I Will Drive This Fucked-Up Car Until One Of Us Dies

This week, Defector has turned itself over to a guest editor. Brandy Jensen, former editor at Gawker (RIP) and The Outline (RIP), and writer of the Ask A Fuck Up advice column (subscribe here!), has curated a selection of posts around the theme of Irrational Attachments. Enjoy!

There’s almost 350,000 miles on my car, every single one of them driven by a member of my immediate family. She (no proper name) is a blue 2003 Toyota Highlander. I’ve been told by people who know much more about cars and mechanical things in general that I have a very good car: strong, reliable, well-built. This pleases me, but I can’t take credit; my dad bought her. I’ve been driving this same vehicle since I was barely starting high school and I plan to keep on driving it until one of us explodes.

Unfortunately, my car has been kept running by the grace of my dad’s care, my paranoia about her breaking down, and sheer luck. I say “unfortunately” because these days, it’s more difficult than ever to keep her going. In the days when I still lived with him, after he’d gotten a new car of his own, my dad would still take mine to the mechanic and so I didn’t really have any concept as to how expensive or tedious it is to keep even a well-built vehicle running. I’m far too broke to take care of the sheer number of minor and major issues that have accumulated like microplastics in blood. I am now my car’s primary caregiver: devoted, frustrated, unreasonably hopeful about the long-term prospects. I want my car to live forever. Sometimes, before I fall asleep, I imagine a genie-in-a-bottle scenario. Invariably, one of my wishes is that my car will never need to be repaired, that she will run on some undiscovered form of clean energy, that she will outlast my entire bloodline. 

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That said, I’m not under any illusions as to what condition she’s in. The front left bumper has been taped together since 2020. The A/C doesn’t work all that well, a real problem when you live in Las Vegas. There’s a persistent squeak that sounds whenever I go over a bump. I’m pretty sure the power steering fluid isn’t supposed to be the color or consistency of shoe shine wax, and the seats are coming apart so badly I’ve lost a few dollars worth of coins to the holes. Those are only the things I know are wrong. Anything under the hood beyond the oil and the coolant levels and the battery, I’m shit out of luck. It keeps me up at night not knowing what else I’m missing that needs to be fixed that could suddenly give out while I’m going 70 mph down the freeway. Honestly, this is part of why I love this car. Because it’s falling apart, because it takes vigilance to maintain, and because who doesn’t want the underdog to beat the odds against the unfeeling current of time?

Truth be told, I’ve lived so much of my life in this car, it makes me wistful and a little queasy. Over dozens and dozens of weekends, we used to drive to California to visit family back when I was small enough to lay down across the backseats without bending my knees. Once, my friend’s leaky white Honda got stuck in the sand at the beach and we used my car to haul it out. Every time I get my oil changed, the mechanic makes me swear to tell him if I ever plan on selling my car. “That’s a fucking great ride, man,” he says to me. “I had one years ago. Biggest regret of my life was getting rid of it.” I have to imagine he has bigger regrets than selling a 21-year-old car, but I get where he’s coming from. My uncles often talk about cars they used to have that they still remember fondly. Uncles all over the country probably do this. 

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I’m in denial. I know I need a new car. I’ve needed a new car for years, but I don’t want one. A friend likened my fervor to addiction, but it’s really just unadulterated desperation. I live in a place that makes driving necessary and as shitty as that is, as much as I, deep down, really don’t want to have to drive, I also don’t want to be forced to stop driving this car. I love that there’s no touchscreen interface on the dash, there’s no interface to speak of, just a radio and a CD player that shuts off randomly. There’s a thing called mechanical aptitude or awareness, which usually describes a person’s ability to comprehend how machines and tools work. I don’t have that, but if you were to take the term at face value as something that meant one’s ability to intuit the condition and spatial dimensions of a machine such that, for instance, you know exactly how many inches you need to parallel park in a narrow gap, that’s what I have. I know this car in a way a person knows their own body. 

We are in her twilight years, I will begrudgingly admit. Every desert summer is worse than the last and the heat does a number on even the newest cars. I have no recourse if and when my car gives out. It’s probably better to plan on moving to a city with decent public transportation, somewhere where I can hop on a train or bike in relative safety instead of spending however many thousands of dollars a year on gas and repairs. I love my car deeply, irrationally, fearfully. We’ve been through a lot together. She’s certainly far more reliable than most people I’ve met. I long for the day when I no longer need a car, but until that day comes I hope I have this one.

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