A Car Called Harold
June 1, 2003
There wasn't much to Harold
by Aviva Luria
once had a boyfriend who called his car Harold. The name was inspired by the children's book Harold and the Purple Crayon, about a boy who drew objects that magically became real.
Harold ranthat's about the best thing you could say about him. The year was 1990, and Harold was a 1972 Toyota Celica. His mottled green paint was chipped and rusted; his floor was a thin, corroded shell with holes so large I sometimes considered thrusting my feet through to help him up a hill, Flintstones-style. Both door handles were missingmy boyfriend had to reach through the driver's side window to pluck up the lock.
And yet, I enjoyed our drives. There wasn't much to Harold; he was a flimsy barrier between his passengers and the outside world. Once I'd carefully arranged myself on the worn seat to avoid being jabbed by springs, I'd be entranced by the way the pavement sped past beneath my feet. Breezes blew in from unlikely places. Road noise was our only radio. Riding in Harold wasn't glamorous, but it inspired in me a rare sense of communion with my surroundings.
Sam was a student at Sonoma State University, and he'd always planned to move back home to New York when he graduated. We met, fell in love, and less than three months later he was packing to go home. He promised to return to San Francisco in June. The summer would be our test drivebased on how it went, we'd decide if I'd relocate to New York.
I was to take care of Harold, so we spent a Sunday afternoon in an empty parking lot, getting Harold and me used to each other. I had never driven standard, and the particular rhythm of the clutch and the gas was wholly unfamiliar.
"You'll do fine," Sam assured me.
Harold lurched and my head jerked forward, just short of the steering wheel.
"You're really catching on," Sam said.
I stepped on the brake and the lights on Harold's dashboard glowed faintly in the morning light. We'd stalled.
"Just make sure you shift into neutral before you stop," Sam reminded me.
We tried not to make a big deal of Sam's leaving. After all, he was coming back in five months and we planned to be in constant contact. I went to work as usual and Sam boarded an airport shuttle outside his friend's Haight-Ashbury apartment, where Harold waited on the street. The next day was street cleaning and if Harold wasn't moved there'd be a fine.
I was barely awake the following morning as I rode a bus up Haight Street. Usually fraught with activity, the Haight was nearly motionless. The rising sun oozed a hazy, damp glow over the hill. The early-morning calm didn't soothe me; my apprehension grew as the distance to Harold dwindled. I tried to envision a positive outcome. All I had to do was drive back to my building and park. But as the bus rambled on, it occurred to me that a few turns around a parking lot weren't adequate training for San Francisco's hills.
I got off the bus and walked past Buena Vista Park. Harold was right where he was supposed to be, silently storing up mischief like an unruly child waiting for his least favorite aunt.
I was no substitute for Sam. When I turned the ignition Harold sputtered and died; once in motion, he made it very clear who was in control. He bucked, stalled, then stubbornly refused to start again. I was reminded of the bumper car rides I loathed as a child, the way the squat, rubber-rimmed vehicle mocked every human input with exaggeration: a slight turn of the wheel would spin you one hundred eighty degrees; a tap on the gas hurled you into another car.
I didn't have far to go. Jerking, stalling, I made my way to my neighborhood, fueled by determination and pride. (What would Sam say if I failed to do this simple thing?) But the morning's pre-dawn hush quickly slipped into rush hour. As I drew close to my building, traffic erupted. I pulled into the middle of a busy intersection and stalled.
Drawing in great lungfuls of air, blinking away tears, I ordered myself to remain calm. And I prayed, for the first and only time in my life, for a traffic cop. The drivers around me honked and shouted as I tried to coordinate turning the ignition with my desperate footwork. Then the cars were surging around us. With nowhere to go, I unclenched my hands from the steering wheel. They were trembling violently.
Getting to know Harold seemed a journey through a world that looked familiar, but was newly intimidating. Stop signs, once benign, induced me to panic. Clinging to the crest of a steep hill, I would wave on the cars lined up behind us, refusing to budge until every one of them drove around. My fears weren't groundless: Harold and I had rolled downhill countless times. We'd simply been lucky enough not to hit anything.
Stretched across three thousand miles, my connection to Sam seemed increasingly gossamer. We contemplated the horizon and found ourselves facing in opposite directions. Soon, innocent remarks were misinterpreted, overanalyzed, overblown. When Sam asked if he could move in with me for the summer, I offered to find him a sublet instead.
If adversity battered our love, it also strengthened my bond with Harold. I took him for short practice drives, then for longer and longer ones. I discovered Harold's sweet spot and his clutch engaged effortlessly. We began taking trips to the beach, where I'd go for long, windy walks while Harold bathed in the misty sea air.
Sam grew more distant. Time lengthened between phone calls. Letters trickled in more slowly, their pronouncements of love less and less effusive. Yet even as my relationship with Sam ran out of gas, I became a better driver. I came to appreciate Harold as no mere extension of his owner. It wasn't just that I had a car at my disposal for the first time since moving to San Francisco. My feelings for Harold transcended the practical. He brought to everyday experience qualities unusual and rare, like the way the salty, moist air of the beach didn't simply waft through his windows as it would in any ordinary car, but permeated the entirety of his metallic being.
I had only temporary custody. Sam did return that summer, though merely to pack up his things and ship them to New York. And to return Harold to his old home in Sonoma County.
I was at work when Sam took Harold away from me. That afternoon, I surveyed the cars parked on the street outside my building: competent, clean, unlikely to sputter or stall, they did little to heal the rust-eaten hole in my heart. Nothing was what it appeared to be; the love Sam and I had shared was merely the hopeful invention of mutually attracted, but irreconcilable, people. It was Harold's steady companionship and quiet acceptance that were real. Like an object drawn with a boy's magic crayon, Harold had given me precisely what I desired.
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