I heard my eleven-year-old son before I actually saw him. The kitchen door banged against the wall. His backpack dropped to the floor with a heavy thud. His high-pitched, wait-till-you-hear-this voice called my name.
“Guess what I’m going to buy when I’m 16?” he half-asked, half-announced. Without waiting for a reply, he sped on.
“An Eclipse. Then I’m gonna buy a body kit and tail because they make it look better. Jesse’s gonna get a Viper or maybe a Skyline. Have you seen the Enzo Ferrari? It’s the fastest: zero to sixty in three-point- six seconds, six-hundred-sixty horsepower. But it’s real expensive.”
“Whoa, wait a minute, ” I threw in as he gulped a breath. “What are you talking about? Where did you see all these cars?”
“Jesse’s house. We played ‘Need For Speed’; that’s a cool game. I had a Viper and got up to one-hundred-twenty miles per hour. Jesse beat me, though; he had the Ferrari. Where’s Geoffrey?”
He bounded down the stairs, executed a jump over the bottom three steps, and asked his brother to guess which car he was going to buy. I sighed and reached for a cup of tea.
Nate has always shared his discoveries with me. As a preschooler, he cupped my face in his hands and eagerly recounted why the red car was his favorite. In those face-to-face moments, I could respond by simply nodding and saying, “Yes, that is a bright color.” But this explosion of car talk is a foreign language. Though I had concentrated on his detailed explanation of “Need For Speed,” I sensed I had just been left in the dust.
Where had he learned this new language?
I know that in some homes, the car parked in the driveway is nearly always surrounded with spray bottles, rags, and containers of blue liquid; the hood propped open for inspection. In these families, “horsepower”, “octane level” and “compression ratio” are spoken as casually as asking what’s for dinner and the children learn the lingo right along with their ABC’s.
My husband and I are definitely not fluent in car-talk. In our home, the owner’s manual retains its glossy, new-book glow because it is seldom opened. We’re on a first-name basis with the service mechanics who patiently answer our frantic phone calls describing an engine that sometimes ker-plunks and sometimes chinks. We prefer singing “rain, rain go away, come again another day” while the car is propelled through the automated car wash to snapping a family photo of us washing the car together on some sunny afternoon.
On the other hand, when Nate was in preschool, our conversations consisted of “beep, beep,” “honk, honk,” and “vroom, vroom.” I was much more articulate when Hot Wheels dominated our playtime. In fact, I think I was as nearly as excited as he had been to build the loop-the-loop track and add soap and water to the mini car wash.
We spent hours on our knees, pushing the little ninety-nine-cent hot rods around the obstacle courses we had constructed of boxes and blocks. When we pulled up to the miniature McDonald’s, we ordered our Chicken Nuggets Happy Meal and politely asked for extra ketchup. When we drove around town, we returned books to the library, turned on Fifth Street to go to church, and then headed south to school. When we raced around the track, our cars spun out of control and crashed into each other amid cries of “again, again!”
When he was in elementary school, the hours spent racing around the floor gradually gave way to hours spent building at the table with Legos. For a while, we raced with multi-colored square block vehicles. Then his Lego creations turned intergalactic and the Jedi Starfighter and Republic Gunship earned front-and-center positions on his dresser top. He parked the Hot Wheels on a shelf in the closet . . . and one day, put them in a box.
“I’ve grown out of them,” he explained, and, with no sign of regret turned back toward his room.
“Wait. Let’s not get rid of all of them.” I picked up a bright red, silver-streaked racer.
“This is one of your favorites, isn’t it? Let’s save it and pick out a few others. You might want them for a project some day.”
He rolled his eyes and picked four cars from the box, and I added some of my favorites: the school bus, the hippie van, the purple pickup, the black Mercedes. After he returned to his room, I added a few more — the red convertible, the garbage truck, the No. 17 Firebird — and carefully placed each in individual car-sized compartments within an airtight plastic container. The rest I carried to the basement and tossed into a box marked “Garage Sale”.
I boxed up more than some worn-out toys that day; I also boxed up a part of our relationship. I had sensed for some time that this change was coming. When he was in fourth grade, he bought his first poster: a yellow Porsche. A silver-blue Lotus Elise was soon hanging beside it on his bedroom wall. Then he began playing computer games that challenged his ability to maneuver a racecar through the twists and turns of the autobahn and through the streets of New York City. A year later, he was snapping together the plastic pieces of model cars, and the 1:43 scale replicas soon took over the center-front position of his desk, driving the Legos to a shelf in his closet.
Now, even the pictures he draws for Grandma’s refrigerator are filled with roll bars and mag wheels. A racetrack is outlined with masking tape on his bedroom floor, simulating the hairpin turns of the video game speedways he has mastered. Tiny tires, hubcaps, and body tops – pieces to his 1:64 scale radio-controlled Mazda RX-8 — lie amid the papers on his desk, the owner’s manual open to a description of how a power upgrade kit will improve its performance.
Frankly, I’m not the least bit interested in cars. I don’t know the significance of rpms or the differences between methanol and nitromethane. I don’t like to watch action movies that treat cars as Hot Wheels racers, and I think that there are better things to do than sit in front of a television screen and push buttons on a four-inch video game controller.
But because Nate is interested in cars, I find myself sitting in the passenger’s seat during our conversations.
“Did you see that Mustang? That’s a cool car.
“You had a Mustang? Wow. What was it like?”
“Man, look at the muffler on that car!”
“Drive into that car lot, will ya mom? I think that’s a Civic Coupe.”
All I have to do – all he really wants me to do – during these exclamations is pay attention and listen. But sometimes it’s hard to keep my eyes from glazing over, and I have to swallow a yawn or two while he goes on and on and on. Sometimes, I stare at his lips, thinking that if I can read as well as hear what he’s trying to tell me, I’ll understand it. At times, I even wish he was at his friend’s house instead of in my car — but then again, I’m glad he’s not.
That’s when I know the checkered flag is in sight: He’s still talking to me. Still including me in the winner’s circle. Translating a bit of the young man he is becoming into words I can understand.
And believe me, he’s got his work cut out for him.
Yesterday, when he ran into the house and dropped his backpack on the floor, his wait-till-you-hear-this voice was camouflaged with compound bows, quivers, twelve-gauge shotguns, and clay pigeons. I guess I should start looking for an orange vest.