"Ride Down Memory Lane"
-Published in Echo Cognitio 2016
The sound of metal scraping against concrete is far from pleasant. It’s worse than nails on a chalkboard or a baby crying. My boyfriend’s 1998 Dodge Neon is currently making those agonizing sounds. It’s jerking about, vibrating, as its massive steel girth drags against the ground. The engine sputters and the purple body of the car shakes more aggressively. With a jolt, something is torn away. I look in the passenger side mirror to see what has broken off, but I can’t see anything. It’s after midnight and there are no lights to illuminate the freeway.
“Eddie, get off at the next exit,” I say. It’s not a suggestion. It’s a command. My hands are gripping the seat, the door, the dashboard; anything I can hold onto. In my head, all I can imagine is the engine exploding, the brakes failing, or the tires blowing out.
As Eddie gets off M-59 at the Dequindre exit, the car gives one last jerk of life before completely stalling out. We coast to a rough stop, the breaks indeed failing, at the red light. Eddie turns the key and tries to start the car. A dull clicking noise — a flat-line in car language — is our only response. Eddie curses loudly and bangs his palms on the wheel. He turns on the hazard lights before we step out of the car and open up the hood. Smoke billows out. Just our luck.
“I just bought this damn thing,” he grumbles angrily.
“At least you didn’t waste any extra money on buying a new muffler,” I add.
After his first car, a hand-me down green Taurus from his grandpa, kicked the bucket and went to the car lot in the sky, Eddie got the Neon. He had found it on Craigslist and bought it from a guy he met at a gas station near the freeway. Not the most ideal situation, but it was the only option he had. After a test drive and $800, the car was his. It turned out to be a lemon.
The only place to get a good used car is at one of the hundreds of used car shops that litter Metro Detroit. With so many cars being manufactured, it’s not hard to find a car that runs. Finding one that it’s a college kid’s rice range is the difficult part.
We stand outside the car, hugging each other to keep warm. Cars zoom past as they come off the freeway. Only two people stop to ask if we’re all right. We reply sullenly that we’re fine. They leave without offering any more help. What else could we expect? When traffic — oddly busy at this time of night — dies down, we start to push the carcass of Eddie’s car down the road.
Even though we live in Metro Detroit, in the heart of Automobile Country, there are no car repair shops lining this strip of road. Again, our luck has run out. We settle for a Hospital parking lot.
As we sit in silence, waiting for Eddie’s dad to pick us up, I wonder if this is how my mom feels.
My mom has horrible luck when it comes to cars. Every car she has ever owned has broken down on her at least once. It never mattered if it was brand new, like her silver Kia Rio, or a used car from a friend of the family, like her red Pontiac Firebird.
“I’m glad this didn’t happen when either of you were alone,” she says when I call her to let her know why we’ll be home later than expected. Mom always seemed to be alone when her cars broke down.
One cold winter night, when she was merely 19 years old, her “banana yellow” Ford Fairmont Futura broke down on Utica road. Back then, it was merely a two-lane dirt road with no street lights. Ditches lined each side of the road. Beyond that were dense woods filled with deer and squirrels. On occasion, the trees thinned out into open fields that were barren.
Like Dequindre, no car shops near where my mom broke down. Instead of pushing her car, she left it stalled on the side of the road and walked to find civilization, which happened to be a BP gas station a mile up the road on Moravian. She didn’t have a cell phone to call for help, so when she walked into the gas station, shivering as snow clung to her hair and clothes, she asked if she could borrow the phone.
She called home. After several rings, her mom answered.
“Mom, I’m broken down on Utica. I’m at the gas station on the corner of Utica and Moravian. Can you come and get me?” she asked.
“Oh, hello Sandra! Your grandparents are here and we’re playing cards,” my grandma replied.
“So?” Mom asked dryly. “Can you come and get me? It’s cold, and dark, and I can’t get home.”
“Well, your brother’s about to head out. Look for him and flag him down. Okay? Bye.” That was it. My grandma hung up.
My mom has three brothers. My grandma failed to say which one was coming.
Mom walked out into the parking lot, stood under the glowing gas station sign, and began to jump and dance around at any car that happened to pass by, hoping one of them was her brother. Eventually, my Uncle Mike picked her up.
Thankfully, it’s not too cold out right now. I kick off my shoes and massage my feet. I’ve been in these new boots all day. Neither of us are talking, and we can’t listen to the radio because the battery is completely dead. I reach over to rub Eddie’s shoulder, trying to comfort him the best I can.
“I’m sorry,” Eddie says. He’s staring straight ahead and his expression is stoic, but his voice is soft and broken. He feels like he messed up again.
“Don’t be,” I say. “You didn’t choose for this to happen.”
“I just don’t want to put you in danger or make your mom worry.” I can hear the double meaning in his voice. He doesn’t want to hurt me or upset my parents. He doesn’t want to lose me.
When we first started dating, we had our second date at his house. We watched “The Negotiator” in his living room. Halfway through the movie, I grabbed my phone from my purse and noticed I had seven missed calls from my mom.
I knew that I was in trouble.
I quickly called her back, nervous that she was going to be mad at me.
“Hello?” she answered.
“Hey, I’m sorry I missed your calls. My phone didn’t ring for some reason,” I said, dreading the lecture I was going to get.
“That’s all right! I’m just glad I got a hold of you,” Mom replied. She didn’t sound upset at all. In fact, she sounded chipper. I breathed a sigh of relief.
“I’m at Eddie’s watching a movie. My car is parked at the school, so when the movie’s over, Eddie is going to take me back to my car.”
“Dad and I can pick it up! We’re out for a drive and we’re near that area.”
“Are you sure that’s okay?”
“Yeah. Eddie can take you home after the movie.”
I learned later that night that my mom was in fact very worried. The reason she and my dad were out was because they couldn’t get a hold of me, and she thought Eddie had kidnapped me. She had used the white pages online to find his address. Then they drove along the streets with their headlights off, not wanting to draw any attention to themselves in case Eddie was a serial killer. They passed his house twice and couldn’t find my car. That’s when they decided to check the last place they knew I was: Macomb Community College Campus. They were already half way there when I finally called and relieved Mom from her worries.
After a half hour, Eddie’s dad finally arrives to the scene. The two of them start to look at the car, using their cell phones as flashlights. I sit inside the car and say a quick prayer, “dear God, help us get through this.” Whenever something goes wrong, I always pray to God.
“Send it up,” my mom used to say to me as I knelt in church and complained about my knees hurting. “There are souls in Purgatory that would love your prayers.” Whenever I’m in trouble, I always send up my thoughts and hope someone is listening. It’s never failed me before.
Unlike my mom, I didn’t go to private school. My mom attended the Catholic school Holy Innocence from preschool through eighth grade. She often got in trouble for beating up kids, doing poorly in class, and cheating. One time on the way to church, the topic of confession came up. She told me a story of how she tried to get away with confession as a kid.
“The school was small, so everyone knew everybody. Going to confession was horrible because the priest could tell who you were just by your voice,” she explained as we turned onto Gratiot to head to downtown Mount Clemens. “Every Monday we would have to go to confession. One week, I had cheated on a test. I had written the answers on my thigh under my skirt. That way, Sister Andrea couldn’t ask me to lift my skirt to check for answers. But I didn’t want my priest to know that. So, when I went to into the confessional that day, I started to talk in a British accent, thinking that would trick him. He asked what my sins were, and I said the usual: picked on my brothers, lied to a teacher, cheated on the test. Father Esper said that I had to pray “Hail Mary” ten times and tell my parents and my teacher that I cheated.
“The next week, I went back to confession. I didn’t do my penance like he told me to. When he asked me what my sins were, I said, in my British accent, that I was mean to my brothers and that I lied. He asked if I had told my teacher that I cheated on the test. I told him that I did, but after a long pause I added, “and I lied.” He asked me, ‘just now?’ I replied ‘yes.’ I was given the same penance, and when I got home from school, my parents came to talk to me about a call from the principle about a ‘little British girl.’”
Not only was my mom sneaky, she was also independent.
When I was just going into middle school, I was at my grandparent’s house for Christmas. We set up an old projector to look at slides. A photo of my mom and her eighth grade cheerleading squad came up on the screen. Mom was easy to spot with her big, curly hair. She was at the top of the pyramid of girls.
“That was the day I let go of Stephanie!” She laughed loudly and pointed to the girl below her to the left. “I started to feel the pyramid wobble, and she was starting to slip. I wasn’t going to go down with her, so I just let go.”
I wish I was as bold as her. I think having more of a back bone would benefit me.
From down the street, I see the flashing lights of a police car. For a moment I’m relieved. Someone must have seen us broken down and called the cops to check on us.
Then I see three more cops pull into the parking lot behind the first, two of which are big SUVs. Four cop cars, with two officers in each, seems a bit excessive.
They surround us, their red and blue lights noiselessly blinding us. Two cops gets out of the car first car and walk over. The others stay inside their vehicles.
“What’s going on here?” they ask. We tell them what happened. The first one doesn’t seem to believe us, and the second starts to look at the car with Eddie and his dad.
The “bad-cop” pulls me over to the side, away from Eddie, and asks me what really happened. I retell the same story.
“We were coming back from Oakland University down M-59. We heard a scarping noise under the car and it felt like something broke away. Then the car starting jerking so we got off and broke down at the stoplight. We pushed the car into the parking lot once traffic cleared.”
“Did you happen to see any kids in a black van around here?” the officer asks.
“No,” I reply.
We walk back to the car and hand over our licenses so they can be searched. I’m trying to hide the fact that I’m trembling with fear. I wonder if we will get a ticket for breaking down. Our luck seems to be heading in that direction.
Eddie has never gotten out of a ticket. I’ve never received one. Both of our moms have gotten out of tickets several times.
Two years after my mom broke down on Utica, my mom ran into more trouble on the same road. She was speeding, trying to get home before curfew.
She explained to me, “Grandma and Grandpa were very strict with curfew. I routinely broke it unless I knew I had plans the next day. If I was doing something fun Saturday night, I was sure to be home on time Friday. I planned ahead.”
That was the scenario my mom found herself in that night. After a late night of partying, she was racing down Utica to beat curfew when police lights flashed behind her. She pulled over to the side of the road, and the police officer came up to her car.
“Do you know how fast you were driving?”
“Yes, I do,” my mom said quickly. “I must be home by one, or else I’ll be grounded, and I have plans tomorrow.”
“Can I see your license?”
“No. Can you just follow me home and we can do this at my house? Because I’m more worried about my dad than I am of you.”
The cop chuckled and asked, “where do you live?”
“A quarter mile away.”
“All right. I’ll follow you home. But don’t speed.”
“Would it be okay if you didn’t put on your lights?” Mom asked before he walked away. “I don’t want to wake up the entire neighborhood.”
That’s exactly what they did. He followed mom home with his lights off. She pulled into the drive way and he parked behind her, blocking her in. She held up her finger in a classic “one-second” gesture, and hurried into the house. She let her parents know she was home and then came back out with her hands up in the air; she didn’t want him to think she was coming back out with weapons. Eventually, he let the whole ordeal slide and went on his way, but not before giving her a lesson about the dangers of speeding on dirt roads at night.
Apparently, the cop who pulled over my mom thought her situation was funny. Our police officers aren’t so nice. After returning our licenses, the “bad-cop” asks us, in a very arrogant voice, “So, who’s been drinking?”
“No one,” we reply in unison.
The bad-cop raises his brow and gives us a disbelieving look. “No one?”
Even though I’m 21, I’ve never had a drink of alcohol. It doesn’t appeal to me. It never has.
My mom was never like that. By fourteen, she was sneaking drinks into school. She and her friends would mix slow gin into Faygo Red Pop bottles and leave them in their lockers, so they could sneak swigs throughout the day. When they were able to drive, they would leave the school on their lunch breaks and go to Taco Bell, order two spicy bean burritos with extra green sauce for a $1.35, and then go home to drink and eat.
My mom met my dad at a bar called Penache in the 555 Building on Woodward. She was there with my future godmother when my dad came up to her and drew a picture of her on a napkin. My dad went to the College of Creative Studies after serving in the Vietnam War. He was seventeen years older than my mom, and she was not at all interested in him. He didn’t give up though and instead continued to charm her every time she was at Penache until she finally agreed to go on a date with him.
Needless to say, something worked, because they’ve been married for 23 years. Dad proposed to Mom in the Taco Bell parking lot. After she said yes, they ordered large bean burritos. I’ve told Eddie that I’d be fine if he proposed to me in a fast food parking lot, as long as it was Burger King.
After the cops finally let us leave, Eddie tells me that the story about the kids in the van was a lie. The “good-cop” had told him that someone had called 911 for domestic violence, thinking that Eddie was beating me when we were trying to sort out the car situation. The cop’s questions start to make sense, and I can now tell that Eddie is getting frustrated at the idea that someone would think he would hurt me. It’s a ridiculous claim. He’d never lay a hand on me. We don’t even argue.
My parents don’t hit each other, but they do get into disagreements. A lot. They’re both hard-headed, opinioned, and loud. They mostly argue on topics like my half-brother and how he never calls except to ask for money, or about Dad not going to the bank so Mom can have money for gas in the morning, or how Mom only seems to make arguments worse when she decides not to listen to Dad.
Lately I’ve been getting into more fights with her. Mostly about topics taught in my classes. She never finished her education, so I’m already ahead of her in that department. She often says that during discussions, I make her feel like she’s stupid because I give off a look that reads “I go to college, thus I know more about the topic.” I understand her point, but I think she should be able to relate to it; on numerous occasions, she has been told that she looks mean because she glares off into space when she’s trying to focus.
She’s also not a very liberal person, and my beliefs and views on life are changing now that I’m in college. Whenever we do have a discussion, she has a way of making me feel guilty whenever I have a different opinion.
“I’m starting to really get tired of your tone!” she’ll yell as she walks up the stairs, leaving me to sit on the couch and brood. She doesn’t seem to understand that my tone is something I’ve had to learn over the years. She can’t see that she does exactly what she hates me doing.
We got into a really bad argument, one of the worst we’ve ever had, when I drew a comic for my school paper. The premise of the comic was that the school mascot was at a frat party and was offered some beer. The character (who is a bear) started to panic, and then realized that he had misread the beer cans as “bear cans,” then wrote himself a note to learn how to spell and read better.
This blew up right in my face. Fraternities and sororities on campus immediately started to throw out all the newspapers and were flooding the post with letters to the editor demanding for an apology. One fraternity member even came down to the office and started to scream and yell at one of the post members that were there.
I’m a gentle soul (remember, I said that having a back bone would benefit me) and I don’t take criticism and anger well. I cave in and start to shy away. I also have a bad habit of blaming myself, even though everyone at the post felt like they had responsibility in the incident as well.
I tried to not let it get to me and kept quiet about it, hoping that it would just go away with time. However, when mom heard of it, she immediately went on the defensive.
“What happened to creative freedom? To freedom of the press? To freedom of speech?” She yelled, pacing the living room as I sulked into the kitchen to make myself some toast. My stomach was upset from the whole ordeal, so I settled on toast.
“Of course, now it’s ‘freedom of speech, unless your opinions don’t agree with mine.’ Because everyone is so damn sensitive and offended by everything nowadays!” she continued. “Those hypocrites! Of course they have beer at their parties. I bet you could get in and take photos of it for the paper. Report the truth!”
I could feel my head pounding, my eyes welling up as I held back infuriated tears. This is exactly what I didn’t want. I gripped the plate tightly in my hands, wanting to throw it across the room to release my anger. I forced myself to set it down in the sink.
“You should retaliate,” she continued. “I’m going to submit my own letter to the editor! I’ll give them a piece of my mind!”
“Just stop!” I screeched, completely losing my cool. “Please, enough! I want to put it behind me! Eddie already wrote a letter anyways, so you don’t have to.”
In a flash, I became the bad guy.
“Oh, so it’s okay for Eddie to write a paper and not me?”
“Where’s my phone?” I said to myself, trying to block her out. Dad hovered in the kitchen looking dumbfounded, uncertain of what to do.
“Sandie, stop,” he said, trying to calm my mom down.
“Why am I the bad guy all of a sudden? When I have an opinion, I can’t share it,” she accused angrily.
I wanted to say, “It’s because you’re too aggressive and you’re going to cause trouble.” Instead, I yelled, “Where is my phone?” and continued to pace in circles as I searched for my phone in the kitchen and living room.
“I’m going to write a letter anyways. The Greeks should not be allowed to throw away all those newspapers because somebody decided to draw a comic.”
“Please stop!” I yelled. I grabbed my car keys and started to put on my shoes. I needed to get out of the house. I was going to boil over and explode, and Mom’s volcano of an attitude was only making it worse.
“Where are you going?” she asked, her voice still vicious. She was sitting on the couch again, fuming.
She made an exasperated sigh and set the TV remote down, hard enough to make a loud bang. “Oh my God,” she said with frustration.
“Dani, you shouldn’t drive like this,” Dad said.
“I’ll be fine. I’ll go to Eddie’s. I’ll sit in his drive way until he comes home.”
“No you won’t,” Mom commanded.
“Go to your room.”
All I could think was “did she seriously just say that?” My jaw dropped open and I stood silent in shock. The last time I was told to go to my room, I was in middle school. Her treating me like a child only made me angrier, something she knew very well.
Knowing that walking out the door now would only cause more trouble, I kicked off my shoes, found my phone sitting beside my purse, and went upstairs.
I felt like a kicked dog. I was already beating myself up over the newspaper, fearing that I was going to lose my job after only having it for a couple months, and now my mom was criticizing me and making me feel like everything was my fault. Like I wasn’t allowed to be upset with her actions. Like I wasn’t allowed to feel angry.
I understand that she was trying to defend me, but all it did was make me feel pissed off. Instead of listening to my pleas for her to drop the subject, she punished me.
I want to be strong like her, but I do not want to be bull-headed.
We left Eddie’s car at the hospital. It couldn’t be saved. In the morning, a tow truck would come and take it to the dump.
As Eddie’s dad drives us home, I sit alone in the back. I reach my hand forward, over the top of Eddie’s seat, and rest my hand on his shoulder. His lifts up to rest on mine. I stare out the window tiredly, knowing that when I got home, Mom would want to talk about the car. I’m exhausted and want to sleep, but she deserves an explanation. It’s not good to make her worry.
We live off of Gratiot, and the good thing about this road is that every block has a car shop. The sleeping metal bodies taunt us as we pass by. Most of them are used, but they’re still overpriced. It will be a while before Eddie can find a good car that won’t die out on him.
Eddie’s dad drops me off at my house, and I wave goodbye as they pull away and head home. I walk through the front door and drop my backpack next to the stairs.
“So what happened?” Mom asks from the couch, looking over as I shrug off my jacket and slip off my shoes. I relay the entire story from start to finish for her. When I’m done, she sighs. “That’s unfortunate. Is the car salvageable?”
“No. It’s going to be towed tomorrow. Eddie and I have to stop by to clean it out before class,” I say as I head up stairs. Mom follows and turns off the lights behind us. I can hear my cat, Domino, meowing in the dark, trotting up stairs in pursuit.
“I’m glad you’re both safe.”
“Me too. Though, Eddie’s a bit nervous that you’re upset with him.”
Mom laughs. “It’s not like he chose for his car to break down.”
I chuckle in return. “That’s exactly what I said.”
“Glad to know you’ve learned something from me,” she muses as she walks to her bedroom to go to sleep.