One constant in my adult life that has meant more to me than I expected is my car, Peppy. She’s the ultimate little black dress of a car: reliable, classic, and a bit sparkly. She’s the second car that I have called my own, but really, she’s the first that was solely mine and my financial responsibility, a dependent of sorts. I took out my first loan for this car, paid it off, and now nine years and about 67,000 miles later, I’m moving on to newer and superior wheels. In this car, I ventured from home to work to school to boyfriend to new boyfriend to new home to job to second job to graduate school to newer boyfriend to newest boyfriend and back (with a few more stops in between too). Along the way, I took for granted that Peppy, a glossy black 2000 Nissan Altima GLE, was an undeniably important presence, another character if you will, in my story, much like New York City is the fifth gal at Carrie Bradshaw’s luncheon with Charlotte, Samantha, and Miranda. As expected for any well-mannered Style Darling, Peppy is luxuriously accessorized with a leather interior, sunroof, and seats that hug both driver and passengers upon sitting—my kind of gorgeous and accommodating ride, that’s for sure.
Getting in the driver’s seat (figuring out what I want) and taking the wheel (figuring out how to get what I want) has been a challenge to overcome (because of family, relationships, money, health, whatever), especially when the road ahead is always changing (because you don’t always end up with what you want, even when you’re trying your effing hardest). With that on-the-road-ish metaphor in tow, I’m drawn to the fact that Peppy has been the means to getting to wherever I want to go, both literally and figuratively. In doing so, the exploration of ownership and control have been difficult themes in my writing, especially over the last few years living on my own and balancing everything that comes with being an adult.
Looking back, during my childhood and teenaged years, driving was the last thing on my mind. I had friends, Barbie dolls, boys, fashion, and writing swarming through my brain like that Pokémon nonsense is flooding the nation right now. Once in elementary school, a teacher assigned our class to write a few paragraphs about something we would want to do when we turned eighteen—an age that felt like light-years away, especially as I fidgeted in a training bra. The oddball dreamer in me immediately wrote about travelling at eighteen and all the possibilities of life experience that come with that. I don’t mean travel in the commuter sense, but travel as in actually being in places where food, fashion, music, art, and people were stories in motion waiting to inspire me. To my surprise, most of my classmates wanted more than anything to get a car and drive it, a thought that never occurred to me. Not once. Some kids were seeking independence from their parents, some wanted to get the heck off Long Island, and others boasted about rocking around town in “some sick wheels.” Of course, growing up in the suburbs meant that obtaining transportation to get from point A to B to north fork to south shore was essential for basic survival.
I came to own Peppy by accident, because of an accident. I totaled my Volvo and wasn’t about to rely on my parents for long-term help. I was presented with three different Nissan models, and upon my third test drive, my neutral driving satisfaction turned into an exclamation, “Ooh! She’s peppy!” Hence, her name, which eventually evolved into other expressions (depending on the day or my mood), including Pepsi-Cakes, Peppy Girl, Peppy-Poo, Pepperoni Pie, and oh how the list goes on. We were a match, thus beginning our relationship, pet names and all.
Peppy became my vault. She heard me sing, and try to sing, the songs that inspired me and taught me that I had not just a voice as a writer or closeted singer, but also a voice as a young woman. It was therapy. Some may turn to fitness or hobbies to relieve their stress or work through problems, but I confess, I’m a car singer—a hardcore car singer. Summers with the sunroof open called for a mix of favorite female songwriters and 90s alternative tunes, the ones I’d once recorded from the radio on cassette tapes (Google those last two words if you don’t recognize them) on my father’s silver boom box. The Fugees. No Doubt. Jewel. Oasis. Alanis Morissette. Garbage. Goo Goo Dolls. There’s another list that goes on.
My guilty pleasures were head and shoulder-bopping pop singles, and I still turn up the volume when Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous” (a duet with Timbaland) finds its way back onto mainstream FM stations ten years after its debut. The confines of my car’s doors, roof, and windows meant that whatever I spoke or chanted would remain safely inside. I used my car as my own little stage when I was too afraid to sing in front of others. It was like American Idol was airing during every drive and I won every time. It should be noted that driving carefully is always priority number one (before attempts at hitting those belted out high notes in Sia’s “Alive,” which I can do!).
On long drives home from The Hamptons (for education, not luxury living), phrases for songs and descriptions for stories came to me. I couldn’t always pull over to write everything down, so I’d use the voice recorder app on my iPhone, logging hours of myself singing about everything I could. Those earlier penned melodies and hooks still keep me company years later. When, for whatever reason, I couldn’t rely on technology to save my inspiration, I would just repeat the lines of whatever I thought of over and over again, sometimes for up to an hours’ worth of driving, just so I wouldn’t lose the valuable words.
So many memories rise to the surface when it comes to thinking about how Peppy has impacted my life beyond her purpose as a mode of transportation. Nine years is a long time. I’ve told employers that loyalty is one of my strengths because I’ve worked jobs for years in a row, usually moving on only out of financial necessity. I still have close friendships from elementary, middle, and high school. I don’t enter into relationships lightly; I don’t just test the waters of people-knowing with my toes. I’m always all-in. In the end, Peppy, with all of her kinks and quirks and replacement parts and service bills, has been loyal to me.
I drove to meet with Laurie, a new friend to whom I greatly looked up, after 1st boyfriend (not as in the boyfriend who ranks in first place, but just first in the sequence of post-high school romances) broke up with me over the phone. We grabbed gobs of ice cream and toppings galore from the supermarket to gluttonously savor back at her apartment in Saint James (the same one-bedroom I would come to live in six years later). We bonded and wallowed in the heartache that followed so many beautiful, smart, and lovable women who are worthy of the happiness that they struggle to achieve. Also, it was my first time trying Marshmallow Fluff.
I sat in my car, crying on my cell phone to my mother on a December evening. After one tumultuous semester of graduate school, in a Masters in Liberal Arts program and private college that I wasn’t keen on, I needed to drop out. I wasn’t a quitter; I wasn’t used to feeling so not like myself, but I’d been up to my eyebrows in research papers and presentation preparations about Elizabethan writers I didn’t care about. I lost track of the creativity that I desperately needed to express in my own writing. I couldn’t wait to drive off campus and never look back on that feeling of failure again. I drove with only the plan of figuring out a plan for myself.
It was barely four hours into 2011 when my parents drove me to JFK airport. I was flying to Italy by myself to study abroad, determined to write my story, whatever I thought it was at the time. My shoulder bag, stuffed with a laptop and plenty of beauty supplies, weighed me down in the passenger seat. When we parked, I took my luggage out of the trunk, surprised that my carry-on bag was all that was tucked inside the storage space. It was like I had so much room left to fill in the world.
On the July afternoon on the day after Amy Winehouse died, I’d driven back to Lake Grove from my first writer’s conference in Southampton. I’d been home for only an hour when 2nd boyfriend insisted that we talk about the “break” we were on, which could only mean one thing. We sat in my car in a Starbucks parking lot (neither of us had much privacy at home) when he said, “I can’t be happy with you if I’m not happy with myself.” The road beneath me sunk as my broken heart and I returned home.
In the summer, I parked Peppy in the shade of the parking lot at work (at the bank) so I could take power naps before returning from my lunch break. Sometimes I would read to relax, but the routine of “numbers and paper” (a phrase I often used to describe a job that entailed my being in the presence of hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash) dragged me down. When there wasn’t any road construction on the highway across the way, I’d close my eyes, tune out, and forget that thirty-five minutes later my cell phone’s alarm would ring.
I circled 3rd boyfriend’s block over and over again. He said he’d be ready for me to come over at 9:30pm. It was Valentine’s Day, but already night time. I had work during the day and he had a night class that I didn’t expect him to skip for our new relationship, or whatever it was that we were calling our time together. We ended up circling around each other for nearly four years. The miles weighed on my heart just as much as they wore on Peppy.
After I moved into my apartment in September of 2013, I’d been working so much between both jobs and another shot at the right fit graduate school that my first do-nothing-at-all day off was in December—the blizzardy white-out kind of snow day for which the northeast is famous. I’d spent the day binging on an entire season of Mad Men because I just had to clear my mind of everything that changed over the last few months. I’d been checking on my car parked in the street through the blinds, waiting for the right time to clear it off and dig out the area around it, so I could drive wherever I needed to go when it was time to go.
On a harried Sunday night drive after work (at a retail store) and just days before Christmas, I parked next to a dumpster, the only spot available in the apartment complex’s full lot. I checked my makeup in the mirror, not wanting to look too made up, so I decided to forego lip gloss (which I never wear anyway—gasp!), but feeling and looking pretty for this first date was the confidence I needed to put myself out there for someone worth the fuss. I texted where I was parked, he appeared, and then walked me in to his place. Dinner was cooking on the stove, and all the smells of a meal made by someone very special waited for my indulgence.
Rather than feeling like I’m letting go of a trusted companion, I’m simply choosing to believe that the new car I recently purchased, another twinkling black Nissan, is not just an upgraded version of my car, but that she’s been pampered and preened for a much-needed makeover. Peppy II (or Peppy 2, Peppy Due [doo-eh, as per the number two in Italian], Pepster, and more nicknames to come) is stylish and sleek, a good fit for upcoming adventures.
I’m not even entirely embarrassed about the sentimentality I ascribe to the vehicle. It’s not a materialistic thing, that I need a cool car to feel something better about myself. It’s just so symbolic that looking ahead is always something happening right in front of you. It was hard to say goodbye to the old wheels (even in the midst of so many other bigger things happening in life), although I know Peppy (the original) won’t be too far away, parked in front of another home, driven by a new driver (who will coincidentally be attending the college in the fall where I work), and serving her noble purpose of steering towards a better future.
Maybe those kids from my class that time weren’t too far off the mark in their excitement about driving. I, someone who’s prided herself on being a bit different from the crowd (liking the color green instead of pink, for example—I know, so radical!), just took a little longer to realize and appreciate the value of driving and owning an automobile. Whatever it is that you choose to do, wear, say, think, be, and drive, there’s always somewhere amazing to go. It’s in those moments, when I’m behind the wheel, when life is happening. With that, the soulful 1994 hit “You Gotta Be” by Des’ree is the empowering anthem I choose to end on. Because… why not be everything?