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Sunday journal

Kicking the tires, and liking it

Published May 15, 2005

For the most part, my husband and I understand that marriage is a small boat, and, as the years go by, we have learned not to rock it. He asks, "Everything okay?" I answer, "Sure. No problem." But one afternoon, in a fit of mild boredom, I decided to treat the next answer I gave him like something of actual import. Oddly enough, his question turned out to be, "So, what kind of car would you like to drive?"

I have to tell you that I'm a 46-year-old woman who has spent her entire motoring career behind the wheels of vehicles some man thought she ought to be driving. It started with one of my father's hand-me-downs, a faded blue Datsun 1200, which I drove with indifference during my last years of college and on into my first teaching job. In the back of my mind, I kept thinking the old rattletrap would die, and then I'd buy something I really wanted.

Before that could happen, I married a man with strong opinions about things like engine reliability, aerodynamics and fuel economy. He has always thought my car should say certain things about me, although we've never agreed on what those things should be. Just before the Datsun gave up the ghost, he bought me a Volkswagen Rabbit. Ten years ago, with the kids getting bigger, I was installed in a Ford Taurus station wagon. Now it was time for a new car, so his question was big, one that could change everything. "I'll have to think about it," I said.

To my surprise, he said he'd wait. In the meantime, he took me to see Audi A4s and Volkswagen Passats. I understood I was supposed to thrill at their understated elegance, the solid slam of their doors, those side air bags and high crash-test ratings. Intellectually, I could appreciate his good taste and concern for quality, his wish to see his family safe and pampered. But I remained unmoved and undecided.

I found myself squinting at every car that passed on the freeway, trying to figure out what it was I didn't like about them. Some had hysterically pitched windshields, or back ends that were all waggling and rude, like the wrong kind of woman in a thong bikini. The cars I was seeing had all the appeal of empty aluminum cans.

But I remembered those classy Karmann Ghias and Mercedes 450 SLs I'd yearned for back in my dim and ill-spent youth. Surely, there was something out there now, maybe even in my price range, that expressed my current world view. One day, while the kids were in school, I got into my station wagon and headed to our town's auto row. I felt shifty as a petty criminal dreaming up a scheme, because as soon as I drove by the Ford dealership, the notion of driving a muscly American car suddenly began to appeal to me. I wanted to know what it would feel like to drive something named after a swift or mythical beast - Mustang, Viper, Firebird, Impala - or warm seaside places like Daytona, Riviera, LeMans, Malibu. I knew then I had gone someplace I was not supposed to be, the wrong side of the road, the other side of the tracks.

Then I saw it: a white Chrysler Sebring convertible with a black ragtop. It's more ferryboat than sports car, built for leisurely adventure, a luxurious commute. It's a car designed for the moment you tilt your chin to the sun and let fly a laugh. With this car, I'd have to pay serious attention to vista points and scenic highways. I'd have to keep scarves and little sweaters and sunscreen handy. Without a solid roof and layers of respectability to hide behind, I'd have to be prepared for people looking at me, to have children whose mom doesn't drive a station wagon anymore.

Well, of course my husband cringed when I told him about the Sebring, but this time I didn't laugh and make like I didn't really know what I was talking about. Even if I ended up in a dreaded minivan, I decided to act like a woman who drives a convertible, someone who's learned that knowing what you want is half of who you are.

Suddenly, I could see myself behind the wheel with the top down, my hair in a big scarf, Jackie-O sunglasses obscuring the lines around my eyes. It's a bright warm afternoon, of course, and there's a bossa nova just loud enough on the stereo. I'm on my way to someplace interesting, and I have a husband sitting next to me who doesn't quite know who I am anymore. But he wants to know, and he's asking.

Epilogue: I'm now driving a Toyota Matrix. My Matrix is as loaded as a Matrix can be with a five-disc CD changer and a sunroof, and the dashboard looks very sporty and glows like a rocket ship or something.

- Susan Bono is a freelance writer in Petaluma, Calif.

[Last modified May 12, 2005, 10:14:04]

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