We leased a Toyota Highlander in July of 2019. We always lease because the economics usually work out for us: We live in a city, so we never exceed our mileage limit; we can budget with minimal concern over unexpected repairs; and we just kind of like new cars. Something about the lack of commitment beyond a few years is comforting, particularly when so much of our life has felt pretty locked in since we decided to have children and start our family.
The Highlander was meant to be a space upgrade from an expiring RAV4 Hybrid lease, as we were going to be in need of additional seating after the holidays. My wife, Monica, was four months pregnant with our third child at the time of the lease.
As such, the shopping experience was pretty straightforward, as it has been for every car we’ve had. Given our relative lack of attachment to cars, leasing tends to be about determining a set of parameters (size, monthly payment) the car needs to meet before making a short list of candidates that fit the guidelines.
From there, it’s a process of elimination, usually based on extremely stupid things that would infuriate a gearhead or even just an aesthetic autophile. Bluetooth! A phone-charging port! Power seats! Voice commands that don’t even really work and that you never use after the salesperson shows you in the lot!
We don’t even give a second thought to its performance outside of a cursory interest in fuel economy. Being that it’s a car, we presume it will have gas and brake pedals and will therefore start and stop when prompted. Ideally, it will be a color we don’t hate.
I was happy to stay out of the buying process; one less thing to worry about while my brain darted in a hundred other agonized directions. The Highlander is “my wife’s car,” insofar as those definitions matter much for working parents. The Hyundai is mine, the Highlander is hers, and when we’re short a pack of diapers or need to take one of the kids to an appointment, whichever of us picks the short straw that day just takes whichever car isn’t blocked into the driveway.
So, it wasn’t a conscious decision to take the Highlander to the hospital for the birth of our third; it just happened to be the car that was stored in the garage on a cold January night and would therefore be warmest for the ride. It would’ve perhaps been symbolically appropriate, given that it was the car we got specifically because of the impending arrival, the one we agonized over outfitting with three child seats (despite its size, the first ding against the Highlander was its surprisingly crowded rear seating), the one we would be driving when one of us would involuntarily burst forth with a sentiment like “Wow, did you ever think we’d need a car this big?” before being overcome with quiet, tense stress about how in the hell we would handle another child.
I helped Monica into the front seat at 6:30 or so. That’s when we encountered our second issue with the Highlander: the step into the car isn’t overly taxing in normal circumstances, but it was apparently enough to break her water. Monica had begun labor the previous night around 8:00, and instead of rushing to the hospital like we did with our second child, she insisted we enjoy the comforts of home for a while and avoid the stressful atmosphere of the hospital until she was closer to the “pushing” stage of labor. We even fell asleep for a few hours, my wife’s apparently superhuman threshold for pain giving us the illusion of time to spare.
That illusion dissolved within a few seconds of pulling out of the driveway, when Monica looked to me and said something about needing to scream. At that I became quite interested in the performance of this relative behemoth, the largest and most sluggish vehicle I’d ever driven, suddenly feeling sporty as it navigated the Mt. Washington elevation and descended the narrow thruway to Pittsburgh’s busiest bridge.
It wasn’t immediate nor can I pinpoint when it occurred, but I began to understand the rest of the world’s fascination with cars. I’d been approaching it the wrong way, focusing on the mechanical performance aspects of the hobby, or the design-aesthetic obsessives speaking referential languages I’d never desired to grasp.
No, like any other subculture, it’s about its intrinsic draw from memory or nostalgia. Moments in our lives, lived or witnessed or otherwise formative, tied to the object of our obsession. This afterthought — a vessel, a series of measurements and a line item in our monthly household expenses to be turned in after 36 months — was now central to our story.
“So this is where it happened?” an alarmingly excited car detailer said when I dropped the Highlander off, four days after our daughter was born atop the Liberty Bridge at rush hour, healthy and happy. He peered into the passenger seat where, just an eternity earlier that week, my wife had reached down and plucked our daughter out of her sweatpants as nonchalantly as you’d pluck your phone off the floor mat if it slid down after an abrupt stop.
“Wow,” he said, noting the stains of blood and amniotic fluid on the seat and floor. “Sorry, just never had one of these before.”
The details of the birth are remarkable only in how pathological we were in trying to pretend this wasn’t happening. There were the screams, the 911 call, the confused shrieks — first by my wife as she pushed a tiny human out of her body, then by me as I realized that this was real and she wasn’t just having bad contractions. She never told me to pull over. I never stopped driving. I made a left onto an immensely busy intersection and can vividly remember glancing in my mirrors to make sure i was in the correct lane, and then glancing at my wife to see that her previously empty arms now held a very wet child.
I remember, uncomfortably, my initial instinct, that babies aren’t supposed to just slide out in the front seats of cars, and that therefore my daughter must be ill, or injured, or much worse. The excitement of meeting my daughter suddenly became the dread of wondering if I would have one, and the fear of the colorless weeks and months and years of pain at losing her. Those dire thoughts vanished instantly when I heard her cry, that triumphant declaration of a new life begun.
There are pieces of the memory that I enjoy sharing with others, little bits of liveliness that make for fun storytelling. The 911 operator with the heavy Pittsburgh accent imploring me to please just pull over for five minutes. The bus driver who stopped to yell at us for blocking the road before seeing the baby and immediately offering to help. The specific way the security guard at the E.R. said “Oh, shit, oh my god” when I walked in and said my wife had just somehow given birth by herself in the car.
Others I save for myself, little secrets that I can choose to deploy any number of years later, perhaps when my daughter is in need of support and peppering something like that in would make her feel more seen, more loved.
But the dark thoughts are there, too. Those I keep to myself, save for the broader themes. Sometimes I catch myself wondering if it really happened, or if the past eight months have been some sort of delusion — a fugue state to protect my brain from the recognition of tragedy. In those moments, the car acts as a totem to ground me with my memories. The way the street lights kept illuminating the black interior in waves so I could sneak glimpses of my daughter as my wife unraveled the umbilical cord from her neck. The impossibly tiny hands of a newborn fumbling around my wife’s cardigan while the operator tried to calm me down. Sometimes I wonder if the need to have tangible proof of life is the main driver in my newfound attachment to the family vehicle.
I don’t think it’s that, though. Parenthood is primarily about accumulation. It’s an accumulation of experiences and memories, some of which are tied to very tangible things. A swingset that your kids played on that sits and rusts in the backyard even after they’ve gone to college. Paintings and drawings that progress in skill (or at least legibility) with time, most of which are disposed within hours or days of receiving them. Discussions and lessons about the world, about our own autonomy, about the paths we want to strive for – you gather these things with your lived experiences, you distribute them to your children, and in turn you accumulate not just your own knowledge but the lessons learned from imparting wisdom successfully or unsuccessfully. It’s vital, but so much of it feels so fleeting. Almost all of it gets thrown away.
This disposability is why we keep talking about buying the Highlander at the end of its lease. In financial terms, that’s an immensely dumb idea. Purchasing a car out of a lease is the least practical way to buy a car, and the Highlander is not exactly cheap. But the thought of losing something that’s now accumulated so much memory and importance — the idea that I would no longer be able to look to my right at a stoplight and disappear in bliss for a moment, or would lose the occasional belly laugh from my wife in the passenger seat as she recalls, in detailed charades, how she reached down and pulled our daughter out. When so much of parenthood is intangible or disposable accumulation, it feels irresponsible to let go of one of the few things that is not only reminiscent of something beautiful but also extremely practical for a family of five.
The lease expires in July of 2022, and we’re meant to turn the Highlander in for something new. Logan Penelope will be two and a half years old then, old enough to walk and to talk back and to make some decisions for herself — yogurt flavors, what to have for breakfast, what toys to play with, what shows to ask me to put on for her. She’ll even understand some of the rudimentary concepts of childbirth and being a baby (namely that she was one, and she came out of her mom), so when we drive down McArdle and turn onto the Liberty Bridge and I tell her “Logan, this is where you were born” she’ll get excited. She might laugh, or ask me who was there, or pretend that I’m joking around. She’ll even bring it up to strangers sometimes, not really understanding the concept but knowing that whenever it comes up, people get excited.
But she won’t remember. She won’t be able to picture the black textile of the front seat or the center console that her mother was leaning on for leverage while she punched the ceiling. She won’t be able to remember if it was black or blue or some other color entirely, or whether it was her mom’s car or her dad’s. Time erodes our connection to the experiences that shape us, so we spend what money we have foolishly to stave off that feeling of empty insignificance by giving ourselves something tangible to hold onto and remind us. I guess that makes me a car guy now.
Casey Taylor is a writer living and working in Pittsburgh. You can follow him on Twitter if you want to.