When I was seventeen, I felt safest in my boyfriend’s car. It was a 1994 Mazda Familia GT-X three-door hatchback, manual, with the works: low suspension, turbo, blow-off valve, spoiler, and a custom satin blue spray can paint job. The back passenger windows were tinted. The sub and bass fizzed in the boot like rabid rabbits, the whole car shook as we cruised through the leafy suburbs. In the back were empty Powerade bottles and cut-up V cans, and in the front my Jogproof Discman and books spilled out of my school bag, by my feet, by the black leather Nikes he’d gotten me to match his. His iPod Touch balanced carefully on the cup holder because the aux cable only worked if the jack hit at a specific angle. It was a whole thing to pick it up and change the song, you had to really want it, but Plastic Beach had just dropped, and we let it roll back on it itself, again and again, barrelling, windows down, arms hanging out, grinning, speeding, the volume up, the voices in our heads finally unable to be heard, thank god, thank god, the blue sky and low houses whizzing past our hair — mine glow-in-black-light hot pink, his glow-in-black-light bright red — caught in the wind, flying like party streamers, away, away, l8az.
My boyfriend had had to move here because he couldn’t live with his family anymore. This meant he was on the dole, and he treated me to McDonalds and Coronas — he knew which houses had easy-to-reach lemon trees, and we sliced them up with a pocketknife, pushed them down the bottle necks and got drunk in his car, fell asleep in the car, the front seats reclined, a thin blanket over our bodies, facing each other, holding hands. The ceiling lining sagged. When I looked up, I could see the love heart I had drawn on with the flame of a lighter. You could always count on finding a lighter or loose change in that car. And you could always count on him for a ride. He was the person who would show up for you, in any situation — he understood the principle of giving a lot even if you don’t have a lot. He was the one who showed up for me when I was pregnant, drove me to all the hospital stuff, skipped school and got detentions with me to do that, and he wasn’t even the father of the baby, he was just my friend at that point, no one had cared for me like that before.
Having a car meant freedom, and possibilities. It did something to our minds, driving around for the sake of it, wuu2, nm, going to Taupō to pick up car parts, Botany for a car meet, pull up, there was an expansion, and we felt the tackiness of the walls dry out, our skin breathing, relieved. We perceived time differently — we could close distances, turn an hour of walking into six traffic lights, do night-time activities during the day, you could do whatever the fuck you wanted in the security of a car, parked beneath the shade of a big tree, and you know, if it wasn’t that, it’d be the bushes by the skate park, or the cave on the beach, if you want something you find a way, you make a way. There was always a road somewhere, always the promise of bright lights, soon, at a gas station, don’t light a ciggie here are you fucking stupid, topping up twenty bucks at a time, checking the missed calls. Things happened like that, incrementally, and sometimes it felt like a slow choke. But when we drove, there was that rush. The hiss. Life felt limitless.
We were shy but you wouldn’t know it if you saw us in that tough shell. And that was part of it — if you saw the car parked and empty, you’d think of him first, but you’d probably think of me too. Cars were a status symbol, but it was like the more rugged the better. And there was something sexy about getting it yourself, without the help of parents. My boyfriend was independent, he didn’t rely on anyone, and when the bell rang and we saw the kids hopping into the passenger seats of Rav 4s, we smirked. See, all that stuff they said was a big deal, just wasn’t. You didn’t need a licence or insurance or anything, you just had to know two things: how to dream and how to get away with it. Because life was for living, and we knew of failure, of embarrassment, abandonment, and we knew how deep down the hole we could get and still we would claw our way back up into the light, even for just a peek, and you know, with each other there was no faking it, we didn’t have to pretend to be happy, we could be as ugly as we knew we were, carelessly so, and there were no patronising lectures or heartless platitudes, we listened and looked into each other’s eyes, and he could fix cars (wasn’t that hot?), and there was something so new and magical in that kind of creativity, like he perfectly combined imagination and intellect, and he did it with big, capable hands. But he made me worry too. I sellotaped my phone to my hand at night so the vibration would wake me if anything were to happen.
That car made me believe in cinematic romance, the kind where the twilight sky is like a magic spell and there’s a big-bellied swell in the air, a surge of feeling, and you can sense the next big thing about to happen and you look over at him in the driver’s seat, at the black stretcher in his earlobe, the ‘noob’ badge on his plaid shirt, and you sit in the passenger seat in a denim miniskirt, eyes dusted with blue glitter, and you are in total awe at the bone-soaking immensity of your feelings, the enormity of these situations, and you are certain he is the one, this feeling is intense therefore it must be love, and in the weekends the boys pile into cars and swing cricket bats into mailboxes, derp, and the girls wear high heels and get into bars, bat away the hands of grown men, get free vodkas. We were nearly legal, we were nearly there. Red Hearts were easier to get than a doctor’s appointment, so you took two to try feel good, and if you vommed you just waited it out and got up again. In the mornings you wiped the condensation off the rearview mirror with the sleeve of your school jumper, you were constantly surprised at your ability to endure, to come up with alibis, and there was pride in not recoiling, cool story bro.
We walked too, for hours. Along the main road, down side roads, through the walkway, picking loquats to eat along the way. To the beach, to the park, to someone’s house. My girlfriends and I walked around the mall, tried on dresses at Pagani, push-up bras at Bendon, took mirror selfies with a digital camera. Went to Whitcoulls to test the pretty pens, went to Farmers and put on makeup, spritzed Curious by Britney all over our little bodies. And then we crossed the road to BK, moving like ants in a death spiral, joined the boys who sat in a booth with one small cup — free refills — and shutter shade sunnies, and we sat there for hours, just chilling. We parked our cars in the Hoyts carpark, and if you didn’t have a WOF you just put a piece of paper on the dashboard: ‘on way to get wof, please don’t ticket’. Everyone knew the hacks, and there were codes too, like ‘sleepover’ and ‘iPhone case’, and when it neared six everyone knew to go home or call home, wanna ride?, shotgun.
Sometimes he drove on the wrong side of the road for fun, boosting it until another car appeared, and then we’d swerve off, because rode rules were just another set of rules. I’d never met anyone so alive. And sure, there were problems. Sometimes the car would overheat but he’d pull off the motorway, just like that, and pop open the hood, pour some water to cool it off (fixing it was a problem for the future, when we had more money) and then we were off again, darting between the white lines, us against the world. We laughed hysterically, cavernous mouths with bared teeth ready to bite hard on the steak of thrills and fight over it. And if you were small enough to fly into our mouths and explore the body you’d see brains still developing, the prefrontal cortexes slowly building, and hearts like chattering teeth, and all the mental illnesses and unhealthy stress-handling behaviours, they were just beginning to form shapes, crystallising like those bugs you see in tree sap, and back then we were just focused on surviving the pits and the peaks, which were so high and so low, just like in the movies, it really did feel like that, a movie, and the only way I can describe it is like how the following year, when I was overseas and no longer with him, some friends and I stood on the edge of a skyscraper. It was around midnight, and we’d snuck into some fancy apartment building, found the trapdoor to the top left open. We climbed up the ladder, walked across the long, quiet plateau. There were no barriers, just the magnificent, glittering city left open like a treasure chest. And we stood teetering on the edge, in the dark looking out at the light, and there was this immense thrill, a giddiness.
▶ • ılıılılılılılı
When I was younger than that, I spent Saturdays on the couch with a blanket, in front of the TV. My favourite show was Pimp My Ride. Every episode had the same formula. The contestant would talk about their car and then plead, “Please, MTV, pimp my ride!” And then the host, Xhibit, would go to their house and check out the sorry excuse for a car, and say something like, “But that’s all about to change. He has no idea. I’m about to pimp his ride.” They’d kit it out with outrageous modifications: a pokie machine door (pull the lever and get three in a row for the door to open), a mobile CAT-scan machine in the boot (“We know you wanna be a travelling nurse, so we hooked you up with something special. Check this out.”), and so many diamonds, gold-flake paints, video cameras and other tech gadgets. Bubbles coming out of the exhaust pipe, a snow-cone machine in the boot, a piano in the van. Sick, slick paint jobs.
And I know it was all staged, everything from the contestant’s ‘homes’ (actually just empty houses on the market), to the state of their cars (beaten up more for the show), to the results (the cars took months to do up and contestants often had to rent cars with their own money while they waited; also the cars often got stolen later on, or broke down because only the cosmetics was worked on), but I don’t care. When the show ended with the words, “You’ve officially been pimped”, every single time it was like my world had been coloured in with Vivids. I was invested, transformed. I’d witnessed something fantastical. They knew how to dream.
♬ · ♪ · ♯ · ♫ ·🎧· ✩
One day we walked out of Geography and drove north, stopping at the dairy for Bubble-o-Bills, my school skirt rolled up high, his baggy pants like dried magma on the accelerator, and we drove past the beaches — flat and cold — music thumping, shaking up the blood in our veins. The dials on the dashboard lurched forwards and fell back, like pine trees in a storm. I played with a lighter, the weather-worn metal wheel resisting each flick, but always, if I held out long enough, a perfect flame. He always wore Nike sweatbands on his wrists, I always wore long sleeves, and things were absolute like that, and we yelled and cried and threatened and once, he pushed me out of his moving car, but what of it, I pulled his hair by the roots, everyone knew we loved each other, I had a job in retail, he was gonna keep fixing up cars, we would have a family one day, maybe when we were 24. The mangroves by my house had long, fingery roots; birds liked to hang around, it was beautiful, we lived in a beautiful neighbourhood. And over there was something to attend to, but I kept my feet on the car mat, dried mud covering some, but not enough, of the rubber wording etched into the carpet: Familia.
The roads were wide. We kept driving, dunno where to. It got to six. We got fish and chips and ate it facing the sea, sitting on the bonnet of the car, dipping chips into a pottle of tomato sauce, the tarakihi into tartare. The setting sun was like the tie-dyed t-shirts back in our dark bedrooms, where the curtains would still be open, the light from cars driving home projecting slats… But we didn’t want to go home (this was how we regained control), so we got back in the car and pulled onto the road, noticing the feeling of leaving the grit of the sandy grass for the smooth face of bitumen, and we turned the music up (If it’s too loud you’re too old!), and the streetlamps snapped on like glow sticks at the school disco. And that’s all it took to make us feel taller, it was as if the cars’ wheels had jacked up and suddenly, we were looking down at the world. The empire unfurled, the high tide lapping the shore with soothing licks. And the grey and white seagulls did ribbons overhead, over the streetlamps that went shwoomp, shwoomp over our heads, and each car we passed carried people on a journey, and we were a part of that movement, we too were moving forwards.
And we thought one day we’d own a silver Skyline, and all the haters would see us glide across the motorway, glimmering metallic, like the silver lining of a cloud. The pink magnolias would bloom into plump birds, forked and ready to cook.
↻ ◁ II ▷ ↺
It was dark. I reclined the seat and put my feet on the dashboard. The only light came in reds and whites: speedometer, odometer, fuel gauge, rev counter… the closer you looked, the more particulate. Sums of a whole. Small parts in a machine, unaware of the elegant mechanics at play, the mathematics of synchronicity. It was like we were sitting in a grand piano, not knowing what to call the parts or how they worked to produce the music, but we heard the music for sure, and it was beautiful, just like the car, which too was propelled by the production of energy, leading to a perfect explosion.
And then Superfast Jellyfish slowed down the way we expected it to, blended seamlessly into the next song — Empire Ants, our favourite — and there was comfort in that. When someone Gets It. Sees You. Knows. That was always the goal.
And we drove on,
the night lights like a diamanté bracelet,
loose and elliptical.
Wellington writer Joanna Cho is guest editor at ReadingRoom this week. She has commissioned work from three Asian New Zealand writers. Tomorrow: romesh dissanayake on Australia’s referendum vote