Sunday, September 22, 2013

Putting on the Brakes, Or, Braking Bad(ly)

A week ago today, I was stopped at a red light. Although I run through them all too frequently, it's actually one of the few times in life I don't mind stopping, because it gives me a few seconds to check my phone, pull something out of my purse, pluck a stray hair, apply lip gloss, etc. It's a minor rest, a brief respite from the curb-swerving rowdy ride I get in my little tin can of a subcompact car.

If my car were a dog, it would be a toy fox terrier. Or a husky puppy. Tiny but lively.

At this red light, somewhere in Los Angeles or West Hollywood or Beverly Hills, my right foot was sitting comfortably on the brake pedal, until something let all the air out, my foot depressing farther down, the pedal sinking all the way to the floor. I let up my foot a little, and my car creeped forward. It was as though there had been a balloon between my foot and the floor, and an undetectable pinprick had deflated it.

But then the light changed from red to green and my attention turned from brake to gas, not needing to stop again - not really stop, only pause or slow - until some time later.

When I did need to stop again, I pivoted my foot into its usual position, depressing the brake, but the car did not stop. It barely slowed. I kept pressing. I floored it until it finally stopped, though I wondered whether its eventual lack of movement was more attributable to a lack of acceleration rather than anything actually stopping it from moving.

This continued for a couple of days, while I considered science and physics of which I have no real grasp. Could I blame the drop in ambient temperature? A near-empty fuel tank? Natural aging of the vehicle which, at over two and a half years old, has clocked in over 30,000 miles?

I'm normally good at focusing on the road and ignoring the rumble of the engine, the roar of the transmission, the vibration of the chassis at high speeds while the windows are rolled down, but given the distinct mechanical and functional malady at hand, I began to play close attention as to how long it took me now to slow down and come to a full and complete stop, and what it felt like when I stopped and started up again. Oddly, my car was jostling side to side. Wheels screeched if I had to stop short even remotely.

Given my pace in life, you would think I would be more concerned with how quickly my car can accelerate rather than decelerate or stop altogether, but by God, agility is key while driving. You have to be able to stop, start, turn, switch, back up, and go, as necessary. Whatever the road dictates. Whatever the journey necessitates. Stopping is just as essential as starting up. You, in good conscience, can't drive a car that you're not confident you can stop.

And you can't drive around with your right hand wrapped around the emergency brake, trigger thumb ready to depress the button if the foot is of no use.

I brought my ride into the shop, wondering what I'd done to my brake pads all those times I'd stopped short and had nearly given the occasional passenger a heart attack. My service rep seemed puzzled, but returned after an inspection with a diagnosis: dirty brake fluid line and an expanded cap. They would flush out the line, replace the cab, and everything would be fine again. They drove around my car and it felt fine to them.

Only, when I picked up my car the next day, it wasn't fine. It wasn't stopping. I had to put the pedal quite unfavorably to the metal to even slow down. The same as when I brought it in.

Was I wrong? Had my leg changed? Had my foot changed?

I waited another day and a half until I couldn't take it anymore. I was a nervous wreck. For the first time  since I was a newbie teenage driver, I was scared to be on the road. I didn't have complete control of the vehicle. And although I could manage with this new set of movements and manipulations necessary to operate this heavy machinery, I had absolutely no control over my environment: the other drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians, dogs, squirrels, sparrows, trash flinging themselves into my line of fire.

Sometimes, you have to stop. Because of you. Because of others. Because of wind. Because of life.

I called the service station yesterday with an inquisition as to what exactly they checked, and why exactly I couldn't stop. I pleaded with them to take me back, to have another look, to give us another chance. I try not to cause trouble. I try to do what I'm told. I try to handle rejection like a pro. But I was terrified, and would rather not drive at all than drive this steel death trap around the city, endangering myself and all those around me.

My service rep acquiesced, and let me return my car for another examination today. After all of my protesting, he drove my car himself, disappearing for a while, and then returning with a new diagnosis: I needed a new master brake cylinder. It would take a week for the replacement part to arrive. They would cover my replacement rental for that week.

"I shouldn't just drive it until it comes in?" I asked, thinking about that entire week I'd already driven that disobedient beast around, knuckles white and leg extending fully, toes to the floor.

"No."

"It's that unsafe to drive?"

"Uh, yes."

Oh, thank God.

I remember once I wasn't feeling so good, and I went to the doctor, and she diagnosed me with something minor, giving me antibiotics for treatment. It got a little better and then it didn't. I let it go for a while and then returned to another doctor, asking for a complete workup. She resisted at first, saying she'd know if I had something else, she'd be able to tell. But I insisted on a battery of tests for all sorts of things, and one of them came back positive, for something more severe, but entirely treatable and curable. The whole ordeal lasted a month, because of my self-doubt, trust in authority, and reliance on the system. But who knows a body better than she who lives in it? And who knows a car better than she who drives in it, as an extension of her own body?

I am not a hypochondriac. I am not a neurotic. I am not a worrywart. (And therefore I am not my mother. Not yet, anyway.)

I can trust myself.
I can ask.
I can insist.

And I know now: I need to be able to stop.

Sometimes.

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