The Car Rental: a Midlife Metaphor

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I didn’t buy my first car until I was thirty-one and was told I needed to have one in order to meet the requirements of my medical school rotations. So I saved my money and bought an old, but reliable, Toyota Tercel with a leaky sunroof. As I set off across the country I felt glorious. I was a single woman exploring the backroads of the Western U.S., setting up my tent each night in an uncrowded forest service campground, and every morning my trusted car would transport me to a new destination.

 

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Making that trip, before the days of GPS when all I used were those excruciatingly detailed gazetteers, was an exercise in self-reliance. I traveled the backroads and poked down dirt tracks. After I married, and took nearly every road trip with C, I still did plenty of driving. But I was no longer in charge. Which was generally a good thing given the terrain we traversed from Australia to Zambia. It was an incredible adventure and a privilege to travel with an irrefutably car-competent man. But I gave up something when I relinquished the care and feeding of a vehicle.

When Z and I flew into Menorca, one of Spain’s Balearic Islands in the Western Mediterranean, I rented a car, the first car I’d ever rented in my life. I had never been the only name on a car rental contract and I suddenly felt responsible and grown up (as opposed to all those other times I travel with my son and I feel clueless and immature). Better yet, the car we rented was a Fiat Bambino, cute as a bug and this woman’s midlife fantasy ride. We had a full tank of gas and could return it on empty. We did a little high five and set off.

 

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Every time we drove the Fiat to a new location and got out, I’d look around and think, ‘Yeah, this is my stinkin’ cute car and my stinkin’ cute son, and no, there’s no man in the picture because I rented this car by myself!’ I actually felt myself swagger.

But it was also the trip itself that lent me a new sense of self-reliance. I had traveled with Z to Morocco, but we were taken care of there by the tour company. This was the first time Z and I had flown to a place we’d never been and were on our own. And it was fantastic. We quickly became friendly with the restaurant staff and made friends on the beach. And Z had his own lesson in life skills when I sent him off to the shop on his own. He wanted to buy a Capri Sun for 45 cents. I gave him a 20 euro bill and he worked out how much change he would get back. Off he went, through the sprawling hotel complex, across a road, up two sets of vertiginous stairs to the shop selling everything you needed on a beach holiday and were willing to pay twice as much for. I was relieved and elated when he returned, and so was he. In his bag was an underwater camera, a frisbee, a Lego-like robot, a Kit Kat bar and a Star Wars pellet candy dispenser.

“Where’s the Capri Sun, mister?”

“Oh, I forgot about that.” Sadly, this is where he takes after his mother.

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When you’re recreating a life as a single person after decades as a married person, there are certain moments when you feel the discomfort of having to take on the tasks that were once the responsibility of your spouse. A few months ago, after noticing a foul smell in my sitting room, I discovered the decomposing body of a rat in one of the fireplace cabinets. My first reaction was to leave my house, call up C,  and beg him to come dispose of it for me. But I didn’t live with C any longer. And he wasn’t calling me up and asking me to come cook his dinner. So I had to deal with the damn rat. And once I tied the bandana over my nose and mouth, picked the creature up with a pair of tongs and disposed of it in the outside garbage bin, I felt a great sense of accomplishment.

And so I felt with the Menorcan car rental.

 

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I’m not suggesting that a woman needs to be single in order to feel that she can get by on her own. In fact, it’s probably more important while we’re partnered to leave the comfort zone of that backup person and practice these small moments of independence. Like my married girlfriends who backpack solo in the wilderness, nurturing our own self-reliance will serve us in the long run. We generally live a lot longer than our male mates and I don’t want to feel my life shrink if the person I’ve been living my life with is suddenly gone.

So I’ve scheduled a bunch of new adventures on my own and with Z. I want him to grow up thinking it’s normal for a woman to rent cars and dispose of dead rats on her own. And pretty soon he will be taught to do his own laundry. To his future girlfriends I say, you’re welcome.

 

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