My first love was my first car.
Oh, I had other crushes but never anything close to love - but that car, that was love.
She wasn't much to look at, just a snot-green '65 Rambler Classic convertible with one functioning door but in those days I wasn't a catch either.
My friends were against us from the start. They said I deserved better and called her cruel names like "one-door coupe" and accused her of being "the kind of car you didn't fill with gas for fear of losing your investment".
But what did they know?
The car I knew was dependable and willing to see me through lean times. She wanted no more than I could afford and was happy to go where I wanted to go and do the things what I wanted to do. For someone as clueless to the two way nature of love as I, it was the perfect starter relationship.
That summer, between high school and college, I worked second shift in a steel foundry and every midnight after work there she would be, sitting in a pool of light at the far end of the parking lot, waiting to take off together and spend the rest of the night cruising through the sleeping city, listening to late night radio, awash in cool air, not saying much, not having to - falling deeper in love.
I started college that September and moved into a boarding house. She had to sleep in the street but never complained even during the brutal winter.
In January her starter went out and because I had no money, we had to make due. I parked on a hill and every morning I woke her by gently slipping off the parking brake and guiding her onto the slope.
How could I ever forget those bitter cold mornings? The vapors rising into a reddening sky over downtown. The long snake of the Mississippi steaming white into a distant haze. The crunch of frozen asphalt. My love gathering speed - the catch of her clutch as she sprang to life.
There was pure joy in that.
We had nothing. We wanted nothing. Life was so simple and uncomplicated then. Still, it was a tough year.
And the next year was tough too.
And the year after that.
We became regulars at the auto store.
I could barely get a foot in the door before the counter guy would recognize the part dangling from my hand and sing out, "That's a MOPAR DX1238-B, we're out of stock but the Coon Rapids store has two, should I call 'em?", to which I would reluctantly reply, "uh sure".
As our visits became more frequent, I became more resentful. My academic career was taking off and the do-it-yourself auto repair crowd we hung out with didn't impress me anymore.
Her friends and my friends were not the same people.
I was making a name for myself in the emerging field of peri-glacial geomorphology (the geology of frozen mud) and my papers on thermokarst (holes cause by melting mud) were taking the discipline by storm.
During my junior year, The Musk Ox Journal featured my work. Among arctic landform aficionado's, I achieved rock star status. The mud-girls were all over me.
I guess this happens in a lot of relationships; the diverging arcs. One partner rises with success while the other refuses to change but it was more than that, she got worse.
That is when the cruel things my friends said about her came back to haunt us. I too began to believe that I could do better than a plain old Rambler -- so I stopped caring for her and she let herself go.
Our last night together was a nightmare.
I know I shouldn't have but I took her on a long trip to a conference in Saskatoon. I had a girl in mind but it is not something we talked about – though I knew she knew.
Along the way, what had started out as a light misfire grew into a steady cough. She soon developed a nagging thirst that constantly forced us to stop for water.
Each time, I filled her radiator I could see the pulse of compression strokes throbbing through her coolant. I knew what that meant. She did too. She had cracked a cylinder.
I am ashamed to admit it but all I wanted that night was to get to the conference. But you know what? That's what she wanted too. She was dying but all she could think of was me.
Later that night she faltered several times, losing power and sputtering to a stop but each time she picked herself up and pushed on. This went on until forty miles south of Moorhead when her strength could not sustain her will and she finally coasted onto the shoulder, trembling and gasping for life.
It struck me then that I had never experienced a death and it frightened me. I always imagined it as something sudden or peaceful but never as the panicked thrashing of a loved one. I shut off her ignition but she wouldn't give up. She dieseled on her oil.
I panicked and violently threw her into gear but she was too strong. She staggered forward, lurching painfully along the shoulder. It was more than I could bear, so I took her out of gear and sat for a while, frightened and ashamed. We were both caught at opposite ends of the same struggle, she for life and me for her death.
I didn't know what to do. So I just walked away.
To this day I can still hear her crying out to me through the fog "Ka-chunk Ka-chunk" as I walked away and left her to die alone.
On the face of it, this story does not say good things about me – but in the end it does because the guilt of what I did changed me for the better.
There will always be a part of me that keeps trying to walk back through that fog to her, back to the one who taught me the greatest lesson of my life, a lesson has served me well as a man, a lover, a husband and a father - that giving is its own reward.
© Greg Schiller, 2011
Author: Greg Schiller
Feel free to rummage around my collection of essays and stories at Greg's Garage