Road Ode by Cat Cotsell

The wheels are part of my body. My circulation is maintained by a humming engine. I am carried in his ribs and I feel his vibrations in mine.

There is a transcendent immediacy in this state that exists nowhere else. My mind is empty, it is full. Every response is instinctive to lanes and curves, dips and hills. I have digitigrade legs. The clutch is my ankle, from the pressure plate through to the flywheel form the ball of my foot. My right foot presses gently on the accelerator and the brake, the same way my toes press on each other when it is cold. I am not driving. I am running.

I love driving alone. The highway could be a road to nothing in the middle of nowhere. It could be the line between heaven and earth. I have driven through underworlds, chthonic deities striding alongside us in the spacious dark of midnight, glancing at us with every fleeting flash of the headlights in the eyes of wild rabbits. In the day, I tilt my head back a little ways and we are in the sky, flying toward the cumulus rising from the horizon, fish belly monochrome in the fluorescent afternoon.

I have sat swathed in that dry crusty dust-oil-petrol smell, that love song aroma, surrounded by the rat-a-tat-tat pounding of the rain as the glass slowly fogs the grey landscape into an opaque and glistening silver, and felt—like belief—that the outside world was only a void.

 

Darby is a Corolla, a manual sedan born in 1995. Only four years younger than me. Four cylinders, four doors—the number four follows him around with mathematical superstition. He is 54 inches tall, faded and stout with grainy floor mats and shy flat headlights and two different wheel brands, and he is the most beloved car in the world.

I know by feel how far he needs to travel before his water or oil need topping up. When feeding him petrol, I know when to let go of the pump’s trigger before it clicks. I know his turning circle with the same precision that I know the reach of my arm.

Darby was never ‘mine’. If he is an extension of me, then he is my skin and hair and fingernails. Perhaps his attachment to me is flimsy in the grand scheme of things, but he is there, like a cat or a very old tree is ‘there’.

 

We are beyond all of society and humanity. The anonymous highway, vast as a universe, is broken occasionally by a passing stranger. I wonder as I listen to the asphalt roar if they feel what I am feeling. On the way towards and from, how many people frantically apologise to the steering wheel after jarring over a speed bump or after grinding their gears? How many stalled, and felt it in their throat like a choke? On the highways and craggy dirt roads, how many of them patted their dashboard for no particular reason and said good baby?

It is surreal to drive through a quiet unfamiliar town, only learning its name as I pass the sign, a town with its own school and its own fish’n’chip shops, and think: this is someone’s home. Someone’s static, someone’s comfortingly boring origin. And my own hometown feels just as mysterious to another stranger. I look through the windshield as an alien looking through the viewer on their shuttlecraft, arriving on earth for the first time. Civilisation is only familiar for being civilisation. Darby travels through too fast to let me imagine that this stranger’s hometown, this cluster of life, is more known to me than it really is.

 

Darby was not originally my car. Mum bought him for cheap from a guy with six cars in his backyard, for my brother. At first he was going to pick up Darby, then he was going to pay mum back first, then he was just a bit behind.

Disorganisation is our family’s inheritance.

Darby lived with me like a stray dog for months, until I adopted him, and he became mine. My brother was not disappointed. We are putter-offers, and if a problem solves itself or becomes someone else’s, it is usually considered a success.

I was renting with strangers in an unsecure house and was struggling. I was in, what I told people, a weird place. Darby and I shared directionless-ness. We had both been left behind by someone, and were battling along as if we had not noticed being left behind.

Sometimes on long drives I would roll down the window to let the noise in. From inside his body Darby teemed with disgruntled little tremors, but from outside he roared. I liked having my ear pressed to his chest, hearing his thrumming humming heartbeat, but it was satisfying to hear wheels bellowing along bitumen.

 

He broke down on the Tuggeranong parkway. I was on the way to meet some friends. Due to a minor problem, I had to wait three hours before NRMA could send someone out. We sat at the side of the road, he and me, feeling other cars fly past.

Rust had gotten in deep, deep down in his old mechanical organs. Darby was beyond the reach of mechanics or auto shops or skilled uncles. He had to be towed. The wait for the tow-truck was shorter, and longer, than the wait for help.

 

I wonder every time I get behind the wheel if I’ll be disappointed when I reach where I’m going. I never am. This simple feeling is the only pure joy I have ever found in the world. Nothing about it is unpleasant, not even the end.

When I die, I think, if heaven exists, this is what mine will be. Not a destination. A road for a home, a faded steel chassis for a body, and the incomparable peace of the love of a car.

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Cat Cotsell is a nonbinary panromantic creative based in Canberra. They recently graduated from UC with a Bachelor of Writing and Honours in Art & Design, and are currently building their portfolio. Their short fiction and poetry can be found on FIVE:2:ONE, Everyday Fiction and Indolent Book’s What Rough Beast project. They also illustrate under the name Cat Hesarose.