Learning Curves by Patti Santucci

I sat in the waiting room, browsing through a nine-month-old issue of Time magazine. I knew when he walked in, the news wasn’t going to be good. I’d known Dave for more than two decades and could see it in the signature down-turned corners of his mouth. 

 “We could go in but I can’t guarantee anything,” he said gently, an apology in his eyes. “Once we open her up, God knows what we’ll find. Given her age, I’m not sure it’s worth it at this point.” 

I’d had her for nearly eighteen years. At first, it was just minor inconveniences: a broken aerial, automatic locks that stopped responding to my key fob commands. The hatch, with the broken spring, that cracked me in the head more times than I care to mention. So, when the engine started knocking, I cranked up the radio. 

But denial would only take me so far. 

The smell and stains from her embarrassing oil leaks, the death rattle she made every time I stepped on the gas and the increasing number of times she left me stranded made me realize that she was done with me too. 

Dave kept eye contact as he calmly went down the list of organ failures…brakes…metal on metal…valve covers…oil leak…water pump…that engine knockloss of compression…. I mentally attached dollar amounts to each repair. 

 “Time to let her go. You had a nice run, but if you hang on too long, she’ll just end up costing you.” 

Anybody else would have traded her in long ago. There were the breakdowns, the way she downed gasoline like an alcoholic on a bender. Her constant struggle, which I often labeled as defiance, as she dragged her way up anything resembling a hill. 

I pulled into my garage and straddled her over an old rug placed on the floor for her numerous accidents. It’s good she’s acting up again, makes saying goodbye easier. By the time I cut the engine, I’d nearly convinced myself I wouldn’t miss her at all. 

That night in bed, I envisioned myself wearing a cowboy hat, a lazy piece of grass drooping off my bottom lip, sitting behind the wheel of a Toyota Tundra with a rented roto-tiller in the truck bed. Finally making good on my threat to revamp the backyard. No. Me, my hands wrapped around a heated steering wheel as I followed the navigational screen, relaxing to the sounds of a soothing symphony in a 2011 Mercedes Benz E-class. No, that wasn’t right either. Maybe I’d be sitting in a skirt, perhaps an inch too short for a woman my age, pulling up curbside to some upscale nightclub, in a yet-to-be-determined zippy red sports car. 

Of course, when morning hit, when I realized I’d drifted off during the daydream and had used the word zippy, I grabbed my reading glasses and approached the computer with my age and practicality intact. I researched websites like Edmunds, Car and Driver,Consumer Reports and by the time I stepped onto the CarMax parking lot, I had my list of makes and models I wanted to see. Mike the Salesman steered me through the lot, littered with over 800 cars, where some kind of middle-aged ADD came over me. I ran from vehicle to vehicle, saying intelligent things like: This one’s cute and I love this color. I flitted from a stripped-down Ford Focus to a shiny red Miata to a Jaguar that smelled like smoldering money the closer I got to it. 

I wish I could say I found the car right away, that I sat behind the wheel and experienced immediate bonding. But each test drive felt like putting on maternity jeans after having a baby. Nothing fit quite right anymore. 

But I kept up the search and the next day, despite storm warnings, I drove up and down the rows of another dealership, jumping out only to snap a quick picture. I lingered too long on one car, peering through the window, trying the door handles and wiping the rain from my eyes. 

A throat cleared and when I turned there stood an eager young man, head cocked in the same way my Chihuahua’s does when I grab her leash. A glowing commission check and dancing dollar signs filled a cartoon bubble above his head. And in spite of the meant-to-be-polite “Ma’am” reference, I agreed to test-drive that zippy Hyundai Veloster. 

This car seemed to fit. It felt young and I began thinking about the skirts in my closet. I knew it was ranked a lowly twenty-three on Car and Driver’s sports car list, that it rode a little rough, that the visibility was slightly compromised, that the pick-up was, by sports car standards, inferior. But I didn’t care. This one made my thighs feel thinner. 

I called my husband, Ben, and when he saw it, he said, “This? This is the car you want?” 

My old car (I was already thinking of her that way) was an SUV. Practical. Solid. Wide enough to handle children’s car seats, sleeping bags, suitcases, school stage props, theatrical sets. Big enough to carry tables and chairs and wrapping paper and Girl Scout cookies and ice chests and fundraising posters and, once, an IKEA loft bed for our, at the time, completely thrilled pre-teen daughter, Claire. Reliable enough to escort members of her high-school cheerleading squad home after late-night games. That car cradled Claire’s dreams and dorm supplies as we drove her to college for the first time. Fun fact: once the backseat is deserted, the passenger seat on an SUV can recline enough for a middle-aged woman to comfortably curl into a fetal position with a box of Kleenex for a six-hour drive home.   

 “Sure you don’t want more of a family car? You’ll feel the road more. It’s a big change,” Ben said. 

I know a thing or two about change

We took a seat inside the office as the finance manager began processing an oak tree of paperwork. In the office next door, a young couple with their toddler, were in negotiations. The little girl ambled off, bee-lining for the glossy magazines on the showroom coffee room table. From the doorway, her mom said, “No, no. You get back here.” Then more assertively, “I’m not chasing you, Isabella.” 

Just outside, my old car sat in the downpour. I wondered if anyone else could hear the children’s sing-song voices echoing out the backseat; the Disney radio channel morphing into Top 40 music. 

The little girl grabbed the television remote, causing two magazines to fall on the floor and the mother, in a whisper of a second, was by her side. 

You’ll never stop chasing her. This, if you only knew, is the easy part

The rain had been coming in hard spurts all day and I decided to take advantage of a lull of mere sprinkles to clean out my car. I worked quickly as I collected store-issued grocery bags that had multiplied like fruit flies. I tore up outdated insurance cards, a fading receipt for gas at $1.78 a gallon, a half-eaten Luna bar with dog hair on it. But when I stuck my hand into the pocket behind the passenger seat and found a Car Bingo card, I stood outside with the door open and stared at it until a raindrop dripped from the hood of my jacket. 

 “Tree,” Claire had said, from her car seat as we traveled with my parents to Oregon. 

 “Truck,” my father had said laughing, as he slid the red film over the picture of a semi. 

 “I need to stop again,” my father said after a beat, the necessity coming on that quickly. 

I could tell my elderly father felt humiliated, even betrayed, by the number of times his bladder demanded we stop. The embarrassment that washed over his face each time was heartbreaking. 

But children. Children have a way of finding the humor without trying. 

Claire and I had once again begun the regimen of getting her in and out of the car seat. Unbuckle. Slip the straps over her head. Stand in the hot wind. Watch Grandpa shuffle to the bathroom. Watch him shuffle back. Get inside the car. Pull the straps back over her head. Buckle her back in. 

After what seemed like the hundredth time, she looked up at us, her face scrunched, her eyes curious, and asked in her two-year-old voice, “Why do this game?” 

My father laughed so hard, I thought I’d have to unbuckle her again and wait for his return. 

Two years later, he lost his fight with congestive heart failure. But damned if he didn’t tell that story every chance he got. 

The rain was picking up and I rushed back inside the dealership to find my husband absorbed in a televised golf tournament. I shook off my coat, raindrops falling in fat plops. 

 “I didn’t realize it was still raining,” he said. 

 “I didn’t realize you watched golf tournaments,” I said, realizing, for not the first time since we empty-nested, that not only did I not know who I was anymore, I would also have to rediscover the man I’d been married to. 

We returned to the office to finalize the paperwork. A sob swelled in my chest and I scolded myself. Who in their right mind gets sad when they’re buying a new car? Snap out of it. 

My husband made eye-contact, tenderly touched my arm and asked if I was all right. I gave him a quick nod, though we both knew I was lying. 

I signed, initialed and all but linked pinky fingers with the manager confirming that I was qualified to make the payments. One snapshot of the salesman handing me the key, Smile big for the camera, and I was pulling out of the lot in my new car, glancing at my old one in the rear view, a film of nostalgia clinging to her bumper. 

At 3:00 a.m. I woke in a panic, wondering what had possessed me to buy such a small, impractical and young car. I scrolled internet sites researching roto-tiller dimensions. 

Four hours later I sat behind the wheel, scrolling through forty radio stations while my phone and car made a connection of their own. Forty stations, Apple CarPlay, an Australian man named Siri announcing directions seemed all too much. 

Changes always come with a learning curve. 

But perhaps I was thinking about this all wrong. Maybe the car I left behind was intended to hold the holes. The hole left after my father died, the one that had left the girl in me afraid. The hole that was motherhood which had morphed into something so distant and uncomfortable since Claire had left for college that I barely recognized it. The holes that I needed to let go in order to move forward. 

Maybe this car was a way of slipping inside something new, something selfishly compact and easier to maneuver. 

I swerved around a pot-hole. From the steering wheel, I flipped through radio stations. Stevie Nicks and I sang about the seasons in our lives as I passed a mini-van and changed lanes. My husband was right. I could feel every pot-hole, every traffic lane divider, but I could also feel freedom. Those numerous breakdowns just might be finally behind me.  

I rolled down the window and breathed in the crisp morning air, took in the clean slate of sky and felt the road beneath me in a way I never had before. 

When I got to the office, my business partner who is also my husband, asked, “So, how was the ride? Think you made the right decision?” 

 “Well,” I said, hitting the lock button on the fob twice just to hear the horn, “if I’d held on any longer, it just would’ve cost me.” 

I strolled past him and into my office. I thought I heard him say, “Nice skirt.” 

Patti Santucci is a writer and artist residing in Fair Oaks, California. Her work has been published in American River Review, Dime Show Review, Transcend, Literally Stories, Piker Press and Stories on Stage Sacramento Anthology Twenty Twenty. Her non-fiction story, “Looking for Signs” won first place (Pacific West Region) in the CCHA’s Literary Magazine Competition. Patti owns a computer keyboard that swallows her whole and makes her burn dinner.

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