My future wife, Silka, and I met in Tokyo, a city with perhaps the best mass transit system in the world. Trains, buses, subways and taxis crisscrossed the vast, far-flung metropolis. We never drove those first winter months of our romance.
That summer, I flew with Silka back to her native Germany to meet her parents for the first time. She had told me stories of her mother, a fierce and beautiful woman named Gundi who was matriarch of her clan of four children, and already, in her late 40s, a grandmother.
Gundi picked us up in her baby-blue Porsche Carrera Cabriolet with the top down and exploded out of the Düsseldorf airport, maneuvering like a stuntwoman through dense traffic, cutting off other drivers, passing on the outside, generally making like Niki Lauda as she took us out of the airport and over the Rheinkniebrücke, the spectacular suspension bridge that spans the Rhine.
She was a dashing sight, this lovely, blond woman with red headscarf trailing as she drove her Porsche with a carefree confidence. She always seemed in control, weaving through this exotic (to me anyway) German city. I cowered, at one point closing my eyes as she swung around an impossibly tight turn and seemed to be heading straight for oncoming traffic before darting back into her lane. Despite the adrenaline rush, I never for a moment felt in real danger. This woman could handle a sports car.
It is one of those truisms, that when you meet the mother of your girlfriend or fiancée, you are meeting some possible future version of your lover. What I realized, as Gundi swerved out of the way of an oncoming truck and sped past a line of stalled traffic, was that this woman, this powerful, aggressive, confident woman, was a badass. And if that was what Silka would become, then that was not only fine with me, but an exciting prospect. Based on that drive—Gundi was in a hurry to get to an antiques auction on the Königsallee before it began—I saw one possibility of what our life would be like. It might be dangerous, edgy, but also glamorous and undeniably exciting. I was hooked.
We now live in Pacific Palisades, California, the opposite of Tokyo in that now we need to drive to get anywhere. My wife is the same age Gundi was when I first met her, and she drives with a similar bravado, occasionally terrifying our daughters and me. While Silka has gotten a couple of speeding tickets, she’s never been in an accident, and she swears her quick reflexes have probably gotten her out of a couple. And when we’re running late, to a parents’ night at our daughters’ schools or a dinner reservation, there is no one I would rather have behind the wheel than the daughter of that dashing, Porsche-driving Gundi.
Cars. They’re a microcosm of family life. A four-doored home on wheels. And, as this series of essays reveals, a little magical. Cars provide a window to the past and the future. They can shift gears to make you feel 20 years younger or add a touch of gray. They can wipe away emotional scars, bring us closer together or transport us somewhere else. We asked writers to take a look in their rearview mirror and recall a car ride that impacted the way they look at life, love and the pursuit of happiness.
Karl Taro Greenfeld has written eight books, including The Subprimes. His award-winning stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, The Paris Review, The Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories.