[Editor’s note: Because my deteriorating car is a Ford Focus, I was going to be clever and title this post something like “Losing Focus” or “I Can’t Keep It Together: The Problem With My Focus.” Then it occurred to me that those titles could pretty much have been assigned to any of my previous posts so I'd better be more specific.]
The year was 2006. I was working an assistant job with a miserable salary, always paid my bills late, and regularly had a double-digit checking account balance. My car was Misty, a modest Mercury Mystique with manageable payments. She wasn’t glamorous, but she never failed to get me from point A (my studio apartment) to point B (my bad job). She probably would’ve gotten to point C or Z too, but I’ll never know because I never went anyplace else.
Then, one sunny afternoon, Misty was totaled. It was a particularly scary car accident that left me with PTSD (self-diagnosed) and a mountain of insurance paperwork. And to top it all off, I was faced with the daunting and expensive task of buying a new car. Since, up until that point, I’d had no intention of making such a purchase, I was wholly unprepared as a consumer. Also, did I mention I had no money?
I began with a few ill-fated trips to the Toyota and Honda dealerships. Both concluded with me sitting down at a sales rep’s desk, crunching numbers and feeling my heartbeat thumping in my ears until I’d hit the panic button. “I can’t afford this!” And I’d quickly show myself to the door, embarrassed.
I used up the month’s worth of rental car coverage my insurance policy offered, and then started taking Devin’s car to work, dropping him at his job on the way. He was patient with this arrangement, up to a point, and then gently reminded me that “Oh, by the way, you need to get a car.”
That weekend, I walked the half mile from my apartment to the Ford dealership, told them how much I could pay a month, that I wasn’t kidding, and I didn’t even want to look at a car I couldn’t afford. I test-drove a 2007 Focus hatchback. It seemed fine, so I asked for one in a different color and, without much fanfare, I bought it.
3 weeks later, I had maybe more wine than I should have, and scratched the whole left side of the Focus on a cement column as I tried to maneuver into the carport at Devin’s apartment.
But aside from that, the Focus has survived without incident.
Over time, its charm wore off. The 2-door-ness of it grew especially tiresome. I suppose when I was signing on the dotted line all those years ago, I hadn’t considered the absurd logistics of getting a squirming baby in and out of a car seat by climbing over the folded front seat.
Still, even as I’d completely outgrown the hunka junk, I kept making payments. Month after month for almost 7 full years. Then, in April, I realized I had enough in my savings account to pay off the balance owed on the car and I decided to go for it. I set up the transfer online, clicked submit, and just like that, the car was mine. All mine.
I felt nothing.
I thought I’d feel the same intoxicating mix of relief and pride that I’d felt whenever I’d paid down a credit card. But no. I hoped I wasn’t supposed to take away some depressing life lesson like, “You’ll never be satisfied with anything,” or “When you get what you want, you don’t want it.” Trying not to let these feelings take hold, I instead spread the news of my accomplishment to friends. It was met with congratulations and kudos, as I’d expected, and it made me feel better.
And then, out of nowhere, it started. My Focus, now 100% bought and paid for, began to fall apart in chunks.
First, it was the center console compartment. I moved to tilt it up so I could get a pen that fell beneath it, and the whole thing just came off in my hand.
My mouth dropped open and I sat there, stunned. Not so much at the incident itself, but at how oddly appropriate it was. Of course my car is literally falling apart now. Of course it is.
The next casualty was the part of the wall that houses the seatbelt. I was driving to a hair appointment on a Saturday when I felt something on my shoulder. Instinctively, I jumped. (I am always convinced there are poisonous spiders living in my car.) But then, when I looked down I saw a piece of the car’s wall had just come loose, slid down the belt, and was now perched on my shoulder like a little pet.
The intended life lesson was shaping up to be even more depressing than I’d originally thought. Something more along the lines of, “When you get what you worked hard for, it all falls apart.” God damn it. This was unacceptable.
I chose to laugh it off. And then ignore it. After all, everything is fixable; plastic pieces that just needed to be clicked back into place by someone more skilled than myself because all of my reassembly attempts have come up short.
Then, this happened.
One morning, I walked out to the car, which I’d parked on the street, and the rearview mirror was dangling by the power cord for the auto-adjustment controls. Someone must've driven by and clipped it. I stopped in my tracks and sighed.
Already ridiculously late to work, I didn’t have much time to dwell. I needed a quick solution. Across the street, I could hear the clatter and power saw buzzes of a contractor at work. I approached the gate at the end of the driveway, stood on my tip toes and peered in to see a sizeable crew. Certainly they’d have something that would help me.
“Excuse me,” I beckoned, waving my arm over the solid iron gate. “Hello?!” One man heard me and looked around, confused. “Over here!” I called out again, and then his eyes met mine. The gate obscured everything below the bridge of my nose, and I must’ve looked like Wilson from Home Improvement as I made my plea. “Hi! Can I borrow some… uh… duct tape I guess. Someone knocked the mirror off my car and I need to reattach it so I can go to work.” I kept yammering on as he walked down the driveway toward me. “You don’t have to do anything. If I can just borrow the tape I’ll take care of it myself. It’ll just take a second.”
Finally, he reached the gate, opened it, and asked, “What?”
Of course he couldn’t hear me, speaking directly into solid metal and competing with the noise of power tools and passing traffic. Once we were face to face, I repeated myself and he—Elder—graciously offered to help.
A few moments later, my rearview mirror was sufficiently smothered in shiny foil tape.
You could say it looked cooler than ever. You’d only be saying that to make me feel better, but still.
Obviously Elder and I only knew one another for about 5 minutes, but I got a good read on him. He seemed like the kind of guy who didn’t sweat the small stuff. As he taped, he shook his head and offered, “Yeah I always park my truck on the street and I’ve had my mirror knocked off a couple times.” He shrugged. “Nothing you can do. I mean, I guess don’t park on the street.” Well played.
I thanked Elder, then I climbed into my car and got organized, cueing up a podcast to listen to on speakerphone because the Focus certainly doesn’t have an mp3 hookup. I glanced at the console now at rest on the floor behind the front passenger seat. I looked at the paint worn off of the radio buttons. The upholstery stain from a spilled bottle of Gatorade. And, at last, I realized what it all really meant: absolutely nothing.
As I drove to work, the plastic piece of wall came loose yet again, eased its way down the seatbelt, and came to rest on my shoulder. I reached my left hand up and gave it a pat. “There, there. There, there.”