The old wagon was sagged comically in the back, where it was loaded down with all of the possessions of a young man getting ready to close one chapter of his life and begin another: books, records, clothes, and all the detritus of two years of college. There was a lot l was leaving behind, including the weeping, beautiful young woman standing in the driveway I was turning out of with a sense of finality.
Two weeks later, the car would need to be sold to a new owner and I would be spending the next several years without a car, alone in the Big Apple with the future looming wide open, like a chasm. And when I found myself lost, I would often think back to that car that had served as a faithful mule and always got me where I needed to go. All this time later, I can still remember how I felt as I backed out of that driveway. I was thinking: It is hard to let go.
I bought “Sunshine,” a 1995 Subaru wagon, in 2003 with the money I had made as a sleepaway camp counselor the previous two summers. She was a salvage title and the window sticker that was folded up in the glove box showed that she had migrated all the way from Juneau to LA. This was the first car I purchased myself, and I remember haggling $200 off during the negotiation. The next day, I proudly spent that money on a CD player and new speakers installed at a Circuit City (remember those?) The salvage title was due to an accident to the rear of the car, which was cosmetic and had been repaired decently, so there was no effect on the mechanicals. Sunshine had some minor quirks like a missing side mirror, a cracked taillight, deeply corroded battery terminals, and a passenger door that would only open from the outside. I remember one date freaking out about that when I picked her up for dinner.
“Sunshine” was the perfect name for this car’s sunny disposition. It was a pretty gutless ride, but it always got me where I needed to go; it was the little car that could. I can still remember her tired 2.2L 4 cylinder engine firing up in the dead of winter when it was 30 degrees outside and the glass had a layer of frost half an inch thick that took ten minutes (or a bucket of lukewarm water) to defrost.
It feels like Sunshine and I spent a lot of time fleeing one place for another. I recall flaming out of the college town where the menial job I was working had dried up; I remember moving in and out of my parents’ house. “Mom, I got into the one school I applied to!” I gushed, as I waved the acceptance letter over my head. “Maybe you’re an underachiever,” she responded.
While attending classes at Cal Poly, I moonlighted as a musician, playing at the local pubs and coffeehouses. Sunshine swallowed all my musical gear: Keyboards, guitars, amps, mic stands, all of it. I recall a number of occasions where I would travel and sleep out of the wagon, too. It was long and flat back there, and easy to curl up in at the beach, where alternatively, you could pull down the tailgate and lounge.
The old Subaru needed very little to keep chugging, and in hindsight, I could have done much of the work myself if I knew anything about cars, but I did not. I recall a cracked axle, some torn CV boots, and the corroded battery that I really should have replaced earlier. I know what you are thinking: What about the dreaded Subaru head gasket? I never had to do it.
In addition to playing music and going to school, I held down a job at the bookstore in town. After working there for a couple of weeks, one of the baristas upstairs caught my eye. We had both been preparing for the GRE, and we bonded over this common ground. We started dating and the relationship blossomed while we kept it a secret at work. One day, Diana got an acceptance letter to UCLA, which meant she was going to move to LA. “We won’t be that far apart, we can still see each other on weekends,” she said as she broke the news to me. But within two weeks, I had been accepted to NYU, and the writing was on the wall that we were going to be living separate lives in different places.
Living in NYC would mean that I no longer needed a car. This meant that I’d either have to ask my parents to dock Sunshine for the next two years or that I would have to give her up. It wasn’t fair to ask the former, so I reluctantly opted for the latter. I put the car up for sale on Craigslist (which I’d become an expert in handing off my belongings through) and found a taker for a little more than half of what I had paid four years earlier. As I recall, the buyer wanted it to haul his bike around with. Seeing Sunshine drive off for the last time felt a lot like pulling out of my girlfriend’s driveway for the last time; I forced myself not to look back over my shoulder.
During those years in NYC, I missed driving. I lost my California tan, and I shaved off all my locks. The winters were long and frigid, and I felt like a specter as I blended into the big city. During that first year, Diana came out to visit once or twice. Increasingly, we talked on the phone or used the then-newish Facetime, and something started to happen to me: I fell in love. I realized that we were growing together and not apart, that we were on parallel lines. We entered into a cross-country, long-distance relationship, and we vowed to stay together, not letting time or distance interfere.
Two years later, we received our degrees and reunited back in California. We agreed to move to the place where the first one of us landed a job. That turned out to be me, and we migrated up to the Bay Area. Once I got established up there, it was time to get another vehicle, and guess what I ended up with? A 2003 Subaru Outback that I dubbed “Big Red” (a COAL for another day, perhaps?).
Today, 15 years later, Diana and I are happily married. And while I had to let go of Sunshine, it was the car I always remember fondly when I think about this very impactful period of my life, the younger years where there was a lot of change in the winds.
Using Carfax, I was able to determine that after I sold Sunshine with about 165k on the clock, she soldiered on to 198k before landing in a scrapyard. She was a faithful car to the bitter end, eventually harvesting her organs to keep other Subarus on the road. I wish I could have kept her, and while the followup was a great car, too, there was something about the first one that had got ahold of my heart. It was the best car I ever had, hands down.
Sunshine taught me an important lesson:
There are few second chances in life, so if you have a good thing… hold onto it.