Because I hot glue-gunned an anarchist Barbie to the hood of my first car—a $500 Honda Prelude---and could start it with the end of a spoon, I should probably consider everything that’s come since an upgrade. But I don’t. Because I judge a car not by its safety, drivability or current inspection, but by its cover. It has to be cool.
But would my keen judgment hold up when the rubber hit the road? I was afraid that it would not. So, when Prudence, my beloved VW Beetle bit the dust and my mother-in-law, an angel of mercy (AKA the only grandparent with enough cash at the ready to bail out an errant child--clearly not the one related to me) gave us money to buy a new car, I forked over her $3K to buy a Mercedes Benz station wagon.
On the lot, I’d admired the Mercedes, the way you would admire a woman who can casually rock a fur coat and a tiara. My husband had researched cars in the vicinity with the devotion of a lawyer studying for the bar, so when he said he’d found the best bang for our buck I believed him. I knew I was likely to choose a car based on its color. I was hoping for something red. I decided to trust the motor head.
As the silver Mercedes purred down the road during the test drive, I felt like I was trying on a glass slipper and I was shocked to find that it fit. “Well hello, Priscilla,” I heard myself say. “Miss Priss!” said my husband. “Perfect. Just like you. High class and high maintenance.” Who me? I thought. This was the kind of luxury mobile to make customized picnic baskets with real silver and glass stemware just to keep the spare tire company. Maybe, I thought, it was time for me to step it up. “Yes,” I said.
But when I got Prissy home, I crashed--- mentally. “My God, what have I done?” I felt nauseous, the kind of nauseous that comes with gaining 3,500 lbs. of European metal. Looking at the sleek, upscale Mercedes from our junky paint peeling front porch made me feel as if a younger, thinner, richer stepsister had just moved in.
“It’s just not me,” I wailed to my husband. “It’s so big! I feel like I’m driving a houseboat!” “OK. Let me get this straight,” he said back. “‘My Mercedes Benz just isn’t me.’ Wow. Somebody has real first world problems!” And then he took out the measuring tape to prove that Prissy’s only 2 feet, 3 inches longer than compact, adorable Prudence. Still, that 27 inches felt more like a full grown man than a kind of long baby.
Since he didn’t get it, I decided to talk to more sophisticated people. People who would understand my terror of driving around like a rich, uptight, conservative, suburban mom. My girlfriends. They howled with sympathy. One offered to launch a Kickstarter campaign to have naked girls and metal bands airbrushed on the side. Another said I’d better order some radical campaign bumper stickers, stat. Even my therapist friend suggested not that I grow up and get over it, but that I start socking away money to have it painted cherry red.
While I’ve appreciated their ideas, I’ve also begun to entertain the notion that I’m suffering from a deeper ailment than the make and model of my car. Listening with heartfelt attention to people with real problems helps. Being grateful that I have a driver’s license and a car that I can mostly afford to put gas in helps. Loading my son and his friends and a few small motor boats and some livestock into the back while they befriend the city from the rear-facing backseat helps. But mostly, being forced to acknowledge that my car doesn’t define me anymore than my wardrobe or bank account, reminds me that I can’t judge other people by their cars or their clothes or their bank accounts either. And that is good. Still, I hope to learn my next life lessons from the front seat of a two-door flame-red Challenger, racing stripes optional.