John Espinosa Nelson tells the story of the year he drove around with “F%*&ER” carved into his car door, and what he learned in the process.
A whole year! Couldn’t go anywhere without catching people’s double-takes and obliging demands for backstory. This is what my “get character or become one” philosophy is made of. I didn’t have the character to resist cheating on my girlfriend, so I became—for about a year—the jerk with “FUCKER!” carved into the door of his Jeep Cherokee.
At the time I had no idea what any of it meant, other than that I’d been caught and my girlfriend’s response was excessive and crazy. It took a while for me to get a clue. But from that year behind the wheel my biggest takeaway turned out to be a giveaway—and you’re reading it.
Cheating is one of those dummy-moves that convinces you it’s not a mistake: if you’re getting away with it, you’re good at it! Cheating is practically its own trophy and I had myself convinced I was smooth despite having no say whatsoever in luck or timing or chance. I believed I always had the right answer and left a clean communications trail. Also, I could account for my finances and work hours and had a ready menu of traffic-related alibis. The reality was I lacked the emotional intelligence, simple ethics, and courage to disclose my desire to leave the relationship. I dealt with it in the lamest way possible: making room for the other woman—for 15 months. Neither was aware of the other.
When it all came crashing down I didn’t see it as my fault, especially since it wasn’t the result of anything I’d forgotten or failed to prepare for. I’d been wronged by a meddling former roommate who had decided to rat me out for my own good, but all I saw were his actions, not mine.
In fact my “sorrow” was so devoid of any internal examination that it took me a year of humiliation and explaining “FUCKER!” for any of it to form a reflection. In that likeness I saw everything, just not all at once and not in one place. It was spread way out and spared no amount of awkwardness.
So there, beneath my window, was a well deserved caption left to the interpretation of anyone reading it. Pedestrians, parking attendants, panhandlers, all three Pep Boys, and dudes delivering pizzas; bicyclists, blondes and beggars; my neighbors, my friends, my mechanic, my family, and my boss; car-wash guys, cops, contractors, garage-sale crowds, students, hipsters, the girlfriends of my buddies, and anyone at fast-food windows #1 or #2—every damn day for a year.
She used a Wusthof boning knife, so her mark wasn’t going anywhere. Because she’d carved so deeply into the sheet metal, the managers at One Day Paint & Body and Maaco Collision Repair laughed out loud, rounding up other employees to come look at the trench I foolishly hoped coats of paint would fill and conceal. And when I say laugh out loud, I mean they were crying and wailing with pleasure.
Getting caught cheating cost me a lot more than just my girlfriend and the companionship of the woman with whom I was having the affair. I was forced to be alone, which remained uncomfortable until it wasn’t; at which time I vowed never to put myself through such disillusionment, guilt, and castigation again. If I never cheated on another woman as long as I lived, I decided, it would be because I deserved to feel better about myself. Any future girlfriend would benefit from that, but my self-respect would come first. I didn’t want to cheat or be a cheater: It was official—I deserved better than that title.
But as far as dealing with the car door, toward the end I became a real pro:
I was called to the Mondrian Hotel in West Hollywood for example, for a small writing job. Mid-day parking on Sunset is worse than pus oozing from an infected hole on your arm, so I’m happy that I’d been encouraged by the project’s producer to use the Fancy-Schmancy valet. I roll up, and up walks the debonair attendant to decorate my otherwise presentable Jeep with a $35 valet ticket I don’t have to pay for. Score!
I have stuff to carry, so when he opens the door for me I’m genuinely appreciative, but the look on his face is a mix of embarrassment and disbelief. He even points as if perhaps I’m unaware that my car says, “FUCKER!”
“Oh-yeah, that,” I say, reaching for my phone and sunglasses. “Don’t cheat on your girlfriend.”
His eyes got wide and he covered his mouth. Me, I kept going. The story behind the “engraving” had become a matter-of-fact measure with a daily role to play in my life. I had learned to own it so it would stop owning me. In so doing I gained even more than character: I earned back the respect of the girl who carved the word into my door.
She loves this story, by the way. Her name is Jill, and she and I are better friends today than we ever were lovers or partners.
As for my Jeep, the last time I told this story with my hand on its door was the day I traded it + some cash for a fixer upper classic muscle car. The buyer didn’t seem to care and was impressed with Jill’s work. ”Look at how big it is!” he marveled. “She took her time!”
“Don’t cheat on your girlfriend.”
I don’t want to come off all sanctimonious (not that I could with my track record), but I’m pleased to say I’ve never cheated on another woman. The lesson I learned remains applicable elsewhere in life too.
This post originally appeared at Where Excuses Go to Die and is an expansion of a story found in John Nelson’s memoir of the same name.