35: Seeing Atomic Blue

***

In 2008, I graduated college and bought a car to reward myself. Well, technically I “bought it” after paying back the few thousand on loan from my parents and sending $250 a month for five more years to some great carman in the sky. But nonetheless. This was my first real life adult purchase and it made gas fumes taste like freedom.

The car was a Honda Civic, four-door sedan with automatic locks and windows and a CD player.

I decided it was a “him,” influenced, clearly, by the women’s studies minor I’d just graduated with, for which I’d learned and written extensively about the history of objectifying women and how there are hints of that in our tendency to anthropomorphize things we own by thinking of them as women. “That’s my old girl.” “Good girl.” “She’s a beaut!”

I named him Atom because he was painted a color called Atomic Blue.

Atom was not the first car I bought myself, but he was the first car I ever bought and owned new.

Driving junkers the first few years of my life as a legal driver was probably for the best of all involved. And believe me, when a 16 year old who picked out her car because she thought the sound of the horn was “cute,” as I did with my burgundy Buick purchased my junior year of high school, is about to hit the highway beside you, we are all involved.

My past experiences of car ownership had not gone very well. I was way too preoccupied with myself–the mark of an immature teen–to take very good care of the vehicles I’d paid my hard-earned waitressing money for. I wasn’t a financially spoiled kid. I was the opposite–I was so used to never having money that I didn’t know what to do with it once I got it, so I usually blew it fast and furious.

Like when I bought a Thunderbird my senior year of high school. Or was it a Firebird? Something named after extraordinarily talented fowl. Apropos, because whatever it was called, it looked fly, with its mysterious dark green paint job and tinted windows and CD player that actually worked (!) ready for my mix tapes.

I loved that car but I didn’t know how to take care of it. My relationship to it was similar to my relationship with money. I knew how to change two tires at once by myself in case of catastrophe, but I didn’t know how to maintain and save my car against everyday, preventative disaster.

For example: the time I blew all the gaskets in my ThunderFireBirdThing because I forgot you had to change the oil regularly. That poor bird. It flew no more after I drove it to destruction, left for dead on the side of the road two hours away from my home, which led to a very awkward ride home with a tow truck driver and writing a check for the tow that was worth about as much as the car itself.

But that was the best part about Atom, my new love. He was so smart. He had a computer. And this computer would alert me any time we were at least 500 miles away from ensuing disaster. This computer would tell me when it was time to change his oil, when I needed to throw a little air into his tires, or when I left his lights on and he couldn’t sleep.

My new ride to freedom was Jackie-proof.

So imagine my surprise when my biggest problem with Atom wasn’t my fault at all.

It happened about five years into our relationship. I had paid Atom off in full and couldn’t imagine my life without the freedom and independence my car gave me. I loved being able to go wherever I wanted–and more importantly, leave whenever I wanted.

In return, I took better care of Atom than any car I’d ever owned. Every other weekend, I drove him to a car wash in my neighborhood. It was the kind of car wash where drivers get out and wait for their babies to be scrubbed, vacuumed and polished. It was the kind of place where you tipped the people hand drying your car with towels that smelled brand new.

One Saturday, soon after I’d gotten a new job and a raise, I decided it was time to treat my Atom. After all, his reliability had kept me reliable throughout all my previous work assignments. So while I was handing over my keys and picking my air freshner scent, I also asked to have my interior car mats steam cleaned.

Feeling very pleased with myself, I posted up in the waiting room and paid the extra $20 per mat. When I saw Atom pull through the final stage of the wash, the stage where he gets dried, I started to get worried. It’s never good when you see workers whispering to each other nervously. I think they were drawing straws for who had to tell me the following news.

“Maam, we’re very sorry, but we put your mats in the car that was ahead of you.”

“What? That really sucks. What can we do?”

“I’m sure he’ll be back.”

“Um, OK. But, like, what then?”

“Oh, yeah, right, OK we can give you a call. Here’s your keys. Have a good day.”

“Wait, don’t you need my number?”

“Oh, right. Here, write it on my hand.”

So I did.

It wasn’t until I’d pulled Atom away that I unfroze and my discomfort turned to confusion.

Why didn’t he give me my money back for the mats that were steam cleaned but now missing from my car? Did I basically just pay him to give my property away? Won’t my number rub off his hand? Did he even know my name or my car type?

Am I allowed to say something now about how upset I am about that situation or did I lose that right because I said nothing about how upset I was as the situation was actually taking place?

It was a slow burn of “Did that just happen?” to “What the fuck?” This slow burn will feel especially familiar to women; we’re socialized to make sure everyone else is comfortable even when we’re getting fucked.

After about two weeks of not hearing from the car wash, my confusion turned to anger.

When I called, of course, they had no idea what I was talking about.

Hashtag same for the next four calls.

After a month of that, my anger turned to negotiation.

I knew how to change tires, how to drive a tractor, how to make a grown man cry with the right turn of phrase or flick of the wrist. I could deal with these scumbags.

Though, I did not quite think of them as scumbags. Not yet. That wouldn’t happen until three phone calls later. I’d bugged them enough by that point that whoever answered the phone seemed to finally know who I was and why I was calling. Now they were armed with excuses.

Among the reasons they gave me for having not ordered new mats yet.

  • They lost my car information and couldn’t order them. Again.
  • Things had been “busy.” Cars don’t wash themselves, you know.
  • The owner’s son was sick. With the flu.

During one call, I tried to appeal to the owner’s entrepreneurial spirit/ humanity. I told him how I’d saved diligently to pay off my car. It was the only valuable thing I owned and I wanted to take care of it. I worked really, really hard to make this car mine. The mats were more than just fabric and rubber and Scotchgard. They represented my ability to take care of myself and that is all I, and I imagine him as a small business owner, want to do.

He thought that was “cute.”

When I called a week later to see if they’d ordered new mats for me, we were back to square one. The employees had no idea what I was talking about.

It’s about right *here* that my negotiation quickly turned to rage. And when you soar into rage territory, there’s no going back. You’ve jumped the cliff and hold on for dear life and hope you recognize yourself after the crash landing.

They were just hoping I’d forget about it. That I’d leave them alone and order my own mats or drive with none at all or get a new car or remember I’m a person who is poor or who has a vagina and I should just shut up already.

Or maybe I’m just projecting all my rage on to this situation because of a compound fracture. I feel so dismissed, so taken advantage of and so lied to and dismayed by their lack of self awareness and clear incompetence at delivering any semblance customer service. I go back and forth between trying to determine what kind of reaction is justified in a situation like this.

One day I’m running through my neighborhood and my mind is racing through all of my building anger at this situation. So much so, I stopped, mid-run, and dialed the car wash–I had their number memorized by then–and I sat down at a bench in a park full of children.

“Where the fuck are my mats, Gary.*”

*I was finally on a “takes names” sort of basis with this guy since he couldn’t seem to be bothered to write down mine.

I continued: “You’ve had nearly five months to not only refund me for the mats I paid to have steam cleaned, you also have failed to replace my property as promised. This is the last time I call you before I see you in court.”

Now, here’s Gary, furious at being spoken to like the crook he is: “This is your fault. You should have said something earlier.”

My jaw,

eyeballs

and

lady brain

hit the mother fucking

ground.

Children ran screaming as my head exploded.

Packs of birds flew from the trees at once, jumpy with fear at the nice looking lady turning over a picnic table below.

Suddenly this is MY FAULT?!

Oh.

Hell.

No.

Before I hung up, I bellowed: “I’m going to sue the shit out of you, you slimy little prick.”

In about five minutes, my self-righteous fury turned into ugly crying. And what does a 26-year-old Independent Woman Hashtag Boss Bitch do when they ugly cry?

They call their mom.

“I’m sorry, Jackie. Call the Better Business Bureau.”

So I did.

And I realized it’s what I should have done in the first place. 1) Told an older, more experienced woman about my predicament and sought advice. But mostly 2) trusted others who had been through similar experiences before me and set up protective services like the BBB in the first place.

How had I forgotten about due process? My legal rights as a consumer? Easy. When so much of pop culture’s focus is, fairly, on the injustices of our systems–warehouses full of untested rape kits; prisons full of unfairly and institutionally marginalized people; body bags for unarmed black people; good legal representation costing, sometimes literally, an arm and a leg–it’s hard to remember, let alone even trust, that there are systems in place meant to protect you and help you out with things.

Things like redemption. Justice. That new car mat smell.

I left Atom in a parking lot nearby as I walked to the car wash to pick up my new mats, which, surprise!, the car wash was suddenly able to get the very day after my complaint filed with the BBB showed up hot on their trail. How convenient!

Gary avoided my glare as he handed over my new mats and refunded my card with the cost of the misplaced steam cleaning. He did, however, had the balls to ask if I needed help putting them in my car.

To which I said, “You will come nowhere near my car ever again.”

And then I silently “harumphed” and didn’t put my middle finger in the air but hoped I left the impression that I would have if there weren’t children around.

Turns out, the mats they finally gave me were the wrong size. But they could have been teal and designed for a monster truck. By that point, I didn’t care. I felt victorious. I fought the bad guy, I didn’t back down, I’d protected my boy, I’d protected myself. I’d grown a lot in the time since my first car buying experience, when I took Tuggers, The Buick that Honks like a Tugboat, home.

The world is shitty, sure, but I was learning how to reconcile myself among its nasty edges without martyring myself to their selfish sting. I was finding where to see, sense and protect the soft spots of humanity. I was finding out how to properly fight back so those soft spots didn’t bruise–or at least bruised less. I felt grateful to live in a society, a time and of a skin color where I could seek this out for myself. I promised to help others who felt fucked–who were fucked.

That night, Atom and I drove off into the sunset. But first we went to another car wash. The kind where I didn’t leave the car. The kind where I did the vacuuming myself.

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