I decided to name the car Henrietta the day me and Espi were driving it to San Jose for the Ariana Grande concert. I do this thing where I don’t think before I act, and so I was anxious and stressed about going to the show. I’d purchased the tickets over six months in advance, amidst all the excitement around thank u, next, and now that the excitement had passed the show seemed more chore than fun. I remember driving up the 17 and being terrified of Espi’s driving, zig-zagging over the mountain at a speed that’s much too fast, like every California driver. Always 10-20 miles over the speed limit.
(A while later, Dane told me Californians got away with this because you’re less likely to get pulled over here than in other states, where ticketing is an important monetary resource for the police departments. Here, we just pay higher taxes.)
It felt special, somehow, that he’d loaned us the car to go. We’d only really been friends for a few weeks, and more than friends for just over ten days, but he seemed sincere in his offer, and so I accepted. I hated the bus.
Henrietta was only a few years younger than me, having been made in 2003. She was old enough that the black was faded, and her plasticky nature showed through to the point where sometimes, in the right light, you’d think she was purple. She was also always covered in dust and leaves, from being parked in the church parking lot under a big tree. I hated that her windshield wipers never worked, and so the view was never as good as it could have been.
I connected through the weird bluetooth plug Dane had, and played country music loud enough for us to hear even when we were going fast. Old cars do this thing where the faster you’re going, the less you can hear inside, and that’s another thing that drove me crazy.
But I’m loyal to a fault, and so even though she had many things to dislike about her, I loved Henrietta. More for what she represented than what she really was, but still. She was my boyfriend’s car, and I loved watching him drive it, and so I loved it as well. For a long time, she was also the only car I’ve ever driven, and Dane had been the only one who’s ever taught me how to drive.
When we got to San Jose and tried to find parking, Espi almost killed us when she turned the wrong way and we almost got hit by another car straight on. But Henrietta was quick, and when Espi turned the wheel sharply to the right, Henrietta didn’t even screech before coming to a halt on the sidewalk. “We almost just died”, Espi was out of breath when she turned to me. I was laughing at that point, already texting Dane about the quarrels we were putting Henrietta through.
Henrietta’s parking brake also almost killed us. The car had a habit of driving even with it on, and you wouldn’t realize it unless you had to go uphill and almost floor it to hit a solid 45. Me and Espi were already on the road by the time we realized the parking brake was still on, and then when we pressed the button and pushed it down the car shot forward a little too haphazardly, making our seatbelts work a little bit harder.
On our way back after the concert, we both had to shine our flashlights at the shifter because the lights on it didn’t work, and so we couldn’t see what gear we were shifting into. And even if the lights had worked, the letters on it were so faded that you might not have been able to see them regardless. And so we drove off, shining my flashlight at the shifter.
When we got back to Santa Cruz, we stopped at Safeway. We didn’t often have the luxury of having a car to go grocery shopping with, and so me and Espi stocked up on things for the apartment that would usually be too annoying to bring on the bus – toilet paper, paper towels, canned goods. The Safeway was the only thing open past midnight in Santa Cruz besides the Donut store, and the roads were quiet. I grabbed the Earth Balance butter Dane liked, because I knew he was out.
Espi dropped me off on the curb of Porter College, where Dane’s apartment was. She drove off in Henrietta and I said it was okay, that I’d walk over the hill to College Nine in the morning.
Me and Dane drove to San Jose many times over the course of those couple of months, but that first drive with Espi stuck with me. I haven’t spoken to her since, and that was kind of the last thing we did together before parting ways for summer. I ended up spending more time in that car than in my own apartment over spring, even when summer was coming around and making her interiors hot enough to burn the bottom of my thighs.
Three weeks into our relationship, Dane had to travel down to San Diego to look at the school he later ended up transferring to. He asks me to come with him. It’s an 8 hour drive, and we’d have to spend at least one night at his parents’ house, an hour and a half away from our final destination.
Dane is stressed, and his TMJ starts acting up before we even get to King City, a location mostly used for truck drivers to pull into and rest. We pull in and Henrietta, being the tiny Toyota Matrix that she is, looks like an insect next to the imposing and positively American looking trucks surrounding her. We go into the convenience store, buy me a banana and him some Tylenol, but I know it’s only a temporary measure. Every time his phone rings during the drive it’s his mother calling, and his jaw locks again.
The drive is long and warm, and if you’ve ever taken the 5 up or down you know that a large part of it is just desolate farmland. Henrietta treks on, her air-conditioning just slightly too weak to really make any difference. In my black jeans, I feel the heat of the black seat transfer into my thighs and butt, just like I feel the heat from the ceiling transfer into my head. We listen to Dane’s playlist, and there’s something about Henrietta that will always be pop-punk to me. As in Blink-182 pop-punk, the stuff that’s old and somehow timeless, bright and sunny San Diego days and checkered Vans.
By the time we pull into Temecula – the city closest to where Dane’s family lives –, it’s cloudy and almost dark out. It’s also the first time I get dressed inside Henrietta, pulling on a new pair of jeans and fresh shirt, changing my sweater out for my jean jacket. Anyone who’s ever had to put on jeans in the back of a small car will know what a feat that is, especially in a crowded mall parking lot on a Friday night. I joked that Henrietta is the first car to see me naked since adulthood, and it was true, at the time. And even though there have been other cars since, you never forget your first.
When we make our way to his parents’ house, another forty-five minutes away, we drive by the neons one more time, and I like to watch the morphed reflection of them on Henrietta’s hood. She smells like fifty different smells after the all day drive, but I’m already so attached that sitting down into the passenger seat after Dane is muscle memory. It’s my reaction to his action.
Before we get there, in the middle of nowhere at 3000 feet altitude, he pulls over onto a patch of dirt, and we can overlook the mountains on both sides. The stars are bright and clear, and I look up at them through the window. He tells me it’s the last cell service spot, and it’s still 5 miles away from his house, so he texts his mom and then turns off the engine.
We climb out of the car, and I lean on my door, still looking up at the brilliant sky, uninterrupted by light pollution. He comes over and, against the car door, presses up against me, and we kiss. I can’t help but think that this is something from a movie, but then again, I don’t think Henrietta lives up to the part of the sexy car that the love interest drives.
When we get to his house, the dirt road there leaves us in a cloud of dust around me when I step out to open the gate. The car is noisy on the gravel up the driveway, and I’m nervous. When cars make that much noise arriving, that means whoever’s inside knows you’ve arrived. The first time I see his house’s bright yellow front door is through Henrietta’s windshield.
I can tell that Dane is nervous but determined to get it over with, so we step inside and take off our shoes, and sit with his family in the living room. He’d told me that his dog, Charley, would bark at me, but he doesn’t. He sits on my lap while I talk to his mom and dad and sister, and after a little while we go to bed, being careful not to make any noises that would imply sex, because Dane is still getting used to the idea of having a girlfriend over at his childhood home, and it’s all fine by me.
The next morning we’re up by six, and on the road by seven, to see the school. It’s pouring rain, which is unusual, and it’s the first heavy rain I’ve experienced inside of a car in California. It feels comfortable, like I could fall asleep, but it’s loud because of the water on the road and Henrietta’s poor insulation. Still I lean my head against the seatbelt, trying to find a comfortable position, and Dane has his hand on my thigh. He only ever drives one handed, and any concerns I have for my safety aren’t enough to make me let go of his right hand.
Dane decides he wants to drive back that same day, and the drive is chaotic and a little tense, with me making sure to never fall asleep and keep him talking, keep him awake. In hindsight, we should’ve waited until Sunday to drive back, but he was adamant he wanted to be back before then. We listen to Avicii on back roads that the GPS sends us through, and at one point Dane says it feels like he’s dead.
“Slap me,” he asks.
“On the face.”
I do, and for a moment he wakes up.
“It still feels like I’m dead, though. Like time isn’t real.”
I know exactly what he means. We were both exhausted and borderline hallucinating, and when I think back to that drive, Henrietta the only car on the road for miles on end, it’s a little scary that we did it. The music loud and the base rattling the plastic speakers, no longer fit to play music at any volume at all.
Dane is playing a song for kids, about the moon.
Moon, moon, moon, shining bright. Moon, moon, moon, my night light.
When we finally get back to his apartment, carrying our backpacks and hoodies and trash and the blanket, I don’t think we even took a shower. Just changed into pj’s and slipped into bed, exhausted and borderline delirious, cramping ourselves into the twin bed that we slept on that whole quarter. Dane’s open mouthed breathing was like a soothing white noise machine, and falling asleep felt like slipping from one dream into another.
I wasn’t really bothered to go into quarantine. I was actually pretty relieved.
Because of our particular situation it had gotten quite awkward to still be staying with Dane and his roommates on campus, and going back to his parents’ sounded like a great way to get some space that was just ours, even if it was just his room.
So we loaded up Henrietta, and I could tell Dane was feeling sad. The car was filled to the brim, with Dane’s guitar and bass hanging over my head on the passenger side, my backpack and computer on my lap, my other belongings in a box at my feet. I had two suitcases in the trunk, but mostly I packed light. Dane’s the over-packer between us and he’s bad at packing, so it definitely felt like we’d gathered all of our belongings to flee the zombie apocalypse. In a way, that’s what we were doing.
A pandemic meant that a lot of the time we spent outside the house looked very different from before. Dane started Doordashing and I went with him, happy to be driving around, looking at the empty streets outside the window. When this all first started, it was still cold, and I remember feeling safe and warm, watching the world through tinted windows. It felt like an extension of the house that was just ours, even more private than Dane’s room, because no one could come in, because the doors didn’t open straight into the living room.
Delivering food means you get to know a lot of restaurants, you get to form opinions about how long it takes them to get orders ready, you get to smell food in the car and be hungry, and you get to drive to people’s houses and put down bags at the door. Especially during a pandemic, you don’t really see anyone. Restaurants make sure to set the orders onto tables at the front, and customers make sure to select ‘contactless delivery’ when ordering. For the most part, it was just spending time with Dane, driving around in Henrietta, listening to music and watching the Great British Bake Off.
(Or The Office, or Parks and Rec, or Psych, or Sherlock, or Chuck, or Scrubs.)
We’ve been through most drive-thrus a suburban town like Temecula has to offer. You have the classics: McDonald’s, Steak n’ Shake, Wendy’s, Burger King, Jack in the Box, Raisin’ Cane’s. I am now expertly acquainted with most fast-food fries, I know exactly what my order is every time with the limited items that don’t contain meat or dairy – there’s not a lot of them. I can confirm that the best technical fries are from Five Guys, but that the most comforting ones are from McDonald’s.
Then we had our more adventurous eats, from the restaurants we didn’t even know existed until we got an order from them. Chinese fried tofu and eggplant, coconut paneer curry, hawaiian teriyaki chicken. Endless poke bowls, with the house sauce. Crab stuffed dumplings dipped sweet n’ spicy. Heaps of garlic naan bread that we would pick up later at night, after our shift was done. New York style pizza, with garlic knots and the salad that had too many olives. The mixture of smells became familiar enough that I knew it had penetrated the surface. Henrietta would never smell the same.
She will forever have the slightly oil smell of old fries, I think. As much as Dane tried to keep her clean, just having the bags in the car for too long meant the smell clung to the fabric seats, along with the smell that naturally occurs when two people spend a long time in an enclosed space together. Anyone who’s car-camped or had to spend a long time in their car would know what I’m talking about.
Henrietta was instrumental in making sure both of us didn’t lose our minds while quarantining. Sometimes we would go on drives just around Aguanga, the town where Dane lives. There’s no one for miles at some points, but moving and rolling the windows down is more helpful than you’d think. A car may feel like an enclosed space, but at least it moves. I’ve come to appreciate that more than I ever thought I would, especially as someone who doesn’t drive.
Quarantine was also when we said goodbye to Henrietta. Dane is an irresponsible car owner, and we once drove 2000 miles through Arizona mid-summer and not once considered changing her oil. When we brought her back, she sounded like an eighteen-wheeler, wheezing her way up the driveway. Dane’s dad, who makes a living off of cars, was upset.
Dane decided to sell her this year and get a newer car, to last him the rest of his college years and beyond. The search was long and annoying, especially because, being out in the middle of nowhere, not having a car can be really isolating. The closest grocery store is over thirty minutes away.
What was good about selling Henrietta is that Dane found her the perfect new owner, the exact same age that Dane was when he first got her. He made an Instagram post talking about how he’s happy that his first car became someone else’s first car.
And that’s what I love about Dane. He sees poetry everywhere, even the most mundane of exchanges. He takes pictures, he makes an Instagram post, and ponders over the caption for hours. His first car wasn’t glamorous or even cool, but both of us loved it anyway. When I asked him about his choice, we said he wanted something to drive friends around in.
Now, when we Doordash, it’s in a 2010 Volkswagen Jetta. It’s sleek and silver and Dane hates the seats; turns out Germans don’t prioritize comfort over function.
Meet the Author
Constance Mello (she/her) is a Brazilian scholar, writer, and teacher. She graduated with a degree in Cultural Studies and Gender Studies from the Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany, and is currently pursuing a dual Master’s Degree in English and Creative Writing. Her writing has been published in The Ilanot Review, Fearless She Wrote, and Latinx Lit Mag, and was a finalist in the Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards.