Five-minute memoir: J Courtney Sullivan recalls a love affair with an Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme
When she first saw Bessie, J Courtney Sullivan was horrified. But time passed and things changed...
Saturday 13 July 2013
In 1986, the summer I turned five, my great aunt Dot bought a new Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. She hung a strand of red rosary beads from the rear-view mirror, then drove straight from the dealership to our house to show us. My mother named the car Bessie.
At the time, my mom was driving a cute white Escort, which the family called Tiny S. I used to sit in the cramped backseat and tell Tiny S secrets, like it was a beloved pet. Bessie, on the other hand, was a huge, boxy black boat of a thing, with dark leather seats that stuck to the backs of your legs. I didn't trust that car. When Auntie Dot offered us a ride, I climbed in with trepidation, afraid that it might swallow me whole.
Seven years later, Bessie got handed down to my mother. I could think of no worse fate for an adolescent girl who just wanted to blend in, especially where parents were concerned. Other mothers drove minivans or Volvo station wagons. Mine drove a tank that resembled something thugs would speed around in after dark, blaring music and looking for trouble.
I refused to be seen getting picked up after school. I begged my mother to wait around the corner. She responded, "One day you'll be driving this car."
"I'd rather die," I said.
My mom always had a soft spot for Bessie. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that she loved and admired her aunt so much. Dot never married, she worked all her life. She was tough, neat as a pin, powerful, and a little bit scary. Bessie had all the same qualities.
My mother called home tearful one day to say that the car had been stolen while she was in a meeting in downtown Boston. I was secretly pleased. But the next morning Bessie was recovered, abandoned on the side of the road. ("See?" I said. "Even thieves are embarrassed to be seen in this thing.")
I turned 16, the age at which most suburban American kids learn to drive, but I wasn't interested. I went to high school in the city and took the subway a lot. Also my father was a wonderful chauffeur, terrified of underage drinking and therefore willing to pick me up whenever I liked. (I didn't drink, but he didn't need to know that.)
It wasn't until I went off to a small women's college in rural Massachusetts that the urge to drive took hold. I got my licence, but as a friend pointed out, you can't drive the licence. So when my parents offered to let me take Bessie, now 14 and on her last legs, I accepted both the offer and the "I told you so."
I'm sure the sight of me parallel parking Bessie every other morning in accordance with town rules raised more than a few eyebrows. But she got my friends and me everywhere we needed to go – to the movies, the mall, the mountains, and the two co-ed campuses nearby where actual men our age could be observed. I began to see the beauty in Bessie. As a driver, she made me feel invincible. There was so much space between me and everyone else! (To this day, driving even a mid-size sedan feels like driving a tuna can to me.) And Bessie reminded me of my family back home. I had long since stopped going to church, but Auntie Dot's rear-view rosary beads remained.
Still, we had our problems. Bessie broke down at least twice a month. Sometimes it seemed like she was trying to get back at me for referring to her as "the Black Lemon" when I was 12. Her windshield wipers gave out on the highway in a downpour. I pulled from a parking spot in front of my dorm, and she died in the middle of traffic five seconds later.
I became a regular at the local service station, where the tow-truck driver and everyone else knew me by name. Bessie had so many issues that it was often cheaper if I took some role in fixing her. My sophomore year, I grew well versed in both Victorian literature and transmission failure. The first time in my life that I felt truly independent was on a bitter cold, snowy morning, when I stood alone in a junkyard searching cars for a mirror that matched the one that had just fallen off Bessie, mid-road trip.
That next summer, she was stolen a second time and used in a robbery and high-speed police chase that made the evening news. The thieves ended up jumping out on foot and running, since by then "high speed" was not exactly Bessie's speciality. Afterward, the car was a mess: steering column busted open, driver's side door that wouldn't quite shut, my better tapes missing from the glove compartment. But I didn't care. I was just happy to see her again.
J Courtney Sullivan is the New York Times bestselling author of 'The Engagements' (Virago, £14.99)
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