The Red Car
It was my first car, my first real car. I had just left home, where I had been too long after getting out of rehab. I needed freedom and something to get around in. Until then, my only wheels had been a few gurneys and an ancient Everest & Jennings wheelchair.
So I bought the cheapest, best car you could get a half-a-century ago, a Volvo 544, the ones that looked like a depression-era Ford coupe.
My Volvo was fire-engine red (not like me, still pale from so many months on the wasting wards) and fast and sporty (not like me, moving a bit more laboriously).
We had something in common, though: going hell-for-leather, out into the new world, post-WWII Europe.
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In those days, you could save $1,000 on a European car by flying to Germany and taking delivery there. In those days, too, you could get hand controls that would work for both stick-shift and automatic. I got a standard shift and found a place in Frankfurt-am-Main that would install the appropriate controls.
The brake-clutch mechanism was cinched to the right side of the steering post. Twist the black end-knob for acceleration, push down for the brakes, and flip it all the way out for the clutch. The controls would automatically lock, so after you changed gears, you only had to flip it back in to engage the clutch.
At first we, my car and I, haunted the cities and the beer-halls of Germany, where I drank the sweet dark bock, so proud of me and my new independence. Until, one day, in one of the Biergartens of Hamburg (I was there in Hamburg when the Beatles were there, learning to play; they didn't know me, I didn't know them), a huge Kraut with blond hair and ice-eyes looked at me, and looked through me, and said, Juden. He said it several times, spitting out the word.
I wasn't sure, but I thought I knew, after all the leavings of World War II, what the word "Juden" meant. It was cold, and getting colder, and I figured it was time to move on.
So we took off for our first long journey, me and my 544. With my driving cap and hound's tooth jacket . . . I might even have looked like a sporty sports-car enthusiast. Despite braces, crutches, orthopædic corset, wheelchair. No one could see them, tucked as they were under my clothes or hidden in the trunk. We were in disguise.
Together, my randy red coupé and I: we ran away from Germany, heading west through the gray-black smoke-blown wastes of the Saar. After too many wrong turns, after too few instructions, we finally found the border crossing into France. (In those war-bitter days, the Germans didn't recognize, by any means whatsoever, the French. It was the same going the other way.)
We passed through the burnt-out Saar, down into the valley, the great wide valley, of the Loire. Down we passed, through Dijon, where the morning sun was pure mustard, through Burgundy, where the sunsets vin rouge. Down, down, racing the sun, coming at last to a place where the air was softer, the people more gentle: the great south country of France.
We, my red car and me, passing through tender Provençale nights --- the heady scent of fresh-mown hay in the fields --- until at last, we crossed the Pyrenees. And I found myself home. At last.
Paul Theroux tells us that when we travel we are probably looking for home. It will come to us, if we look hard enough, in some unexpected way. We will come into our own country - - - be it India, Argentina, Gabon, Japan, Polynesia or, for me, Spain. We alight from the airplane, get off the train, stop the car and get out - - - and we know we are home.
It may have been the Mediterranean light, a sky so blue that the statues in the zócalo seemed to float off their pedestals. Maybe it was the gray hills (the ones Hemingway said were like "white elephants") turning airy and evanescent in the midday sun.
It might have been the gypsies I passed on the road between Valencia and Málaga, their carts pulled by ratty donkeys, the dogs trotting underneath the wagons, the pots and pans hanging off the sides, clanking together. Or it could have been the smells: the rich smell of olive oil, the astringent smell of garlic, the sharp smell of dust everywhere.
It would be my home for the next two years. It would be the place that would take me back to what I had known so long ago: a time before wars, and nightmares, and sickness, and death-of-body.
Spain - - - like me - - - was an anachronism that had almost died in a civil war. After the War, they closed it off from the rest of the world. It was a place of 1930s black Citroens, clunky streetcars, dim colonias, streets that twisted about each other like snakes. It was a place where people - - - even the children - - - all dressed in luto (in black, as if in mourning.)
Me and my fire-engine red car, turning dusty now, in the dust of southern Spain. And when I arrived, I got myself a shack right on the Mediterranean, filled my days and nights with cheap red wine and hot paella, flamenco sung live in the bars, my soul filled with the joy of being out of prison, away from friends and a family who didn't know, would never understand, that I had to be away from their all-too-kind compassion.
Away from soft-spoken friends ("This horrible thing that happened to you"). Away from, noisy, back-thumping uncles ("Yer doin' great, boy"). Away from head-patting aunts ("You're so brave, my son.") . Away from those who would say, would say too often, too cruelly (I knew they were wrong) "We know you're going to be completely cured, completely cured."
They didn't know, they would never know, that what they called "this horrible thing" was now part and parcel of me. They didn't know, would never know, that what they called "doin' great" was but survival. They didn't know, would never know, that illusion could be mixed with ignorant faith --- and that both could be ruinous.
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So for the first time in months, years, I was free. Free of the old fears, free to feel mysterious new desires that grew powerfully out of a new body. Strange feelings I had hidden for so long --- until my fiery red 544 and I searched and found a way out, moving across dark horizons; moving through the hills of olives; moving down night streets filled with the scent of jasmine, the two of us hell-bent on finding a new passion down the curved Spanish streets at midnight, going flat-out for love, in tavernas where no one seemed to mind this new body, with its new equipment; places that were hot and dark and smoky, dark places filled with hot Mediterranean fervor . . . . and, for the first time, the beginnings of lost guilt.
Two years we, my red car and I, lived in a passionate new world of forget-the-past . . . until it was, suddenly - - - the surfeit of it all! - - - time to remember.
And I found myself on a late winter morning, on the fogged docks of Algeçiras, watching them hoist my now scratched and beaten 544 up into the air, swinging it high over the sides of a rusty freighter named "Colombo," the two of us on the last leg of our journey.