The car is spinning slowly, a dancer in a slow, heavy ballet. Denny, in the seat next to me, is very, very quiet. Later, he will talk about how we almost died, how I almost killed us. If, at any point, I wish to extol my virtues as an excellent driver, he will point to this moment, and I will have to agree that, yes, I should have braked earlier. The streets are wet with a thin sheen of water from last nights rain. The light was yellow, and I tried to stop too quickly, and the my old station wagon silently spun 90 degrees though I never turned the wheel. A car pulls into the right lane. We are perpendicular to it; I can see the scratched red paint of it's door in the rear view mirror.
During the second semester of my sophomore in college until November following my graduation, I drove a 1980 Ford Fairmont station wagon. Tan paint and a wide strip of cracked, fake wood paneling covered the doors and hatch. The air conditioning never worked, so I drove with the windows down during the summer and made other people drive whenever possible. No one ever insisted that I drive. Occasionally, it would emit funny smells and I would have to replace the radiator or fuel pump. Sometimes, when I would turn that key to shut off the station wagon as I pulled into the parking space, it would continue to grumble and sputter until I let off the clutch, as if protesting.
My new car is a Neon. I wanted something with two doors and a manual transmission, but this four door automatic was cheap. Sometimes I miss shifting the gears of my station wagon, feeling as if I was actually in control of the old metal rods and cogs. My new car now has a CD player and air conditioning. The windows roll up and down effortlessly, and I can unlock the back door without pulling off the knob. But it has no personality. It’s what I would call middle-aged-man-gold and the interior is a bland tan. It is not funny to say “I drive a 2001 Dodge Neon” as it is to say “I drive a 1980 Ford Fairmont Station wagon.” People laugh when you tell them that your car is a year older than you. They are not impressed by a Neon. No one is impressed by a Neon. And although I am now getting about 10 more miles to the gallon and can listen to CDs in my car, I will cherish the memory of my wagon. I would have kept the hood ornament, a silver “F” on the end of the hood, but someone stole it last month. Twenty-four years it stood valiantly atop those six growling cylinders and clanking transmission, and last month it was stolen in the parking lot of my apartment complex. But I still have a key on my key chain, next to the key to my new car.
Recently, my Neon has been acting up. I had to feed it four hundred dollars to satisfy it’s squeaky brakes. Water had been hiding inside the brake drums chewing on the shoes and pads and making my car’s brakes sound like those of an old city bus. Then a new kind of trouble began. Stopping-in-the-middle-of-the-highway kind of trouble. My impetuous car does not want to follow orders like other cars. I decide to take it to a mechanic as I glide to a stop on Main Street and realize that my car has shut off without any instructions from me. It dies on the highway on my way to the shop. Fortunately, I make to the shop, and, after only five trips to various shops, it works again. But I hate it now. There is no excuse for this kind of behavior. It is four years old. My station wagon was twenty four years old, and it never tried to kill me. Except for sweet smelling purple smoke that occasionally poured from the radiator, it behaved quite well. And so my memory of my station wagon has grown fonder. And although the number of road trips I have taken since I purchased another car would have probably long ago put the station wagon in intensive car care, I sometimes wish it was still sitting in front of my apartment instead of my demon possessed Neon. Besides, it had wood paneling on the sides. You can’t get that on a Neon.