The driver’s seat of my red Datsun wasn’t properly bolted to the car floor. I think there were four points at which the seat had once been firmly secured to the car body, back when it was a new, brightly-painted auto on the lot, but now only one bolt managed to hang on. The result was a mixture of rocking and swiveling that made for perilous driving, though also for freedom in reaching into the back seat for a sweater or into the glove compartment for some gum, and all with the seat belt still firmly attached.
I sat at the red light on the corner of 34th Street and Archer Road in my Datsun, feeling jubilant and safe. But why did I feel this way? After all, my forehead was still stinging from the blow received from the windshield when I braked too quickly for the light and my unhinged seat launched me forward. So why was I feeling secure and happy? I looked down 34th street, to where Fred, my “older” boyfriend, lived and then up at the sky. Like Louise Mallard in Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour,” I felt the answer to my question “creeping out of the sky,” gathering in the humid air, and pushing itself toward me. A realization. An illumination. I said it out loud, “Free, free, free!” and then my face turned hot with shame.
My sister Jo was the original owner of the Datsun. As a down payment, she used the $3,000 my mom squirreled away for her from the government survivor benefits we received after my dad died. Like my sister, my brother Rick used his $3,000 to buy a car when he turned 18. Always the odd one out, I took my life savings and went off to the University of Florida. A car or a college education.
In a beautiful twist, my sister’s Datsun became my college graduation gift from my whole family. Rick agreed to sell Jo his old car cheaply, so Jo gave the Datsun to my mom and step-father to fix up for me. They took it in for some new tires and a tune up, wrapped it in a bow, and handed it over to me as I headed back to Gainesville to pursue my master’s degree. It was already on its way out; in fact, in two year’s time I would pay a scrap dealer in Cranston, RI $100.00 to tow it from the street where it finally breathed its last. But the Datsun was a welcomed gift, an unexpected luxury.
Throughout my undergrad years my only wheels had been those of city buses or a bicycle. I lived far from campus-cheaper that way-and worked nearly full time at Captain D’s and later at the Cinema Drafthouse-turned out that $3,000 isn’t really enough to buy a college education. I got off of work sometimes well after midnight when the buses were already down for the night, so except for the occasional kindness of a co-worker who could throw my bike in his trunk, I rode my bike to and from work every night, miles down the unlit Archer Road from 34th Street to Tower Road. This was always a dangerous trip, fraught with close calls with tipsy or ticked off drivers who seemed to view the presence of a young woman biking down an unlit road at midnight a nuisance.
When I started dating Fred near the end of my junior year, my midnight biking trips ended. Fred was five years older than I, already graduated with his master’s degree, and working in a real job. He began dropping me off and picking me up from work. I liked him, and I was grateful to him. I lived so far out, it was just easier, he said, to stay at his place.
It wasn’t until I got my Datsun and was idling at the red light on the corner of 34th Street and Archer Road that it came to me from the sky, that it gathered in the humid air, and pressed into me with a heat of a shameful revelation: I was free. The Datsun made Fred less essential. I thought, “I don’t need Fred anymore. I will be secure without him.” I pushed it out of my mind, and shortly thereafter I pushed Fred out of my life.