My first car was unforgettable. It was a fading red 1988 Chevrolet Beretta that I bought for five hundred dollars. It had a huge dent in the front right fender, and a good deal of the hood’s paint was chipped away. I’m pretty sure that the seat belts were just for show, and the roof leaked when it rained. There was a gaping hole surrounding the emergency break and a giant gash in the dashboard; I covered both with red and white Christmas place mats and duct tape. The CD player, which was the kind that had a handle and pulled completely out (as if such a thing need be portable), worked for a few seconds the first time I tried it, and then never again. But despite all its numerous flaws, I loved that car.
I bought the Beretta during winter break of my sophomore year in college and gave it over to a mechanic who coaxed (or bribed) it into passing the State Inspection just in time for me to take it back to school. So my first significant time with the car was the drive from my home in Brooklyn to my college near Boston. To my surprise, my dad insisted on making the trip with me. And although I have always valued time with my father, I thought his insistence a bit odd since he, himself, didn’t know how to drive (and still doesn’t). But in hindsight, I’m glad he was with me — and I’m especially grateful that I wasn’t alone, given the surprises this trip had in store.
It was very early one January morning when my father and I set out. The sun was shining bright enough to make it appear warm outside, and the roads were free of ice and snow. We were leaving very early because that’s what my father does. Regardless of the destination, his travel mantra has always been, and will always be: Tomorrow, we leave at dawn!
Even though it was my first time driving on a highway, I felt confident. I entered I-95 north and picked up speed. I was going roughly sixty miles per hour (which I would later learn was my Beretta’s maximum speed and the real reason for my never getting a speeding ticket in that car). I maneuvered into the leftmost lane and was probably feeling very proud of myself for doing so. And then it happened. The hood of my car went flying up, hit the windshield, and stayed up. I couldn’t see anything except for the top of my hood which, due to the impact, even more paint had chipped away from.
I was going sixty miles per hour in the leftmost lane of a major highway, and I might as well have been blindfolded. But before my brain could process all the reasons why I might be about to die or get seriously injured, before I could wish that my car had airbags or at least seat belts that I was certain worked, before I could regret that I wasn’t sitting next to a talkative weirdo on a Greyhound bus instead of driving this jalopy of a car, before I could process panic, I heard my dad’s naturally soft, composed voice say, “It’s okay, Aabye. Just slow down and stop.” My dad, despite the fact that, or perhaps because, he had never driven a car in his life, calmly told me to stop in the fast lane of a highway. That’s how my father was, true to his name, Clement: temperate, calm, gentle. I didn’t flinch or scream; I didn’t make a single sound. I didn’t even think to look in my rearview mirror to see if anyone was right behind me (apologies to my driving instructor). I simply trusted in my father’s calm instruction, and slowly stopped the car.
Of course, my father isn’t perfect. After he had gotten out of the car and used his fists to bang the inverted hood back into its proper shape, I was able to tentatively inch over into the breakdown lane. It was then that my imperfect, but well-meaning, father made the inherently flawed suggestion that we “secure” the hood with duct tape. With a semester of physics fresh in my mind, I knew better, but my father is a hard man to doubt. I was greatly relieved when a police officer arrived, bluntly refuted my dad’s duct tape theory, and insisted that we get the help of a professional. We listened. And it was a good thing too, because in all the excitement of the hood flying up, I had failed to notice that the Beretta’s engine was overheating.
The mechanic outfitted my car with a wire hanger to keep the hood down and administered a full dosage of coolant. After a couple of hours we were back on the road. After a few more minutes we had to stop and find another mechanic; the car was overheating again. Eventually we made it safely (and without further incident) to campus. Our trip had begun at dawn, but didn’t end until well after nightfall — the four-hour trip taking closer to twelve.
That car was full of inconvenient surprises, so each time I prepared to drive home for a vacation, and at my father’s suggestion (actually, insistence), I took it into the Chevrolet dealership to ask if it was likely to survive the trip. Invariably, I got the same response: a shrug and dubious smile — along with a bill for sixty-five dollars. One mechanic added that if my car were a horse, he’d take it out back and have it euthanized. Regardless, I continued to drive it.
The Beretta survived for the rest of my collegiate years and for several months into my first job. Then it started to have trouble with hills, which was unfortunate because my route to work involved several of them. At the slightest of inclines my car started to shake and buck like the little engine that couldn’t. I was willing to put up with a broken ac during the summer or, and worse, having to drive around with the windows down and the heat on full blast so that the engine wouldn’t overheat, but having to drive twice as far in order to get to and from work via the flattest route possible was too much for me to bear. I decided to buy a less-used car — a car that wouldn’t make my mechanic a millionaire from my business alone. I bought a Honda, and thus ended my storied relationship with my first automotive love — that old, faded red Beretta with the chipping paint and the wire hanger keeping its hood down.
This piece originally appeared on Write Away.