Ode to a Silver Saturn
The night was so dark that I can’t escape my mind. The lights on the 405 were a bright fluorescent orange, covering my body in the glow that nothing natural in the world could make. It was the first moment I processed the darkness that was starting to consume me, that unholy ghost of trauma that was beginning to take residence in my body and I’m still desperately trying to shake out.
The road construction led the entire place to a dead 1 a.m. standstill. I looked in the passenger’s seat and saw everything that was precious to me that I took from a home I could never return to: A menorah. A photo of my grandparents. Little pink bowls from my grandmother’s house. My prayer book. I picked up the book and turned the pages until I found the traveler’s prayer and began to say the words in Hebrew.
My mouth stuttered as I leaned the prayer book against the steering wheel. I spoke the words my ancestors said to the stars as they lit candles and went down to the docks in Toledo, Spain. They were the words on my great-grandparents’ lips as they fled their respective countries to America. And in the most solitary moment of my existence, I sent the same words up to the heavens. The only one that could hear me pray was my car.
In late 2006, after the death of my beloved Camry and a brief two-day stint with an Avalon, I inherited my mother’s Silver Saturn. Its first act as my car was to drive head first into a Christmas tree that was left on the 118 freeway while heading to work. I was the subject of many weird looks as I pulled pine needles from my bumper. But that was my car, and would be for the next eight years of my life.
It was far from perfect. The all-black interior made the car sweltering during the hot summer months, irritating my skin. Although the car ran well, the electronics were faulty. The clock always ran too fast. The horn eventually gave out, and the air conditioning did too. You always knew I was coming, because the music would be blaring loudly with my windows down, with me either singing along if I was happy or yelling at stupid drivers if in Los Angeles.
I was never in love with it. In fact, if you ask me about the car, the superstitious side of me will come out and say the Saturn was bad luck. Almost immediately after my mother bought it back in 2002, she was in a major car accident with it, rear-ended by a truck at 55 miles per hour at a stoplight. This was followed by the health decline and death of both of my grandparents.
When it was passed on to me back in 2006, it was like the bad luck transferred. The promising life of a young, determined girl somehow flew far off into the distance. Every plan for a future became off kilter, every job interview a folly (whether I got the job or not), and my romantic life found nothing but disaster. There were more tears shed in that car that if every one were a dollar, I’d never have to work again.
It had its share of accidents with me too, ranging from hitting at Corvette to a crazy lady who tried to steal my wallet after backing out and tapping her car and a bicyclist plowing into it midnight on a Saturday on the way home from a party. By the end of its life, the Saturn’s passenger side mirror was attached by duct tape, the windows were barely lowering and driving it had become an overall death trap. It had been flying on nothing more than a prayer.
However, despite the bad times, there were many adventures to be had. The Saturn drove up and down California like a champ, even once making its way to Las Vegas. The hours I spent driving along the coast, looking over the big blue ocean during the day and staring at the full moon reflecting on the water at night were happy. The wind blowing through my hair down windy roads was always peaceful. There was no denying the joy that I felt driving by myself or when my friends sat next to me, laughing at the decrepit state of my car and the fact I could never keep it clean to save my life, thankful for the rides I gave them.
I saw myself change in it, and not always for the better. The ambitious woman fell away to the person who would yell at me constantly that I drove like a maniac, never even allowing me to touch my steering wheel when he was with me. The day I hit the Corvette, I forced myself to have a panic attack so he wouldn’t come after me with his screams of how I was a money suck. When it came to driving, I was an irresponsible baby and deserved what I got.
The Saturn was my fortress when I watched this same person threaten my life as our existence together crumbled. In those days after, it became a war room to plan an escape. Then it became the horse to ride off into the dark to try to find a better life, with a prayer echoing on my lips under those fluorescent lights. And for the past three years, the Saturn was the only thing that seemed to stay together while the rest of the world was falling apart.
Reclaiming myself over that time was an arduous process; I saw myself grow with ambition, determination and pure hustle. There was roadblock after roadblock, but with my car, I could steer through any hardship that came across my path. And I would keep doing it until it died.
When the mechanic came out of diagnostics to look at the awful shake and lack of acceleration it was starting to experience, he said, “What if I told you you’re going to need a new car?” I nodded, knowing that this day would come eventually. As he rattled off the list of everything wrong with it, I thought about my parents’ mechanic who told me that, at 210,000 miles, the Saturn would go downhill very, very quickly. The car was at 211,000.
Three hours later, my parents came to me at a local cafe. “Without a car, you can’t keep the apartment,” they said. “You can’t afford to live there anymore without steady income, and we can’t afford to get you a car. You have to come back home.”
My body started to shake as much as my car had, flashing back to three years before where everything was swept out from under me, from home to marriage to job. I was left in the Saturn with nothing but a prayer. At least back then, I had a horse to get me to where I wanted to go; now I was stranded by the side of the road.
The last ride with the Saturn was planned out: I had to take the car to two job interviews. As it shook under its age and couldn’t accelerate, the tension rose in me. I had to drive miles around to my destination because my car wouldn’t make it up hills. It roared in desperation as I screamed and cried, listening to all the horns honking at me as to why I could barely go over 30 miles an hour.
There was the rich guy in Beverly Hills in the open-buttoned suit shirt and sunglasses with a wooden cross around his neck. He walked into the middle of the street when I could barely stop. When I yelled back my apology about my rolling stop due to fear of the car stalling, he yelled back with a cocky grin, “Not my problem, bitch!” He never had to worry about things that I did. Probably never went hungry. Never had to flee in the dead of night from his home. Never had to fight desperately for everything that he got.
When I drove away from that interview and by the ocean near Dockweiler Beach, I tried to find happiness. I attempted to shake off the mean people who were swerving around my dying car, praying that it wouldn’t stall or kill me before I got home. My inadequacy crashed over me. I wanted to know that my life was going to get better, but there were few guarantees and no setting sun over the blue ocean could comfort me.
The morning before the car would be towed away, I went down one more time to empty it, like I had with my cars previous to this. It was like an archeological exploration: Old photographs of me as a so-called happy wife. A bathing suit now three sizes too big. A blanket to lay out on the grass for movie nights in the summertime. My copy of Cards Against Humanity; a mainstay just in case my friends needed to play a game.
For some odd reason, my mind took me back to one sunny day in late May, back when I was still married and I knew my place in the universe. One of my closest guy friends was on my speaker phone as I was cleaning out the car, talking about my priorities at the time, which was to protect my cousin since her mother’s untimely death several weeks before.
As he talked to me with wonderment and respect for my desires in his voice, he couldn’t possibly know what the future would bring us. Then again, neither did I. I didn’t know this car would be an unlikely stand-in for a savior in my hour of need. I didn’t know that my cousin would find much more sorrow in her future than at that minute in time. I didn’t even know that I would later fall in love with that boy on the phone and soon after lose him for good. All I knew was that this car would take me from point A to point B. It was the present and the priorities I put in those moments that mattered. It was all that was worth anything.
As the tow truck driver pulled up on my street, we spoke briefly as we talked about the $300 that my car would be getting.
“Are you getting a new car?” he asked in his soft Latin accent.
“Nope,” I replied. “Can’t afford one. I can’t even afford to stay in my apartment.”
“I know what you mean,” he said. “I only get $25 per car I tow. It used to be $45. But I am thankful to have a job.”
As I went through the car one last time, I found an unusual item. It was bright emerald green and the driver thought it was perfume. It wasn’t; it was a wine bottle stopper made of delicate blown glass. And I looked at the man who was struggling just as much as I was, who saw me just as much as I saw him. And I offered it, with his face looking incredibly honored and stunned.
“What do I pay you?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I replied. “If you feel the need, pay me in blessings and good fortune.”
It was dramatic, sure, but all I had was how I treat my fellow human being, and in the present moment it was worth more than the cash value of the Saturn. And as I walked away from the truck, I walked as I did that night down the dark path before I got into my car: right foot first, looking back as you go, moving forward into the unknown with what you’ve got.