After my wedding, I piled presents into my arms so that I'd only have to make one trip to the car. It was midnight, and I couldn't see the trunk as I fumbled for the latch. Nor could I see the red paint letters spelling, "Just Married," which transferred in reverse onto my white dress.
This seemed unlucky.
It wasn't until the next morning that I could see the car itself, covered in garish red drawings and slogans. Matt wanted to wash the car before our honeymoon, but I persuaded him that we should leave it decorated for the drive to Big Sur.
"Come on," I cajoled him. "We'll be able to speed the whole way. I mean, what kind of cop would pull over a pair of newlyweds?"
The cops policing the 4th of July drunk-driving checkpoint, as it turned out. They had trouble believing that newlyweds hadn't been drinking, and were unamused when I explained that I'd left the car decorated as a speeding strategy. We finally convinced them that we had been married (and sober) for almost twenty-four hours, and they advised us to stay that way.
The car was not a hit at the Lodge at Big Sur, a rustic motel in the middle of a state park, where the rooms had no televisions, telephones or clocks. "What time is it?" Matt kept asking me, not that it mattered. We spent a lot of time in our room. Hiding in our room. While the "Just Married" had been smudged by my wedding dress, the words "If you see it rockin' don't come knockin'" were still large and legible on the side of the car.
"What does that mean?" a little girl asked her mother, whose glare sent us back to San Francisco a day early.
On the ride home, the fog finally lifted and the sun baked the paint to a hard glaze. By the time we reached our apartment, the letters had turned the maroon of an old scab, and the vehicle looked less festive than scary.
On Valencia Street, a guy pulled Matt aside as he hoisted our suitcases from the car. "You must have just gotten back from Mexico," he said. Matt shook his head and the guy winked. "It's cool," he said. "I used to decorate my van to run shipments across the border. You figure, no way the cops will pull over a pair of newlyweds, right man?"
Matt found it troubling, the extent to which this drug-runner and I thought alike.
A week went by, and the paint acquired a topcoat of city grime. But with every passing day, I failed to see what difference another one would make. And there was always something more pressing on my schedule, like a conference with a student at a neighborhood cafe.
I'm not sure why I drove the four blocks to this café, or how I missed the Tow-Zone sign, but when I emerged from my conference the car was gone. "Green and red Honda?" the clerk at the city impound lot called on the intercom, laughing as I handed over a $250 check.
It was time to take matters into my own hands. So I drove to the nearest car wash, an assembly-line operation on Van Ness. When I gave my keys to the attendant, she asked if I wanted the $20 regular car wash or the $60 detailing, which came with a hubcap shine and pineapple polish.
"I just want my car washed," I said.
Ten minutes later she returned my keys and my car, which looked exactly the same only wet. When I complained, she said that I should've paid the extra for the detailing. She also refused to let me pay the difference. So I pulled my car into the gas station on the side of the lot, grabbed a squeegee and started scrubbing. But no matter how hard I scrubbed, the red paint didn't even fade. I knew that this was a fitting punishment for laziness, but I still felt sorry for myself.
"Congratula…" people kept saying, stopping themselves at the sight of my tear-streaked face.
I knew what I looked like: a jilted bride, a character from a soap opera, if soap opera characters ever did anything as mundane as wash their cars. I might have enjoyed the drama, except that my scrubbing was still making no difference.
"Ma'am?" said a homeless guy pushing a shopping cart piled with junk. "You know, a little gasoline will get that right off." He pulled a greasy rag from his cart and rubbed the side of the car, smudging the paint in a way that seemed promising. "If you just put a few dollars on the pump," he said, "I'll have your car looking brand new in minutes. Easiest thing in the world."
Magic words to a lazy person's ears. I fed my credit card to the machine, gave him a ten for his troubles and watched as he aimed the nozzle at my car, painting it with iridescent streaks of gasoline. Within moments, the gas station attendants came running. "I wouldn't let him do that to your car," one of them called out.
"Just ignore them," the man advised me, as he smeared the paint around and around. "I was in the car wash business for years, before I fell out of luck."
I was beginning to see why. As he smeared the red paint around, my car looked as if it had been attacked by lipstick, sordid crimson streaks obscuring the windows.
"If you just put a few more dollars on the pump…" he said.
"It looks great," I lied, desperate to get away before he caused any more damage.
"Hey look," he said, "there's a nail stuck in your tire." He bent down and plucked it out. "Lucky I came along when I did!" he added. The hiss of air releasing was audible over my own gasp. Before I could speak, he grabbed a screwdriver from his shopping cart, followed by a jar of rubber cement. He dipped the screwdriver in the rubber cement, stuck it in the punctured tire, then lit the spot with a match.
Miraculously, the gas-soaked vehicle did not go up in flames. But as I drove away from the car wash, my car still covered in the words "Just Married," droopy hearts and vaguely obscene slogans, I fully expected my tire to collapse. Miraculously, it got me home.
One year later, I still haven't replaced it.