A Racecar Marriage: True Love a Quarter Mile at a Time (Yes, I just quoted Vin Diesel. Sorry.)

The first time I was ever attracted to my future husband was when he was driving me in his ’91 Eclipse.

His hands. Shifting.

It was maybe 1997. I was probably 18 and he was 17. It wasn’t a date – just hanging out with a mutual friend. We had known each other for a few years already, and, even though we went to a very small school, we ran in different crowds. He was quiet and wore a lot of black. I was … not quiet… and wore a lot of … not black. (Pretty sure I was wearing my 1970s hot pink thrift store pants with huge butterflies all over them.[i]) He had been quietly attracted to me, and I knew it, but I had other boyfriends. And I wasn’t interested.

Until that day in his car. And I noticed his muscled hands.

We were still just friends, but my heart started to beat a little faster. And then my heart turned toward him more and more until it beat for him only.

That 1991 Mitsubishi Eclipse – a car prized by people like Mr. Okayest for being possible to majorly modify – has always been a huge part of our life.  The car is not a possession or a material object.  It is a thread running through this marriage. A loud, 626 horsepower thread. Today, twenty years later, he finally got that car up on his new lift – a lifelong hard-won pursuit. Although I need him in the house to help me with our three small sons who are bugging me to death right now, I am so happy to see him so happy under that car. He’s gutting it and rebuilding it now. I love the light in his eyes.

Even I daydream of the time when he gets it running again, and we can and speed away from those three small sons for the evening. It will still be our dating car. Sometimes my mind seems to bend when I think back to our teenage selves, and how we ended up together, and our family and our years. I think back to that first ride in the Eclipse in nineteen-ninety-whatever, and his hands, and I think maybe I was able to picture this future – with that hard-won lift and these hard-won children, and the same Eclipse.[ii] It’s always been there.

The car was there when it drove him to the small high school where we met and saw each other every day.

The car was there when he drove to his mechanic job after school, instigating a lifetime obsession.

The car was there when my heart started to beat for him.

The car was there when we drove to our first date, an extremely old-fashioned little Tea Room in a woman’s house, where a husband and wife said they were sitting at the very table where they got engaged many years before. The man said to us, “You’re sitting at the courtin’ table, boy! When you gonna marry her?” (Yes, Virginia is The South.)

The car was there when we fell in love.

The car was there when we went to college, 500 miles apart, and the car made the trip between New York and Virginia for four years.

The car was there when he drove from New York in the night to surprise me, standing underneath my junior-year dorm room window, in a black trench coat, calling my name, like John Cusack in “Say Anything.”

The car was there, getting faster and faster and tougher and tougher under his ever-increasing mechanic experience.

The car was there at the drag strip with us, “a quarter mile at a time” as Vin Diesel ever-so-eloquently says in one of the Fasts and the Furiouses. We spent many date nights at the track. Usually I wasn’t allowed in the passenger seat, as my 115 pounds added “way too much weight” and slowed him down. But sometimes, when his times didn’t matter, I was riding beside him with my helmet, and it was the best rollercoaster in the world.

The car was there that one time it was so fast that my bony knees actually flew up into my face when he shifted.

The car was there, getting louder and louder, until it caught every cop’s eye, and set off every car alarm in every parking garage, in a row, as we drove past each one. (One of my favorite pastimes.)

The car was there when it had to be towed home again and again after a night of pushing it to its limits. That car was the only reason we had AAA.

The car was there when it got too big for its own britches and was no longer street legal. When it stopped passing inspections. When it couldn’t race anymore unless it could get a roll cage installed.

The car was there when we got pulled over many times, with cops on both sides of the car, shining lights in both our faces, yelling, “IS THIS YOUR CAR?”

The car was there, parked, for those three months that he had to bicycle his way to his internship every day, when his license was revoked.

The car was there when it took him across the country for another internship. When I returned from Italy, that car drove us from Washington state to Virginia at the end of that summer. We crossed the entire United States in that car,  even once crossing the border into Mexico.

The car was there, up on a dyno, out-powering all the other home-built racecars.

The car was there at our college graduations – first mine, then his.

The car was there when we got married in the temple, parked so quietly in the parking lot waiting for us to come back out. When we folded my handmade 40-yards-of-tulle-of-a-dress into it on that extremely hot and humid Virginia summer day (with no A/C because he had long ago pulled it out for being – wait for it – too heavy). When we arrived at our reception, sweaty and elated.

The car was there when we sped away from our reception with an enormous roar, and left our families behind for good. The car took us to our new life together.

The car was there at our first rental home. That whole first year of marriage when he commuted every day to the next state to be a racecar mechanic. That time it snowed three feet and got completely buried.

The car was there, probably smirking at me from the driveway, as I called my car insurance company to have my new husband added to my policy, and Allstate told me they would DROP ME if I added him and that car.

The car was there for our second year of marriage – an apartment, which did not suit us at all. With oil changes in the parking lot and much cursing.

The car was there when someone keyed it in that apartment parking lot and broke my husband’s heart.

The car was there, being towed on a flatbed behind the moving truck on our way to our first home that we owned. When we picked up a huge rescue dog to bring to our new home with us.

The car was there, taking us on drives through the countryside, with our new dog hanging her head out of the window, lapping at the mountain air.

The car was there, right behind me, the first time I drove a stick shift alone. He followed me part of the way to my job as a kindergarten teacher, so no one would park too close behind me at stoplights. Because I was still rolling backwards so much. The memory of his familiar racecar in my rearview mirror, when I was so nervous, still makes me smile. That’s true freaking love.

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I never know what I’m gonna find when I call him in for dinner.

The car was there every time my husband got the idea to tear it apart and make it bigger, better, faster – just to see if he could.

The car was there that time he made an entire second car for me from the leftover parts. And I drove it for a couple years, but the clutch was so stiff I often felt like crying when a stoplight turned red.

The car was there that time he raced it so hard he snapped an axle on the drag strip.

The car was there when I realized I couldn’t drive it anymore. That I would probably never drive it again. It became too much for me.

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Melted metal. One of these things is not like the other.

The car was there that time he pushed it so hard on the interstate in the middle of the night that he sent a piece of the engine straight through the firewall[iii]. When he made a huge hole in the engine block and left a hemorrhage of fluids for a mile. And his wife screamed at him for putting his life in danger over and over again.

The car was also there every time I screamed with joy at the fun we had going fast.

The car was there, parked in the garage underneath our bedroom, when we found out we were pregnant after years of trying.

The car was there, parked in the garage underneath our bedroom, when I began to miscarry the baby. When we came home from the hospital with only the knowledge that she was a girl.

And finally, one day when he was tearing the car apart for a semi-basic rebuild, our son came into our lives. We were parents. And the non-working car would sit quietly for the next seven years.

The car was there in our minds when we bought a bigger, nearly-foreclosed house with a detached garage – the reason we had purchased this house in the first place. The car had figured into our home-buying decision!

The car was there when we moved with a bigger moving truck this time, towing the racecar behind us on yet another flatbed.

The car was there when we made a huge permanent gash in our road from getting it off the flatbed.

The car was there when we pushed it down the hill and into the detached garage. When friends helped him get every wheel on a dolly so it could be moved around the garage.

The car got covered. Grew mold and dust as our family grew bigger. Twins. Three children under three. All hands on deck. House repairs that never stopped. Three children in diapers. Oh, the intensity. The car was never forgotten, though. We daydreamed about the glory days and the track and the romance and the speed, while we were covered in spit up and poop and were decidedly stationary.

And, then, one day the children were a little more independent. The house was stabilized – although it will never be finished. We had saved and saved and saved. My husband looked around and said it was time.

FB_IMG_1495119821851The car was there, sitting quietly, as he poured a concrete floor in around it in the garage. As he expanded the garage around it. As he installed a lift beside it. As he insulated the garage. As he learned how to wire the garage.

The car was there that day he and my brother rolled it off its little dollies, and pushed it onto the lift. When my husband smiled.

It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t run. What matters is that it’s possible it may run again someday. What matters is that my husband is happy.  What matters is that the kids don’t run our lives. What matters are the memories and the emotions and the shared experiences we both remember. We grew up together. And now we feel so very old because, yes, “the car makes us feel young again”. We can barely say that with a straight face, but it’s true anyway. That’s how we know we’re old. (Also, we know we’re old because the car is eligible for antique license plates now since it’s more than 25 years old. If it could qualify for plates.)

Today, the children run around us in the freshly painted garage, weaving around and under our racecar on our lift. They peek inside. They ask questions. They know it used to be faster than any car they see on the road. They do know that a Formula One racecar is faster, though. Because that’s faster than everything, they say. They know their Daddy built this car with his own hands. They know that he will build it again. They don’t care too much – but they will when they hear it roar to life for the first time. Will they ride in the backseat? We don’t even know.[iv] Probably not. It’s not street legal, after all.

Seven years since it has started up. Fifteen years since we left for our honeymoon in it. Twenty years since I first set eyes on his hands as he shifted. Twenty years.

****

[i] When Mr. Okayest read this sentence about my butterfly pants, he said, “I remember those pants!” I’m all like, “Yeah, because they probably blinded you.”

[ii] I’m lying. It’s not technically the same Eclipse, but for the sake of writing continuity, I fibbed. He got his first 1991 Eclipse when he was 16. He replaced it four years later with a turbo version. Same color, same year, same car. It’s the same car to me. Yeah yeah yeah. Just go with it.

[iii] Firewall? I originally wrote “dashboard” and he corrected it to “firewall,” but I have no idea what that means.

[iv] Mr. Okayest just said “definitely not.” Apparently he took out (and threw away) the backseat seatbelts years ago BECAUSE THEY WERE – wait for it – TOO HEAVY.

Our First Date: An Ode to Ruth’s Tea Room

Ruths Tea Room

Our first date was in November 1998, almost 15 years ago. I don’t feel any different than I did that day. I am still painfully and terribly in love. I know him better now, but I still feel like the 19-year-old starry-eyed Virginia girl in love with the 18-year-old  Italian/Iranian ringlet-ed boy.

We fell in love in a nursing home when we were about 14 years old. Who can say that? Just a handful of people in the whole world? Our private school was located inside a wing of a working nursing home. We had pull-cords in the bathrooms and, if you were lucky, your locker was a kitchen cabinet. If you weren’t, it was a bathroom counter. We spent a little time in the cedar-closet darkroom, too. Ahem.

Our first date wasn’t until we had gone to college, 440 miles apart. When he came home for his first school break, we went on a date. I like our first date story better than anyone else’s. We went to Ruth’s Tea Room.

Ruth’s Tea Room (or tear room, as he says) was just a tiny little place inside an old woman’s house in Winchester, VA. I guess only locals knew about it. There wasn’t even any sign out front by the time we came around. Remember, there was no internet to speak of in 1998 – at least not for me. And not one that would spread the word about such an establishment. She served cakes and tea and homemade lemonade with sugar around the rim of the glass. She probably served meals, too, but we were always too poor to buy much. I remember the dim lighting. I remember the jukebox – with a lot of Duke Ellington and Tina Turner and… hmm, maybe not any white singers at all! I remember, above all else, the velvet red wallpaper. I remember his black eyes staring at me.

I had been to Ruth’s Tea Room with my best friend, Sarah, many times. We were just poor punk/goth/hippie kids who dressed from the thrift store. (Don’t let the private schooling fool you- I was sent there by a well-meaning relative.) The proprietor, whom I wrongly assumed was Ruth, was old and kind and Southern and genteel. She seemed to welcome us teens. Who, in their right minds, provides a place for teens to go, late at night, and somehow convinces them to use manners and be quiet? Miss Vivian did. I just learned her name today, through an internet search.

My man had never been there until the night of our first date. We were seated by Miss Vivian, in the tiny room with only 5 tables. There was another couple in there too. They were much older than my parents. The man looked at me and said, “That’s the courtin’ table you’re sittin’ at! When you gonna marry her, boy?!” I don’t have a good memory, but that moment is locked into my brain forever. The man went on to say that he and his wife sat there for their first date and that they had been married for a long time now. He also said something along the lines of “She’s got that just-made-love-glow about her” … about me… which, by the way, was only an “IN-love glow”, I swear.  We married in 2002, only 4 years later, after we had both graduated college. We adopted our first son in 2010 and gave birth to two more sons in 2012. We just celebrated our 11th wedding anniversary and have now been together for 15 years. He is my everything.

Ruth’s Tea Room was the most romantic place on earth. It was in an old lady’s somewhat musty house, in the worst possible part of Winchester, with a boy I had met in a nursing home. It was the last first date of my life.

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 Me & Him, circa 1998

~~~~~

Notes:

I have recently  learned that Ruth’s Tea Room, located at 128 E. Cecil Street, in Winchester VA, was demolished in 2008.  The entire block was razed. It is heartbreaking. I knew that it was a place nearing the end of its life in 1998, but it’s hard to accept that, even 15 years later, it’s really gone. A piece of history is gone. The Tea Room could have been in operation since 1915 (a 1990 article said it had been in operation for 75 years at that point). Also, the house itself was a piece of history, as it was first owned by the first freed slave in Winchester.

Information about the place was suprisingly hard to find during an internet search. I did (somehow not surprisingly)  find an entire webpage dedicated to the songs on the juke box at Ruth’s Tea Room: http://ruthstearoom.tumblr.com/.

I found the photo of the front of the house on a website called “Vanished Winchester”, whose  name itself is heartbreaking. https://picasaweb.google.com/102987560620552891770/VanishedWinchester#5343528834821207522

I found a facebook page called, “In Loving Memory of Ruth’s Tea Room”. I was moved to read the names of the members, which included names I haven’t seen since my middle-school yearbook. That page has 233 members! It is also where I found a picture of Miss Vivian, who I had thought was Ruth all these years. She is actually Ruth’s daughter. Seeing her face brought back some memories for me.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the facebook page:

  • “High school would not have been the same without this place and Vivian.”
  • “There hasn’t been and there will never be a place as wonderful as Ruth’s Tea Room. You always made all us regulars feel so welcome, like we were part of your family. I will forever hold onto wonderful memories of you, Zeus, the red velvet wallpaper, smells of herbal tea mixed with clove cigarettes and the warm home-like atmosphere that was so welcoming to all. I truly miss this incredible place.”
  • “Three generations of my family loved Ruth.”
  • “Orange spice and cigarettes in a room that was lit entirely by old Christmas lights and candles.”
  • “As a high school teacher now, I realize the service that she provided to us was phenomenal….nobody wants teenagers as their main patrons…people hate teenagers….but she didn’t judge us and our gothic ways, she lovingly served us, allowed us to be ourselves and occasionally told us not to curse.”
  • “Sex, drugs, and Ruth’s Tea Room. That’s really all I remember from high school.”

The only history I could find was an old newspaper article written in 1990 by Joe Bageant, whose name I recognized  immediately. He authored a book I own called “Deer Hunting with Jesus”, which is about povery and politics, as framed by Winchester, VA, which is Bageant’s hometown. I was surprised to see that he wrote about Ruth’s Tea Room, too!

He wrote, in his article about the Tea Room, “If he had a first name, I never knew it. Everyone just called him Mr. Boyd, and that’s probably the way he wanted it. Whatever the case, Mr. Boyd looked like the old picture on the Uncle Ben’s Rice box. A gentleman of color, he operated Ruth’s Tea Room in my hometown when I was a kid. The place was named after Mr. Boyd’s late wife, and it has been a fixture of that old Southern town for 75 years…. It is… all housed in the Boyds’ small two-story home inherited from the first free slave in our town, Virginius Boyd. Anyway, when I was growing up near the tea room in the late 1950s, Mr. Boyd and his daughter, Vivian, ran the place with soothing dignity. “