I sit in my 1997 Honda CRV in a church parking lot, because I'll be alone here on a Thursday. Not since I had my own apartment during my early twenties--before marriage and motherhood--have I enjoyed this much privacy. Here, there are no interruptions and no judgments, real or perceived. As far as anyone knows, I'm running errands.
Today, it's raining, and that's rare enough in Utah to be a real treat, a reason to stay out an extra hour. I lean against the window and feel the cool glass on my forehead and fingertips. Both the exterior and interior of the car are a comfortable, forgettable gray. Even when it was brand new, no one said, "Ohmigod! It's gorgeous!" It's like me: practical, reliable, nonthreatening. It doesn't take itself too seriously. It's clean, but not overly so: if I spill a diet Coke, I don't panic. There are dings and some peeling paint, but it's quite presentable. Right now, it sounds like rain, traffic, and Leonard Cohen's "Recent Songs" CD. It smells like grilled onions and my dogs.
The beauty of the car is its smallness, like the most efficient of efficiency apartments. Everything is within easy reach: money, fast-food coupons, Tums, Dr. Pepper lip gloss, cell phone, road atlas. I give thanks to those who invented cup holders, map lights, and vanity mirrors. In the cargo area, there's a duffel bag full of emergency supplies (box cutters, duct tape, twenty-dollar bills, clean underpants). If I feel so inclined, I can start the car and just keep driving.
With the car parked, I indulge in my two favorite activities: compulsive reading and compulsive eating. Today, I will read a mediocre detective novel that my dad sent; I will eat two Big Mac's and six oatmeal cookies. I sometimes read better books ("My Antonia," "Go Tell it on the Mountain"), but I stick with junk food, focusing on large quantities of meat and sugar.
When feeling chatty, I plug my cell phone into the cigarette light and fill the small space with my voice and my laugh. I call my younger sister, and we talk about short skirts and tall men. I call my Overeaters Anonymous buddies, and we talk about how much better we feel since making a searching and fearless moral inventory (I don't mention the fries I just ordered, or the extra fry sauce). I call an ex-boyfriend two thousand miles away, and I say bold and outrageous things. The words "I love you!" burst from me like stampeding horses, like projectile vomiting. He laughs...kindly, indulgently, from a safe distance.
And while the car is a pleasure in Park, it's also a pleasure in Drive. We've known adventure. In north Texas, several years ago, I responded to the online cry-for-help of an animal-rescue group, and--an hour later--I was driving through Plano with seven puppies and their Rottweiler mama in a large crate in the cargo area. They lived with us for a few weeks, until adoptions could be arranged. Months later, my family and I moved back to Utah with two foster dogs that had failed to find Forever Homes (until they found them with us). My son and I spent two long days on the road, with the Lab occasionally vomiting in his large crate, and the sixty-pound Chow curled up on my son's lap, eager for tummy rubs and an occasional stray Frito.
A year later, I drove to Southern Utah in early summer to enjoy the lilacs in bloom (and to reboot the foul mood I'd been in for months). I went alone, spent eighteen hours in a motel room watching a "Law & Order" marathon and eating junk food, and came home with a much brighter outlook.
And a year after that, the CRV and I went to the Oregon Coast, to a Jesuit-run retreat nestled in the rain forest, where I made new friends, took my first Holy Communion, and got a glimpse of a better, more evolved, more open-hearted me. On the way home, I had car trouble an hour east of Portland, and had to change plans on the fly, something that is not a strength of mine. But I found a place to stay, and--though it wasn't yet noon--donned polka-dot PJs, microwaved some popcorn, and climbed into bed with a Steinbeck novel. I felt broad-shouldered and self-contained. I'd had serious car trouble--an emergency!--alone, out of state, and I'd handled it. And I hadn't cried. A small miracle.
So here I sit, in the rain, in this eleven-year-old car with its 198,000 miles and surprisingly high resale value. It's my tree house, my panic room, my partner in crime. It's my means of escape, and the relief valve that makes escape unnecessary, for now.