Riding in Emily Hackett’s Car by Elizabeth Webb

interior of an old convertible looking from backseat to steering wheel

…socially – looking back, I don’t know how my little soul survived.

It’s a cold morning as I climb into the car for the drive to work. It’s an old car, shaky and rusty and dinged. It’s been through a lot. I turn the key in the ignition, and on this morning, like most cold mornings, the enveloping blanket of exhaust and gasoline fumes sweeps me back to sixth grade, and to the backseat of Emily Hackett’s car. For that year alone, I attended the most prestigious girls’ school in the area where I grew up, and for a semester I rode to and from school with Emily (a senior), her sister whose name I can’t remember, and their neighbor Filly (yes, she went by Filly). I don’t know how the arrangement came about; I’m not even sure I knew at the time. We did not know the family, and in fact our families never met. We traveled in different social circles, one might say if one were polite about it. But every morning as I climbed into the backseat of Emily’s car, I glimpsed the world for which I longed, flirting with belonging until we reached the school parking lot.

It was a hard year. Academically I excelled, and I bathed in the praise and encouragement of my teachers. I learned a great deal, and I still reap the benefits of Latin lessons and diagrammed sentences. In choral music I was introduced to classical and gospel pieces I can still sing, and I recall the chills I felt singing “In the Deep Midwinter” for the first time. Most of all, I remember my thrilling discoveries of books and ancient cultures, and I buried my head in those places of warmth.

But socially – looking back, I don’t know how my little soul survived. We were far, far from wealthy, and as my parents struggled to make tuition payments, I struggled to piece together an identity in a hostile world. My wardrobe gave me away from the start; the significance of clothing at that age and at such a place cannot be underestimated. With little money I tried to fashion something that would resemble a preppy wardrobe, and my failures on that score were immediate and unforgiveable. My face still burns when I recall my classmate’s sneer as she asked why I didn’t wear a shirt under my sweater; I didn’t have a shirt. While I made few friends, I managed to make a couple of nemeses: the girl who until my arrival had been the fastest runner, the girl with whom I competed for “smartest.” Both girls’ disdain for me was palpable and bewildering. I saw the smart girl again in high school, at a state Model UN conference, her confidence in speaking before the assembly and the affectionate catcalls from the audience confirming that she had won, would always win. I did have a slumber party, which to my surprise then and now some girls from school actually attended, albeit with little graciousness. We lived in a lovely house then, and I was proud to show it off (my mother and I washed the cigarette-smoke-stained walls in preparation).

But I still didn’t realize the economic and social distance between my classmates and me until I spent the night at the home of my one close friend, and we drove the length of her family’s property in a golf cart.

I hardly spoke at school to anyone but my teachers; the refuge of my head became more and more silent and dark. I stopped brushing my hair, and in class I picked at the dandruff on my scalp. I gained so much weight over Christmas break that when I returned to school my gym clothes were too small. I started cracking my knuckles, a habit which I still can’t break. I feigned sickness at home to stay home, at school to lie alone in the quiet of the infirmary.

But stepping into Emily Hackett’s car was stepping into possibility, every time. It was a huge, two-door, 1970-something American convertible. Snow would fall through the cracks between the roof and the windows. The heater barely worked, and I can still see Emily, coatless and scarved, rubbing together her wool-gloved-hands. She was too cool for a coat. I avoided the torn spots on the vinyl seat and breathed in the fumes. While Emily’s sister and Filly seemed to hold me in the same regard as my classmates did, Emily was nice. She and I both seemed to know that the divide between us could never be wholly breached, and yet the kindness with which she treated me actually bordered on respect. Without much effort on her part, Emily became for me both a symbol of who I wasn’t and a model for who I might be, just barely, someday.

I was fascinated by the studied casualness of Emily’s look, and I longed to emulate it. She wore her penny loafers broken-down at the heel, her pink oxford shirt wrinkled and untucked, the button-down collar unbuttoned. She tied sweaters around her shoulders or her waist. Her hair was long and blonde, and she treated it with the affectionate irritation of a sibling: combing back errant strands with her fingers to get them out of her face, or with exasperation pulling it all back into a ponytail. I loved her hair. It had life. A few tendrils curled at her forehead when the air was humid. The rest of it waved slightly and elegantly to frame her face and brush her shoulders with the lightest touch. To look at Emily was to hear the crack of a field hockey stick, to smell leather and wool. Emily sang along with the radio, actually singing songs that I liked, redeeming them from loserdom. Singing, with Neil Diamond, “just pour me a drink and I’ll tell you some lies,” her voice betrayed a wisdom that thrilled me. I imagined that she lived in a realm of womanhood where ice tinkled in the glass and lies between lovers were expected, even respected. It was in Emily’s car that I learned of the murder of John Lennon, and I watched with sorrow and wonder as she cried. Through the windows of Emily’s car the familiar world we passed through looked different somehow, more intriguing and more accessible. Open to me. I was not a strange girl in Emily’s car, unkempt and unliked. Even if I wasn’t quite myself, whoever that was, I was at least a person, a someone. At times I could feel my shoulders relax into the vinyl.

On Christmas Day that year, on the way to my grandparents’ house, my dad stopped at Emily’s house so I could leave a gift on her porch. It was a star stickpin that I had bought at Venture (a discount store long since defunct). I loved the pin and thought it so aptly conveyed to Emily how I felt about her, even as I knew it wasn’t quite the right thing. It came in a golden velvet box, around which I taped gold ribbon. A few days later, Emily called me. She thanked me for the gift, and she told me her parents had given her a new car for Christmas. A Fiat Spider. A two-seater. So she could no longer give me a ride. As I heard her say these words, I could only think of the Scotch tape that held the ribbon to the box, crushing the velvet.

My car now is probably older than Emily’s was then. The steering wheel shakes, and the front bumper still bears the wounds from an accident over a year ago. The cassette player is broken, with a tape stuck in it; there is no CD player. The windshield wipers only work if I keep moving the lever. The right turn signal blinks too fast, and only in the back (said accident, again). At times I’m not actually sure it’s safe to drive. But this car has lived with us for a long, long time. It knows us. It was for many years our only car. This car took us from graduate school to my first job, and to every job and every city since. It was in this car that I drove my daughter years ago, a toddler with an ear infection, around and around the metropolitan area where we lived, praying she would sleep. On a night when the pressure and anxiety and fearfulness of life threatened to upend me, this car took me down a long street as I screamed and screamed, and then it took me home. This car was a gift to us from my husband’s parents. It’s precious. It now takes me every day to a job I don’t want, but it also still brings me home. I smell the exhaust and gas, I look through the windshield at my familiar world, and again that world seems more intriguing and accessible, open. I sense possibility as I pull away from the curb.

elizabeth webb in glasses in front of treesElizabeth Webb is a writer and theologian who lives in the Kansas City, Missouri area. She has a Ph.D. in Theological Studies from Emory University, and has taught Religion at a number of liberal arts colleges. Her theological work has been published in Theology Today and Religious Studies Review, as well as in the essay collection Women, Writing, Theology: Transforming a Tradition of Exclusion. She is also a contributor at WorkingPreacher.org. This is her first published piece of creative nonfiction.

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