In 2006 Dodge released its replacement of the Neon, a compact car, with the Caliber, a five-door Sedan with a hatchback. It wasn’t until a year later, after graduating from college when looking for my first used car I noticed the vehicle that would become my closest friend. It was happenstance that I was working at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, where the latest cars come first as a kind of test market for potential buyers. In my short time with the company, I saw the Nissan Maxima switch body styles, and the reluctant respect given to the newer Kia models like the Optima. Customers were quick to show their approval of a car by asking for one more day on the rental, or leaning over the return counter and waxing on about “pressing the metal to the floor.” They were even quicker to dislike a car – I’d picked up more than one set of keys that’d been thrown to the ground at my feet.
I knew more about automobiles than I ever would’ve without the job and yet, when it came time to make my purchase, despite my technical knowledge of things like gas mileage, safety ratings, and even future repair costs, I made a choice that was purely emotional. It was the cup holders – they light up at night, green orbs floating in the center of the car. And it was the gear stick, which instead of being down by the cup holders, was up high — even today, my right hand will gravitate to the silver knob immediately after merging on to a highway. It was the hatchback trunk with windows on all sides, so nothing was hidden; it was all there to be seen. I found out later that the Dodge Caliber had been marketed to young men in their twenties and extra features of that theme included things like chrome accessories, speakers that came down from the open hatchback door, and huge rims.
The salesman who sold me the car, told me it was grey. I’d originally wanted a red Caliber, but my mother talked me out of it – insurance, cops, don’t bring attention to yourself. The grey seemed sophisticated, had a lot less mileage than the red one, and I hadn’t seen many that were grey. It came from out of town, driven in by a two-man team. Though I never knew his name, I will never forget the driver who pulled in with my Caliber, because his face reflected what must have been my own look of dismay. The car that I had purchased, sight-unseen, was blue, definitely blue. Not sky blue or royal blue, but the deep blue of the mountain lakes hidden around Idaho, not grey or black, but undoubtedly blue. The driver handed the key to my salesman, who immediately tried to save the sale he could feel slipping away.
He flung open one of the back doors and exclaimed, “This will make a great first family car!” Only making me more upset, because despite the presence of my boyfriend at the time of several years, I knew that it would be a long time before I ever placed a child in Cali’s care. But when I sat behind the wheel of Cali for the first time, I was sold. I don’t know when I started to call her Cali, maybe on one of the trips when she would carry me up and down the east coast on the weekends when I needed to escape my job (and my newly single status.) She carried my mother and me across Route 90 to Spokane, Washington where I went to graduate school where we both learned a few hard lessons about winter and driving in snow. She would fail only once, when I left my battery running while I waited for another boyfriend in Seattle, but she was still with me when he left without a call or a text. Cali would carry me down to Phoenix where another man waited, and she carried me all the way home in a two-day sprint from Arizona to North Carolina, her tires so bald the mechanic told me I could market the brand for their longevity.
I wasn’t always nice to her. I forgot to have the oil changed. I left windshield wipers on that had strips of rubber coming off them. I used cheap gas. Once, when the battery was spotty after Seattle, I had to get a jump from a friend, but instead I put the jumper cables on wrong and burned through a layer in the chrome and started a small fire. I tried to clean off mud with a credit card. I opened a door against a cement bar. For a few years I went over speed bumps at no less than 30 mph. I was not kind. After years of neglect, and me living on the margins, Cali needed repair work totaling in the thousands, but I didn’t hesitate to fix all that could be done. And I was thankful that I had the funds necessary to give her what she needed from me. If a car is like anything living, it is maybe a horse, except that Cali was always doing more and more for me, while I gave her nothing but what she needed to be useful. I would not have said that I loved her, her being an inanimate object. Now as she gets older, as she gains dings and scratches, and starts to make strange noises, I find myself more in tune with a car than I am with anyone or anything else on the planet. I love her despite her barbecue sauce stains, her grubby carpets and hot chocolate splatters. I love how long she takes to get to 60 mph and the sound of her clicker. I keep asking one more thing of her, this time to carry me back to the man I left, knowing she will always try.