What You Make of It

There's no such thing as a free car.

It arrived by mail on high quality stock paper. Maybe that’s what caught my attention: I am such a sucker for paper finery. I pulled the thick sturdy card from the thin flimsy flyers and examined the giant colorful advertisement from Gresham Toyota. Upon inspection, it was essentially an oversized scratch ticket, of which I’d always been irrationally fond. 

A friend and I were once over an hour late for a party because I just couldn’t let go of the desire to win. And the kicker is, we did win $100, but it wasn’t enough. I insisted we turn the winning scratch ticket in for one hundred more and the chance to win $5,000. This friend was as careless as I was at eighteen and so readily agreed. We stood outside the 7-Eleven smoking Kamel Reds feverishly scratching all those tickets, desperately hoping for something more. We separated the winners from the losers and went back into the convenience store over and over and over until our pile of winners dwindled down to nothing. 

That was what America meant to me as a kid: the illusion that anything was possible. How many people had come to our country with the promise of something more, something better than what they had? I once asked the owner of an Irish pub in California if people still believed that—if people still believed in America’s potential. “Some of us do,” he said, winking. I admired his dream, even though his pub, which he’d risked everything on, would close not even a year later.

The Gresham dealership ticket came with the chance to win three different prizes: a large lump sum of money, a new car, and some nondescript, subpar third prize I have since forgotten. It was around one in the morning when I reached into my pocket for a penny.

I did not win the lump sum of money on the first line and instantly felt the familiar pang of disappointment. But the second line, the second chance to win, I did. A brand-new shiny Toyota Camry. The fine print said to call a number 24/7 to confirm the winning, which I did. A recording told me I’d won and to bring my ticket to the dealership to collect my prize. I hung up while my face began the slow upturn of a smile. My old car had broken down about five months before and I could not afford the cost to fix it. Instead, I sold it for scraps and collected a meager $150. Christ, I needed a new car, and for a moment in the dark of night, I wondered, what if? But I threw the flyer into the trash—I wasn’t that lucky. It was a scam; I wasn’t an idiot. But tasting the possibility revealed just how badly I needed a win and I allowed a vague delusion to settle over me through the night.

The next morning, I called my friend Emma as I always did for advice or reassurance. “This is a scam, right?” I said. “Did you get one of these?” I described the giant scratch ticket, trying to stir some kind of recollection in her. 

“If I did, I threw it out,” she said. “Of course it’s a scam.” But when she heard in my voice the pleading for a chance, a possibility, she amended her words. “Maybe,” she offered, letting the rest of our combined thoughts fizzle out so as not to break the spell. Her passing, unintentional support was all I needed, and I resolved to check it out on my next day off.

I spent the remainder of the week as I always did: lost in a regimented practice of daily habits. Write. Read. Conjugate Spanish verbs. Work out. Track progress. I was militant about it, putting this routine above all else. I kept a journal where I posited that I could change my life through tiny daily actions toward my dreams. I believed this unwaveringly, a necessary delusion to keep me from giving up. When I completed my daily tasks, I made myself something to eat, showered, and walked the mile and a half to complete my day at the restaurant where I worked. 

Each time someone told me I was born to be a waitress, I died a little inside, but always with a smile on my face. They couldn’t possibly mean that I was born to serve others, to clean up after them, to absorb their insults or harassment, could they? Other times I was told how terrible I was at my job, that my very presence at a table was a nuisance—why couldn’t I ask for their order with less chatting? Less personality? Less me. Your job is to go unnoticed. Sometimes that’s what I enjoy most: Being unseen. Ignored. I can disappear into the role and be no one. 

As a child, I’d learned the art of disappearing. When my father drank I hid behind furniture or jumped from my bedroom window into the darkness outside. I am a magician, I thought. I don’t remember now if either of my parents told me not to talk about what went on in our house, but obviously these things were not to be discussed. Not the holes in our walls, not the smashed-up television, not the broken-down doors, not the regular fear of setting off a man who was drowning his rage the best he could. My mother always saying, “I wish you could have known your father before the accident.” 

During a sleepover when I was eight or nine, my friend and I sat in my bedroom listening to my father scream. We could hear the sound of glasses shattering against the wall, audible despite how loudly I played the music on my portable radio. Lily’s face looked scared, while mine flushed with embarrassment. I felt exposed, vulnerable, and I hated it. Lily never slept over again. As a teenager, I’d run to the end of the driveway so no one picking me up could see the conditions in which I lived. 

But I was not just some poor kid. I was sure that I was somehow different. I confess I believed this at some fundamental level, that I was an American. I would rise above what I’d been born into just like I’d learned in school—the possibilities for my life were infinite. 

 

 

When the day finally arrived to head out for the dealership in Gresham, I had to take the number 20 bus for more than an hour. I clutched my purse tightly as though I might lose the ticket inside. Maybe I had earned this somehow, I thought. My winning ticket. I rode out the hour listening to headphones, lost in daydreams of a new car on the open road and all of the places it might take me.

I stepped off the bus, knees weak, intoxicated by my own imagination. Thousands of balloons soared in the air over the dealership creating an undeniable excitement inside me like I was entering some sort of carnival of automobiles. It was all very patriotic—the red, white, and blue balloons forming arches of celebration. I half expected to see stands of fireworks for sale and barbecues with hotdogs and corn on the cob being passed around. As I approached the offices, I imagined myself a local celebrity of sorts and I actually began to prepare my statement for when the press would surely seek me out to ask about my unexpected win. The phrase “it’s a scam” no longer penetrated my precious bubble of optimism.

As the salesman approached me, I handed over my winning ticket and said as confidently as I could, “Hi, I won a car.” 

His hair had thinned more on the right, so he’d pulled the hair on the left over with a slick, stiff gel. He shook my hand with fierce bravado and spoke with too much enthusiasm.

 “Well, let’s see,” he said.

“Right here,” I said pointing to my shiny Toyota Camry on the thick large card.

“We need to check out a few things first,” he said. “Why don’t we take a seat?” 

I didn’t want to sit, but he was insistent and led me to a table where spilled coffee mixed with spilled water that no one had bothered to wipe up. I wondered what had happened with the person sitting here before me that not one, but two different liquids had been knocked over. The salesman didn’t seem to notice, or he thought I wasn’t even worth a clean table. I kept my purse in my lap.

“What do you drive now?” he asked.

A slight embarrassment bubbled up in me. “A Hyundai Accent,” I said, only a small lie. That was the car I sold for scraps five months before. I’d owned it for a decade before it finally exploded in the middle of the night, leaving me to walk four miles home alone in the dark.

“Which car are you interested in?” he asked. “I can see you in something sporty.”

I stared at him blankly. No, he couldn’t. “I’m really just interested in the car I won,” I said and kept my eyes locked on his. When I blinked, I did so with great exaggeration.

“Well, let’s take a look at a few of these,” he said flipping the pages in an inventory binder. I noticed several Toyota RAV4s, the car my father had insisted on buying for me toward the end of his life. He wanted to make sure that I would be taken care of when he was gone. To him, that had meant having reliable transportation. I’d humored him a bit, allowing him to take me from one dealership to the next, despite never intending to go along with it. He could not afford the car he thought would set things right between us. My father would convince the salesmen to let us take the car off the lot alone and as soon as we were out of sight, he’d pull over and hand me the keys. “Let her loose,” he’d say, and I would. We’d blaze down the highway together—my troubles like my father’s life expectancy dwindling away by the second.

Sitting in the Gresham dealership, I realized I missed him. Toward the end of his life I’d gotten to know the man behind the monster. Someone once told me how lucky I was for this. But it would have been easier to go on hating him. I saw how similar we were at times, which frightened me. Sometimes when my mother gazes at my face, she gets lost in a reverie. “You look so much like your father,” she’ll say, breaking the long silence. 

“I really just want to know if I won,” I said to the salesman. And there it was—if, the word lingering in the air between us like Jell-O. Wobbly, questioning, spineless. My mouth felt painfully dry and I could think of nothing to say that might cover up the slow crack forming in my façade.

I shifted my weight in my chair and scratched the side of my neck. I glanced around the dealership noticing for the first time how many of the other tables had begun to fill up. 

 “We’ll get to that,” the salesman said in a way that made my heart grow flabby inside my chest.

“Please. I just want to know what’s going on with this ticket.” I was seconds away from begging. 

Finally, the salesman relinquished his long-held sigh like a soldier begrudgingly laying down arms when he knows he’s lost the battle. “This ticket is just the first round. It’s like being preselected,” he said. “I need to check it with the next round to see if you actually won. Would you like me to do that?” The way he formed those words, the cadence of his voice, told me I’d not won. He knew it. I knew it. Our eyes remained locked until I could no longer bear it and I cast mine down toward my hands, white knuckled around the handles of my purse, and nodded.

As the salesman disappeared behind a wall, I fought to swallow back the big, ugly lump stuck to my throat like peanut butter. How had I gotten here, I wondered. But I already knew the answers.

 

 

When my father died, I told no one to mention it to me. Nothing had changed, I said, I was fine. I increased my already heavy drinking habit so that I blacked out more nights than not. I woke up in bushes, bathtubs, and beds. I must have known this was not sustainable, and I accepted an offer to short-term sublet a room in Brooklyn. I sold my belongings and boarded a plane for New York. The copyediting gig I’d landed didn’t pay enough to find my own place. So when the girl whose bed I was sleeping in returned home from China, I packed my bags again. I quelled any feelings of grief I might have had through a series of adventures. New York to California, to New Orleans, to Kentucky, to California, to Mexico, back to California, and finally back to Portland. The constant motion kept me from having to face anything head-on. I became so addicted to the feeling of possibility that I never took opportunities when they actually showed up. 

I returned to find that the people I loved had all grown up. They were married, buying homes, leasing cars, moving up in their careers, while their children were doubling in size. I’d not felt the maternal instinct everyone told me would one day kick in like an engine finally turning over. And while it’s true that you can always go home, you cannot expect it to have waited for you. 

As I sat trapped in the dealership, the familiar wave of anxiety rose up from the pit of my stomach. I could feel my own life slipping away. I began to scan for the door, but I had difficulty focusing on anything. I scrunched my eyes and concentrated on my breath, then blinked and looked again for the door. I spotted it and quickly estimated the time it would take to vanish. To run away like this never happened. Roughly five seconds if I ran my fastest. And as I clutched my bag tightly, ready to make my dash, I saw the salesman reappear. I could not read his face and so I closed my eyes tightly and thought for one last time, please god, please just let me win this car.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “your ticket isn’t a winner.”

I nodded. “Thanks anyway,” I said, standing and jamming on my sunglasses so he would not see the tears already beginning to pool around my eyes. 

“Wait,” he said and went behind a counter and returned. “Here,” he said handing me a small red rubber ball. “Everyone wins a stress ball,” he said. 

“Of course they do,” I said and placed the ball in my purse instead of throwing it at his face like I wanted to. I was shaking when I left with a wave of nausea crashing over me, making me feel weakened and dizzy. The asphalt outside was warming up, a low blur settling over it like a gentle mirage. 

I scurried across the lot and just as I saw my bus go whizzing past, I tripped over a rock, which I’d failed to notice in my haste to avoid my humiliation. It occurred to me how it is almost always true that we are the creators of our own suffering. My father told me once that his accident, the pain and limitations it had placed on his life, he could stomach. But it was the way he had let it change him, make him a man he’d never intended to be—that was harder to accept. Sometimes people ask me if I’ve forgiven my father. It’s more complicated than that. My forgiveness rushes in on me only to rush right back out as though lost to the sea. A cycle repeating itself indefinitely.

I sat in the grass contemplating how far away from myself I’d gotten, tears falling freely outside a car dealership in Gresham, Oregon. The sky was blue and bright above me. The air warm but not too hot. It was one of those perfect late spring days that Portlanders dream about all winter long. I watched as two more buses went zooming past me. And while each of them could have gotten me home, I thought, you know, the thing about buses is that there will always be another one. Why not just sit in the sun a little longer?

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