don't have that kind of money, Mom!") I thought Ezra and I were in the clear. What an ominous sentence; you know some shit is about to go down.


It was spring break my junior year, and instead of doing the whole Daytona Beach thing I opted for meeting with a friend of mine in a random town equidistant from our parents' houses. I can't remember the name of the place, but it was your classic Main Street with a cafe, boutique, and Post Office. I parallel parked next to the Methodist church and a few hours later, because this seems to be the theme of my automotive life, the car didn't start. This time the engine at least made an attempt to turn over, but still in all: nothing. Now at this point I was twenty and as I mentioned before, very adult. I called AAA and reported the dead battery without first panicking and calling my mom. Progress! It would've been such a success story if only the battery was the problem. Thankfully it was a beautiful sunny day, because I then waited on the curb (with my dear friend Eppie; a saint!) for another few hours while the original driver left and called for backup. I then hitched a ride with the tow truck driver, Ezra trailing behind us, as we made awkward small talk for two hours. There was naturally traffic, so we mostly sat in silence while inching down the exit ramp.


I think Ezra needed a new alternator or something, but it got to the point where it just made more sense to start from scratch. I was excited to get a new (used) car, but still a bit sad as I ejected all five of the Taylor Swift CDs from Ezra's disc drive. It's sad when a four-year relationship ends, even if you know it's time to move on.


3) The April Ludgate Years: March 2016-16 hours into January 2018

I was totally convinced April was going to be the car that stuck with me for years. That's why I took so much care in naming this one after one of my top-tier favorite fictional characters. Like the April Ludgate from Parks and Rec, the car was super cute but a bit temperamental and decidedly gray.


This was the first time going to a dealership to get a car, and I think little April the 2013 Chevy Sonic was forgotten somewhere in the back of the lot, so the process was pretty easy. They were almost too willing to haggle, but I think part of that is because the car, though a 2013 model, had some bizarre outdated attributes. Most notably, there was no CD player and crank windows. "That's so fun!" my friends would say, "Kinda, like...vintage?" During my two year tenure with April, I went from feeling indifferent about her weird outdated features, to ironically loving them, to just wanting to roll all the windows down without having to practically lay horizontally across the front seats.


April and I went on a few weird adventures, and I can't decide if the car was cursed or this stretch of my early twenties was. One particular trip that stands out was that time I drove April down to Richmond with an acquaintance en route to a mutual friend's 21st birthday. We both went to the same university, so it made sense that we carpooled the two hours across the interstate. First stop once we arrived, because it was a 21st birthday, was to the grocery store to buy Smirnoff Ice and soda to mix with various liquors.


I parked April in a Kroger parking lot in what I consider to be a sketchy part of town, but what more worldly people will consider me being too sheltered. But hear me out: when we exited the grocery store there was what appeared to be a homeless man wandering the lot, wearing a hoodie and looking at the very least sleep-deprived, at the most realistic totally strung out. He was bumping into cars and walking in lazy zig-zag formations when I noticed his sunglasses and cane. But the weird thing was his cane wasn't actually touching the ground, just hovering an inch or two above. I didn't think much about it, clicking the "unlock" button on my car keys, but as soon as I did the man made an almost-too-coordinated move for my car. Out of what I'm going to call instinct, my trigger finger locked the car back up, and the acquaintance I was with stepped in front of me; thank God he's aware of his surroundings and burly. The man immediately scattered, and when we got in the car and I tried to shake some weird feeling I couldn't quite place.


"You know he wasn't blind, right?" my acquaintance turned friend turned apparent lifesaver said.

"What?"

"His cane wasn't touching the ground. He wasn't blind; he was pretending to be blind so he could get in the car."

"Wh-wh-what would happen if he did?" I said, sputtering as color rushed to my face. Don't you just love those moments when you realize just how naive you really are?

"Oh, a few different things," he very casually said, trailing off at the end of his sentences as if we were discussing reality TV or the weather. "Made you drive to the ATM and give him a bunch of money, squatted until you gave him the car...hopefully he didn't have like a knife or anything..."


The sun had only just gone down as this occurred, and April and I careened down the Richmond streets to our friend's apartment to kick off what would soon become the weekend from Hell. That's a story for a different time, though.


We all know how April met her end, so I won't bore you with those details, but I will tell you I loaded that car up when I moved out of my college apartment, then loaded her back up to move into my first actual apartment. That car got cluttered with clothes I forgot I owned, books I never read, coffee mugs I never washed, and business cards for jobs I didn't land. That car was my refuge for phone interviews and sob sessions and the thirty minutes spent every morning parked in the crowded campus garage reading the news.


4) Summer Roberts: February 2018-

So far, so good. I don't know; this is the first and only car I've ever owned. I have a lot planned this year, and I'm excited to get there by planes, trains, and...oh forget it. I mentioned earlier that cars are an obvious metaphor, so I'm going to leave the mushy figurative ending of this blog post up to the imagination. And I promise, no more talking about cars. I think my tank is empty...sorry, I just had to slip one dumb car metaphor in there before I go.


*I learned this word this week at traffic court; think of it as the "Kleenex" of radar.

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© 2018 by Lauren M. Sauer