A lot of things are happening in my life this year. This year I moved to a new state to start a new job in a new town. This year I will turn 30. And this year, I am buying a new car.
Buying a car might not be a big deal for some, but it is for me because it means saying goodbye to the car I have been driving for 14 years – the car I have been driving since I was 16 years old.
When I turned 16, my dad laid down the rules. If I was to get a car, it had to be American, it had to be bright colored, and it had to be big. (Bigger and brighter = safer, in his mind.) I found a 1998 Dodge Stratus that I really wanted. It was black with cool black racing tape on the steering wheel from its previous owner. To my teenage self, that racing tape was everything. Then my grandparents got involved. They wanted to give me a car as a gift and, as they put it, they “don’t buy used.” So, it was decided that 16-year-old-me would receive a new, bright red, 2002 Dodge Stratus as a present from my grandparents.
I was terrified – both of the responsibility of owning a new car, and of what my classmates would think. No one at my high school drove a new car. I was deeply afraid of being socially outcast for being a spoiled, rich kid. I was privileged, yes. Rich or spoiled? Not so much. But how do you explain that to classmates seeing you ride around in a new car? I begged for the used Stratus with racing tape that would blend in at the high school parking lot. I actually cried because I was forced to receive the gift of this new car. A few people were nasty to me, like I predicted. But my friends and my brother’s friends enjoyed the crap out of that car and it didn’t matter anymore. Since then, I’ve learned to accept my privilege and found personal ways to contribute to repairing the world. I am at peace with who I am and where I come from, and if that’s what turning 30 is all about, bring it on.
The Stratus served me well for 14 years. It was with me at college. It was with me when I moved back home to live in my parents’ basement and figure out what I was going to do with my life. It was with me when I moved to Boston for my first, real full-time job as a grownup. It was with me when I went to grad school and started my career in public health. It was with me this March, when I merged onto the Mass Pike leaving Boston to start my new life in western New York, which felt so much like that final scene from Six Feet Under that I actually listened to Sia’s “Breathe Me.”
I know it’s just a car. An inanimate object. A possession. And yet…
The Stratus was with me during my first experiences canoodling with boys in the backseat. It was with me on those completely irresponsible and dangerous drag races on the way to high school. It was with me on my first road trips with college friends, looking for adventure and mischief. It was there for me and my friends on day trips to the beach and to vineyards and hiking trails and concerts and amusement parks. It was with me during moments of pure joy, dancing and belting out lyrics to my favorite songs while my left hand surfed the wind. It was also with me during some of my lowest moments, driving home from a devastating encounter, or driving around to aimlessly to try to break the spell of a depression.
The Stratus was there when my little brother injured his hand at baseball practice and I had to drive him to the hospital as fast as possible. The Stratus was there the night my wonderful friends knew I had too much to drink and took away my keys. The Stratus made it possible to do things like visit my family, or head 30 minutes out of town just to go to the “good” Mexican place for a burrito. Freedom, in a nutshell.
The Stratus is where I discovered and enjoyed music. From 2002 to 2015, my surprisingly good speakers blasted the Offspring, the Cranberries, the Goo Goo Dolls, Aqua, Sum 41, All American Rejects, Gin Blossoms, The Shins, The Killers, Frou Frou, Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse, Kings of Leon, Foster the People, Passion Pit, Freelance Whales, and Fun. The Stratus has seen at least 20 epic Bohemian Rhapsody sing-alongs, and one particularly memorable Panic At the Disco! front-seat sing-along that drove our back-seat passengers crazy.
The Stratus is where I listened to the NPR and learned about the world around me, and very far away from me. The Stratus is where I practiced answering interview questions. Where I rehearsed having difficult conversations. Where I collected myself before trying something new. Where I bonded with friends on long trips – just us, with everything to talk about.
After 14 full years, the Stratus isn’t looking so hot. It’s got some rust now, and plenty of battle scars. (After a certain point, you stop caring about the cosmetic stuff.)
But it still carries my story, complete with artifacts from different times in this young person’s life.
It’s really not about the car. It’s about entering a new phase of life. It’s about looking back and feeling grateful for where I started, how far I’ve come, and the amazing people I have met along the way. I am ready to embrace what my future holds with an open heart.
As for the Stratus, it has a bright future. I’ve sold it to someone who builds and races stock cars. As hard as it is to say goodbye to the inanimate companion of my young adulthood, I am comforted to know that the Stratus is moving forward too. And I am hopeful that when it finally goes, it will go out in a blaze of glory befitting the journey we have taken together.