Perhaps it is my father’s fault, for loving so fiercely that I couldn’t help but be caught up in it all. Or maybe it’s just me, and I would have loved the same, with or without him. But my first love, and my eternal true love, was a bright red 1991 Mazda 323. It was originally my father’s, and he swore that he would never give it up, but one day, shortly after I got my driver’s license (I was 19), he invited me over to his house. When I arrived, I saw his perfect little car sitting in the driveway with a bow wrapped around it. And right behind it, was a second bright red 1991 Mazda 323.
He’d found a gently used one with fewer miles on it, so he’d traded sideways, as up as he could go, and now the original car was mine. And oh, what a car it was. I got to learn to drive stick shift in that car, which I did on a long road trip to visit Tenor Mom at her college far away. This road trip commenced pretty much immediately after taking possession of the vehicle, because, Freedom!
As it turns out, driving for hours on the highway gives an inexperienced driver a false sense of knowing how to drive stick, and when I finally had to switch to a lower gear and enter town, things didn’t go so well. Tenor Mom and her best college friend still give me a hard time about my slowly developing skills that weekend. But it was a car. It was my car. And it was awesome.
The Mazda commercials said “Zoom Zoom!” for a reason. I don’t know what it is about them, but there is just a little kick to a Mazda that makes it extraordinarily fun to drive. The handling was amazing. I was swooping in and out of traffic like an idiot 19 year old who’d just gotten his license, and I was incredible. The seat fit me just right, the controls were right where I wanted them, and it was perfect. But then I had to go back to college in the fall, and there wasn’t really a place to park my car at school, so I left it home in the care of my brother, who had just turned 16 and gotten his own license. He was allowed to use it to get back and forth to school, and around town, while I was away, and then I would have it when I came home on breaks. A good plan for all involved.
At Christmas break, I decided to fly home to an airport about 2-3 hours from my house, because it was 2-3 times cheaper to do so, and my brother agreed to pick me up at the airport. This was exciting. Two brothers, finally approaching manhood, doing something together with no other adults around. It felt like growing up. We were clearly ready for this responsibility. I think we made it about halfway home.
Somewhere around the intersection of I-89 and I-91 in New Hampshire, the engine started to smoke. There was a bad smell. There was terror. My brother asked why I was going 70 in fourth gear. I informed him that I had forgotten that there was a fifth gear, and I switched to fifth, hoping it would solve the problem. It did not solve the problem. I pulled over and opened the hood, as if I knew anything at all about cars, and coughed as a large cloud of thick black smoke came billowing into my face. This was not good.
I decided that the engine had probably overheated, because I knew nothing about engines, or heat, and so we sat with the car turned off on the side of the interstate, waiting for it to cool down. It was about 10 degrees out and snowing, so it seemed likely that the winter weather would blow in and fix the engine trouble for us. We turned up the heat inside the car, blasted the radio, and had a great time. Until the battery died.
It was now quite dark out, we were on the side of the highway, the car was 100% dead in every way, and, to make matters worse, no one had invented cell phones yet. So my brother decided that he should leave to go get help. I pointed out that he was not wearing a coat (because why would you need a coat if you were never planning on leaving the car), but this did not concern him, so out he went, into the snowy night, as I sat in the ever-chilling car, growing increasingly concerned.
When the police arrived, to find out what I was doing there, I explained the story to them, and asked if they had seen my brother. They had not, and they had been driving along the highway the whole time. He was definitely not out there. They told me to stay in the car, and then they left, leaving me alone again. Now I was really starting to freak out, and I really wished I had remember that fifth gear existed. When the police officer finally returned, there was still no sign of my brother, but he informed me that I had to go with him because they were going to tow the car. He brought me to a Dunkin’ Donuts, where I called my mother (it was now around midnight), and wailed loudly to her. Of course, she didn’t own a car at this time, so now she got to go wake up some friends and beg favors from them on my behalf. She was a good mother.
And not to worry, the police did find my brother, who had run across many lanes of dark interstate to get to the liquor store on the other side. We were reunited and spent three hours in the Dunkin Donuts, making up games with straws and cup lids. At 3 am, when my mother, her friend, and her friend’s two children pulled up in their station wagon, we were very ready to go home. And I never saw the car again.
My brother had a great time making fun of me over the next several days, since my ineptitude had caused the whole incident. At least, until I got the call from the mechanic. He told me that the engine was shot, and I needed a new one, and since I had no money I had to abandon it to him. He also told me that it looked as though someone, over the past few months, had been consistently drag racing the thing, going at speeds of up to 100 mph and completely destroying the engine of the small car. Yes, my inexperienced driving was the final blow, but driving for 20 minutes in one gear too low shouldn’t have completely killed an otherwise healthy engine. That thing was on its last cylinders already, thanks to a crazy 16-year-old.
My brother reluctantly admitted that maybe, just maybe, he had been taking my car out for NASCAR practice, and perhaps it was not the right thing to do. Maybe. So we finally agreed that it was a joint effort that killed the car. If either one of us had not done what we did, we wouldn’t have been pulling into our driveway at 5 am in a crowded station wagon. Fine. Agreed. We were both at fault. (But he was way more at fault.)
Eventually, my father had to give up his second bright red 1991 Mazda 323, and I got that one too. I drove that for several years until I finally had to give it up, a decision I still regret to this day. And every car after that has either been a Mazda, or somewhat of a disappointment. This is why, when we bought a new car yesterday, it had to be a Mazda. Not because other cars are not also good, or zippier, or shinier, or less expensive, or have more cupholders. No, I think you just never quite get over your first love. Even when it ends badly.