Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Windowshoppers

It is morning. I am behind the wheel. Bill is jabbering away in the passenger seat. Soporific Shreeti is floating in the back seat, daydreaming. We are different species brought together by the abracadabra of evolution. So different, yet so compatible. Shreeti is responsible for laughing at my jokes. Bill is responsible for being interested in what I say. And I am responsible for talking when there is silence. My role is that of a radio.

Today we are going to shop like women. Look without buying, turn our nose up at merchandise, sneer at prices. We are looking for a new wheeled vehicle that will make Bill feel like Superman. I am amused by the sense of validation and masculinity that men seem to derive from engines, which they always address in the feminine. A car is not an object but a mistress, a sinewy Amazon. It is always “she” who is steady, rapid, furious, purring or ill. It seems to me that a man sees in a car the perfected version of his flawed female, whose workings he has not yet succeeded to comprehend. A car is a female under control, a subdued beast, an elegant servant. It amuses me how sometimes this simplified version suffices. But how could I possibly understand? I am one of the complicated ones.

Atlanta is one of the settings of my nightmares. Too many cars, too many lanes, too many exits. It is the only place where I find it compulsory to use all my mirrors at once, plus turn my head for certainty. Atlanta traffic is like a massacre in which one plunges voluntarily, headfirst. A bungee jump with a dubious cord. I consider myself lucky whenever I emerge alive and manage to save the crew. It makes me feel like a hero.

Don’t forget the emergency brake, I tell myself as we stop into the driveway. Finally, we are at the owner’s residence. I swiftly evaluate the situation. Shreeti has the unique ability to become a piece of luggage when she falls asleep. Presently her presence in the universe is reduced to an immobile lump of flesh in the back seat. We leave her in the car, lock her in, slam the doors. She does not even twitch.

His name is Fred. He has a Humpty Dumpty quality as he descends to meet us. The car sparkles with rain drops. It is definitely a “she.” Coquettish and chic, she invites us for a test drive. I take the passenger seat, Fred snakes into the back and Bill, Bill is king of the world. The car purrs, like a kitten. Or like a tigress? A few turns, a little speed, she feels heavy on the road and safe, like a cocoon. Because of the wide dashboard it feels as if we are taking up the entire road. The other cars retreat to the shoulder in deference. Bill – the lord of the road, I – the rookie copilot and Fred – the hopeful Cerberus. Bill has half a mind to kidnap the car and I am not entirely opposed to the idea.

When we return we find Shreeti in the same position we left her. She stumbles into consciousness as I bumpily put the car into first gear and blast off. It is morning for her, so we are all required to have lunch. We decide on an Awffle House where incidentally everyone is black. Our ethnic mixture notwithstanding, the three of us make an unlikely alliance, so we get a lot of stares. But we are too hungry to care. I have eggs, Shreeti has eggs, Bill has a burger. Shreeti steals Bill’s food, I steal Shreeti’s food and eat the pickles that Bill finds disgusting. When we are finished the plates are wiped clean. As we leave we get the same nonplussed looks. Everyone is pleased.

The next stop is the dealer’s. Diligent Bill receives directions over the phone from solicitous Cody. We are in fact dying to meet our new friend Cody, whom we expect to find prolix, antsy and blah, like a car salesman. He is everything that we expected, plus the proud displayer of a gigantic tasteless ring branded with his name, for posterity. He flirts with Shreeti and I, asks too many questions, tries to feign congeniality and fails, offers several “Oh, really!”, pathetically reports that he knows nothing about this car (“As a matter of fact this is the first time I see it!”). The conversation during the test drive, essentially a soliloquy, is painful. I roll my eyes until my brain goes numb. Bill reads my mind and makes a U-turn as soon as the possibility arises.

From Atlanta to Macon it is a “straight shot,” as Bill would say. We deliver Shreeti to the airport on the way. It is pouring rain and we are in a hurry, so the farewell is matter-of-fact and devoid of sentimental effusions. And then there it is, Interstate 75 seen in reverse. Like a book read from end to beginning. I jabber away as I drive. Bill pretends to listen. But I know that he is thinking about his car, his new Amazon. The car glides in fifth and I become calmer as we approach Macon. The traffic slows down, grows languid. My foot relaxes on the clutch. I caress the steering wheel with the tips of my fingers. The sunset flashes me a conspiratorial wink in the rearview mirror. I am going to close my eyes for a bit now. The car knows the way.

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