“I know you’re asking for $6500, but would you consider going down to $6000?” my grandfather says considerately. He has always been a good talker.
The middle-aged woman from the ad, Karen, looks back at him, then down at me, then nods her head. “The brakes do need replacing. I can settle for 6.”
My grandfather extends his hand, and Karen shakes it. I shake her hand, too. I don’t have $6000, not yet, but I have about 2 grand saved up from working at my dad’s plant one summer in high school. Over the next few years, I’ll be sure to pay back my parents who are covering the rest of this transaction.
A couple days later, we go to Karen’s house and hand her a cashier’s check and sign some papers, and then I hop into the driver’s seat of a ’02 pearl white Mitsubishi Galant.
It’s the summer of 2006, I’m 19 years old, transferring as a sophomore to the University of Georgia this fall, and I’ve just acquired my first car.
~ ~ ~
I’ve always had a knack for naming things. I named Annie, our first family dog, because it “sounded good,” and I named Frisky, the neighborhood cat, from the cat food brand we’d bought for him.
Maybe “knack” isn’t the right word. I just like taking charge and naming things. Dogs, cats, stuffed animals, etc.
I didn’t have to think long or hard over what I would call my first car, a Mitsubishi Galant. It was either gonna be Mitsy or Gally.
“Mitsy,” I said aloud. I said it again.
And it was settled.
~ ~ ~
Though the car was technically “mine,” I didn’t really drive it all that much that first year. My sister needed it more than I did, attending a community school located in the opposite direction of my university and the high school where my mom worked. Most mornings my sophomore year, my mom would drop me off at college on her way to work, then pick me up later that afternoon.
Eventually, though, the more I paid her off and the more our family schedules aligned, Mitsy became more my vehicle. The summer of 2007, my siblings and I took our first road trip sans our parents. We ventured to the Outer Banks of North Carolina to see the country’s tallest lighthouse, along with a free boat ride that ferried cars and wild ponies that roamed Ocracoke Island.
We drove through the night and wound up almost running out of gas, calling our dad around 3am for gas station help in an era before GPS and smartphones, and after a few short hours along the Outer Banks we continued a course northward to family in Philadelphia amid the heaviest, most blinding sheets of rain I’ve ever driven through.
My siblings always say they hated that trip.
I say it’s the first time I fell in love with the road behind a wheel and four tires I could control.
~ ~ ~
The more I drove Mitsy, the more independence I gained, and the more of myself I discovered. I drove to school for classes, I drove to parks for runs, I drove to houses all over northeast Georgia while working for the U.S. Census Bureau. When the Phillies won their first World Series in 28 years, I drove from Georgia to Philadelphia the next day for the ethereal championship parade.
I drove from Georgia to Chicago for a conference that would introduce me to some of my very best friends. I drove all the way across the country to southern California for a new start at life, and I drove all over Orange County tutoring millionaire children in gated communities. On weekends, I’d drive up to the Griffith Observatory for views of Los Angeles and the Hollywood sign, just because I could.
I drove with my sister and my best friend from LA to Seattle because that city had long been whispering my name, and Mitsy heartily agreed to take me, take all of us. I drove to Camp Ridgecrest all the way back on the other side of the country because, why, of course, adventure.
I drove back to southern California when I felt I still had more stories left to lead there, and then I drove and drove for two more years yet.
Eventually I saw my church and life group and friendships and livelihood falling apart, and I heard the call for a new livelihood. So, I hit the road like never before.
It would be a running away, yes, but moreso a running to, and over the next 9 months I would hit 48 states and 6 provinces, racking up 26,301 miles I’d have never accumulated otherwise.
I wound up concluding that trip in Charlotte. I’d then drive 4 hours every week to work in the Blue Ridge Mountains with troubled youth.
The next year, I moved to Asheville for yet another fresh start. Took several weekend excursions on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and I swear Mitsy and I felt as close to free as we’d been on the road those 9 glorious months.
Just two weeks ago, Mitsy and I left for another road trip to Virginia for my sister’s college graduation followed by time with family in Philly.
Two weeks later, I’m back in Asheville.
Mitsy is not.
~ ~ ~
Over the last decade, I have commanded at least ten separate addresses, I’ve lost count, spanning college to young adulthood and four separate states. I’ve gone to DMV after hellish DMV and transferred license plate after tedious license plate, and I’ve felt the intoxicating rush of propulsion and purpose with every turn of the key.
I can’t tell you the number of joys I’ve experienced in that car, from solo road trips to journeys with friends and family and meetups with my readers and fellow bloggers.
And I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve also cried in that car.
Those nights at Ridgecrest when I’d retreat to Mitsy tucked into the woods and cry, cry, cry because I was so not like all the other counselors and nobody had a clue.
The aftermath of moving back to California for the second time, now without my solid roommates who had moved away, coming back from the library after an unsuccessful search for jobs and houses and sinking into the driver’s seat with a deep, weeping what the hell am I doing with my life?
Of watching friendships implode and deteriorate upon returning to my lonely apartment each night, writhing in the driver’s seat desperate for a sweet yesterday that would never return.
Over and over, I’ve cried salty tears and poured my very soul into that steering wheel. The driver’s seat was my refuge in an ever-changing world of deteriorating relationships and restless searches for careers and homes and hopeless stability.
For ten years, Mitsy never shied away. She only listened. Always.
As a guy who has wandered the continent and often struggled to find the right set of listening ears, Mitsy was one of few constants and nothing short of a best friend.
~ ~ ~
I always knew losing Mitsy one day would wreck me. I imagined the day — one day far, far away — running her into the ground after our 500,000th mile atop some craggy mountain or lost in Central America, or maybe even reaching such a point of financial freedom that I’d upgrade to another vehicle long before her time even came. I’d not sell her, but gift her to someone in need — a family member, a friend, or a blog reader, perhaps.
After all, I couldn’t just sell Mitsy to any old Craigslist Joe. I had to know she was safe, she was all right, she was properly cared for and utilized as she’d done for me throughout my own journey.
And then, just as I was anticipating our 222,222nd mile together on the road home from Philly to Asheville last week, Mitsy did what Mitsy had never before done.
Mitsy started smoking. Smoking bad. I pulled over amid a cloud of white, and when the smoke died down I turned the key.
A key that would no longer turn.
~ ~ ~
Why am I a guy who cries?
For years I have often wondered this, often loathed my very being for this emotional mess I bear within and cannot shed.
Why do I cry when some bully makes fun of me?
Why do I cry when I scale a mountain and look down at the path I just climbed?
Why do I cry when my dog dies?
Why do I cry when Wilson, a volleyball with a bloody face, floats away from a screaming Tom Hanks?
And why do I cry when a car I’ve named Mitsy, a car made of metal and wires, decides no longer to work?
The cost to repair her ruined engine would have cost far more than her so-called worth. It made no sense to fork over such funds I did not have while waiting for days in some central Virginia hotel.
But did it also make sense to leave Mitsy there at Mechanic Wayne’s vehicular graveyard in Nowheresville, Virginia, of all the god-forsaken places for Mitsy who has seen the world and been so faithful to die?
What the hell kind of ending is that?
I signed the title over to Wayne with no other choice. We removed the license plate, and I asked for help prying off the Mitsubishi emblem and the Jesus fish I’d installed just prior to that Outer Banks outing. I emptied the car of all my belongings and transferred them to the bulky blue Jeep Patriot I was renting for a one-way trip to Asheville.
I stripped Mitsy naked, inside out, and in the end I did what I’d done so many times before.
I sink into the driver’s seat, close the door, and I weep.
I sit there gasping for breath like and yet so unlike all those other times, deeper and achier with a finality that would not flee. My tear-soaked eyes glance all over the interior, searching for any forgotten belongings but mostly just absorbing one last seat in my refuge for a decade.
I hop out of Mitsy and into the Patriot and take a wide turn in the parking lot for one last look, the shadow of the pried-off Mitsubishi emblem on her front side staring back at me like fluttering, faltering eyelids.
“Goodbye, Mitsy,” I break through the tears and gasp some more, plowing through the junkyard, forced to continue this life journey without her for the first time in my adult life.
For hours homeward, the tears would not subside.
Days later, they still return on long walks to grocery stores and silent nights in bed staring up at a black ceiling wondering what comes next.
~ ~ ~
I feel like an idiot for crying so much over a damn car. I have friends who have lost their fathers and mothers and unborn children, and meanwhile I can’t stop crying over a car with no lungs or heartbeat or arms to wrap around me.
I don’t mean to offend; truly, I don’t. For 29 years I’ve been blessed not to lose a single human who I’ve actually known and spent much time with and loved. I’m so grateful. So fortunate.
The time is coming, I know. My grandfather who helped me find and purchase Mitsy ten years ago now suffers from the aftermath of a stroke, and I know our time together will not last forever. It’s why I drove up to see him and my grandmother and all the rest of my family on this most recent road trip, while I still have this chance.
It was one last road trip that would finally cost Mitsy her life.
I’m sorry I can’t help bawling, over and over, over a car that guided me through such pivotal chapters of my story. A car that took me from sea to shining sea and connected me with such precious humans the continent over. My friends and readers have known Mitsy on a first-name (only-name?) basis, and several even hugged her lower torso upon first meeting her, or they told me they couldn’t believe they were actually getting to ride in her with me.
I’m sorry I’m a guy who cries over his car, but Mitsy wasn’t just for me. Mitsy was for everyone who helped me climb out of rigid isolation. Mitsy was for adventure, and Mitsy was for life. Life lived with others to the full and never again lost in lonely shadows.
I’ll never be the same because of that car and every last one of those 222,193 miles. I can’t believe it’s over.
Moving forward, I don’t know that I’ll ever be the same without her.