I forgot my cell phone today. I noticed that it was missing from my over-packed purse and my messy car about a minute into my drive into work this morning. I was still close enough to turn around and pick it up, but I figured I'd be late if I did that, so I pressed on. An ominous feeling crept over me - what if I need it? What if something happens? - but I turned up the radio and did my best to ignore it. Because, I mean, we used to function fine as a people before cell phones. We weren't reachable twenty-four hours a day until recently, and we survived; hell, I didn't even have a cell phone until a few years ago. And I don't get much of a signal on the road to work anyway, so it's no big deal, really. Right?
About halfway to work, climbing a steep Pennsylvania combination hill/curve, I noticed a whine coming from under my hood. I turned down Otis Redding and listened to it. It was sharper, more noticeable when I accelerated. I pressed on the gas a few time to confirm that I wasn't just hearing things, started to freak out a little bit, but quickly told myself that Gwen the 4Runner has probably made that noise for a long, long time and I just hadn't, up until now, noticed it. It doesn't sound too bad, I told myself. Plus, it's rainy. It's possible that it's not the car at all; it could just be the rain underneath the mammoth tread of my new tires. It sounded like an alright argument to me. I accepted it, turned Otis back up and sang my way into work.
In truth, my car's been sounding a little funny for a while. I notice a little whine, a high-pitched hum when I drive on the interstate, or generally whenever my Sirius radio or my CD is between songs. But I just got new tires, so I blamed the noise on them. And I just had Gwen inspected for the year 2006, so, surely, if anything were seriously wrong, the mechanic would've discovered it, and charged me way too much to fix it. After all, they're looking for stuff to fix, right?
Around noon, I hopped in my car to make the drive from work to the bank, and then to pick up lunch for the three of us in the office. When I turned the key in the ignition, the Gwen didn't softly whirr to life like she normally does; She rattled to life. I stepped on the clutch and put her in reverse. A gruff moan came from her body. "I hope that's not my fucking muffler," I said to my speedometer. "It better not be my fucking muffler," I threatened out loud, to no one in particular. As I drove, I calculated how long it had been since I had my whole exhaust system replaced. About a year, I figured. There's no need for it to be in need of repair so soon. But then again, I thought, there has been a lot of sand and salt and muck on the roads. It could be possible. Beneath me, Gwen sounded like she was clearing her throat.
About a mile or so down the wooded road I took away from work, and just before I reached civilization again, it happened: The Check Engine light came on.
"Oh, please no," I plead with the light, hoping that maybe Gwen would reconsider her need for a checkup. But the light, orange and foreboding, persisted, stubbornly glowing there on my dashboard. I kept looking away and looking back, hoping that it would blink off just as suddenly as it blinked on. But no luck. It stayed on, and somehow, it sounded like Gwen was getting sicker and sicker with each turn of her tires.
And then, I panicked. I don't have my phone, I realized. What if I break down? I'm going to have to walk down this empty road in my stilettos and in my red coat with my big purse, looking all vulnerable and scared. What if no one stops to help? What if someone does, but they're scary? What do I do? So I did the only thing that made sense to me right then: I turned around.
"Fuck this," I announced as I turned on my blinker, visions of a seizing engine and smoke pouring from beneath my hood dancing in my head.. I made a U-Turn and headed back to work. I cursed myself for not turning around this morning for my cell phone. I mimicked myself, nose scrunched up and voice mocking: We used to function fine as a people before cell phones. Stupid.
Gwen gurgled her way back into her parking spot and I shut off the obviously ailing engine. I stormed my way back into work, my hands shaking from the fear of even the thought of breaking down somewhere, dread taking over my face. Suddenly, I was aware that this could be a costly rehabilitation for Gwen. I started adding up the money I had at my disposal. Sure, I thought, just as I was getting ready to cash in those stocks to pay off that car, she decides to get the flu. I was beginning to work myself up into a bundle of nerves. I began to fret over driving home later, after dark, on a long deserted road with no phone and no guarantee that Gwen would make it all the way to the house. And how would I get to work tomorrow?
"I told you," my boss said with a smirk on his face, "that once a car gets that old, it just becomes a money pit."
I wasn't in the mood for his See How Right I Was? speech, so I argued that I don't care how old she is, I love that car. "She's a Toyota," I said. "They last forever. And, besides, she's only 12." I realized how old, in fact, that is as I dialed Billy's number.
It is at times like these that it truly pays to have a calm other half. Because while you're positively freaking out, totaling up imaginary mechanics bills and picturing yourself stranded on some dark and desolate road, he will tell you it's no big deal, rather than adding fuel to your already raging fire. "It's probably just a spark plug or a belt or something. Don't worry. We'll get it taken care of."
In my still-panicked voice, I told him someone from work would be driving me home, and that I may require Billy to get up early on his day off and drive me to work. I apologized in advance for being an inconvenience.
"Well, why don't we go up to your work tonight after I get home, drive the car to the shop and leave it there tonight? You can take my car tomorrow." Thank God I have a rational boyfriend.
I made an appointment for her. I'll leave her at the shop tonight, and I'll spend tomorrow with my fingers crossed that this is not an indication of a major Automobile Disease, just a minor hiccup in her normally flawless performance.
I'll be crossing my fingers, too, that I'll be able to get her out of the shop by spending less than a hundred dollars. Otherwise, Gwen won't be the only one feeling sick.