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Chaos Theory

Curb Alert

Freedom, fear and fahrvergnügen

By Cassie Bustamante

The first car I ever bought myself — with funds matched by my parents — was a brand-new 1997 little black Jetta, purchased right after I finished my freshman year at Wake Forest. One of my close friends, Krista, had a similar car she called LBJ; so I dubbed mine LBJ Jr.

“Junior” was my ticket to freedom. Far from my Massachusetts home, that car and I made many scenic drives to Pilot Mountain, an area that reminded me of the rolling New England countryside. Cruising, windows open and mix CD blasting, was all the escape I needed when undergrad life felt overwhelming.

Over 20 years later, with kids who are just shy of my age then, it’s time to pass my current car, a 13-year-old cherry-red Ford Flex, aka station wagon on steroids, onto my son, Sawyer, and get myself a new ride. Neither of my eligible children has a license yet, but both Sawyer and his younger sister, Emmy, are permitted.

Fondly recalling my travels with Junior, I book an appointment at the Flow VW dealership. My only rule? No bold colors. I’ve had enough of people telling me they spotted me in my bright-red bus. Let that be Sawyer’s problem soon, God willing.

Behind the wheel of a dark gray 2021 Touareg, I’m smitten. It seems — at least compared to the 2011 clunker I’ve been schlepping around in — to have all the bells and whistles. Seat warmers and steering wheel warmer? It might be June, but my cold winter hands will thank me in December. But practical Chris, along for this car-shopping ride, wants to visit another dealership before going home to confer.

“What’s there to discuss?” I ask in our kitchen that evening. “I liked the first one. Sold!”

“This is a big decision,” he replies, hoping I’ll put a little more thought into my choice. Where he likes to take time to assess all angles, I go with my gut.

“The moment I sat in it, I knew. It’s got everything — even a sun roof!” I exclaim. “Plus, loads of people drive gray cars — no one will know it’s me!”

Later that week, we sign on the many dotted lines and make it official. In the parking lot, keys in hand, my heart races, giddy with excitement. Chris zips off, homebound, while I take time to adjust mirrors and seats.

I start the ignition, open the sun roof and cruise home, wind whipping strands of silver hair every which way. I pull into the driveway behind Chris’ car and open the door to the anxious faces of my three children and Chris all asking, “How was it?”


Fourteen hours after completing our purchase, Chris offers to take 16-year-old Emmy on a driving lesson. My recommendation? Grimsley parking lot, perfect for pulling into and backing out of spaces, a skill she needs to practice.

“Do you wand to play car Tetris, or do you think it’s safe parking in the street?” I ask, apprehensive about passing drivers accidentally scraping it.

“It’ll be OK for a little while,” Chris assures me, knowing I am headed to the office shortly.

Brand-new car now nestled into the side of the street, I turn my attention back to my open laptop, waving as Emmy and Chris exit.

A moment later, I hear it. A light thud. Not a crash, but strange and alarming. My gaze follows the sound to outside, where Chris’ small white SUV is angled directly into the left rear of my VW.

“Are you even kidding right now!” I shout to no one. Breathe. Maybe they’ve just hit the bumper.

Chris marches from the passenger to the driver side. Even from my vantage point, I can see Chris’ clenched jaw, fighting back a stream of frustration. Red-faced, Emmy bolts inside in a blur. Her bedroom door slams, followed by the click of her lock.

Meanwhile, Chris reverses his car, and my own drops about a foot back down to the ground. Nope, definitely not just a little love tap.

I feel the rage bubbling up and there’s no shoving it back down as Chris walks in the front door. “What were you thinking?!” I scream. “She’s not ready to back out of our driveway! And my car, my new car, was right there!!!!”

Chris does not rise to meet my level of emotions and calmly says, “She did great backing up. She put it into drive and then saw a car coming behind her and panicked.” Like a deer in headlights, she froze, foot off the brake, and rolled right into my car.

Exasperated, I leave him to deal with the insurance filing for not one, but two cars — his is in even worse shape than mine — and turn my focus to the real damage control.

I stand outside Emmy’s door. “Can I come in?”

“No!” she says between sobs.

“I’m not mad, Emmy. I just want to talk.”

A click. I’ve been granted entrance.

“I told Dad I wasn’t ready,” she hiccups. “I didn’t want to pull out of the driveway!”

“I know,” I reply, rubbing her back. “Look, you’re OK. The car will be OK. And on the bright side, you — and my car — have had your first fender bender. It has to happen at some point and why leave home to do it!”

She’s calming down. “I’m just really sorry.”

“This is not your fault, Emmy. They’re called accidents for a reason,” I say calmly. Then, with fire behind my voice, “It’s 100 percent Dad’s fault!”

That coaxes a laugh out of her. And I know in time, we’ll all be laughing about it.

A year later, we all see the humor in it. A core family memory for sure. We’re still slowly chipping away at having two more licensed drivers in our household, but, one day, we’ll get there. And those new-driver nerves? They’ll be replaced by the exhilarating thrill that comes with facing the open road, outstretched before you, beckoning you to enjoy the ride.  OH

Cassie Bustamante is editor of O.Henry magazine.