A lifetime ago, when I lived in Boston, the object of my affection purchased a sleek, black Volkswagen Jetta. He was leading a grownup life that involved having a job, and so he could afford things like cars and restaurant meals. We rode all over New England in that car, and home to Michigan to see our families, listening obsessively to one favorite tape after another: Aretha Franklin, Talking Heads, Sinead O’Connor, and Tracy Chapman. One day he called and told me that the car was in the shop, having ground to a smoky, noisy halt somewhere in Cambridge. It turned out that the whole “change your oil” thing was not simply a wive’s tale. He had not so much as pulled out the dipstick in the entire first year of ownership.
I feel a strange, strong kinship with that shiny black car. On the outside I am still fairly new; the gray in my hair is covered, I am good with brushes, pots and sticks of color, and I know how to dress in such a way that I look more aging hipster than Lane Bryant poster child. It takes a lot to push me past caring if my brows are neat and my frizz is smooth and shiny.
Beneath it all, in my chassis or wherever it is that my oil is meant to be replaced periodically, there is trouble. I am getting sick; my glands are swelling so that the cradling of a phone receiver between cheek and shoulder is agonizing. My head is throbbing, there are small, cruel men with ice picks behind my eyes, and my ears alternate between a full, blocked sensation and a sharp, painful popping. I sound like Tallulah Bankhead, and something, or someone is tickling the back of my throat.
There is also a zit growing slightly South and East of my mouth. It’s been a while, but I know that feeling of a subterranean enemy gaining momentum, making a tender bump that is currently my secret, but which will suddenly become a hideous, red beacon. It can be covered up, but no one is ever fooled; a gigantic pimple with concealer on it is clearly a gigantic pimple with concealer on it, throbbing evilly beneath the pathetic veil of spackle.
Finally, there are the tics. I get them when I’m tired or stressed, those uncontrollable jumps beneath my right eye and near the left side of my nose. They feel like a circus act, a humiliating, glaring anomaly that makes people want to look away in pity. I put my finger firmly on the pulsing flesh, willing it to Just Calm Down, but it never works. I am resigned to being a freak show of fatigue and stress, a gravel-voiced virago with a gigantic boil near her mouth and at least two rogue nerves contorting her face into a jumping, distracting freak show.
I should have changed the oil. I can keep things running with Nyquil, early bedtime, and a thick smudge of Proactiv, but I have affixed a sticker to the windshield in my brain, reminding me to check every three months, and take care of things before I am a mess of grinding gears and ominous billows of smoke. All the Simonizing in the world isn’t worth a warm pitcher of spit if you don’t change the oil.