My first car was a Renault Cinq. I was in my early 20s, young and fresh, but the car had already had a hard life. I remember paying $300 for it, but Melani insists I talked the woman down to $200.
What I do remember clearly is meeting the woman on a dusty Montreal road overlooking the Decarie Expressway. She opened the hood for me, as though I’d recognize anything but the oil dipstick. It was dark and greasy in there and didn’t smell so hot.
“I just had an oil spray done,” she told me earnestly. “It’s regular maintenance for an older car.”
My dad had never sprayed the guts of any of our old beaters with oil. He mostly took care of them with a magical combination of Clorets gum, a little duct tape and a healthy amount of prayer. And we always had a bottle of water in the trunk, for topping up the rad. Because often our cars overheated and sometimes there was a little fire.
She asked to see my license before we went on a test drive, and I told her I was getting it the next day. “You’ll need it before I can sign the car over to you,” she said. I made a mental note: Get off your ass and get a learner’s permit. Tomorrow. She drove the car for the test drive. It seemed to me she was a little hard on the stick and that maybe the Cinq was making some painful noises when she shifted. She probably just wasn’t a very good driver. I’d be fine.
I got my learner’s the next day, and bought the car. I learned to be hard on the stick, too, because the Cinq didn’t like shifting. The poor design and my short legs meant that with the seat pulled far enough ahead for me to reach the pedals, I had to shove it into second, bumping the corner of the seat. But it worked. It went forward. Often it went backward. The smell from the “regular maintenance oil bath” burned off pretty quickly. The speedometer didn’t work, but I knew I was going about the limit if I was cruising in third gear.
Since my driving it wasn’t completely legal – I had the learner’s but wasn’t in a hurry to get my full license – I drove it about eight kilometres every day, just to and from work along straight, flat St. Antoine and St. Jacques Sts. from St. Henri into Old Montreal.
Our relationship dragged on long after it ended one cold December night after the office Christmas party. The heater didn’t work and my hands were like ice on the steering wheel. Melani was shivering beside me. A light turned green. Clunk. Clunk. Nothing. I know now the Cinq’s transmission had given up the ghost, but all I knew then was that my little metal box Would Not Go.
We were four or five blocks from Melani’s apartment; I threw it in neutral and she started to push. Gods know how long it would have taken her to push it home (she refused to take a turn behind the wheel), but thankfully a Jeep came out of nowhere and pushed us home. Then all Melani had to do was push me as I parallel parked. I was a poor parker back then.
With CAA Plus, you get three free tows. I had the Cinq towed home to St. Henri. On snow-clearing day, I had it towed to the other side of the street. After the next snowfall, my roommate, Stanley, bribed a city worker $20 to not ticket or tow it. Someone offered me $50 for parts. I said no. I don’t know why. Near the end of winter, I shovelled it out and had it towed to the alley behind my apartment.
“It’s performance art,” I told people. “Only it doesn’t perform.”
It lived there about as long as I did. I don’t remember who took it. It was like the bad boyfriend who eventually moves away – a relief, and let him be some other girl’s problem.
But you never forget your first.