Memory is a mysterious and sometimes hurtful land. When we roam through its complex landscape, the moments when we have felt less than someone else remain the most universal of all.
Inexplicably, traffic slowed down ahead of me. I craned my neck but couldn’t see the reason. When I approached the intersection I spotted a rusty Cadillac holding traffic. Impatiently every single driver swerved to pass the car. I followed the flow but glanced at the driver, a middle aged man wearing a faded Red Sox baseball hat. I would have liked him to see my supportive smile, but he looked ahead, his hands tight on the wheel. The transmission of his car had seen better days, and as the man trudged his way in the slow lane, far behind my 2012 Chevy truck, he had no idea where he took me back.
My husband pushed my luggage-cart to the San Francisco Airport parking lot.
“What do you think of our new car?” he said, unlocking the passenger door. “It’s an Oldsmobile.”
“It’s big,” I said.
It also looked old-fashioned. Later some of our neighbors would call it “the boat” with a mix of amusement, compassion, and a trace of pity.
My husband and I did what we had to do, considering our recent move to the States. He had also watched many American movies from the 70s and dreamed of a true American car. I, on the other hand, didn’t drive in Paris and got my American driver’s license a few months after I arrived in California. By then the Oldsmobile had been replaced by a yellow Ford station wagon LTD 1972, also in XXL size. My husband saw its potential for a growing family. Now that we were in the US, more than ever he rooted for anything American. So it’s in a car made by the mythic American car builder that I explored my new surroundings. Cautious as any new driver, as the young mother of two babies, and a recent immigrant, I respected the traffic laws as if they were the eleventh Commandment.
One day driving down Sand Hill Road that links Menlo Park to Palo Alto, the light turned orange as the front bumper of my station wagon was already engaged in the intersection. A more experienced driver would have gone through. I braked.
The screeching sound was short but sharp. On my left, traffic was stopped at the red light. As inexperienced as I was I realized that I should have crossed the intersection when my light had turned orange.
Now stuck at the red, I had ample time to catch the mocking smirk of a woman in a sleek BMW. Her diminishing glare on my gigantic, old-fashioned vehicle was so stingy that it burnt through the yellow paint. Instant humiliation made me shrink in my seat. The woman shook her head in distaste. I was too young to realize that she had not even looked at me, assuming that I was as weird looking as my car.
The light turned green and the woman sped away in an elegant and smooth way, ignoring my flushed face and thus accentuating my embarrassment. More than weird, I had become insignificant.
So many years have passed since that day that I never consciously think of the event anymore. Yet when I catch the condescending glare of a driver on an old car or his impatience as he is stuck behind one, I automatically switch to memory mood. The humiliation is still there. But the disdain I read on the woman’s face has stopped diminishing me, replaced by the impulsive allegiance to the driver that is mocked, in turns lightening my personal sting.
Although it is said that we are what we drive, I strongly disagree. We are much more than a car. The first cars of my early years in the US proved to me that my husband and I are true immigrants. Besides, the Oldsmobile, the Ford, and the Cadillac that followed became vintage cars while the BMW, as smooth as it looked back then, has probably died a long time ago without the chance to become mythic and the opportunity to travel memory land.
Revenge as sweet as it feels is however fleeting. So I choose to focus on the loyalty I developed, thanks to our human ability to remember, to anyone behind the wheel of a car that once was new.
Memory is a mysterious and sometimes hurtful land. But roaming its complex landscape can be as sweet as a ride in the slow lane.