The love that dare not vroom its name

I’M in a destructive relationship. I know it’s selfish and immoral and not doing anyone any good but I can’t help it. Every time I try to break it off, the thought of living without the object of my love and lust feels impossible.

So my oversized inner-city car stays right where she is in my undersized inner-city driveway. Together we guzzle natural resources, clog Sydney side streets and scrape bits off smaller vehicles that are silly enough to get in our way when we’re trying to park.

I always leave notes but, still, I feel so dirty.

Like all good neuroses, the roots of this dysfunctional relationship date back to my childhood. I grew up in rural suburbia in an outlying fibro farm shack that was too far from the local roller rink to be convenient but just close enough to be torture.

An American tourist who hadn’t noticed all the roads once asked if I rode a horse to high school. I pointed out, rather snippily, that the nearest Amish community was 12,000km northeast. But I remember thinking that any form of personal transport — even one with a halter and a hay habit — would have been preferable to none at all.

Independent mobility was the ultimate fantasy of the restless, rural suburban teen. It was the thing I yearned for even more than a Rubik’s cube solution, a Cyndi Lauper tutu and a date with Christian Slater and his killer ‘tude. It was the holy grail.

It was also around the time some of us started committing unspeakable acts in the back seats of S Series Valiants while Footloose played to no one at the local drive-in. We thought all we were risking were our reputations. How were we to know this growing addiction to the erotic frisson of bench seat vinyl could one day cost us the planet?

Back then, the world was supposed to end with a Cold War atom bomb.

I learned to drive on Lismore’s back roads in a skittery Suzuki Sierra and an ancient Peugeot that always had a headache. I loved the delicate tango between accelerator and clutch but loathed the mandatory adult chaperone. The day I picked up my licence was as sweet as Ballina sugar cane. Finally, finally, I was old enough to go all the way to wherever I wanted.

My first car was a swamp-green Datsun 1600 with a bright-red bonnet and a gear stick that flapped round like a wooden spoon in a casserole. She cost $400, which I’d saved by making burgers and washing dishes in a cafe where the customers called me ATANB (short for all tits and no brains).

This first car treated me mean and kept me keen, the vehicular equivalent of a greasy date who plays drums in a punk band, breakfasts on service station hot dogs and never, ever shows up on time to meet the parents.

I tried to make the relationship work but the object of my obsession left filthy trails of oil, water and engine parts wherever she went and one day I accidentally cooked the life out of her head gasket.

It was sad to see her go off with another waitress but by then I was already making eyes at a zippy little Hillman Hunter with a metallic blue complexion and a glistening scarlet interior. Oh, my.

Since then, there have been so many, many cars. Fast cars, slow cars, cars with guillotine electric windows and dodgy passenger door speakers and the hair of long-gone Rhodesian ridgebacks bristling from their leaky rears.

Each has offered the same, heady pleasure: the ability to move myself from A to most other letters of the alphabet without the assistance of anyone else.

This, you see, is the reason I keep hanging on when I know it’s wrong, when I read about peak oil and pollution and petrol station pumps getting fatter to fit in all the zeros.

Because whenever I feel like I’m trapped back in a fibro farm shack on the outskirts of shitville, I know I can just get in my car and go. And for the life of me I just can’t give that up.

- originally published in The Australian on 10-07-2008.

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