CSU garden
I took a trip to Australia in 2009, right after my son graduated from high school, to visit my daughter in Sydney. I brought my son along so he could visit his sister. I’d been divorced less than a year at the time, and as I look back now I see what sorry shape I must have been in to have put up with the part of me at the time that could not easily stand up for my own rights.

The few times in my life when I’ve borrowed a car, or borrowed anything for that matter, I’ve made sure I returned it in as good or better condition than it was when I borrowed it. I never thought much about it before this particular incident happened, but somewhere along the line this must have been drilled into my head.

You respect other people’s property as you would your own. You break something that belongs to someone else, you replace it. You ask someone before you use something, and if they say no, you respect that and don’t use it. Am I really so peculiar because this is how I try to govern my own life? Even as a kid I tried to remember to occasionally refill the gas tank in my father’s car when I used it. Sure, it cost me money I had very little of at the time. He never said I had to do that, and probably would not have asked me to if I never once did it, but it was just a nice thing to do. It was my way of saying, “Thanks, Dad.”

I had a friend at the time, when I made the trip to Australia, who was a nurse. She told me herself she used to take things home from the various hospitals at which she worked to supply her own house. “You know, bandages, peroxide, and stuff like that,” she said. I thought of the people I had known at work who felt free to take home office supplies. Not something I would do, but maybe not the worst thing someone could do, either. It was a kind of attitude that seemed a little off to me. A sort of “well, the hospital (or office, or friend) has more than I do, so I can take this stuff and they’ll never even notice.”

I asked her if she could drive my son and me to the airport and drop us off as we left for Australia. There’s no shuttle service from the little town I live in, and I didn’t want to leave my car at some hotel parking lot where we could catch the shuttle, or incur the expense of leaving it at the airport for three weeks, either. She would come and pick us up at our return, too. I asked if we could use my car since it was big enough to easily accommodate three people and all our stuff, too, which her car wasn’t. She said sure.

I asked two other people to keep an eye on my house for me while I was gone. I gave some money and a key to my son’s friend so he could mow the grass while I was away. I gave a key to another friend so she could drop by a couple of times and go through the house to check that everything was okay.

I filled the gas tank to the tippy top before we left. We drove to the airport, I said goodbye to my friend, handed her the keys to my car, and said, “If you need to borrow my car for some reason while I am gone, feel free. It’s insured.” I meant it was insured if she needed to drive it, like taking it home for me.

Close to the end of our stay in Australia, my son shared a text he’d gotten from his friend. “There’s a red car in the garage that’s been parked here the whole time you’ve been gone.” My car was tan. My friend had a red car. I was a little pissed, but it didn’t bother me. Mine was a relatively new Toyota Highlander Hybrid that had almost exactly 39,000 miles on it. I know because I had been debating whether I should take it in for its 40,000 mile service before, or after, my trip. A little red light would come on and remind me if I forgot, so I let it go.

My friend picked us up at the airport, as planned. I drove the car home. There was maybe enough gas in the tank to get us to my house. The red service light was on. When I put the suitcases in the back, there seemed to be some sand and a piece of something that looked like a broken brick I didn’t remember back there, too. There were 2,300 miles I didn’t drive on the car. In three weeks. I drive a lot; believe me, but that beat me by a long shot. No gas. “Really?” I thought. “You can fill it up a few times to drive 2,300 miles but you can’t return it to me with gas in the tank?” I didn’t say anything.

A couple of days later, after it had grown a couple of inches, I noticed a crack in the windshield on the passenger side. My friend got in the car to go somewhere with me. She pointed at the crack. “It’s insured, right?” she asked.

“The glass isn’t,” I said. She said nothing.

Later that week she showed me her back yard where she was laying some new paving stones. There were a few set in the dirt and many more piled up waiting to be set. She told me a friend had given her the stones. She told me the name of the town where she had gone to get the stones. It was a long drive. “I sent you an email to ask if I could use your car to pick up the stones, but I guess you didn’t get it in time before you left.” I had checked my email right before we left Australia. No note from her. I had checked my email after we came back. The same.

“I was amazed at how much your car could hold,” she said. “Those stones are so heavy, and it was full. I was surprised; the back-end didn’t even sag down.” No wonder there was sand in my car. Now I knew what the piece of broken brick was…a damaged paving stone.

The owner’s manual for the Toyota Highlander Hybrid specifically tells you not to overload the car. It tells you not to treat it as the usual off-road SUV either, but to be more careful. That’s because the battery system for the car is underneath the back seat in the middle of the car. It’s fine to tow a heavy trailer (my car had a hitch), but you don’t want that battery to hit anything.

A load of paving stones surely weighted it down in a way that was warned against. I thought if the back-end had sagged down, that would not have made any difference. She probably would have driven it anyway. I was grateful the shocks in the car weren’t that old. I hadn’t stressed the car with anything more than highway driving in the time I had owned it.

“I impressed a lot of people driving that car,” she said. “They wanted to know where I’d gotten such a nice one. I told them I was just lucky.”

I never did confront her with how I felt about what I saw as the abuse of my car. I had, after all, told her she could use it “if she needed to.” I had told her it “was insured.” I never meant 24/7-for-three-weeks-so-you-could-drive-to-who-knows-where-and-back a zillion times, get it filthy, crack the un-insured windshield, overload it by pretending it’s a truck, and use up all its gas. Give some people an inch and they take a mile, no? So whose fault is that? Lesson for Chris, period.

No, she isn’t my friend any more. But it did take me a good year of many other things I felt were abuses of me, my confidences, and my friendship before I drew the line. It took me thirty years to get out of my marriage. It only took me two to drop the relationship with my supposed friend. I thought that was pretty good. “Progress, not perfection,” as they say.