In 2011 I transferred schools for my junior year of college. I was commuting thirty miles from my studio apartment in the bustling, dirty city to the rolling, green grass of the secluded foothills off the 10 freeway, where my new school was located. The grass literally ALWAYS looked greener here.
It was the second week of school and I had just been broken up with the night before so I didn’t get much sleep. My mind was focused on the whys and “how could this happen to mes.” I exited the freeway and approached the winding road that would lead me to the parking lot uncomfortably far from campus but was always empty, when my car just stopped working.
It just. Stopped. Working.
I really didn’t know what to do. I had only been living independently from my family for four months at this point and rarely left my apartment except to go on dates with my now ex, so this was the first real crisis I had ever had to deal with alone.
I called my mom and asked her what to do.
“Why are you calling me?” she asked over the phone. “Call your insurance, they’ll send someone to pick up your car.”
“Okay,” I replied.
After I called my insurance company and set up a tow truck to come get my car, a police car pulled up beside me. He was a part of the campus police, but I think he was still a legit cop nonetheless.
“You can’t park here,” he said to me as cars drove around us. If he thought I was in the way, he was even more of a traffic inconvenience.
“My car broke down,” I said. “Someone’s coming to tow it now.”
“Well move it out of way so people can drive by.”
“I can’t,” I said defensively. “I’m not strong enough.”
I flashed to a memory of being in high school when my mom’s car broke down in the middle of a two-lane street on our way home. It was the late afternoon and I remembered the sky was a dramatic burst of oranges and yellows.
“Get out of the car and help me push it to the side,” my mom said, immediately.
“Can’t someone else do it?”
I refused to get out of the car in fear of someone seeing me pushing a broken down car and assuming I was poor. They would have been right, but why I associated a broken down car–which can happen to anyone regardless of how much money they made–and having to push it with being poor was beyond me.
“Get out and help me, Beck!”
I could see the pain, and the tiniest ounce of shame, in my mom’s eyes. She wasn’t just being a mom and demanding I do something, she was a helpless human being and was begging me to do something.
As we pushed the car off the road, I’m pretty sure someone I recognized from school made eye contact with me as they drove by. I don’t remember who it was now, and it’s not even important anymore. The feeling of being caught a victim of poverty was less damaging than refusing to help my mother when she needed me the most. THAT feeling–guilt–has never gone away.
Now I was twenty-one years old and still embarrassed that someone at my new school would see me pushing my broke down car and judge me for it.
Except I didn’t have to push it.
“Get out,” said the cop.
I got out of the car and watched the police officer push my car effortlessly to the dirt path. I thanked him.
“I think I have to miss class today,” I told him.
“Email your professor and let him know what happened,” he said. “Give him my name and I can verify it in case he doesn’t believe you.”
“Thanks,” I said.
I sat in the driver’s seat of my car with the door wide open. It was springtime but warm beneath the California sun.
Now everyone was looking at the sweaty girl sitting off road, with her door open and fanning herself as they drove by.
It wasn’t so bad.