When We Had a Car

The first time I took a ride in my father’s car, I was in the first grade. I remember being astounded by how it was like a living space on wheels, and how it was so big. Of course, I realized later that it wasn’t, but to me at the time it was a house. 

(One of the first things I did was try to memorize the licence plate. I remember that I was so happy when I did, which seems like such a strange and distant memory now because I can’t remember a letter of it.) 

“How much did it cost Dad?” I asked my older sister. 

“Guess,” she said, in the mildly infuriating way that people use when they know something you don’t and want to hold it over you. 

“One hundred dollars,” I said promptly. It’s a funny thing. When you’re small, fifty is a large number. By the time I was in the fifth grade, ten thousand was the point of no return. I am now in my first year of university, and I think that a million is nothing.

“I think it was a little bit more than that,” said my mom, who was making sure we were all wearing seatbelts. (The seatbelts! How fascinating they were! If you tugged on them one way, they would fasten properly, but if you tried anything funny, you became trapped in the seat.) 

“Yeah,” agreed my older sister. “A thousand would be more like it.” 

A thousand? To me, that was nearly enough to buy a mansion. “Really?” 

“More than that,” laughed my mom, who had finally managed to get the hang of the seatbelts. 

My dad started the engine, and off we went. 

I knew about cars. That was a given, even for a child as confused as I was. What I didn’t know about was carsickness. On that first trip to Chinatown, my excitement warred with my dizziness until I was completely carsick. We even got bubble tea, which was like throwing a party with cake for us. I was so upset because I couldn’t finish it without wanting to throw up. 

You know what was so unfair? My sisters seemed perfectly fine. 

The years that followed were filled with more battles waged against carsickness, but having a car more than made up for that. Being able to drive anywhere we pleased meant that we could do so much more as a family. I remember that every summer was filled with squabbles as my parents and my older sister fought over directions to different places, like the Toronto Zoo or Black Creek Pioneer Village. There was even that time we drove for three hours to Muskoka, and I didn’t get sick. It was an amazing feat of strength that I am still proud of to this day. 

As we got on a highway one day, I started reading the signs out loud while they passed by. I learned about a lot of things from those signs, such as far-off places like Kennedy Avenue, and Morningside Drive, and the legendary Hamilton. I also learned that Ontario uses these really nice boards with orange LEDs to warn drivers about weather conditions and construction closures. 

My parents were very proud of my ability to read them because I’d had issues with my vision my whole life, so naturally they encouraged me as part of their role as loving caregivers to their strange children. “This means your eyeballs aren’t totally ruined,” they would tell me. “Keep working at it, kiddo!” Reading highway signs quickly became a regular part of my car-riding ritual after that. 

On one memorable occasion in either the first or second grade, I remember being very happy that I didn’t throw up on the way to a Foody Mart near Warden Avenue. I had been feeling really ill for most of the trip there. I got out of the car on shaky legs, but thankfully I was able to stand. All was well. We got a shopping cart. We went through the automatic doors. 

And then I barfed. 

There’s a lot of words for “barf” in the English language: puke, vomit, hurl, heave, retch, throw up, regurgitate, spew, and so forth. 

I did all of those. It was bright yellow. 

A bunch of onlookers were quite horrified. I remember being at the centre of their attention and feeling quite delighted. 

My father, being the poor, generous, amazing person that he is, attempted to hold his hands under my mouth to catch my vomit. It didn’t work, and I got upchuck all over his hands. 

I’m so sorry, Dad. I love you so much. 

I remember that a lone speck got on my boots. Even after I went to the washroom and cleaned myself up, it was still there. When I got back to the location of my little incident, a lady with a mop had washed away the rest of the stuff from the floor. 

In the third grade, my dad thought I was mature enough to be left alone in the car. This was because in a previous incident, my sisters and I had been fooling around in the car while he left it illegally parked outside a bank. While engaged in horseplay, my sisters and I failed to stop a policeman from ticketing our car. My dad was furious and vowed that it would never happen again. 

“If you ever see that a police officer is about to ticket this car,” he’d tell me just before leaving me in the car, “call me with the cell phone and tell the officer I’ve just gone to the bathroom.” I would tell him that I understood, and then he would leave to get our groceries while I guarded the car from the law. 

Not one single police officer ever approached me while I was alone in the car. Not once in three years. 

I was often bored and lonely inside the car. Sometimes, I would listen to the radio, but everyone was always infuriatingly cheerful and peppy while saying the same things over and over to generate ad revenue. All the singers sounded the same, and I could never tell them apart. After four songs, I would turn it off. I cannot stand mainstream pop music to this day. 

I got to know the back streets of Chinatown very well during those years. You might not think that this was a big deal, but for me, it was a monumental thing. I realized one day that I was able to make my own way around Chinatown without getting lost, and it made me feel strong and independent. 

Most of the time though, I was bored. Terribly, excruciatingly bored. My dad kept a Canadian road map in the glove compartment with information on all the provinces, and that was how I learned Québec’s motto. 

Je me souviens. I remember. 

(Also that Québec’s provincial flower was a blue flag iris and its bird was the snowy owl.)

Sometimes, I’d trace my finger over Yukon’s rivers and wonder what it would be like to drive there—to just drive on and on and on, until everything disappeared and became snow. I would place my hands on the steering wheel and pretend to drive, trying to reach the pedals with my feet, but I was always too short. I could only ever reach one pedal at a time.

The worst was when I had to go to the bathroom. I would become torn between my duty of standing guard against policemen and peeing my pants. I would desperately scramble for anything to distract me while staring at the Vietnamese restaurant across the road, praying that it would be enough to suppress my bladder.

A few times, it became too much, and I would just go outside. I never told my family about it, except for that one time when I defecated near the front of the car and proudly bragged about it to my older sister. She called me resourceful. 

The car wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, though. I once left one of my favourite toys in the car, and when I returned, I couldn’t find it again. I looked for it for two years—when I remembered to—and then I forgot it existed.

That same year, in third grade, I got lice. I was miserably combing my hair with the lice comb while waiting for my family to finish shopping (and waiting in the car, of course), when a great big louse came out with some of my hair onto the comb. I was shocked, to say the least, because I didn’t think lice combs actually worked and more so because I didn’t believe I even had lice. I spent five minutes examining the louse in fascination before opening the car door, dropping it on the ground, and hoping that my dad rolled over it when he backed the car out of the alley where we were parked. 

The closest moments I had with my dad happened when we were alone in the car, when he finished up with the groceries and I had waited an hour for him to come back. I would always sit in the middle seat in the back (the safest place in a car and my favourite spot because then I would be squeezed by two people, each sitting on either side of me) and he’d drive. Most of the time, we wouldn’t speak to one another. Occasionally, though, he’d ask me if I was doing okay or if I was getting sleepy—that sort of thing. It gave me pride to tell him that I was fine, because it meant that I was taking my worries off his hands. I was also frightened to talk to him (and mildly ashamed about it) because he was my father (my equivalent of God) and I didn’t speak good Mandarin. 

Sometimes, very rarely, he would tell me about when I was two and we’d lived in Chinatown. He’d point out where my older sister went to school or the hospital where I was born: Mount Sinai. On those occasions, I would be frightened to interrupt him for fear that he would stop talking. (Later I would tell him that that was the hospital where Rob Ford was diagnosed with stomach cancer, which may have been one of the worst attempts at starting a conversation I have ever made.) My dad has never been much of a conversationalist. Also, I’ve only ever heard him sing twice in my whole life: once, when he was really happy and again, when he forgot himself.

Those were good times, just me and my dad in the car. And no, I’m not being sarcastic. Those really were good times. It makes me incredibly happy to remember us sitting in that car together. If I close my eyes, I can still remember the little armrest compartment between the two front seats where he kept old receipts and occasionally his cigarettes. 

He did crash the car twice. When that happened, he got two more cars, one after each crash. One of them was blue, the other was a bronze-ish colour. 

The bronze one was the last one we ever owned. 

In the summer after sixth grade, my parents started arguing. Shouting. Screaming. Call it what you will, but it always ended with my father leaving the house and getting into his car. I would be lying in bed with my eyes shut, and I would hear his engine sputtering to life in the middle of the night. By that point, there was some kind of problem with the engine that my dad couldn’t fix, so everybody on the street knew that it was our car whenever my dad drove away. My sister told me our neighbours had complained about the noise, though for my part I could never determine the veracity of that statement. 

So every night, there would be a low, sputtering roar, and my father would drive away. Somehow, whenever I closed my eyes and went back to sleep at night, he would be back in the morning, like nothing had ever happened. 

Once, in August, my mother called him on the phone after a fight. She was sorry. She wanted him to come back. She was crying. 

She handed the phone to me and told me to beg my father to come back. 

I remember hearing the low roar of his engine in the background when he informed my mother that he would not. 

In October, I remember how our car sputtered when my father went to pick up my mother after she’d decided to leave home for a month and rent a room for herself in a house with some strangers. We were so happy to see her again. We helped her load her things into the trunk. She sat next to my father on the way home, and everything was normal. Kind of. 

After I got my mother arrested in November, my father started to spend more and more time out by himself in his car. I would hear his car starting up in the middle of the night, with that low sputtering. He’d drive away and be back in the morning. 

Winter hit. His car—our car—couldn’t last any longer. One morning, I didn’t hear its sputtering engine and he informed us with a wan smile that he’d sold the car. 

“For how much?” I asked him. 

“Three thousand dollars,” he replied wryly. And then he left the room. I have never been able to find out if he was telling the truth or not. Even if he was, I am old enough by now to know that three thousand is not a large enough number. 

Sometimes, when my father is staring at nothing while lying on the couch or smoking in the backyard in his old plastic Muskoka chair, I think that he misses his car. 

I miss it, too. 

AMELY SU writes experimentally in her free time. She enjoys juice, sushi, and occasionally cheese. She loves books and recommends that you start reading Terry Pratchett, now. 

You can learn more about her on LinkedIn  

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