On the Road

“Did you happen to notice any vibrating right before the blowout?” the rotund AAA mechanic queried.

Emily and I glanced at each other suspiciously. “Well, maybe a little,” she cautiously offered.

Once in the car, we burst out laughing. “That’s got to be the line of the day,” and we erupted into yet another fit of laughter.

Emily bought her car used right after I moved to Korea. So, she’s had it for about a year and a half. And I’d venture to guess she hasn’t done much in the way of maintenance on it. Every time I ride in her car, the trip is marked by 3 characteristics: an almost unbearable road noise, a shaking that turns any voice into a falsetto, and a hurky jerky motion that makes even the strongest stomach nauseous.

We were on one of our famous “early morning” trips to Lake Tahoe to snowboard. Surprisingly, we really did leave early in the morning. As we watched the sun rise as we crossed the Bay Bridge, we talked of our week – the wins, the frustrations, the mundane. As we approached Berkeley, I offered, Hey, do you want me to read aloud from Ethan Frome? I had the indescript, hard cover book on my lap, just checked out from the library, the latest selection in our mostly social, but somewhat literary, book club.

Excited by the idea, she encouraged me. Halfway through the introductory chapter, we heard a loud noise. Thu-thump. Thu-thump. We gave each other questioning looks. Did we just hit something? I wondered. “Maybe,” she responded, but we kept on driving. A couple of pages later I noticed the shaking of the car, and the noise level, had greatly increased. In my peripheral vision, I peered at Emily. She seemed engrossed by my reading, not concerned about the crescendo. Trusting her as the driver, I merely began reading louder to compensate for the additional noise.

Towards the end of the introductory chapter, she turned to me. “Do you think the shaking has gotten any worse since we left the Bay Area?” Before I could answer, she offered, “No, it’s always been loud. I’m sure it’s fine. I mean, I just had it checked a couple of weeks ago. The mechanic said I needed to get an alignment, because my tires are wearing unevenly, but that there was no hurry, that these should last at least through the summer.” Always one to err on the side of caution when it comes to cars, but also not wanting to offer advice where it wasn’t really solicited, I ventured, Yeah, but as much as you drive you may want to get new tires sooner rather than later. The only problem with driving on warped tires is you increase the chances of having a blowout, which could be really dangerous. “Yeah….” she agreed.

I read the last couple of pages of the introductory chapter of Ethan Frome. By now the noise was unbearable. I closed the book and our eyes met. “I should pull over to check it out, shouldn’t I?” Probably so. It couldn’t hurt.

We slowed to a halt on the shoulder of busy I-80. I was the first to reach the back of the car. Oh, my god! The tire met the ground, no air in between the two. Emily giggled. “Guess it’s a good thing we stopped. Do you think we could drive to the next exit to change the tire?” Hmmmm. Probably. As we began driving on the utterly deflated, completely flat tire, we realized that we really shouldn’t be driving anywhere.

“Wow. Guess it’s a good thing that chapter ended when it did, otherwise we would have never pulled over,” Emily began. We laughed hysterically, not bothered at all by this unexpected glitch in our plans.

Emily dialed AAA on her cell phone, and I continued to read, this time silently. After several minutes, Emily on hold, I reading with bated anticipation, I sensed we were not alone. I glanced out Emily’s window and spied a figure. I gasped, causing Emily to look. A California Highway Patrolman stood outside her window.

“Ladies, can I help you?” Emily explained the situation. He nodded, offering to call for help, at which point Emily explained she was still on hold with AAA. He asked if there was anything else he could do to help us, Emily immediately shook her head, at which point I leaned across the driver’s seat, squinted my eyes against the morning sun, and queried, Hey, could you show us how to change the tire? He chuckled lightly, shook his head, and was on his way. Emily turned to me. “His job is to serve and protect, not serve, protect, and change tires.” Another fit of giggles followed.

AAA was on their way.

“Do you know how to change a tire?” she asked me. “I don’t, but it’s one of those things I want to learn.”

I began, Well, I have changed one before. Maybe it’s like riding a bike. I could probably do it again. That way we wouldn’t have to wait the half hour for AAA to get here.

We went to the hatchback and began pulling our boarding equipment out. Helmets, boards, boots, bags. We unscrewed the spare tire from its resting place. Emily set it on the ground. She began searching again. “Hmmm. There doesn’t seem to be a jack here.” Oh. That presents somewhat of a problem. I can’t really change the tire without a jack. We stared at the equipment on the ground and began laughing again.

Back to the car we went. As soon as the doors were closed, the giggles commenced, this time for no apparent reason. Emily turned to me, eyes twinkling, gasping for breath, and said, “The funniest thing was, you didn’t even skip a beat in the chapter you were reading, you just read louder.” I know, I was trying to drown out the obnoxious noise from the car, I retorted. You know, in the future, you might want to keep a can of this stuff called “FixAFlat”… “Oh, my gosh! I have a can!” Really? Let’s try it! Once again, we hopped out of the car. She found her emergency car bag and we rifled out the can of FixAFlat. She read the directions, putting a cap on, inserting a valve, twisting this way and that. “Hmmm.” What’s wrong? I asked. “There seems to be something missing. Take a look.” The part to connect the can to the valve was missing, replaced by a giant hole. Oh. That’s not going to help us fix the flat either. Back to the car.

We passed the time by telling jokes we had heard over the past week. There came another knock on the window, this time on my side. Hi, there, how are you? I offered to the motorcycle cop who had peered into our car. “Hi, ladies. What’s going on here?” Emily took over from there. “Well, you see, we have a flat tire, but we’ve called AAA and supposedly they’re on their way.” “Okay, I just wanted to make sure you were okay. I’ll be going now.”

In a way, it was reassuring that 2 highway patrolmen had stopped within 20 minutes. In a way, it made me realize how lucky we had been not to receive a ticket as we sped along, racing towards the snow.

AAA finally arrived. In less than 5 minutes, the burly man had the disabled tire off and the spare tire on. I questioned him, So, like, did we hit a nail or something? Is that why we got a flat?

He turned the tire over. “Oh, no, ma’am. See, you have a blowout here.” We stared at a gaping hole in the tire, at least 8 inches wide, steel wires curling this way and that from where they were ripped from their proper place, securely holding the belts of the tire in place. “Did you happen to notice any vibrating right before the blowout?” the rotund AAA mechanic queried.

All in all, it was a pleasant distraction. Emily got 4 new tires. The mechanic, Judd (we knew because it was embroidered on his shirt), recommended we eat breakfast at the IHOP while he changed her tires. We haven’t shared breakfast together in a long time. It was wonderful to slow our pace and discover the details of our lives, not just the high level overview we so often share with each other in the interest of time.

As we left the restaurant, she mused, “I wonder if new tires will really make a difference? I mean, my car will still be out of alignment. I bet there will still be shaking. Just not as much.” I nodded in agreement. Mmm hmmmm. Bet you’re right.

She paid. We entered the car for the moment of truth. After pulling from the parking lot to the highway, we both exclaimed at the same time, “Unbelievable!” No noise. At all. No jerky motions. And best of all, no shaking. Without realizing what I was saying, I blurted out, You really are a good driver! She gave me a questioning look, one that only lasted a moment, before we both burst out in uncontrollable laughter once again.

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