What Cars Might Mean

by David Jayson Oquendo (Nonfiction)

It was a cool and quiet Sunday afternoon. I was looking for batteries in one of the cabinets in our house when I found this picture of me in our car’s front seat. In it, I was in our gray Mitsubishi Lancer, a Seventh Generation 2001. It looked like I had just turned my head to the backseat. It had terrible focus—the flash had removed some details of my face and the dashboard. I do not know who took it, but he or she probably used our Kodak. Today, our Kodak rests inside our octagonal cabinet—with other things no one brings out anymore. Like medals or graduation photos.

Before the car broke down, my family and I would always go out on weekends. It’s one of the things my family shared, just like the dinner table or television set. The sound of the car as it warms up, the smell of the engine, and the prickly heat emanating from its hood—these psyched me up as a child. For the little pudgy kid living in the quiet Polomolok suburbia, these were the signs of a new family adventure.

For the most part, Polomolok is a quiet town. Nothing of note really happens that often, so when the car starts to warm up, it usually means that we are going out of town. Usually, we would go to General Santos City which is only thirty minutes away. Other times, we would go as far as Maasim in Sarangani Province and visit one of the beaches there. We would also travel to Koronadal City.

Once, I asked Dad why he has to let the car warm up before driving. He told me that the car operates smoothly and correctly once warmed up. I did not believe him, because I was sure we had taken our car on the road without its usual warm-up and it functioned just fine. I remember being shut off after asking follow-up questions. “Don’t talk to the driver while he’s driving,” my mother said.

After that, I did not believe everything my parents told me without verifying it first by asking questions or doing my own research. I realized how—as a kid—I always had some sort of a scientific mind. Sadly, though, I grew up carrying only the habit of not believing whatever my parents say and left my scientific inquisitiveness in the back seat. Years later, I found out that letting the car warm up does improve its performance. I have also been trying to liberate myself from the habit of ignoring what my parents say, but I am having a hard time understanding how their minds work.

Like that instance when my father never went over 60 kilometers per hour when he drove, even if we were in a hurry or were already late for something. I thought it was a matter of principle more than safety, but I didn’t complain. It kept us safe anyway. I saw that sticking to one’s principles was something that mattered greatly to my father, maybe even more than safety. My dad is a very proud man, but despite that, what he pressed into my heart is the virtue of humility. At twenty years old, I still don’t get how a proud man can be humble. But I guess it had something to do with principles.

Some of my aunts and uncles lived in the same compound we did while the others lived literally just around the corner. All of them had a car of their own. I remember my aunts who laughed at me for pronouncing Lan-ker, the name of our car, incorrectly. They were the ones who taught me its correct pronunciation. Today, I would sometimes snicker at them for pronouncing some words wrong, but I would not judge them. They taught me not to. Besides, this might be because of old age; I never point this out, though. They would strangle me if I did.

My mother would always ride shotgun. I would sit in the back seat with my brother and sister. It had a lump in the middle, and that was where I usually sat. It irritated me because of the discomfort I felt whenever I sat there. It was also hot on that spot, since the car’s air-conditioning unit was broken. One time, I had trouble breathing. I asked my mom to let me be seated closer to the window because I had shortness of breath. She agreed, much to my older sister’s annoyance.

I still remember how Mom would look at us from her seat. She would tilt her head at the perfect angle where she could see the three of us. She would smile and then look at the road again. She was my father’s extra eyes. When we travelled late at night, she would always keep her eyes peeled and talk to Dad so he would stay awake. I wondered why she would do that—talk to my father—when she strongly advised us not to. I didn’t ask her that, though. I didn’t need to. I think that her way of talking to my father calmed him down and made him feel safe. This made us feel safe too. Although my mom would sometimes have the occasional mom-shriek when something comes up in the road, she has her way of fizzling down from being tensed to being light-hearted.

*  *  *

I would do this one thing when we go home at night. I would ask Mom if I could sit in the front seat with her. When allowed, I would remove my shoes and socks then put my feet on the windshield, letting the condensation gather around my toes. I would then remove my feet and watch the mist slowly disappear, leaving no trace of it being there. I eventually stopped doing this because my grown-up body couldn’t anymore fit in the front seat if I shared it with Mom, though I am just not sure if I stopped doing it before our car had broken down.

I can’t remember the exact year our car got broken the same way I can’t remember exactly when the house had gone cold. There are some memories—and the feelings that come with these—that I can’t remember in detail as time goes by. Like the first time I heard a certain song or the moment I realized I don’t love someone anymore.

Whatever adventures I had, I had them either alone or with other people who are not my family. Not by blood, at least. I think this case is not exclusive to me. I think it is the same for my brother and sister.

At home, the dinner table was never full anymore. Someone would always have to eat earlier or later. I used to sleep in the living room, facing the television. I was the only one who liked watching TV. Eventually, though, I outgrew it.

Two years ago, my brother bought Mom and Dad a large flat-screen TV. Our old living room was converted into an entertainment room. No one really watches anything on that thing, except for Dad who never finishes watching movies because he always sleeps halfway through.

*  *  *

At first, the problem with the car was with the battery. It took my father a long time to purchase a new one. I remember an argument he and Mom had about him buying something else using the battery budget. When the car finally had a new battery, it did run again, but not for long—some other problems came up, and it no longer worked. A flat tire. A faulty carburetor. A broken sparkplug. It now sits on our garage, collecting dust.

When it was still possible for me, I would sometimes go inside and smell the scent of an old broken car. I would sit where I usually did: behind the driver’s seat. The rugs hadn’t been replaced in years. The upholstery smelled like my grandfather and his old pick-up truck. The bumper was stored at the back of the backseat. (There’s a foot-wide mantle-type area where we would usually put our stuff, like toys or books.) I liked sitting there sometimes, because it reminded me of simpler times. I don’t know what that means, really. Anything less complicated are just some things I think about when I’m inside the car.

Sometimes, I think about my sister and her ex-boyfriend, Sean. Sean died in a car accident on his way home after a night of drinking back in 2013. If you think about it, the story is typical, but my sister cried for days. I learned that death is never typical. I learned that every night, my sister cried about Sean. I learned that when my brother, who never had anything good to say about Sean and my sister, crawled out of bed every night and sat on my sister’s bed to put her to sleep. I can’t imagine how painful it was for her to wake up and remember Sean. I also can’t imagine how my sister can still manage to ride cars and reach home late every night. This somehow put me off driving. I realized that when you drive, it’s not just about you anymore. It’s about you, the passengers, and the people you left behind.

*  *  *

My older brother now works for a car company. Basically, he assists people who want to own cars. He helps them decide which car to buy, depending on their financial status, taste, and needs. I sometimes feel that my brother is sad because he never got to chase his dreams; he is too busy carrying the family’s name, and before he knew it, he is the head of another family. He and his family don’t have a car yet. I know they are planning to get one. Even my mom had expressed interest in purchasing a new car. Maybe a new car would be good for everyone.

*  *  *

Cars always mean something more. When I was a kid, it meant adventure. When I got older, it meant privilege and comfort. For my sister, it meant Sean and a painful memory of him. To my brother, it meant food on their dinner table. Cars do mean something more to me and my family than it normally does to everyone else.

I asked Mom who took the picture I found. She said it might have been my sister. I posted it on my Instagram with a caption that was an earlier version of this essay. My sister commented: “Hi, Jay! I miss you! I know you miss me too!” And I did miss her. I missed my mom, my dad, and my brother.

I looked at the picture that is now taped on my bedroom wall. I looked at my young face and my ridiculous bowl cut. I looked at the gray dashboard, muddled with the windshield. How quaint it is. How distant and near. I looked at the front seat—where my mom usually sat.

I hope to marry someone like my mother one day—someone who talks to me while I drive at cruising speed and helps me watch the road. Someone who calms me down as I drive. Someone who occasionally looks at our kids to check if they have fallen asleep and smiles at them as they gradually try to get some shuteye, just like the way Mom did when my siblings and I were still kids. Maybe we’ll be in a car my brother helped me choose—a car with a name that’s so hard to pronounce my sister would laugh at my children for saying it wrong.

A few days before I started writing this, my dad asked me if I already know how to drive or if I’m interested in learning how to. I told him that I was afraid of driving. The idea of being responsible for more than one life scared me. “It’s not just about one person anymore,” I told him. But of course, I do want to learn how to drive. I want to let my kids experience the excitement of adventure. (I need to get myself a girlfriend, though. I have to get a job in order to get a good car. Only then should I think about having kids.) I sensed that my dad was telling me that he wanted to teach me how to drive. I don’t know. Maybe he misses us.

My brother is now married and lives in a different house. My sister is in Cebu, studying Medicine. I’m the only one left in the house, and in a few months, I will be leaving for Cebu as well to review for the board exam. Somehow, I feel that his offer to teach me how to drive means that he was ready for me to go on my own and embark on new adventures. I have a complicated relationship with my family. Somewhere along the way, being in it had begun to feel like an obligation more than anything else. I could sense that each one of us is doing an effort to fix the cracks, but none of us know where to start. Maybe I could start with taking up my dad’s offer and let him teach me the basics. And then, maybe, we can go from there.