Fixing a tire

I knew something was wrong even before the light started blinking. My car had gone over the pothole. The traitorous front tire had jumped over the ...

Aug 30, 2014

I knew something was wrong even before the light started blinking.
My car had gone over the pothole. The traitorous front tire had jumped over the ridge — there was a moment of weightlessness, a strange gravitational hiccup — and then we had landed back to earth with a boom, kerthud, thunkthunkthunk. The sounds were magnificent and terrifying. The accident was worth the onomatopoetic value alone.
And now my car was rebelling, steering wheel shuddering, strange things happening to the overall equilibrium of the vehicle. And there was that light on my dashboard — a bright blinking 'uh-oh.' Like a sullen teenager, my car was acting up. We were in automotive mutiny, and I was in southeast Detroit with a flat tire.
The terrain of Michigan roads is frequently cracked and pock-marked and moon-like. Potholes are to be expected. But flat tires — like appendectomies and delayed flights and other inconveniences that are too stupid and mundane to ever happen to you, only to other people — are not.
And yet. Here I was. On Mack Avenue, with my front tire punctured and a feeling that could only be described as wilt-y inside my chest.
I don't quite remember what my thought process had been at that moment. I don’t think there had been a thought process actually, just grappling, fumbling denial and a blank swipe of panic and the most creative swearing I'd done in years. After all, there aren't many nice places to have a flat tire, but southeast Detroit is definitely not one of them.
Sweaty, praying and steadily ignoring the insistent flapflapflap of tire rubber against ground, I drove down Mack, past the abandoned houses and the lots sprouting weeds and bottle shards. The car and I somehow limped to safer territory, coming to a wounded, dignified stop at a Shell gas station.
My mind had cleared enough for me to realize what was happening. This was a flat tire. This was adulthood.
When you are a teenager, a car means mobility, freedom and the breathless breaking of curfew. My first car was a Ford Escape, and our love affair can be gleaned from the candy wrappers I’d leave on its seats, the abandoned books in the backseat, the scuff of my friends' shoes on the dashboard. As a teenager, your car is a space carved out just for you and, seated before the steering wheel, you are quite physically and emphatically in control. It is not complete ownership — unless your parents are cruel and into weird stuff like “building character” and “learning the true value of things,” you probably have not paid for the car yourself. But, it is still something.
It is power without the tacked-on asterisk of responsibility. Independence, but not full abandonment. I suspect the affection I feel for my first car doesn’t have much to do with cherished high school memories so much as the fact that I was not paying for my own gas at the time.
When you are an adult, however, a car means something else. You must feed it, clean it, and care for it. It shuttles you back and forth from home to work. You have to give rides. You have to pay for parking. And occasionally, things like flat tires and oil changes and speeding violations, things that you never prepared for because someone else was always there to know what to do — they happen. They suck.
I had decided that I would handle this flat tire like an adult, and in my strange brain, this translated into hiding the entire ordeal from my parents and doing everything to conceal that it had ever happened in the first place. There were steps to be taken — I had to get home, I had to change the tire, I had to see if I had the money to change the tire — but all of this, I inexplicably decided, needed to take place without my mother ever finding out.
My newfound conviction was somewhat enforced, and made easier, by the fact that my mother was not in town at the time and I was instead staying at her friend Sharon's. But Sharon could not know about the flat tire either, because I knew that once Sharon found out, my mother would too, thanks to the secret and nefarious Mom Network of communication that extends, bewilderingly, between all those who have gone through childbirth. So, I resolved to lie.
Were unnecessary fabrications and subterfuge the adult way to go about things? Who knows? It certainly made the situation a lot more difficult and complicated than it had to be, so that leads me to answer yes.
I staunchly stood by this resignation to noble and martyr-like independence until I realized that I needed a ride home from the gas station. Then, I frantically called all my friends on my contact list and begged them each to come pick me up. By that point, however, it’d become apparent that everyone I knew had secretly met earlier that day and conspired to all get sick or leave town or have work at the same time. No one could pick me up.
This severely complicated the situation. It was too bad I couldn’t call Sharon.
Not quite knowing what else to do, I phoned a mechanic and was put on hold for half an hour of foot-tapping and the same elevator-music played in a never-ending tinny loop. A nice woman named Mandy finally picked up, and I explained to her my situation. She said that the tire could be taken out, and a new one put in its place very easily. I would just have to wait until the following morning for the repair.
Cringing, I asked Mandy how much the operation would cost.
"Around 275 dollars," said Mandy.
"275 dollars?" I repeated.
"Yes," said Mandy. “275 dollars.”
There was a long pause over the phone.
"Okay," I croaked. "Okay. We'll make it work."
275 dollars. This was good news for the car, not-so-good news for the bank account. The prospect of parental financial support was a tempting, fleeting thought, but asking for money would entail confessing to my mom what had happened. And I couldn’t do that if I wanted to be a real, mature adult. I would have to pay on my own.
Mandy and I could do this. The tire would be fixed.
After the necessary agreements and the painful extraction of my credit card information over the phone, I hung up knowing there still remained another tricky problem: waiting. I somehow had to survive from now until the next morning when I could pick up the car, without anyone finding out what had happened or Sharon noticing the mysterious disappearance of a 2,700-pound vehicle from her driveway.
Luckily, a friend took pity on me and let me stay the night at her house. This seemed like a good plan. I could leave the car at the shop, I reasoned, then pick it up in the morning and no one would be the wiser. After texting Sharon to tell her I wouldn’t be sleeping at home, I received a rather dismaying response from her a couple minutes later: "Thx. Is your car with you?"
My web of lies was slowly unravelling. I turned off my phone.
The next day, I spent the morning being an annoying burden to my friend while we waited for my car to be repaired, her obligingly shuttling me from point A to point B, me feeling oddly helpless and infantile.
This was the true epitome of adulthood, I realized: having control and freedom, then seeing it taken away from you and being responsible for figuring out — on your own and very much alone — how to get it back. A swamp of arrangements, phone calls, bills and inconveniences to wade through. A flat tire and a sad bank account.
The realization that you are struggling more than you should be and the vague, heady fear that someone else might notice.
In college, one encounters many flat tires, except instead of being called flat tires, they are called visa applications or broken air-conditioners or the flu. These things may look familiar, may have happened before, but they will be different in that now no one is there to help solve the problem. Without your parents, counselors, teachers and friends, you must grapple with it on your own.
Having this newfound but familiar responsibility feels a bit like waking up in your old bedroom, the same one you have slept in for years, only to discover that overnight on your eighteenth birthday, someone has painted all the walls a different color. You feel surprised and betrayed and somewhat annoyed that no one first bothered to consult you with paint swatches.
I had the flat tire fixed, and I drove my car to work the next morning with a strange sensation familiar to many college students — a feeling of accomplishment tinged with the uneasy suspicion that everything probably could have resolved itself in a much different, much easier way. In adulthood, there is always that mythical easy way. You don’t know what it looks like, all you know is that it exists and it is evading you.
Looking back, I think I know what my easy way was.
I could have called my mom. I could have asked for help, could have borrowed the money, could have come clean to Sharon. But because my strange brain had conflated being mature with being infallible, I’d instead insisted on concealing the flat tire and causing myself a lot of mental, emotional and financial anguish in the process.
Successful adulthood means being someone who can calmly go about fixing a flat tire, even if that involves asking other people for help. Yet I had believed it meant being someone to whom flat tires never happened in the first place. How stupid, I can’t help but think in hindsight. How proud.
Maturity is not infallibility. And while independence is important, you don’t have to ostracize yourself to live the illusion of a perfect, put-together life. It is okay to call home sometimes, especially if you’re struggling. You don’t have to accept money from others, you don’t even have to let them help you. But you can call and complain. Sometimes, the few words of sympathy you will hear in response are enough.
Zoe Hu is an editor at large. Email her at
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