Week 4: Fix a Flat

I walk out of rehearsal, exhausted.  It’s almost eleven and I still have reading to do for my 8:00 am class tomorrow morning.  I just want to go home and fall asleep in front of the television, and to be fair, I probably will do that and forget the reading.  I’m going to sleep through that morning class anyway. I’m feeling overwhelmed with the play and overthinking everything.  I step into my car, worrying about how I’m saying my lines too fast in that first scene.  I turn the key in the ignition and the car replies with some clicking sounds.  The battery’s dead again.  Damnit.

waiting for instruction

I took the bus down from NYC to Virginia so my dad could teach me how to change a tire.  He recently had to fix a flat a week ago on the highway, so I figure he’s as fresh of a MANtor as I could possibly find.  I asked him what happened the first time around, and he said he changed a tire for the first time as a teenager. “No,” I correct him, “when was the first time you showed me?”

“Oh, I guess when you had you learner’s permit.  But you didn’t seem that interested in learning then.”

I’ve never been a car person.  I viewed my first car, a hand-me-down, green Toyota Camry, more as a music equipment shuttle for my band than as a piece of machinery to respect.  As such, when I left for college and my family donated the car to a charity, they called us two weeks later to tell us the axles had completely broke.  So, uh, sorry about not getting that tax deduction, Mom and Dad.

DamnitDamnitDamnitDAMNIT.  Okay, I totally didn’t leave the lights on, so why is this stupid thing dead again?  This is the second time in as many weeks and it’s getting really frustrating.  Usually there’s someone around to help, but of course, not tonight.  Nobody is around because I was the last to leave rehearsal and everybody’s surely gone by now.  I guess I could call AAA?  That’ll take forever.  Should I walk home?  I’d call my roommate but who knows where he is.  This always freaking happens at the worst time.  Screw this car.  I guess I’ll just call—Oh, thank God, someone just walked out of the theatre.  “Hey!  Can you help me?”  I call, trying to flag her down.

I asked my mom to be the official photographer for today’s proceedings, and my dad informed my sister that she would also be joining us, so she could see for herself how to change a tire.  She just got her driver’s license this past year and shared my lack of interest in all things car maintenance.  It quickly became a family affair as they shivered in the cold while I struggled with the lug nuts.

tire tryptych

After I loosened each lug nut to a point where it could easily be removed by hand, I slid the jack under the car.  The car even helped me out with an arrow indicating where I should place the jack.  I wonder if signals like these have been placed on cars in recent years because our society is becoming more and more comfortable with calling AAA to change our oil.  The jack fit nicely into the slot and lifting the car up was less strenuous than I would have thought.  I removed the lug nuts completely and took off the tire.  But my mom stopped me before I picked up the spare.

“You don’t need to get that.  Just put that same tire on and we’ll take pictures and act like you changed it.”

exasperated peter

I’m not gonna lie – I considered it.  An appealing voice snuck into my thoughts:  “You basically did it, right?  You unscrewed the lug nuts – which definitely wasn’t easy – and you used the jack and took the tire off all by yourself.  It’s cold and your fingernails are turning purple.  Let’s call it a day and pose for some photos, right, buddy?  Then you can have all the hot chocolate you want with all the tiny marshmallows you can fit in the cup.”  That voice visits me often and can be very, very persuasive.

“Do you have jumper cables?” she asks me.  God, I hope so.  I pop open the trunk, hoping to display at least a pretense of being prepared.  Nothing but a bunch of mattress pads, which protect the seats when I pack the car with amps and drums, but look odd outside of that context.  “Ha, well, you know, for emergencies,” I say jokingly.  Then I realize that doesn’t explain what I use the pads for and maybe she’ll think I poop myself often enough to require constant precautions but am comfortable enough to laugh about it, which, I don’t know, maybe just cancels itself out.  Before I can assure her of my level of continence, she chuckles.  “It’s okay, I have some cables in my car.  I’ll drive it over.”

I pop the hood of my car as she parks next to me, and she retrieves the cables from her car.  She hooks the cables first to her car and then to mine; red to red, and the black of her battery to a piece of the engine block on my car.  “Is that okay?” I ask.  I thought red goes to red and black goes to black.  She smiles and nods.  I don’t know why I said anything; she knows what she’s doing.  She’s the master electrician for the play, after all.  I think about it and realize this is the most we’ve talked since she got back from studying abroad in France.  We were quasi-friends before she left but never got a chance to have any one-on-one time.  I would have killed my battery a long time ago if I knew that’s all it took.  “Okay, I think it’s ready.  Give it a shot,” she yells.  I step into the car and start the ignition, hoping for good news.

dirty hands

I told my mom that I was putting the spare on because I have to do this the right way.  If I cut corners, who’s to say that I really completed this challenge?  If I’m alone and my tire blows out, I want to know that I can do this, full stop.  She asked me if I at least would wear some gloves, to which I screamed, “NO, because I’m a MAN!”  I’d like to think that her laughter at this moment was really hiding her immense pride for her son.

My dad offered to help, but I brushed him off as well.  I thought if they touched even a single lug nut, it would ruin the legitimacy of the challenge, like a scientist fudging data.  I know they were biting their tongues and holding themselves back the entire time I struggled to put the spare tire on its axle.

super peter

As I hand screwed the lug nuts back on the tire, again my parents tried to offer an out.  “It looks good, just pose with it now and we can go inside,” they pleaded.  “Don’t screw them all the way on.  You’ll just have to undo them when we take the spare off again.”

But I knew in my manly heart of hearts that there was only one way to garner satisfaction from this exercise, and that would be tightening all five lug nuts, dropping the tire back to the garage floor, and admiring the finished product.  And when I removed the jack and took a look at the secured spare tire, it really did feel good.  I did it without any other physical help.  I even had the dirty hands to show for it.

SUCCESS!  The car lights up and music blares out the stereo.  I’m super impressed with her.  I knew she was book smart, but I had no idea she was so car savvy.  My car savviness only goes so far as reciting my AAA number when I’m asked.  I wonder what she thinks of me.  Probably a little less after I try to pull off the cables in the wrong order and nearly blow us up before she stops me.  “Thanks!” I yell over the din of the car engine.  “You’re a lifesaver!”

“Don’t mention it,” she smiles back.  If I were suave, I would have asked her right then and there to let me pay her back by taking her out for a coffee.  Or dinner.  Something.  I should have said something.  Anything.  But I didn’t.  She puts the cables back in her car and drives away without a single word more.  DamnitDamnitDamnitDAMNIT.  If I get another opportunity with her, I can’t mess it up that time.  I won’t.

I didn’t.  I asked Q out to coffee a few weeks later and we shared our last first date.  And now six years later, as I stand in the freezing cold next to a successfully changed tire, the very next thing I will do is call her on the phone and proudly say with a beaming smile, “Guess what I just did?” And then she’ll remind me that the spare is still on the car, and I haven’t finished yet. Gee, thanks, Q.


3.21.  An automatic point for getting my hands dirty and not washing them immediately.