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1974 FORD MUSTANG HATCHBACK,
MANUAL TRANSMISSION, FOUR-CYLINDER, BURGUNDY
I've always thought of cars as places to die. That's what high school driver's ed did to me. Sure, there was also the practical stuff: how close to follow, laws regarding school buses, what to do in a skid (the most terrifying, anti-intuitive lesson of all). But that's not what stuck. What stuck were the flickering black-and-white filmstrips narrated by dead drivers, forever regretting that one second they took their eyes off the road. Driver's ed ghost stories. They grabbed my throat like a garrote—sudden, violent, remorseless—convincing me that driving and death were not only interrelated but inevitable.
This was in the old days of Behind the Wheel, before lawyers were in charge, when the schools actually taught you to drive and put you in a car with your high school gym teacher. Mine, Mr. Kapsopoulos, or Mr. K for short, was an excitable Greek, taken to screaming at other drivers with a clenched fist: "Where'd you get your driver's license? Cereal box?" He taught us that the horn was more important than the brakes and, if we were on the highway, forbade us from slowing down when another car was merging from the right. He insisted it was the merging car's job to join the flow of traffic, but what, I wondered, if the driver in that car hadn't been taught by Mr. K? What if he was expecting a little help? All that mind reading, the judging of speeds and velocity, the opportunities for misunderstanding: to me, a fiery crash was as likely an outcome as any. I put off getting my license until I was twenty-three—much to the hilarity of my family and everybody in my hometown, Charlottesville. My dad was the local Buick dealer.
Ellis, on the other hand, grew up in New Jersey without even a twinge of car fear. Maybe they didn't subscribe to the Edgar Allan Poe school of driver's ed in New Jersey. Ellis marked the days leading up to his seventeenth birthday like some automotive Advent calendar. To the steering wheel born, I guess. In my imagination, his Behind the Wheel teacher spoke like Jeeves and held out a platter with caviar whenever he stopped at a light. To Ellis, the car was an extension of the bicycle, which was an extension of the trike, just another step in his trajectory from the womb to adulthood. If to me the car was Thanatos, to Ellis it was Eros. A conveyance handy for driving a date to the movies, feeling her up, maybe even getting luckier. If to me a car was to be driven slowly and cautiously, or preferably not at all, to Ellis a car was a toy—the shinier and faster, the better.
Did I ever think of this as a deal-breaker, in those first days we were dating? Perhaps if there was a Sedgewick-Inglebert Driving Compatibility Inventory, Ellis and I might have showed up to a high school cafeteria at eight-thirty one Saturday morning with our sharpened number two pencils, answered questions about yielding and the proper method of signaling parallel parking, and been told that our attitude toward cars was so clearly incompatible that we'd be better off never seeing each other again.
But there is no Sedgewick-Inglebert test. Besides, when I met Ellis, we were both living in New York City, where cars are optional. And of course, love is blind, especially at the beginning, especially in matters like following distances and turn signals.
I should probably explain that the New York City I had moved to, the New York of my psyche the year I met Ellis, was more a stage set than it was a real place. It was the Manhattan of Woody Allen movies, Odd Couple reruns, Marilyn Monroe standing on the air vent, and Marlo Thomas as "That Girl" smiling perkily from behind the counter in her Midtown candy shop. Before I moved to Manhattan, I'd been there only once, on a weekend excursion of the high school art club. We'd descended the magnificent spiral of the Guggenheim Museum, seen The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, and eaten what seemed like an extremely exotic meal at Benihana. That was it—the sum of my experience in Gotham. A decade later, I was as starry-eyed as a shortstop buttoning his pinstripe jersey in the Bronx for the first time. Boxy yellow taxis zoomed down Broadway as if for my personal amusement.
Like all adopted New Yorkers, I came for nothing less than complete transformation. For the past four years, I'd lived with Nick, a chef, in a cute little farmhouse nestled in the Blue Ridge, outside Charlottesville. I met Nick in my fourth year at UVa, when I'd decided to pick up a little money by waitressing in one of the new chic downtown restaurants. Those were the heady, early days of Charlottesville as a foodie place, and we all felt like we were part of something big and exciting. Nick had a noble Gallic nose and the chiseled angularity of someone who could cook with fresh butter and never gain weight. He knew his wines; he knew his cheeses; he knew how to pleasure a woman. I probably fell for his farmhouse hardest of all. It was only about twelve miles from the house where I'd grown up, where my parents still lived, yet it felt like it existed in an entirely separate universe, blessed by a stronger, brighter sun. I could see myself there forever, writing novels at the sturdy wooden kitchen table painted a playful 1950s shade of aqua.
But it was a fantasy—the whole thing with Nick—a fairy tale. I didn't fit in either in the high-class restaurant scene or with the celebrated authors who dropped into Nick's restaurant whenever their agents visited Charlottesville. I was too young to appreciate my youth and not smart enough to recognize my own intelligence. Everywhere I looked, I saw coeds who were more coltish, waitresses who were sexier, and brilliant older women professors who let their hair go white as if to telegraph their intellectual gravitas. I was just another former English major with a dozen unpublished short stories. And the butter that never showed up on Nick's hips was beginning to show on mine.
Looking back, it's hard to imagine the logic of my decision to move to New York. If I was a small fish in the pond that was Charlottesville, I'd be plankton in the mighty harbor of New York. But I was depressed by the same old parties with the same old snobs, with Nick's flirtations with new waitresses. And Nick could be cruel, too, especially when it came to my cooking. I once spent a whole day making chicken marsala. He took two bites and put down his fork, then got some of his own leftovers out of the refrigerator and ate them cold. He didn't say a thing. He didn't need to.
My part-time jobs—at Nick's restaurant, Williams Corner Bookstore, the Virginia Quarterly Review press—didn't add up to a career. The few pages that rolled through my manual Royal typewriter didn't add up to a novel. I had gotten to the point where I didn't know what I hated more: the pretensions of the central Virginia country elite, with their horsey weekends and their old-fashioned croquet parties where everyone wore white, or the rednecks at the 7-Eleven. I was at a dead end. Bailey, my sister, had managed to transplant herself to L.A. I would try New York.
So I sold my car for seven hundred dollars (it broke my father's heart to see me get so little for a car that had come off his lot) and, at Dad's insistence, converted the money into traveler's checks, carefully recording their serial numbers in my journal. My mother packed me deviled eggs to take on the Amtrak and reminded me to eat them in the first few hours, before they spoiled. When the train pulled out, I looked back and saw my parents grow smaller and smaller, until they were the size of wedding cake toppers. I felt a pinch of homesickness—and guilt, too, for leaving them without any daughters nearby. But they were healthy and had each other, and I was riding into my grand future.
It was late March. My first month or so, I stayed in the cramped den of a rent-controlled postwar apartment on the West Side, which belonged to a divorced voice teacher in her late fifties named Betty, the mother of my best friend from college, Tess. Betty would "adore" the company, Tess insisted.
But even though Betty occasionally made a pot of orange pekoe and invited me to sit in one of her stiff wingback chairs and talk about my day, I felt a sort of coolness, like she didn't want me getting too comfortable. Literally. Betty kept her apartment at sixty-five degrees, and I wasn't allowed in the living room during voice lessons. I had to wait for the short intervals between students to sprint to the dark galley kitchen, where I kept my own box of Lemon Zinger and a small supply of yogurt. Betty's twelve-year-old cat, Simon, had tuna breath and a problem with flatulence, and he slept in the same room I did. He arched his back whenever I walked in, reminding me I was the interloper—a gesture that brought to mind some of the crustier matriarchs of the Virginia aristocracy.
I adapted. I wore a sweatshirt over my pajamas and brought Simon a succession of cheap squeaky toy mice to try to win his affection. I splurged on treats for Betty, too, regularly stopping at Zabar's for chocolate croissants and nice-sized hunks of Gruyère. Although I'd shipped my old Royal typewriter to the apartment, the first time I typed a sentence, I realized that in such tight quarters, each keystroke sounded like a gunshot. A paragraph would have sounded like the St. Valentine's Day massacre. I didn't dare use it unless Betty was out.
But who cared? I was in New York. The first weekend, I rode all the way to Coney Island, wandered the narrow cobblestone alleys near Wall Street, and took the elevator to the top of the World Trade Center. You could pick up the Sunday Times on Saturday night and make a cheap dinner out of a gigantic slice of Original Ray's Pizza. I learned quickly that every Ray's was the "original" and disdained by real New Yorkers, but I still loved the thick, gooey, almost raw-in-the-middle slices.
My heart thrummed when I looked through all the entertainment listings in the Village Voice. If I didn't find a job before my seven hundred dollars ran out—although I was sure I would—I wanted to make sure I'd experienced everything it was possible to experience. At least everything that was free or cheap. And so my third week, seeing a "new-talent night" with a modest five-dollar cover at a downtown comedy club, I left Betty to watch Knots Landing and hopped the subway to see live comedy for the first time in my life.
The club was in the Village, a jumble of alleys that refused to participate in the city's rational north–south, east–west grid system. As a newcomer, I felt as if some higher power had just taken the map of Manhattan, pointed to Greenwich Village, and maliciously twisted it into a knot. I got off the subway in Washington Square, completely disoriented, and saw NYU kids, all of them relaxed, laughing, walking down through the park in little happy clutches. They weren't really much different from the kind of kids I'd seen at UVa my whole life, but I was jealous of the fact that they felt so at home, that their home was here, that they traveled in packs. Illogically, I took it personally, as if they were leaving me out on purpose. My cheeks burned; I couldn't bring myself to ask for directions. Instead, I walked in circles, determined to find the address on my own, feeling more turned around, out of place, and lonely with every step.
I found it, finally, underneath an Indian restaurant, down a narrow flight of concrete stairs. It looked exactly how I imagined a comedy club would look—exposed brick, long narrow tables at right angles to the stage, a microphone stand next to a tall wooden stool—but somehow shabbier. The chairs were plain, hard, and close together, and the room was even colder than Betty's. There was a bad smell, too: a mixture of spilled beer, ashtrays, and a men's room urinal not quite far enough down the hall.
I was led to a table by a girl about my age with spiky black hair, an eyebrow ring, and an expression of practiced scorn. There was a hardness to her that made me think she hadn't been to college but had been working at clubs and restaurants for years. Following her, I felt bland and conventional, like a sorority girl in an angora sweater. From the 1950s. I hadn't been a sorority girl. Growing up, I'd been the rebel, the freak, the one who was turned away from the country club for wearing denim. But if I was the least ladylike young lady in my family's circle of friends, here I was just a soft-faced girl, demure and slightly nervous.
She seated me right up front, next to the stage. Even I knew it was a bad idea to sit so close, but I was too intimidated to say anything. It was early, half an hour until the show, and I was the only one in the room. I started to wish I was back watching Knots Landing. What was I doing? Who went to see comedy by themselves? I pulled out a paperback I'd stuck in my bag—a biography of Zelda Fitzgerald—but couldn't concentrate. A harsh inner voice was too busy berating me: You idiot. You rube. You stupid hick. Why didn't you ask for a different seat before you sat down?
The girl came back a few minutes later and asked what I wanted. "Oh, nothing," I said, smiling. It came out like somebody who'd been trained, since childhood, never to trouble her host. That's what you were supposed to say when you went to somebody's house and they offered to get you something. "Oh, nothing, thank you." You didn't even accept a glass of water unless your host had offered three times. Then it was okay. It wasn't that I was trying to save the waitress any trouble. I was trying to save money. It just came out in that sappy, Southern, overly polite way—the way I'd been indoctrinated. Thank God I hadn't said ma'am.
The waitress sighed. She picked up a laminated card, which listed a variety of imported beers and expensive drinks, and pointed to the words TWO-DRINK MINIMUM.
"Oh," I said. My heart slipped a notch. The listing had just mentioned the five-dollar cover. It hadn't said anything about a two-drink minimum. If I'd known, I might not have come. Sure, it was a relatively small thing. But I hadn't found a job, and New York was sucking up money like an industrial vacuum. I felt duped and flustered, as if the entire purpose of the two-drink minimum was to humiliate me.
"Oh," I said. "I guess I'll have a Diet Coke."
The evening went downhill from there. The room gradually filled with couples and groups, all showily having fun. I felt like the kid in the cafeteria sitting alone. A few guys tried to hit on me, but they were losers, pathetic men with comb-overs and oily pickup lines. And then the show started. A single girl, by herself, sitting in the front? The comics pounced. Where was I from? (I might as well have been wearing a T-shirt that said out of town.) Where was my boyfriend? What? I didn't have a boyfriend? Why? Did I have herpes? What was I doing after the show? After a while, I had to pee, but the idea of being teased on my way to the bathroom kept me frozen in my seat.
Excerpted from Cars from a Marriage by .
Copyright © 2010 by Debra Galant.
Published in May 2010 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.