Few things are harder than letting go of a true love. I know, because I just did it.
A few weeks ago, I was forced to end a relationship that had been a source of stability and almost never caused me stress. I had to end it even though we were both content and nothing was wrong.
Because I’d known from day one that this relationship, wonderful though it was, couldn’t last forever, I had a long time to prepare for the end. But that still didn’t make it any easier. You never really know what goodbye will feel like until the moment is upon you.
And when the moment came, I felt like sobbing.
Somehow I managed to hold back my tears as I handed the keys to my blue, 2004 six-speed Acura RSX Type-S to my nephew, who had just gotten his learner’s permit. I had no idea that letting go would be so hard when I promised the car to J.J. a decade earlier. (Promises are easy to make when the probability and date of execution both seem remote.)
Oh, the places we’d gone, that little blue car and I. It took me to Hilton Head and back to visit a long-distance boyfriend. It helped a dear friend race to the hospital to see his father, who’d just had a stroke. It made dozens of trips to fields and gyms across Virginia to watch various family sporting events. It held my belongings when I decided to leave my husband and the Yuppie Prison in July of 2011. That car was the one thing that felt a little bit normal as the rest of my life was falling apart around me.
When I moved in with my sister and her family that summer, I carted my seven and nine year-old Roommates all over the place in my two-door delight. They always sat in the incredibly cramped backseat and couldn’t get out unless I pressed a lever that pushed the front seat forward a few inches. They soon realized that, if they wrapped their arms around the passenger seat while I pressed the lever, they could shoot forward with the seat, a game they loved. Sometimes I launched them five or six times before we even left the driveway. Once we got going, we would sing pop atrocities like “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz at the top of our lungs. When I think back to that summer, happy memories of these sing-along ride-alongs crowd out the misery of extricating myself from a terrible marriage.
But after ten years, the time had come for me and my car to set each other free.
Just before dusk a few Sundays ago, I drove my eldest nephew to a large, deserted, and hilly church parking lot. After I parked the car and shut off the ignition, we switched places. It took me more than a few minutes to adjust to the view from the passenger seat, a role I wasn’t used to.
As we buckled our seatbelts, I realized I had given no thought whatsoever to how to teach stick shift to J.J. (We childless aunts aren’t usually entrusted with teaching nieces and nephews anything other than curse words.) My mind raced back to the two-phase approach that had been used when I learned how to drive stick at age 23.
Phase one consisted of a very brief lesson administered by my father in the Lake Braddock Secondary School parking lot. After I’d managed to get the car in gear and moving forward successfully twice, he pronounced me ready to hit the road. I disproved the pronouncement almost immediately by stalling four times in a row. On a hill. In traffic. After the fourth stall, I came unglued, yanked the emergency brake, stormed out of the car, and yelled, “YOU DRIVE! I’M WALKING HOME!”
Phase two was conducted a few days later by my nineteen year-old brother. Perhaps because he hadn’t expected to find himself in a teaching role, his instruction consisted of one sentence: “It’s like walking in slow-motion: as you put your left foot down on the clutch, you lift your right foot off of the gas, and then reverse it.” If my brother was short on advice, he was long on patience, so eventually I got it.
At the risk of depriving my nephew of an important educational experience, I decided that we could skip phase one and go straight to phase two. I passed down my brother’s one-sentence pearl of wisdom and hoped it would be enough. I felt surprisingly calm, considering that neither J.J. nor I knew what we were doing.
Right away, J.J. stalled, as most people do when learning to drive stick. Three or four additional stalls allowed me to diagnose the problem. “Give it more gas,” I said, my Zen state undisturbed.
The stalling continued. I decided to try coaching J.J. while he was in the process of shifting.
“Gas,” I said, calmly. He gave it a little more juice, but I knew we were still on the brink. “Gas,” I said again, the prospect of another stall becoming imminent. I started to lose my Zen and began repeating that one word, increasing the speed and volume of my speech until I could have passed for a World Cup commentator.
Five solid minutes of “Gas…gas…gas gas gas gas GAS GAS GAS!” must have done the trick, because pretty soon, J.J. got it.
We spent another half hour in the parking lot executing all sorts of maneuvers, only a few of which sent me lurching forward in the seat like a cat in the throes of a hairball. I decided we were ready to take on the streets of Arlington.
“Just remember two things, J.J.,” I said. “Rule number one: stay calm. Rule number two: gas. Gas gas gas gas gas.”
And we were off. For the next forty-five minutes, my nephew drove well and uneventfully, stalling only once and recovering right away. We decided to head back home. I thought we were in the clear until an aggressive driver tailgated and then passed my nephew on a one-lane road a few blocks from my house.
J.J. was rattled, which I realized only as he was pulling the car into the driveway. My driveway is a flat surface except for the concrete apron that leads to it. That apron, which rises two inches at its peak, might as well have been Mount Everest. J.J. stalled once. Twice. Three times.
After the fourth, I caught a whiff of an unfamiliar odor. It smelled vaguely like formaldehyde, a scent I associate more with funeral homes than driveways. It took me a second to realize the stench emanated from my burning clutch. Suddenly the funeral connection seemed apropos. Tears sprang to my eyes and I resorted to mouth-breathing.
“Oh my GOD, Aunt Wheat. I can’t do it,” J.J. said, making me fear that we might end up going through phase one after all. I couldn’t let it happen.
I grabbed the emergency brake and put the car in neutral.
“Don’t worry, pal,” I said. “You’re totally okay. I know that guy threw you off, but you did absolutely nothing wrong, except you forgot rule number one. Which is…?”
He let out an exasperated sigh. “Stay calm,” he said, only it came out as, “Steh hahm,” because his teeth were gritted.
“And rule number two?”
“Gas,” he said. He paused for a split second and then added, “Gas gas gas gas GAS GAS GAS!” in his best World Cup Announcer voice. We cracked up.
When we got ahold of ourselves, I said, “Okay, give it another shot.” This time, he remained calm. And boy, did he ever remember to give it gas. We rocketed into the driveway so fast I thought we might break the sound barrier, or at least the gate to my backyard.
After a hearty laugh and a change of underwear, my nephew and I agreed that, even if we didn’t go all that far, we had definitely turned a corner together.