News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Monday, August 09, 2004

A More Reliable Love (3000 words)

She'd been nagging again, pushing him out of the house insensibly. They were both disappointed. She with his silence; he with her noise.

He was back out in his sweet-smelling refuge, his sweet safe harbor: the garage. He was out here in the familiar and reassuring fragrance of gasoline and brake oil. He propped the hood up, pored over the engine, noticed a dip in the brake oil and was in the midst of slowly, delicately, lovingly, topping up the level. The green pea odor wafting up to his nostrils didn't prompt him to pull away for safety's sake, to avoid inhaling carcinogens or some petrochemical spirit that might damage the brain. On the contrary, he enjoyed the aroma, savored it, relaxed within it, found himself at peace within it.

He closed the hood and shuffled back around to the driver's side, gingerly opening up the door with two fingers, taking care not to scuff or scratch the paint job, scrupulously not leaving fingerprints upon the finish, and plopped down in the old-fashioned bucket seat and pumped the brakes, inhaling and being lifted by the soft fragrance of years of decayed tobacco, chewing gum, the faintly fecal whiffs of fast food. The brakes were soft and yielding until they firmed up where they needed to be. And of course, the final test was to take it on the road. The final test, but also the ultimate excuse.

He didn't report to his wife that he was taking the car out. He wasn't about to chance another sneering attack on a manhood growing fragile. As he pulled out of the driveway, he could see her standing in the window gesticulating at him. But he knew he was safe, the sheen of the windshield like reflective sunglasses. He smiled faintly and pretended not to see her.

He put the car out onto the road, his left hand on the steering wheel, his right hand on the gearshift. His left hand was in touch with the car chassis. It was a deep and penetrating touch, one that put him in deep and visceral contact with the living breathing vibrating machine. It unwound remembrance of how his hand used to feel running over his wife's skin. It gave him reassurance, a sense of intimacy, of oneness with another interactive being. With his left hand now, he could feel the running gear, the forward and rear axles, the brakes, the tires, the vibration of the road and vibration as it carried through the undercarriage producing a pink noise that he had learned to read like a book. With his right hand, he could feel the slip and catch of the clutch, the feel of the transmission gears, the viscosity of the lubricating oil, and the rumble of the engine, all of which he had also learned to read fluently. His right hand inspired an intimacy like the former acceptance of his eager finger in his wife's wet mouth and searching the inside of her thighs.

But this thought prompted no erection for he already had what he wanted, directly and without irritating protocol; he had the satisfaction of companionship.

He still loved his wife he thought, but it was now a mellow love, a sort of mature respect he thought, he hoped. Sure, that's what it was. He didn't think about it much. He wasn't a thinker or a dreamer. Perhaps a day-dreamer. Just someone who wanted to be left alone to enjoy his pleasures on his own time and at his own speed. Was that too much to ask?

The chemistry of the marriage had dulled. But dulled sounded like an intellectual failing and so he’d preferred to use the word matured. He was rummaging around for a new word now, something more interesting, introspective sounding, something that expressed the wisdom of a jaded but willing, if passive, acceptance of things. Aged? No she sure wouldn't like the sound of that. Neither did he, now that he thought about it. Seasoned. Yes, a cooking word from the homemaker’s kitchen. She'd appreciate that.

But this stretching after words to mask the dullness, the unrelenting everydayness of their relationship, was dull in itself and unfulfilling. Marriage was like that, his friends had told him. He needed hobbies to fill in the gap. Thus the old car he’d been fixing up. They were right, it was fascinating. More than he’d thought. Increasingly so.

What made his new hobby, the 1970’s car fascinating, was that it changed everyday, had moods, had seasons, had piques of fancy. It spoke to him, constantly pricking his curiosity with endless variations on an assuring theme. Like a teasing soap opera, the car had a knack for recycling the same old tale but twisting and spinning it cheekily. Like a soap opera, the story was familiar while being sufficiently surprising to hook you and pull you by the nose back for more. And always there was a happy ending with resolution and closure. So much better than life’s litany of unresolved slights, performance anxieties, unintelligible intellectual combats, ignoble political scandals about which nothing could be done.

Life in his office meant immersion in an ecology of paper-shufflers, buck-passers, brown-nosers, and arm-chair tyrants. Socializing with his wife’s well-meaning and socially concerned friends meant mingling with craze-chasing enthusiasts, hectoring all-knowing bores, Monday morning footballers with sure-cures for every political issue.

He ought to be inured to it all. And, yet, he was yet another with a life of quiet desperation. He still quietly, politely, but nevertheless reluctantly, gagged on being demanded by the socially adept to put a smiley face on the offensive and patently lunatic, to get with the embarrassing program. There were so many backseat drivers. He stopped for a second, smiled, liked that cliché, which now meant something, a little more to him.

The car didn’t taunt him, didn’t make him anxious, was eminently knowable down to the last detail through a $30 manual, and scandalous auto performance yielded to new or second hand replacement parts, elbow grease, and time. Time. He had more and more of it.

He drove an old enduring Japanese model, designed in the naive days of industrial Nippon when some things were built to last forever. The car was a combination of original and new parts, factory issue chassis and oxyacetylene gas weld. It reacted differently to the elements every day. Some days the brakes acted up, squeaked with dust accumulating in the drums. Once a week he had to reset the timing, and he could distinguish clearly the gradual loss of horsepower from day to day, morning to night. On dry days, the chassis, seats, and dashboard squeaked and rattled. He had trouble with the carburetor leaking, making the engine idle high and sucking horsepower when he gave it gas. But this was self-inflicted and half-deliberate as he had cut the carb gasket out of a cardboard cereal box just for the hell of it. To see what would happen. They were good for about five days, tops. He liked that. Fixing that gave him something to do, something to do in the garage, and gave him an excuse that seemed reasonable and which he could produce without stammering when his wife asked nosy questions.

It was actually a jalopy, an old Datsun 510, in-line four cylinder. That was the 1974 world rally champion and help put Japanese cars on the map. Owning the car, he felt a vanity he knew to be foolish and which he yet guiltily entertained. Through ownership he felt as if he was somehow connected, had a part even, in this rally championship, as if he also was a pioneer of some kind.

He took pride in spending as little as possible on the car. He bought hobby kits, a book of auto/vehicle regulations. He preferred to hand craft his parts. He made a rear bumper out of pine with a chainsaw, planer, sandpaper, and varnish. When he’d been pulled over, he was ready with his regulations and dodged a citation. He was proud of defeating authority for once. He’d done it. They’d done it, the car and he.

He got more and more into it. He rented gas and oxygen tanks, bought a welding kit and mask, and did his own welding. He felt self-reliant and independent. Free.

When he finished his day job in the post-office, he got home to become a secret other, an amateur grease-monkey. Like the air-duct repairman hero of the Monty Python movie, Brazil. He was a productive subversive. By night, in his garage, he was confident, happier, self-actuated, self-realized. Zen and the automobile mechanic.

Every day was a challenge. Over the course of the week, the brakes didn’t know if they were coming or going, the timing slipped reliably, the squeaks and rattles advanced back and forth infiltrating everything from the chassis on through to the trunk, the carburetor gasket flaked, chipped, and sprung leaks. He wanted to put in a new racing carburetor, roof racks, rally tires and take it into the mucky, wild and messy lake district later this fall. He was looking forward to putting steel-studded tires on it, racing it and pulling 180’s on the lake ice in winter.

The car was always fixable. It had moods, but it didn't complain. When it broke down, it didn't complain. It always communicated. Everything could be replaced, upgraded and performance-enhanced. Now try doing that with your significant other.

Half-hour later, he pulled back into the driveway. He took the same precise care closing the door and locking up. He'd been tempted to lock on the garage door, excusing this act to his wife as a precautionary measure to keep out criminals and vandals, though he really wanted to proof it against the most pestiferous intruder of them all: his wife.

As he entered the door, his wife was waiting and remarked sharply, "Well that was quick. You could at least tell me you were going out. What if someone called? What would I say?"

This was old news, old complaints. The man looked down at his shoes, and mumbled, "I had to check the brakes. The fluid was getting low."

"Fluid was getting low? Bull shit!" She sneered, "You just wanted to go out for a ride in your wonderful car.” She threw up her hands in pantomime, delivering herself of stock expressions and stock phrases, performing for a command audience she liked to imagine was watching. “You're so childish. All you want to do is play. How can you be so irresponsible? What if somebody called? What am I supposed to tell them? My husband's outside playing with his toys? Do you know how embarrassing that is? If you can't control yourself for your own sake, at least do it for mine."

He took it like a child. He took his admonition silently. There was no defense. He could think of nothing. She was right, what right did he have to be so selfish and self-centered? He was supposed to be a good husband.

But she couldn’t persuade him. She wasn’t trying. She spoke at him; she only spoke to, with, and for, her imaginary audience.

And so the flood of guilt that her words initially sprung from his brain, like a sponge squeezed by the harridan’s cruel thin hands, was now a spring of emotions that was less and less fecund. It was drying up.

Though he could not justify spending so much time with the car, he had come to feel increasingly comfortable spending that time. In lieu of thinking up a rationale, he was becoming inured happily to it.

He was moving from speechlessness when asked about his undue enthusiasm for the car. His wife’s clever friends joked that he was auto-erotic. But he would soon become completely confident in his affection for the car. When asked why he loved his car more than his wife, he would rise to the occasion and give the too oft assailed rationale of because or I don’t know. I just do. The because was sincere. He meant it. Even if he couldn’t explain it. But it did mean something. It meant he was okay with it, down with it, into it. He didn’t need to understand more than this to function effectively, no more than he needed to understand the fluid dynamics principles behind four-stroke combustion engines in order to drive the car.

His hobby was becoming his lifestyle. After all, why was spending time with your car such a crime? This question posed to himself required no answer. A lack of an answer was his answer. For he trusted implicitly in himself.

He sighed, his only act of resistance, a long suffering sigh, though not loud enough to be provocative, giving himself room for denial. Denial that he was resisting her. He opened the fridge.

"Don't tell me you need another beer now. That's it, drown yourself in alcohol. Run. Run from me."

He made a face, looking at her quickly and then just as rapidly flitting away, his mouth down turned. “It’s just a beer. Why do you have to make such a big deal out of it?"

"Now don't get me started. If I've told you once..."

But he was already walking, past the dining table, and into the living room, where the sun was coming through the picture windows, the Woodland pine trees shimmering, through the glass. She followed him through in the way typical of a person nagging, trailing behind, nipping at his heels, maintaining a safe distance while attacking.

He stopped and turned around, saying, "Now honey, please stop following me around. Can't I get a moments rest?"

She placed her arms akimbo, and began to tap her right foot on hardwood floor. She saw herself again as a mother talking to the child, as a high priestess harpy admonishing, scolding, harping. Selflessly, for the child's own good. It hurt her more to issue punishment than she felt it hurt her apparently emotionally continent child of a husband. Marriage was the centerpiece of her life and marriage was forever.

But he wasn’t there anymore. He was already daydreaming, his mind thinking romantically about what lay outside the crisp autumn window: hunting season, ducks, mallards, Canadian geese. And hunting camps, rounds of beers with the boys, buck-fever shooting in your underwear at anything that moved and even things that didn't. Easy, unquestioning fun.

He could have fought his wife to win back his self-esteem and dignity, but when he had considered doing so, even just the thought of it made him uneasy. He didn't know why. All he knew was that he wasn't a wordsmith, a glib speaker, a smooth talker. He didn't have the gift of gab, he wasn't a person spilling with ideas and rationalizations.

The single eventuality the man saw in his mind's eye was a recurring flashback from his younger days when his grandfather had slapped his grandmother into submission once at the climax of a long and bitter quarrel. The man couldn't do it. It wasn't even that he didn't want to, he just knew he couldn't do it. It was no longer an option for some reason. He didn't know why, didn't think to wonder why. It just was. He didn’t need to know in order to function effectively. Life and he himself just were. That's just the way things were.

When his mind returned to the room, his wife was saying, "You keep spending all that time with car. Sometimes I think you have more affection for it than you have for me. You need to spend more time thinking about us, being with us. Quality time.” She left her imaginary audience behind for a moment and asked, “Are you listening to me?"

He just nodded, put his beer down, and excused himself, mumbling something about going to the bathroom. He left her gaping, mouth hanging with half a word stuck in it keeping it open. He left the living room.

She closed her mouth, the room was completely silent as the sun pored through. She had prodded and prodded him. Why didn't he fight back? What was wrong with him? Wasn't he man enough? She’d fix his bacon when he came back.

But as he went towards the bathroom, he ended up going towards the back door instead. A strange impulse pulled him, a sort of tickle in the brain teased him. Sort of like the devilishly warm buzz of a favorite video game or movie. That same familiar tug, a warm electric glow in his pleasure center. He went with it.

For better or worse, his work and his wife had tamed his instincts in the professional and social sphere, in the combat zone we call human interaction. They’d worn him down to the point where he was passive and domesticated to the point where he hardly felt in possession of himself. And so when the impulse came to go out the back door, he was hardly in a position to say no, let alone rebel. Just as he no longer felt competent to defend himself in front of his wife, just as the impulse to defend himself was now almost vestigial, a sort of living fossil, he simply went along with the impulse. He couldn’t fight it anymore than he could fight anything else.

Possessed, he went with the impulse to open the door, to exit, to go into the garage, pull out his keys and jump into his car. The familiar smells alternately soothed him and pleasantly pricked him. The electric garage door went up, he depressed the gas pedal, and back out he went. Out of the driveway, onto the side road, from the side road out onto the main road, and from the main road out onto the highway. Quality time.

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