My – and everyone’s – favorite line from Risky Business is when Curtis Armstrong’s character, Miles, is trying to convince a young Tom Cruise, i.e. Joel, to abandon his inhibitions, discard his fear: “Joel, you wanna know something? Every now and then say, “What the fuck.” What the fuck” gives you freedom. Freedom brings opportunity. Opportunity makes your future.” Joel, a model student and son, is reluctant. What will happen when he says, ‘What the fuck,’ when he chooses to be adventurous rather than the trait’s ugly and unexciting stepsister, tame?
And so it goes: with every day there is a choice to be made; and with every day in a new place, that choice is often one of these two extremes. So yesterday, when I was confronted with the choice of studying for the three exams I have this coming week (tame) or renting a car to drive to a place called Durbanville to interview a neo-shaman from a group called The Southern White Tribe (adventurous), I chose the latter; I said “What the fuck” all day.
It started with the rental car. I vacillated between whether I should drive the rental car five minutes down the main road, and whether my Connecticut College friend should walk to my house and drive the car. I know how to drive, of course, but the hesitation was about driving on the left side of the road, something I had never done before. “What the fuck,” I said, and I boldly entered the vehicle.
And then, within two mere minutes of being in the rental car, I hit something . . . with the rental car. And I didn’t know what I hit. I still don’t. All I know is that I heard a noise, and then I heard the rest of the noises of the main road, amplified. I heard honking, yelling, alarms, sirens. And then, I imagined being arrested for a hit-and-run. I saw myself stalked and killed for destroying someone else’s car. I watched the police come down the main road with batons and guns and machetes, on the hunt for the idiot American who said “what the fuck” at the wrong time. Worse, even, I scripted the phone call home, the speech about paying for the rental car, and the other car, and my bail money. “I love you, Mom, but I’m not coming home in November.”
So, I called my Connecticut College friend: “You have to come now. I am pulled over in front of Shop Rite. I hit something with the car, you need to come now. Run.”
Insert heart palpitations.
Two minutes later: “Where are you. You need to come now. Run. Run faster, get here now. I am not fucking kidding.”
Insert heart palpitations.
I could barely get out of the car to assess the damage. Actually, I didn’t get out of the car to assess the damage at all; I was paralyzed by these images of my life ending in various ways.
And then, I saw my Connecticut College friend, covered in sweat, wearing clunky rain boots in the dry Cape Town atmosphere. I waved, because I was afraid she wouldn’t recognize me (I was wearing glasses). She sprinted over and I asked, “Can I get out of the car? Is it clear?”
She responded with an emphatic, “What the fuck Megan, is this what you’re talking about?” There was absolutely nothing wrong with the car. The retractable mirror had retracted inwards, and there were traces of black scuffing on the white exterior. “I can literally scratch this off with my finger. Look, you can’t see anything.”
Ok, driving a rental car isn’t adventurous. It isn’t having a house party, or having sex with a call girl on a train, or starting a risky business. But then, we actually had to take the damn thing to Durbanville to interview the neo-shaman. (I didn’t drive).
On the way, nothing looked familiar. We take comfort in the things that seem familiar, of course. Most lakes remind me of the lake I spent ten summers on at Camp Merrowvista. When I am in a new place, I see the faces of people I think I know. A different New England highway reminds me of the ones I have driven before. These things jog our memories, incite some kind of connection, and help us feel comfortable. But this new road, in this new city, in this new country, on this new continent, was unfamiliar.
It was like being a child again, when everything was new. You have no memory to recall anything, so your mind can’t make any kind of connections. You are afraid, and inquisitive. In this regard, choosing to revert back to this child-like consciousness is adventurous; you are effectively displacing yourself from what you know and rebirthing yourself in an unfamiliar world. It is unnerving, and scary, and rousing.
We made it to the neo-shaman who lived in a way that was nothing less than admirable: one moment at a time; taking – what he considers – the great truths from every religion; understanding origin; celebrations with family. He gave some ironic advice: “If you think you are going to get in the car in the morning and get into a car accident, then you will get in the car and get into a car accident.”
After our pseudo-enlightenment, we started the journey back to Cape Town, but the journey was cut short because the rental car stopped working. It was getting dark.
We called the rental car company’s phone number. No answer.
We called the rental car company’s emergency towing number. No answer.
We called the South African version of triple A. “You don’t have a membership? Sorry, we can’t help you.”
Zach, from Wash U. left to try to find a gas station. Frances and I stayed in the car. We watched groups of men come and go, wary of their intentions, watching every movement. I saw newspaper headlines of every brutal South African reality: murder; rape; car-jacking. In this moment, I felt like a child again, with little idea of what to do. It was no longer an adventure, though.
A tow truck. A tow truck, and Zach is in it! But it is going to be expensive. “This is an emergency. This is why parents give us emergency credit cards. This is okay. I don’t care how expensive it is, this is no longer safe.”
And then we met Lindley, our guardian angel, who changed the price from R850 to R200, who towed our rental car, who fixed our rental car, and who gave us his phone number so that we could call him when we were home safe. He took us to a gas station in a place called “Brooklyn,” a comfortable name, a safe connotation, a place with a name I respond to with nothing but love. He acted like a parent, the person I miss the most, and the person with unconditional love, even if you hit something with a rental car.
“What the fuck, let’s get a rental car in South Africa,” or “what the fuck, let’s have a house party and see what happens” is precarious, at best; but these fears of displacement, of discomfort, cannot paralyze a person in fear, or in tameness. So when I got back to my familiar suburb, I sat with my familiar friends from Connecticut College to plan a road trip – via rental car –to Namibia for eight days.
“What the fuck.”