Parents Who Work, a System That Doesn’t
Giancarlo, the smog guy, always struck me as remarkably good-natured for someone who worked in a fume-filled shoebox all day. When I’d first pulled up back in June, he told me it wouldn’t pass with the check-engine light on.
“But my registration is due tomorrow,” I’d admitted. “I always procrastinate.”
Gian said, “You read the registration notice, huh? Women always read the paperwork. Men never do. Ignore what it says. Pay it now, avoid the late fees, and you’ll still have two months to fix whatever is going on.”
Now here I was, two months and two mechanics later, sitting in a metal chair outside Eagle Rock Smog in the August sun. I studied the billboard across the street, an impressionistic painting of a boy’s face against a backdrop of green pills. Something’s wrong when an anti-suicide drug comes with an increased risk of suicide, it threatened. I wondered what the billboard’s sponsors thought depressed people should do. Yoga?
Gian wedged his body into the front seat. He said he was grouchy because he was on a diet, but I couldn’t tell—that he was grouchy, I mean. Sweat beaded at the edges of his low-key pompadour.
I’d spent almost a week without my car, in total. That doesn’t sound like much, but this is Los Angeles. To quote Joe Gillis, on the run from repo men in Sunset Boulevard, “If I lose my car it’s like having my legs cut off.”
My car used to be my dad’s girlfriend’s car. Her personality is nothing like Norma Desmond’s, but her driving habits are (infrequent outings, pristine care). That’s how I came to be the owner of a low-mileage 2000 Mercedes back in 2013. The ensuing years have been the roughest of its life.
I’d rear-ended someone on my stop-and-go commute, and I’d been rear-ended on a rain-slick day in Chinatown. Late one night, a possibly drunk driver rounded the corner too fast and knocked out the left tail light while my car was parked on the street. Not to mention the patina of small socks, crushed Goldfish crackers, and Rorschach coffee stains that defined its interior.
Shortly before the Mercedes entered my life, I’d gotten banged up, too: fertility treatment, miscarriage, and early-stage breast cancer in the space of three years. During that time, I thought a lot about the stories every body tells.
After my usual mechanic shrugged off my car’s problems, I sent it to my dad’s mechanic, a multiday trip that coincided with my four-and-a-half-year-old’s first week of public school. My car got a new camshaft, or maybe it was a camshaft sensor, and Dash and I rode three trains and one bus to pick it up in the South Bay.
We stood on the Green Line platform that bisects the 105 freeway, a dizzying, deafening river of cars on either side. Finally, the last leg, I thought, but Dash loved it all. He starfished his hands against the windows and watched the city roll by until we reached the end of the line, next to the Costco parking lot where my dad waited.
My car looked like it had just been to the spa, and for a minute I envied it.
Now, Gian informed me, “It’s still not ready. But if you drive to Santa Monica, have lunch, and take surface streets back, you’ll probably be good.”
I tried to imagine a life in which I could go to the opposite end of the traffic-choked city on a whim. We were about to leave town for an overnight camping trip. I drove, locally, and returned to Eagle Rock Smog.
This time, I had enough miles, but now my engine was too hot. Gian motioned for me to follow him into the garage. He typed away, printed something, made a phone call. I studied the framed documents on the wall, verifying that he was certified to certify my car. An industrial-sized fan pushed the hot air around. Gian hung up the phone and broke the news: There was a small possibility that my car had another problem, a thousand-dollar-repair problem.
“But we’re not going there yet,” he said. He handed me a print-out with a mysterious, magical formula on it.
How was I supposed to know my engine’s temperature? How was I supposed to maintain a speed of 1400 RPM when there were, you know, stop signs?
We took off, in C.C.’s Mazda, for the mountains. My car and its expired tags stayed in our driveway. Her car was making a weird noise, but only when she backed up, so we zoomed forward, through the chaparral and giant red rocks until the Joshua trees gave way to pines.
We met up with Danya* and Lynn, who hadn’t had an easy week either. Lynn was an environmental lawyer, fighting Trump’s anti-regulatory regulations and grieving for the planet. Danya worked as a literary translator, but for the duration of their son’s two and a half years had mostly been a stay-at-home parent.
Dash and Benjamin doused themselves in dirt and threw acorns and jumped from small rocks. They peered into a rodent hole and Dash speculated that the inhabitants were away at Gopher Work and Gopher School. I scanned his face for signs of distress at the gophers’ hectic lives.
The sun turned the pines to silhouettes as it sank, backlighting them with brilliant reds and oranges. We roasted veggie dogs (“free radicals,” Lynn murmured, observing the char) and made smores. We went to bed at the same time as the kids.
I awoke to a pale blue sky, visible through our tent’s skylight, and an aching back. The dirt beneath us was definitely harder than regular dirt.
While Lynn and I made coffee on the propane stove, she asked about the smog check that had delayed our arrival. I said, “It’s a whole thing. I’ve been trying to get it to pass for—”
“To cheat the test,” she clarified.
I wasn’t sure whether my car’s problem was with the actual emissions or the computer that recorded the data. Plus, I liked to think, not junking my old car saved landfill space.
“What about an electric car? Could you buy or lease one?”
Not in our budget, I explained. Next she asked about public transportation, and I thought about those days without my car. The work-daycare-home triangle would require me to leave work almost an hour earlier, and to choose between covering one particular mile-long leg on foot with a small child or waiting for a sluggish, unreliable bus.
Lynn didn’t press, but I continued to defend myself—because did she think I wanted to throw the Earth under the bus for my own convenience? Did she think I liked the fact that, with the early start time of public school, Dash’s days were longer than mine now? That we were literally shuttling him from institution to institution?
“Honestly I don’t know if I’m employable outside of the nonprofit sector at this point,” I said. “So realistically, if we wanted to buy an electric car, we’d need to move to a different state.”
Lynn nodded sympathetically. “And you’re doing something else that’s really important,” she said, alluding to my job for an educational nonprofit. I’d failed my smog test, but I had passed her morality test.
A different week, maybe I would have laughed it off or said something snarky. A different week, maybe she wouldn’t have been exhausted by watching the map of Brazil–the country whose poetry Danya translated—turn from green to red as the Amazon burned.
Monday morning, I studied the instruction sheet Gian had given me. My stomach churned in some old familiar way. I sensed this was about more than a possible $1,000 repair. How were the Notes and Conditions different from the Steps? Was “running the engine” different from . . . driving? If the engine was a few degrees too warm, did that mean I would definitely fail, or did it just decrease my chances of success?
I flashed on a trip, years ago, when we were trying to get C.C. pregnant following my own IVF cycle and miscarriage. We’d been late to a friend’s wedding and were apologizing our way through the reception when the alarm on my phone went off. We had ten minutes to find a bathroom and give her an HCG trigger shot to ensure she would ovulate in time for her IUI. The bathroom at the wedding venue was inconveniently located, dark, and cramped. I was still sifting through grief and trauma from my obsessive and unsuccessful trek through fertility treatment.
These smog check instructions were reminding my body of IVF. My confusion, the precision required, the sense of trying to speak a foreign language phonetically.
I parked my car, unsure whether I’d followed the instructions accurately, and what it might cost if I hadn’t.
No wonder I’d felt like Lynn had put me on the witness stand. Trying to become a parent had required me to try to prove myself again and again. First through IUIs and IVF, then through the adoption process. Strangers who promised they were on our side picked through our driving records and finances, counted our smoke alarms and told us where we needed to install a handrail. They coached us on how to present ourselves to expectant mothers—excited but not too excited, empathic with a side of “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” We presented ourselves that way, and expectant mom after expectant mom reached out, then ghosted us. Until, miraculously, Dash’s birthmom chose us.
Proving ourselves repeatedly was soul-crushing precisely because it felt all too natural. My dad was a scientist who worshiped at the altar of logic: I could do whatever I wanted as long as I made a good case for it. Maybe I sensed that he wasn’t as objective as he thought, because I became a writer, skilled in the dark arts of bullshit and spin. I believed some things were so true they could only be told in fiction and poetry.
Miscarrying and, a year later, being diagnosed with breast cancer, sent twin shudders down the faultline of my merit-based world. The pressure had been building, and then it broke.
“Just buy an electric car” is the “just relax and you’ll get pregnant” of the automotive world. Well-meaning advice hurled across a divide; the hurler doesn’t know what lies on the other side.
I’m the old Mercedes in this story. I have a good foundation. I’ve had a lot of work done, possibly more than my Kelly Blue Book value would justify. My troubled mind can make a case for junking both of us. But here we are.
Gian fiddled with gauges and nozzles. “I don’t know what you did,” he said, “but it passed.”
I’ve never been good at compartmentalizing.
The following week, my semi-annual cancer check-up rolled around. It had been staring at me like a check-engine light since my last all-clear in March. I’ve been in remission almost seven years, but I panic before every appointment. I texted my friend Nicole, whose family tree has been battered by breast cancer.
Nicole: Your test is gonna be fine. Your cancer isn’t going to come back because it was estrogen-positive and you aren’t supercharging it with hormones. It’s like worrying a car is gonna run without gas.
Me: Hopefully this car has no engine either.
Nicole: I think you removed the engine. And the fuel tank.
Engine equals breasts. Fuel tank equals ovaries, producers of the estrogen that had powered my particular cancer. All of them had been surgically removed to save my life. Sometimes I felt like a hull, but as long as I was a cancer-free one, I could handle it.
Cancer check-ups, fertility treatments, and smog checks are all tests you can’t study for. You can hedge your bets. I take my meds. I swing between a generally healthy lifestyle and junk food binges when my nihilistic brand of exhaustion kicks in. But mostly, honestly, I am emerging with my hands up and hoping no one shoots.
*Names have been changed.
Cheryl Klein is the author of a story collection, The Commuters (City Works Press), a novel, Lilac Mines (Manic D Press), and a monthly column for MUTHA called Hold it Lightly. Cheryl’s stories and essays have appeared in The Normal School, Foglifter, Blunderbuss, and several anthologies. Her work has been honored by the MacDowell Colony and the Center for Cultural Innovation. By day she works for the youth writing organization 826LA. She blogs about the intersection of art, life, and carbohydrates at breadandbread.blogspot.com. Twitter: @meadowbat.