Essay: A Midlife Crisis Causes This Writer to Become Unspooled

Vandalism or forgetfulness, officials surely weren’t going to let this go.
Illustration by Faye Rogers

I didn’t get my midlife crisis car the traditional way: No race to the car dealership before the clock struck midnight on my 50th birthday or other rite of passage. Instead, I was in the parking lot at South Coast Plaza when I ran my 7-year-old Saturn into a light pole. Blame the slick Southern California rain.

So slow was the skid into the pole’s cement skirt that the only things bruised were my dignity and the car’s front bumper. Driving home, I made it as far as Culver on the 405, limping off the freeway and onto Michelson where Bob (I name my cars) gasped his last steamy breath. Turned out the gentle impact had hit the radiator’s sweet spot, cracking it beyond repair.

The insurance guy called it a total loss.

I called it an act of God.

I’d grown tired of my practical ride and longed for something bolder, more glamorous, more wind-in-your-hair wild. My husband, Michael, didn’t share my dream, considering Saturn Bob a trusted, sturdy vehicle for carting around groceries and aging parents. Not sure I’d have ever talked him into it if it hadn’t been for that lucky skid outside of Nordstrom. Thank you, Lord.

One month later, with insurance money in hand, I practically ran to the Ford dealership and put a down payment on my new baby: a candy-apple red California dreamin’ Mustang GT. I named her Brandi, punctuated with a heart over the i.

Michael worried the red color would be too conspicuous.

“I want it to be eye-catching.”

“But you don’t want to catch the eye of the cops,” he said.

A risk I was willing to take.

I doted over that car—still do—keeping her bathed, brushed off, and protected from the elements by tucking her safely in the garage at night. Imagine my panic, then, when Michael said Brandi would have to be parked on the driveway while the new garage floor was being installed for an entire week.

But … but … what about roaming car thieves?

Low-flying birds?

Morning dew?

That’s when we got the industrial- strength car cover, contoured for a snug fit and featuring a locking mechanism to use as theft protection while parked on the mean streets of Lake Forest.

I quickly got into the routine of “putting on Brandi’s PJs” and locking her down for the night. In the morning, I’d roll back the cover, drop it in a heap just inside the front door for Michael to refold (bless him), and speed off to work, a mere 15-minute surface-streets commute to Laguna Niguel.

On the third morning, I noticed with no small concern that the heavy canvas was bending my car’s cute little antenna affixed to her right back flank, causing the tapered top to list left. Sure, it only took a few hours out in the open air for it to be upright again, but with repeated pressure it might stay that way forever.

That night after work I stood in the driveway with Brandi and considered the problem. What to do? Ah-ha! I ran inside, grabbed a roll of paper towels, and slipped it over the rod like a sheath. Perfect! Now the cover rested on top of the roll, not the antenna’s delicate rubber tip.

By then the garage floor was almost done, and I looked forward to not having to do the twice-a-day calisthenics of getting that heavy cover on and off. I was in a bit of a hurry that final morning. “One last time!” I thought as I wrestled the thing off and left it in a vanquished heap inside the front door.

it might have been my imagination, but Mother Nature seemed to celebrate with me. The waking sun winked cheerily off the corner Carl’s Jr. marquee, and the greenbelts along Alicia Parkway looked particularly fetching as the early morning rays shone through the planned community’s many trees. I arrived at my workplace in record time, well before I was able to finish my radio duet with Katy Perry.

I climbed out of my ride and walked toward my office, casting a loving glance back. Then I gasped in surprise. The paper towel roll over Brandi’s antenna was now an empty spool. I must’ve forgotten to take it off before I left the house.

Heat suffused my body as I realized in horror that the paper towels streamed behind me on my way into work. I spun around, scanning the parking lot for any paper trails—literally—but there were none, only other cars driving in to fill the lot as usual.

I grabbed the stripped roll, tossed it into the trash, and called my husband.

“Hey,” he said groggily. It was still early.

I filled him in, then: “Go look outside and see if you see anything.”

“I’m sure it’s fine,” he soothed, staying calm so I would do the same, a trick he’s tried on me before with only marginal success.

“Honey, no! That roll was nearly full!” I protested. An image flashed in my brain of

a cop car, lights flashing, slowly following the giant white ribbon back to our house. “Can you just go outside and take a quick look? Please? Before the police arrive?”

“I’m already out the door,” he said. “What streets did you take?”

Fifteen minutes later he called back. “You’re fine. I traced your route in the truck and didn’t see any cops or confetti.”

But that didn’t make any sense. “Then where did the paper towels go? Do you think someone saw what was happening and picked them up?”

“Maybe,” he said. “I’m going back to bed.”

All that long day I waited for the call from the litterbug division of the police department, but none came. I relaxed a little. At 4 p.m. sharp, I packed my stuff to head home.

Security stopped me on my way out. “Don’t you drive a Mustang?” asked the nice man with a gun.

I froze, blocking the rest of the outgoing workers. The guard pulled me aside. I recognized him as one I’d shared many morning greetings and casual banter with over the years.

“Yes,” I said and nothing more.

He nodded. “Thought that was you.”

Then it all became clear: The empty spool, the missing paper trail, my driving to distraction while singing with Katy P. Those runaway paper towels must have flown off somewhere in the great expanse of government parking lot, setting off all sorts of alarms and surveillance cameras. This, then, was the moment when the girl who never got in trouble was going to get handcuffed and hauled away for causing a commotion on federal land. I wanted to cry.

The guard checked a few more ID badges of folks entering the building then turned his attention back to me. “My daughter’s looking to buy a used one,” he said. “You’re happy with it?”

The Mustang! He was talking about my Mustang. I nearly toppled over with relief. 

“Yes, love it, very fun ride—not the best gas mileage, though, that’s the only downside. Something she may want to consider.” I smiled, keeping up calm appearances.

“Thanks,” he said. “I’ll let her know. Have a good evening.”

“You, too.”

I forced myself to leisurely walk out the door and across the parking lot, not daring to take a breath until I was safely in my beloved car, doors locked, radio off.

We never did find out what happened to those paper towels. No cellphone videos surfaced, no eyewitness accounts reported to the local news.

Brandi and I got away with it.

After all, this happened more than four years ago, so surely I’ve exceeded the statute of limitations for TP-ing a city street or federal property.

Or have I?

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