Five minutes into the test drive, the shift knob popped off in my hand. “It does that,” the seller said.
It was a bright red Jeep, with a roof that folded like a tent and doors you could remove to watch the pavement whiz by. It was 20 years old, just a few years younger than I was that summer.
Driving away after I handed over the cash, one of the headlights rattled loose. I watched it tumble away in the rear-view mirror.
It wasn’t my first car. That had been provided by my parents, something safe and reliable that never felt like it belonged to me because it never really did. The Jeep, though, was mine. The title, printed on paper that shimmered like fish scales in the sun, said so.
My dad, skeptical, took it for a spin around the block. The shift knob popped off in his hand. “It does that,” I said, as if such things always happened in safe cars.
It was a death trap. The driver’s seat belt attached to a rust hole where the floor used to be. I drove it everywhere with the windows open, even in rain, fearful that exhaust fumes would seep in and lull me to eternal sleep.
I drove it everywhere.
To parties and concerts and ice cream shops and bars. On dates and would-be dates and never-would-be dates. On aimless, meandering jaunts through midnight countryside, straining to see the road lit by one headlight.
When I left for school in the fall, the Jeep stayed behind, unable to conquer the hundred-mile drive to the city. I couldn’t park it in my parents’ driveway (because it leaked oil), couldn’t stash it in the garage (because it reeked of gasoline), couldn’t leave it in the yard (because teenagers knocked on the door hoping to buy it). I ditched it in the parking lot at my dad’s office, by the dumpster.
I sold the Jeep over winter break, to buy textbooks long since gone obsolete. Flurries fell as I pulled into the salvage yard. The manager used a nickel to unscrew the license plate.
Six years later, I’m walking back to my apartment. I’ve left school, changed careers, moved a half-dozen times. I glimpse at a Jeep just like mine parked on my block. I peer in the window, see that same shift knob.
You never forget your first car.
Editor’s note: This story is part of our October 2016 series ‘Hundreds of Words about My First Car’