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...

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)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice