When Neal turned sixteen he took, and passed Driver’s Ed, and his parents gave him a car. It was a shiny four-year-old black Acura Integra. They were as pleased as Neal to have their responsible son mobile for it meant an end to their chauffeur responsibilities. Neal lavished attention on the car which he named Negra Integra. Every weekend, even in Houston’s hot, humid, 100-degree summer weather, he meticulously washed and polished the exterior and vacuumed the interior with its spiffy black leather seats. He used Glue-Gon to remove the past owner’s parking permits, including an A&M University on-campus permit from the front and back windows. He, likewise, removed a miscellaneous of stickers from the bumpers. Neal’s parents observed to each other, with a slight tinge of concern,
“Neal gives the impression of loving Negra Integra, perhaps even more than his girl-friend Isabella. Before we gave him the car they seemed devoted now, who knows?”
Both Neal and Isabella were good students set to graduate from high school in the top ten percent. Their college applications netted them several offers, including those from the two local rival universities: Texas A&M (Agriculture & Minerals), College Station and UT (University of Texas), Austin. The intense rivalry between maroon clad A&M students and burnt-orange sporting UT students slowly invaded their relationship as they evaluated options. The problem was that Neal favored UT with its urban campus flanked by the Texas State capital while Isabella favored A&M with its more rural setting at College Station. The two had lengthy discussions about their college choice and, foolishly, let the dialogue gradually drive them apart. In anger, Isabella chose A&M and Neal UT. They broke up. Neal poured his remorse into lavishing more attention on Negra Integra. While he polished and cleaned he told the car his most unhappy regrets.
After his first session at UT for rush week Neal drove home and announced to his parents,
“Despite all the attention that I’ve given Negra Integra I now find that the car doesn’t like me!”
They looked at him with astonishment, both wondering what University was already doing to his mind,
“What do you mean?” inquired his mother, “Cars don’t have feelings and even if they did, how could they express this?”
“I dunno,” replied Neal, “all’s I know is that I get negative vibes. I know that Negra Integra dislikes me.” He went on to explain, “It’s like when you take out a girl who doesn’t like you, the feeling manifests itself without words.”
Neal’s parents nodded sagely, even though they didn’t understand what he meant.
For his drive back to Austin Neal turned on the Acura’s GPS (Global Positioning System). He didn’t need guidance for he knew the route; take I10 west and turn right onto 71 at Columbus. However, he also knew that the turn onto 71 was easy to miss and hoped that the GPS would ensure that he didn’t do so. He disregarded the UPS instruction to turn north at the Sam Houston toll road, Houston’s first outer ring road, and again at Addick’s dam. After passing Addick’s dam he began to worry and wondered if the GPS sensed traffic congestion on I10 west and was attempting to circumvent it by taking him to 290 west; so, when it suggested that he turn north on the outer loop he complied. When he came to 290 west the GPS instructed him to turn west. Neal felt that his suspicions were confirmed. However, just before Brenham the GPS instructed at turn north onto Highway 6 to College Station. Neal turned off the GPS.
When he called home that evening he told his parents,
“Either the GPS is malfunctioning or “that car” wants to return to A&M and its first owner. Now I have proof.” he said “That car’s dislike is morphing into hatred.”
Neal’s Dad offered a more probable explanation. Perhaps the previous owner, a student at A&M had the destination pre-set and Neal had mistakenly pressed the wrong button instructing the car that he wished to go to College Station. Neal was sure that this had not been so but conceded the possibility. During his next visit to Houston at Thanksgiving, Neal’s Dad took the car in for a check-up and annual safety inspection. The mechanic checked the GPS which he announced to be in perfect working order with no pre-set destinations. The family put the previous mal-function to be “one of life’s little mysteries.” Neal resolutely maintained the mystery to be a symptom of a simple fact, as he put it,
“That car detests me.”
Behind his back, Neal’s parents observed that it was clear that Neal didn’t have the same feelings toward his car which he now referred to as “that car” rather than “Negra Integra.”
After Thanksgiving Neal’s drive back to Austin was thwarted with problems, for he was picked up for speeding at both Columbus and Bastrop. He called his parents and told them that he was sure, nay certain, that he had NOT been speeding.
“I had my eyes on the speedometer. I’m sure.” He said.
Neal’s parents were not happy especially when Neal told them that he knew about holiday speed traps and had his eye on his speedometer the entire drive, he blamed “that car.” When he returned to Houston for Christmas his father again took the Acura in for an oil change and checkup. The mechanic reported the speedometer to be working perfectly.
In the spring Neal’s architecture class scheduled a visit to the Bush Presidential Library in College Station. Neal drove, 290 east, then 21 north east, in all, a less than two-hour drive. They approached the Library along the sweeping Barbara Bush Drive, and spent the rest of the day sketching and admiring the building. The group re-convened to return to Austin at a Starbucks close to the A&M quad. To his horror Neal’s car wouldn’t start. The general consensus was a failed battery although Neal knew better, the car was home and didn’t want to leave. He wisely did not share his diagnosis with his fellow students. They hooked up jumper cables with no avail bringing them to the collective conclusion that the problem was the starter motor. They discussed options and decided that Neal’s passengers should hitch rides with other cars while Neal called for a tow. He told them that he would have the car taken back to Houston, where he would stay with his parents, hopefully being able to drive back the next day.
Neal went into the Starbucks to wait for his tow. He noticed that one of the baristas looked like Isabella. When she turned he realized that she was Isabella. Suddenly Neal was swamped in suffocating emotion, his hands shook. He put them on his lap. When she saw him, she left the serving counter and slipped into a chair at his table.
“Missed ya.” she said.
Neal explained about his car. It was a balmy evening and Isabella said that her shift was over so they decided to wait in the car. She playfully suggested that Neal give it one more try, he turned the ignition and it started without hesitation.