How to Fix Your Car
I had just split from my boyfriend and was eating heartbreak daily. I walked through woods for hours like Cheryl Strayed in Wild and did Sudoku in bed at night (the kind for beginners). It was July. One day I drove down the shore to meet up with my parents. My mom and I waded in the water by the lifeguard stand and talked about everyday things while the sea wind blasted around us.
It was a good beach day. I got sand all over the front seat and drove over the Ocean City bridge headed for home.
The oil light on my Honda had been on for a few days, and I’d been pushing off dealing with it. I was worried about the long drive home. I found it exciting to play Russian roulette with the gas tank (“Kramer and Newman drove for over an hour on an empty tank in that one episode; I can go another twenty minutes”) but I’d learned years ago that neglecting the oil too long can lead to expensive consequences. My dad showed me once, and my friend Pete showed me another time, how to check the oil and how to add some to tide things over before bringing the car in for a change.
I decided I would add oil.
I pulled into a gas station just past the island bridge. It was minimalist: two gas pumps and a store the size of a gym shower stall. An auto repair shop was attached. The garage door was open and a mechanic was in the shop working on a car.
I parked to the side of the store so I would have room to do my dirty work. The store sold only a couple shelves’ worth of Mobil oil and some Herr’s ridged potato chips, the small red and white bags that used to be a quarter but cost more now. The gas attendant in a blue uniform came in from the pumps and stood behind the counter, watching me. I looked at the plastic containers of oil and tried to remember things I’d been told. Conventional or synthetic. 10W-30 or 5W20. I was taking too long. This guy would think I didn’t know what I was doing.
How many should I get? The oil light had been on for a significant amount of time; the car had to be thirsty. It’s always better to make two trays of Rice Krispie treats for a party instead of one. It’s better to bring three books (nonfiction, fiction and self-help are specific moods; how will I know what mood I’m in?) than just one for a train trip. More is always better.
I put three quart containers of Mobil conventional oil on the counter. The attendant looked like he wanted to say something. He didn’t. I paid, carried the oil outside and put it on the ground next to the car.
I popped the hood (I knew how; Pete had shown me), lifted it up (feel with your fingers for the latch and heave; it’s heavy, so it feels like you’re really doing something) and propped it with the lever (you’ve rounded first: the hood is now up and you can stand there with hands on hips like an expert). The gas attendant came out of the store and stood there, watching.
I said, “Is it okay I’m doing this here?” He motioned as if to say, you need help? I waved him off. “No, I got it!” I said. He nodded, smiled, and went over to sit on the cement block next to the gas pumps. I don’t think he had much English. He kept watching me. You want a performance, buddy? I’ll give you a performance.
The oil cap was easy; it was labeled. I unscrewed it and put it on the ground. The orange ring was the dipstick. I loved the dipstick because it had a fun name. A classic insult, dipstick. Plus the under-utilized shortened version, “dip”.
I knew there was some sort of dress rehearsal with the dipstick where you took it out, wiped it off, put it back in and took it out again. I grabbed the orange ring and pulled the dipstick out. It was a long, floppy metal stick, and seemed too flimsy to have any real responsibility. I stuck it back in the holder and pulled it out again.
I stared at the little hatch marks and dots on the stick. There was a suggestion of light brown; it could have been a trick of the light. I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to be looking at. I looked up. The attendant was still sitting there, watching. I put the dipstick in one more time, pulled it out, and stared at it again. Then I nodded to myself (accurate reading; send the numbers to headquarters) and stuck it back in.
What was the difference? The car needed oil. I would add oil.
I picked up the first quart container. I would add all the oil I had; if it started to overflow, I would stop. Not complicated.
I opened the first quart and started pouring. It made a satisfying glug glug sound. The mechanic from the shop poked his head out. He was wiping his hands on a rag, and he surveyed me for a second, then went back into the garage. The attendant addressed a customer and pumped their gas, then returned to his cement block to watch me. He might as well have had popcorn.
I started the second quart. Glug glug glug. The mechanic stuck his head out again, went back in. I felt smug. Just a woman alone in Eagles hat over wet pigtails, cropped sweatpants and tank top, sand still everywhere. Confidently taking care of her car. My hands were black with grease. I am such a badass.
This was whetting my appetite to make a habit of working on the car myself. Why go somewhere to get it fixed when I could do things on my own? I could take some classes and get trained up in changing my own oil; replacing parts. I’d be out on my block under the hood and everybody would say there she is, she fixes her own car. I could make youtube videos about DIY auto repairs and get a necklace with a crescent wrench pendant. “She’s such a renaissance woman!” I’d wear strictly jumpsuits from now on, the long-sleeve canvas ones with a tie belt. I love jumpsuits, so this was good.
I poured in the third quart of oil. Glug glug glug. I put the oil cap on, let the hood slam, and put the plastic oil containers in the trash can. I got in the car and turned the key.
A black cloud of smoke erupted from the hood.
The attendant, watching from his cement block, stood up.
The smoke cloud grew bigger, and blacker, and billowed around the sides of the car. Okay. Maybe it would stop in a second. Maybe the car was just having an adjustment period.
The mechanic looked out.
Pretend nothing is happening. Drive. I pulled around slowly from the side of the store. The smoke kept coming, thick. It was not nothing.
Options. Refuse to make eye contact with anyone; keep driving; possibly die. Stop, get out and open hood in front of both attendant and mechanic. Stop, stay in car and do nothing.
I eased forward a few more feet. Now I was directly in front of the garage. I couldn’t see ahead of me through the smoke still pouring from the hood. This is a thing.
The mechanic ran over, rag in hand. “What’d you do?!” he yelled.
I couldn’t ignore him. I turned off the car, opened the door and front-crawled through the smoke cloud.
“What’d you do?!” he said again. He was friendly, not pissed off. We both stood at a distance from the car, waving our hands against the fumes.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I put in oil.”
He shook his head, like he couldn’t believe it. “I thought you knew what you were doing!”
He asked how much oil I had put in and reacted when I told him three quarts.
“Oh no! You gotta get that extra oil out,” he said. “I’ll put it up on the lift and we’ll drain it out.”
The mechanic got in my car and backed it into the garage; exhaust filled the shop and then floated slowly out and over the lot. The attendant was still standing near his cement block, watching, silent. I wished he would make any kind of expression or motion, just to indicate that he was a participant in this.
The mechanic waved me into the garage. He told me to stand to the side while he got the car on the lift and elevated it toward the ceiling. We introduced ourselves. His name was Jose. He said he would drain the oil out, change it and get things sorted.
Then he said, “I was watching you, like, I guess she knows what she’s doing! Don’t you got a husband or boyfriend who can help you with this stuff?”
The line would have been edited out of a screenplay. It was too obvious. My boyfriend of a year and a half HAD been good with cars. He’d easily changed a flat on the side of the road. He replaced my brake light using his own tools. (To be fair, I did a beautiful job organizing his spice drawer with magnetic circular jars from The Container Store. We broke up two weeks later. They were his spices; I couldn’t take my work with me.)
In the movie version, I’d burst into tears and tell Jose everything. Instead, I said, “No, I don’t! That’s why I’m trying to do it myself!”
Jose laughed. “I’ll show you,” he said. “You’re not supposed to be in here, but just stand over there and you can watch and I’ll explain what I’m doing.”
I looked at my car up on the lift. I had never seen it from this angle. Jose set an oil pan on the ground and unscrewed the drain plug under the car. A stream of oil gushed out and splattered into the pan; it kept coming and coming, a never-ending, resentful chute of brown. I’d overserved a sorority girl, and now she had to get her stomach pumped. “I’m sorry,” I whispered.
Jose went in and out of the open garage door, dealing with other customers. I stayed at my post. There was so much to see: barrels of fluid, tool boxes, trays with a dozen containers for different screws and bolts and washers. I wished I had my notebook; I would write everything down. I started to get excited. Hadn’t I just been thinking I wanted to learn? This time I would pay attention, really listen.
Years ago I’d had a summer when I was in multiple weddings. Instead of paying to get my makeup done I decided I would go to a department store makeup counter, get a real tutorial, and buy the right stuff once and for all. I was living in New York, and I went to Bloomingdales on Fifth Avenue, where everything is shiny. I went to the Bobbi Brown counter and explained my situation to a girl with extreme eyebrows. She was delighted. She showed me how undereye concealer should be dabbed on using only the ring finger and how to use different eyeshadow colors in succession from brow bone to eye crease.
I internalized the whole process and recreated it as needed. Why had any car tutorials I’d ever had gone completely out of my head?
This was why I mechanic-hopped. I was afraid to build a relationship with a mechanic, because I knew I would automatically trust them for no good reason. When I don’t understand what’s going on, I put too much stock in the people who know better. “Here’s my hair. Just put some layers in? Or whatever you think? I trust you.”
There’s a mutual silent agreement that I don’t really know what I’m talking about, but I act like I understand. They know it and I know it and they know that I know that they know. We’re both aware that at the end of the exchange, they will say “give me your money” and I will say “here it is, no questions asked”.
Never again. The movie version merged with the jumpsuit fantasy. Jose would be my tutor. I’d confess my heartbreak; he’d speak in car metaphors as he taught me the basics. My face would read rebirth and then determination. Montage to The Pussycat Dolls’ I Don’t Need a Man: Me studying under the hood with Jose, handing him the tools. Me taking some night classes in auto repair. Me coming back, showing Jose how my car is doing: “The alternator needed tuning, so I got under there and gave it a three-quarter crank and she was good to go.” Then a role reversal: Jose handing me the tools as I crack a tough job on a Jeep. We high five. On the way home, me pulling to the side of the road, helping some guy in khakis who’s stranded. I show him how to check his oil; he gives me his number.
Somebody started yelling at the garage entrance. I looked over. A guy with white hair, a Knicks jersey and a gold chain was pedaling in on a fat-tire bike.
“Oh no. Here we go,” Jose said.
“What’s goin’ on?” the guy yelled. “Who’s this?”
He hopped off his bike, parked it and introduced himself as Tommy. Jose told me he was the owner of the shop, and another one up the highway. He lived down the street.
“I put too much oil in,” I said.
Tommy said, “You by yourself? Where’s your boyfriend? He should be doin’ this.”
Seriously. It was terrible writing. I wasn’t even mad.
“I don’t have one,” I said. Do not deliver feminist treatise; know your audience. “That’s why I’m learning. Jose’s showing me.”
“You need a friend? Come over, I’ll be your friend. You wanna come over for dinner? My mother’s making meatballs. White house, down the street. Ring the bell.”
Tommy got back on his bike and pedaled off, saying, “I’ll be back”.
For the next hour Tommy popped in and out while Jose worked between my car and another car. He explained everything about the oil: why it mattered how much was in there; how to read the dipstick. He told me about coolant and how I needed to check that too. “You gotta learn,” he said.
I was so excited. Things would be different from now on. I was going to be a woman who knew how to take care of her car. I’d even wash it myself. With a bucket of soapy water and a thick sponge.
The job was finished, and I paid at the counter. Jose had Bible quotes taped to the wall by the register. I thanked him over and over. I said I would stop by next time I was going to Ocean City. He gave me his card.
The attendant watched me start my car and pull out. He was still silent.
I rolled down my windows to get the breeze and waited at the lot exit to break into the line of traffic. Tommy rolled by on his bike and spoke through the window. “Come over. I’ll be your friend. I’m serious.”
“Thanks,” I said. I drove away.
It’s been two years. I told myself I would go back sometime, bring Jose a couple Gatorades, but I never did. What if I went, and he wasn’t there anymore, but Tommy was? Or something went wrong with my car again, and the attendant would be watching?
Not long after, the pandemic happened. My quarantine played out like a very gendered, traditional 1950s family. I was living by myself, though, so I took all the roles.
The first half of the day I was the breadwinner. I woke up grumbling, tried to find a shirt that wasn’t wrinkled, and slugged a cup of instant. Then I checked the headlines and forced a smile for client video calls. After work I worried about the economy and considered some get-rich-quick ads. I stomped around the house and said, “Looks like I have to replace the fridge bulb. Maybe if everyone didn’t always stand here with the door open.”
The second half of the day I became a 50s newlywed homemaker. I wore rubber gloves and stared out the window hoping for some street gossip. Do I know them? Who’s this dog? I baked snickerdoodles. I struggled through a barre workout video using cans of beans for weights. I can’t let myself go; this is the price I pay to stay home.
My homemaker self was concerned with stretching the food dollar; I started studying cookbooks. My breadwinner self figured I better follow suit. I got the Owner’s Manual for the Honda out of the glove compartment. To be honest, I hadn’t looked at it since I drove away from Jose’s garage. This was the final kick to learn to be self-sufficient.
I put the car manual on the coffee table, so it was in view for nighttime studying. I didn’t open it. I moved it to my “house stuff” bin (handwritten recipes; unsent Galentine’s Day cards). Then I put it on my bookshelf, to give it some status to entice me to read it.
I never read it. The next time I needed an oil change, I went to Pep Boys. I did read The Radical Homemaker. That got me making my own hummus a couple of times. When you add beets, the color really pops.