Suzannah's Voice

Highly Combustible

by Suzannah Gilman

Blue Pinto

An unremarkable blue Pinto. My Pinto was remarkable– for all the wrong reasons.


My first car was a beater, a 1972 Ford Pinto, the model that exploded when it was hit from the rear.  My father gave it to me when I was 17, and I was grateful.  For the ten years my parents had been divorced, he’d only given me two things, including the car.  The original color was Pinto Blue, but it had been Bondo-ed, primed, and spray-painted in several areas, ironically giving it a spotted pattern like its namesake horse.

My mother taught me to drive when I was 13.  When I was 14, she would send me on errands in her car.  From that time on, as long as I would run errands for her, she’d let me drive her car when it was available.  But having my own transportation, no matter how miserable the car might look to others, was joyous for me.  No longer would every little thing I did be tied to my mother’s wishes and needs.  Besides, I loved to drive.

Mechanically, my Pinto was a mess.  The solenoid was bad, which meant it wouldn’t always start.  I had to turn the key and turn the key and turn the key until the electrical connection to the starter fired and the engine turned over.  Sometimes that took 15 minutes.  It also needed brakes and a muffler.  With my father’s help, I put in a new solenoid and new front disc brakes that I bought. The muffler had to be suffered for a while; I couldn’t afford what Midas wanted to charge.  My brother David’s friend Deuce loaned me his car stereo so I could play it loud and drown out the muffler.  And there was another problem: oil slowly leaked from the engine until there was none left, so I constantly had to put oil in it.  I had no hope of being able to fix that.  I started buying cheap recycled oil, and I tried to always keep a couple of quarts in the trunk.

David and Deuce were both without transportation when I had the Pinto. Deuce’s VW Scirocco cooled its wheels in his front yard, needing more work than he could afford.  David didn’t have a car, dead or alive. The two of them didn’t hang out with me, though.  They were too cool and incredibly good-looking (according to them) and too busy picking up girls and having meaningless sex. David wouldn’t even walk next to me in public. “Other girls will think you’re my girlfriend,” he’d say, which was absolutely ridiculous because we are only a year and a half apart and look like twins.  But whatever.

Well, they did hang out with me that one time…

cape coral map

David and Deuce dabbled in BMX racing, bicycle motocross.  I’d spent more time around the local BMX track than they had because I’d had a boyfriend who didn’t just dabble in BMX; BMX was his life.  When he was there, I was there.  And when my brother raced or practiced, I’d go to the track, too—being careful to stand far away from him, of course, lest I reduce his chances of attracting girls.  

He and Deuce were too cool for me until they felt they had to go to a big race, “the Nationals,” in Cape Coral, 200 miles away, and they had no way to get there.  They knew there was zero chance I’d let them take my car without me.  “Come on, Suzy, you love the big races.”  Deuce said he’d pay for my oil.  David would chip in for gas.  We’d drive there, sleep in the car, go to the races the next day, and drive home when they were finished.  David and Deuce would get a friend to haul their bikes and gear in the back of his truck.  However, I had no interest in sleeping in my car.

“Craig will be there,” they said, offering the pièce de résistance.  “Alone.”  Craig had been my boyfriend, and they knew I wasn’t over him.  I’d broken up with him a few times, and after the last time, he refused to get back together. He finally broke my heart.  “I can’t take your rejection again,” he’d said. 

No one had ever been sweeter.  He would ride his bike 14 miles one way just to see me for an hour. The first night we kissed, he told me he loved me.  Eventually we were both in love, but until that last breakup, I hadn’t realized that he truly had loved me from the beginning.  If only he had ambitions outside of BMX… but he didn’t.  That was the reason I kept breaking up with him.

I didn’t have enough money to go to Cape Coral, so I pawned my electric typewriter for $20.  That was the other gift from my father.  He didn’t give me much in my life, but the two things he did give me counted. On it, I’d typed dozens or maybe hundreds of poems. But suddenly, I had to get to the race in Cape Coral, too.  It wasn’t a big deal to pawn it, because I had pawned it once before, for $40, and I got it back early.


Deuce didn’t show up with as much money as he said he would, but I didn’t find that out until we were in Cape Coral.  We’d been riding with the windows down (no AC) and the stereo on (loud), young and fired up and happy, then suddenly we were in Suck City.  It was dark, we didn’t know where the track was, we had no map, and it was time to put more oil in.  Deuce thought we’d just stop on the side of the road and open my trunk and pour in my oil, glug-glug-glug. But I didn’t have any.  “You’re supplying the oil,” I reminded him.  “Well, I thought you always kept some with you,” he said without compunction.

We found a 7-Eleven.  They sold oil and the clerk gave us directions.  Besides his entry fee and money for food, Deuce had enough money to buy two quarts of recycled.  We’d need more than that to last us 24 hours.  So we poured a little in, enough to get us to the track.  We’d park and wouldn’t have to put any more oil in until we left after the races the next evening, only losing the little we already poured in.

We found the track and drove around the dark campsites trying to find our friends—Joey, who carried their bikes in his truck, and Craig, who had ridden with him.  The muffler announced our arrival, so if they’d cared to make themselves known, they could have.  It was embarrassing to drive around and around, so I finally just parked.  David and Deuce bolted, leaving me alone.  So much for the Three Musketeers.

After a trip to the ladies’ room, I found Joey’s truck.  It looked different because he’d put a topper on it so he and Craig could sleep in it.  That nervous excitement of being around someone you want to be with made me absolutely stupid.  I said “Hi” to Joey and then just stood there.  I knew that Craig had a new girlfriend and I knew that Joey knew I was there to see Craig.  “Your brother and Deuce and Craig went to get something to eat,” he offered, pointing across a dark ball field to the brightly lit concession stand.  Beyond the concession stand was the track, also unlit.  “Okay,” I said.  “Thanks.”

Craig was not sorry to see me.

Our talk was awkward at first.  Then David and Deuce left to follow some girls.  Craig and I took the long way back, around the other side of the dark ball field, without discussing it.  Was he leading, or was I?  Or were we both just wandering?  We ended up in the home team dugout, on the third base side.  I didn’t want to bring it up, but I was really sorry I’d broken his heart, and ballfield at nightnot just because I was hurting so much now.  Well, that could have had something to do with it.

Maybe I was the more melodramatic of the two of us, because in the past few months there were moments when I thought I couldn’t be happy again without Craig.  In those moments, I’d reread the long love letters he’d written to me, flecked with dashes in true Emily Dickinson style.  He knew about Emily and her dashes and liked the comparison, but he said he used them because that was what felt right to him.  We used to sometimes read Leonard Cohen together in my room.  I’d copied in my best cursive a few of Cohen’s poems from the books I checked out of the library.

Craig’s favorite of the Leonard Cohen poems was “Owning Everything.”

Owning Everything Leonard Cohen cropped


My favorite was “As the Mist Leaves No Scar” (full text below), which I found heartbreakingly beautiful.  Contrary to stereotypes, he liked the sentimental, “We’ll always be together” love poem and I liked the “Don’t take it too seriously, this is just a function of nature” love poem. Beyond us shattering myths with our choices, I suppose that when our favorite love poems were thematically opposed we should have at least wondered whether that was a sign.  But back then I only saw in words what I wanted to see.

There on the wooden bench with our backs against the chain link fence, we talked about his recent races, where he was going to race next, how work was going.  We talked a little about music, which had always been central for us, but he’d been listening to new music and didn’t seem to want to tell me about the bands.  He had made mix tape after mix tape for me, which was a lot of work then, in the early 80s.  I suspected he was doing that for his new girlfriend now.

Finally, I was bold.  I said I missed him.  A lot.  “Me too,” he said softly.  I felt the slightest twinge of regret for showing up, for tempting him, for pulling him back in again—but the twinge didn’t last long.  And then instead of staring out over the dark ball field, we turned toward one another and held hands, something that had been unremarkable before but which felt momentous now.

For us, looking in each other’s eyes was deep conversation.  There in the quiet dark, I think we both knew this would be our last time alone.  He was right: I’d probably hurt him again.  I wanted him to have ambitions beyond bike racing, which was probably never going to happen. He was in it and it was in him.

Even when he pulled me to him and kissed me and made me feel appreciated once more in the way no one else had before, I knew it wasn’t going to be enough.  But it was pretty darn good.  Despite him having a new girlfriend, this time was ours and I don’t think either of us felt like we were doing anything wrong.


Leave it to some little kid who wandered away from his family and onto the ball field to spy us and call out, “Somebody’s over there!  Somebody’s over there!” pointing to the dugout, where we were by then preternaturally deep in our making out.  It took a few seconds to come to the surface and realize we were the subject of the kid’s excitement.

“Break it up,” a man shouted.  

That was our last time together.  The next day, we exchanged smiles a couple of times and were together in a group of people, but we said nothing directly to each other aside from my congratulations.  We’d said it all already.  When I got back to town that night—safe, but tired—I dropped David and Deuce at Deuce’s house, then I went home and took out Craig’s letters and stared at the envelopes.  I didn’t read them.  I couldn’t revel in what was no longer relevant and true.  The next day, I took the letters to the kitchen sink and lit them one by one.

I didn’t get my typewriter back.

I eventually got over that, too.

Ease on down the road with The Gloria Sirens.

Access all of our Road Trip posts HERE.



10 replies »

  1. Well, this took me back more than a few years to some of my own memories. Thanks for this, Suzannah; I enjoyed it a lot.


  2. I had almost forgotten about the car my sister drove in high school. The horn would honk whenever she made a left turn, so she would always pretend to wave at a friend while going through the intersection.
    I really enjoyed reading this!


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