Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Blue Reliant


Ella asked for a phone. 

We said "No."

But then we told her we might consider a pay-as-you-go flip phone. She crossed her arms, shot us a tween look of exasperation and said, "But that is so old it would be embarrassing."

And just like that the moment I have been waiting for since I was sixteen was upon me.

The year was 1991. Think grunge, plaid, and Smells like Teen Spirit. I drove a 1980-something baby blue Plymouth Reliant station wagon with faux wood trim and a leather wrapped steering wheel, meaning someone had literally wrapped a leather cord around it. The interior was a vision in blue. Blue carpet, blue dash, blue seat belts, and cracked blue pleather seats that released a fart sound whenever someone moved across the surface.

I went to a school where kids drove their parents' 'other' BMWs and 'older' Audis. But it was a big school. I could have hidden my clunker among the mass of cars and gone unnoticed. Except for one thing. I had repeated the first grade. 

Not that it needs to be said, but from my parents' recounting of this time in my life, I was asked to stay back in first grade because of my outstanding grasp of all knowledge. My teacher, Mrs. T, believed me to be the type of student she needed to assist the incoming first grade class in their quest for the highest levels of education. Once I bargained for a batch of Mrs. T's famous Monster Cookies, I graciously accepted her offer. 

So as an incoming sophomore in 1991, I had my driver's license and wheels. For a brief time, I was the only one. And for that reason only, the Reliant and myself by proxy, stood out. Other than being the designated driver for the entirety of my sophomore year, there was nothing cool about this station wagon. It shuddered at speeds over 35, emitted a high-pitched squeal always, and reeked of vomit-infused vodka from one of my many passengers. I was a suburban taxi driver.

One evening I was at Burger King with a handful of friends. It was the hangout spot on a Wednesday night for many kids from the high school. Among the fryer grease and sticky floors, we hunkered down at a small table surrounded by juniors and seniors. It was like touching the coat tails of greatness. Just then the doors flung open to reveal a well-known and very cute senior. 

"Hey!" he called and all conversation stopped.

We all turned. Who was the lucky person who could have captivated this senior mini-god's attention?

He was looking straight at me. "Hey, you! Your bumper just fell off. It's sitting in the parking lot." 

All eyes turned to me. Someone dropped their Whopper with Cheese and the flutter of the paper was loud in the silence that followed. My face in flames, I pushed up from my plastic chair and walked out of the restaurant and into the night. Parked between a Volvo and a Land Rover was my little blue Reliant. And laying awkwardly on the concrete in front of it was my bumper. It glinted dully in the moonlight. I picked up the bumper, opened the back door, slid it in, shut the door and straightened my shoulders. 

But before shuffling back into the restaurant, I swore to myself that one day I would use this moment of humiliation to teach someone else a lesson. Like my future child. She would learn how driving the Reliant taught me valuable lessons about humility, pride and greed. I would share with her the tale of how Burger King and a faulty bumper was God's way of making me a better person.

But I am forty-one years old and with the passage of time, my perspective has grown generous. The truth is that my bumper falling off didn't teach me anything, at first. I was a kid, after all, who still wanted to be liked by everyone, to be cool and to drive a really nice car. It is only as the years have stacked high that this particular moment stands out for me. Because it was one of the many lessons that have served to remind me that it's not the things in our life that make us happy, content or cool. It's our character, our values, our compassion, our humor, and our love.  

So. Here I am. Staring down a tween who thinks that flip-phones are artifacts once used by ancient cultures. They are her blue Reliant. I could tell her my story as a reminder of why she should be grateful. Why she should be perfectly happy with whatever she gets. But I don't. Because I can remember the sixteen-year-old girl in me. The one who left Burger King with the bumper stowed in the trunk, praying that the damage was so great her parents would finally consent to buying her a new car. Maybe even an old BMW. Incidentally, they did not. 

Instead, I share my story with her, hoping for a laugh, and then tell her that I understand how it feels when all your friends have something and you don't. And that it's hard not to want those things too. And then I stopped. Because I can't expect her to get it right away. She will be disappointed, emotional, even angry with our decision. But one day she will get it. And I can only hope she will be the better for it. 

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