During my 17th year, I transformed from a teen thoroughly involved in all of the trappings of high school into an almost adult suddenly aware of the larger world. I was haunted by the discovery that the larger world was spinning at a dizzyingly fast speed, and I suddenly launched into that world, desperate to catch up with it and make myself part of it.
The first part of my seventeenth year, I was a junior in high school and I could not be more involved in that tiny world. But I felt that world collapsing inward on me, and I began to pull away. During that summer, I finally scraped together enough money after years of babysitting to buy a car (along with my parents’ support and contribution, since I was still a bit short): I paid $3,500 for a 1984 Mercury Cougar with 41,000 miles on the speedometer. That car, whom I named Talula (“Talula, Talula, I don’t want to lose you… But you must be worth losing to be worth something…” from Tori Amos's own "Talula"), changed my life. I was really into Tori Amos in those days, and I was also terrified that Talula would collapse and die at any moment, which would end my reign of freedom. I sang to her frequently while caressing her dashboard, though to be honest, with my terrible voice, I’m not sure if that affection helped or hindered. It was a legitimate fear—I was stranded and desperately checking and filling fluids on a relatively frequent basis.
With Talula, I discovered freedom. I got my first real job waiting tables, and I discovered what it was like to have spending money. I loved waiting tables because it actually paid to be good at your job. I worked really hard, and in a way that has never been true in my jobs since then, I was rewarded for that effort by making more money. I continued to perform well at school, but I missed out on most of the senior scene. I joint-enrolled (which meant that I actually went to a local college, since dual credit at the high school did not exist), so most of my days consisted of a brief stint at the high school (from 7:00 to 10:30—yes, we really did start then, though I was late more often than not), a trip over to the university, and then another journey to work, where I often closed the restaurant. I spent late nights unwinding from work and watching the Late, Late Show with my dad, who never slept.
The car and the job changed me. I was haunted by the larger world and desperate to be part of it. I suddenly realized that my life was on a pathway that I wasn’t sure I liked. My relationship with my then long-term boyfriend dissolved, which was undoubtedly my fault, and impressed no one I knew, especially my mother (since he was perfect and charming and I was impulsive and ungrateful). I saved enough money to take a study abroad trip with the university to France… which involved a lot of adventure and a new, terrifying haunting--a story for another day.
I’m proud to say that Talula survived with me for seven years (through college and on all of my roadtrips, including the summer I worked in Cape Cod and drove all the way from GA and back home). When I moved to Japan, I took her to Carmax, and the man came in after carefully calculating her worth. He looked at me straight-faced and offered me $25 for the car. I cannot repeat in polite conversation my objections to his insult, but needless to say, I did not leave her there.
I found her a nice home with a man who ran a scrap yard. He was thrilled because the A/C actually worked (by that point, my dad and I had disconnected the heater coil and salvaged the A/C, which was a good thing, since by then the only automatic feature of the car, the windows, had ceased to roll down). With new tires and functioning air-conditioning, Talula would be saved from the scrap heap and would become his new car. I like to think of her still there, queen of the scrap metal yard, carrying on her important business.
The luxuries and tortures of my job at the Cooker and the classes at the university, along with the trip to France all came later, when I was 18 and on the way to college and the elusive notion of “real life.” At 17, I was awkward and alone, different from my friends and on the fringe of everything—life at the high school, life in the real world. I was haunted by the urgent feeling that I was missing something. It wasn’t until many years later (perhaps only now, in these past few months of writing) that I discovered that in my hurry, I was missing myself. It’s taken me a long time and many, many miles to begin to find that self.
Writing this now, all of these years later, I find myself missing Talula like a long lost friend. I drive a Prius now, which is a phenomenal car and much more predictable and stable, but I’ve never been able to name it or even determine its gender. It’s a car—a damn good one—but it is nothing more. Talula was a friend and fellow adventurer. These days, I’m haunted by her and the memories she held.
The fear that haunted me most at 17, as articulated by Alanis Morissette: “Why is it such work to stay conscious and so easy to get stuck, and not the other way around?” That fear, of getting stuck, haunts me still, much in the same way that I was afraid of getting stuck on the side of the road with Talula.