Headlights and Hindsight

It’s just a car. Metal, plastic, and rubber painted charcoal grey, my Volkswagen Jetta. My dad stuck a cherry red bow on top and stood smiling proudly beside it on my sixteenth birthday. At the time, Volkswagen offered three Jetta models: the basic GL model, the swanky GLS, and mine in between, the Wolfsburg edition. The Wolfsburg offers the luxury features of the pricier GLS—leather seats with warmers, a sunroof—and the same surprisingly big engine but without the maintenance demands of the GLS’s non-turbo motor. It’s in the middle, just right and just enough. I knew none of this, however, as I slid into the leather seat, turned the key, and backed out of our driveway. My Papa, now deceased, was my first passenger, and we tooled around the same block he used to push my little red tricycle around. The oohs and ahs said, hugs and thank yous given, I rolled back the sunroof and pulled around the corner to pick up my red-headed friend Carrington. We cruised over to the Wendy’s drive-through down the block, I nervously going 10 miles under the limit, and ordered Frosties. The first song my car played was, to my distaste, The Black Eyed Peas’s “I Gotta Feeling.”

My car was always clean but always full with the excess of my many extracurriculars—potted ferns for the assisted living home, bulletin board decorations and a stapler for the Public Health Department, slightly burnt cookies for my AP history class after another 2:00 a.m. stress-relieving baking session. The driver’s side door kept all my Taylor Swift albums, for easy access, and the glove compartment held several pairs of sunglasses, red shutter shades and cheap gold aviators, for my unprepared passengers to slip on. Loose pages of homework and church bulletins usually piled up in the passenger seat, and a Bible rested in the backseat pocket. A few tennis balls, leftover from hundreds of hours of private lessons and school practices, rolled across the floor. Shiny, white dog hair coated all of it, because, as the only one of our family who openly admitted to liking our finicky chihuahua Princess, I wound up taking her to the vet. My backseat was just long enough to drape my glitter-streaked prom dress across and wide enough for my graduation gown. More often, though, it held my tennis bag or salty beach towels or the kids I babysat.

I was grateful I could bring my Jetta along with me to college, because a car on campus meant freedom and friends. I neither knew nor cared if those friends were just using me for my car. We squeezed four people in the backseat, and my Jetta carried our brave band of frightened freshmen on innocent back road adventures and escapades into the city. Inevitably, people would leave trash behind, straw wrappers and greasy receipts, frustrating me to no end. I was embarrassed when my car was dirty and I had passengers, especially when those passengers were boys, especially one particular boy. I soon mastered steering with one hand, freeing up the other to hold his.

It’s just a car. More accurately, it was just a car. But then I gave away my keys, and he forgot to hit the brakes. We were fine; it was not. I left my beloved car in a lonely junkyard littered with cars that looked like no one had ever cared about them. Mine looked no different. The wipers had snapped off, and a deep, jagged crack divided the windshield in two. Scratches laced the lovely exterior. The entire front was smashed in, the hood all curled up, just like I wanted to be.

It’s just a car, I repeated to myself. Just a car, my mother reminded me. Just a car, my daddy assured me. But it wasn’t just a car. Maybe to the insurance agents who later came to condemn it, but not to me. My car carried a thousand memories of my grandparents and tennis matches and school dances, piano lessons and volunteer days and freshman year. It carried the story of first loves and losing them. It carried me. 

I have a new car now, and it’s wonderful. It works. But I can’t remember the first song it played.