Looking back, I owe the development of my adult aesthetic to my first boyfriend’s terrific taste in cars. In the years we dated I was so shy I never uttered his name – it was Billy – though we managed to find intimacy in other ways that are inextricably linked in my mind with a Ford Falcon coupe and a 1966 Morris Mini Cooper. My general awakening occurred in 1973, the year I became aware of Richard Nixon as a dramatic character, and the beginning (for me) of the special period known as the sexual revolution. I spent every day that summer babysitting a curly-headed child who napped through the numbing Watergate hearings, which I watched on the family’s black and white television while their retriever obsessively humped my leg. Mostly, I sympathized with the dog’s longing – his desperation, really. Evenings and weekends, Billy and I drove around the island where we lived, walked along the shore paths and on the beach, climbed the rocky granite mountains – and drove around in awkward silence, as I was too shy to speak.
Much more than any specific physical contact between us, I remember the feelings produced by Billy’s appearance at my house in his Ford Falcon or his Morris Mini. I remember my mother’s near-panic, a generalized condition having to do with roads, snow, boys, accidents. The thrill of seeing her eyes wide with a sort of terrified anticipation. The only thing she wasn’t worried about was sex. Copies of Our Bodies, Ourselves, The Joy of Sex, and The Sensuous Woman by J stood stacked up on our living room coffee table next to a silver box of cigarettes. The tableau – sex books, cigarettes – looked composed, like some kind of organized suggestion. Or like homework.
Women my mother’s age were all going crazy with restlessness and envy, reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, or else they were divorcing, changing everything. My mother, who was already single, had always driven big, round, hand-me-down cars from my nana – a 1955 Chevy and later a 1959 Nash Rambler. The cars came to us because they were too old to be reliable in the frigid New England winters. I remember the heavy sound of dead alternators, the wheeze of their flooded engines as I sat beside my mother on the long bench seat, beltless, almost weightless, my knee socks pulled up and my required dress pulled down to cover my knees, knobbed and white as frosted cupcakes. Our family cars were a testament to outdated values – roundness, stability, dim coloring, American-ness. My mother was trying to bust loose – to liberate herself from the constraints of the cold-war conservative patriarchal structures that oppressed her economically and socially. When she finally got tenure on the cusp of the Me Decade she bought her first new car, a brand-new orange Maverick with a spoiler and black racing stripes.