Shifting Gears

Susan Starbird

Dave met Darlene at the curb outside baggage claim. She hadn’t recognized him at first, in the unfamiliar car. “What the hell is this?” she said as she gave him a thoughtless kiss.

“Our new car,” grinned Dave.

Our new car? And you were going to discuss this with me when? Anyhow, what is it?”

“A Saab. Allow me,” he said, opening the driver’s door with a flourish and beckoning her into the seat.

“I thought you and I agreed we could get a new car, a nice one, next time.” Darlene dropped in behind the wheel. That was the trouble with Dave, she thought: when he had an impulse he didn’t consider anyone else’s feelings. “Ugh, it’s an automatic,” she said.

They had discussed getting a car several times, but they could never agree. Dave wanted cheap, reliable transportation, a car that extracted long miles from every gallon of gas, a sensible-brown-shoe of a car. Darlene wanted a fun-to-drive car with character: snappy and assertive. Dave dreamed of a 80s-vintage, below-market-priced low-mileage turbo-diesel Mercedes wagon retrofitted to burn vegetable oil. Darlene lusted for a new Aston Martin. Dave planned to tow a trailer; Darlene wanted a magic carpet that streaked through the wooded corridors of the neighborhood, one she could throw through the turns on mountain roads, one that leapt at the green light, fishtailing in her steady grip. Dave didn’t care about the sound system. If Darlene’s ride must creep along in Main Street traffic, let it crawl to a bone-throbbing bass-rumble.

“Try driving it. You might actually like it.”

“So what happened to your dream of a biodiesel Mercedes wagon?” Darlene asked.

“Maybe later for the Mercedes. This one’s a good car,” Dave explained, “Old but dependable. We can use it for the bikes and the dog and stuff. And, best of all, it was free. My client gave it to me.”

“You mean he gave it to you in trade for work, right? When you could have got real money. So not free.”

“Dar, just drive.”

“As if we need four crummy old cars.” She stepped on the gas and the turbo roared off.

Car Number Four wasn’t such a bad car after all, Darlene had to admit to herself. She became so attached to their new-old semi-free sort-of-redundant Saab that it was another thing she and Dave argued about: who got to drive it each day. Its vintage turbocharger cranked out negative-Gs with roller-coaster force while its squat center of gravity hugged the curves; it was the most fun to drive of all their cars. Its long-snouted, hatchbacked homeliness was a matter of pride; Darlene relished the rude racket from the tailpipe.

Just as Dave had said, they used it for the bikes and the dog and the skis and stuff. They decorated its snubbed rear end with bumper stickers, installed roof racks festooned with pipe wrap and duct tape, and piled on top of it gear worth more than the car. The rear seat folded down flat: they could sleep inside, or haul a thousand-pound load of sod. Once, the couple got two bikes, a surfboard, a cast-iron stove, the golden retriever, and a weekend’s camping gear all in the car at one time, exceeding the load limit posted on the driver’s side visor. “Do you think they put this warning notice here for a reason?” Dave asked, rhetorically.

Its interior grew mildewy and sandy, and gusted with clouds of dog hair. Dave’s toothpicks and coffee cups littered the carpeting and so did Darlene’s candy wrappers and smelly socks; they each nagged the other to clean up. Despite the mess, they preferred it to all the other cars. Dave acted like Car Number Four was his — after all, it was given to him — but Darlene had slyly registered it in her name.

Now Darlene and Dave were breaking up. After fifteen years, things just weren’t working. Dave moved out. But he still slept at home a couple of nights a week; he thought of it as “easing out” of the marriage. Darlene didn’t seem to mind.

Since they had no kids, they expected to be able to sort things out smoothly. There was the house, the dog and the bird, his landscaping company and her graphics business, their retirement plans, his beat up work truck, her second-hand Volvo, her older Corolla that he used now as a runabout, and his six motorcycles, a couple of which ran. After that there were the bicycles, the skis, the music collection, the books: the his ‘n’ hers stuff; that would be easy. They weren’t well-off, but like most forty-somethings, they had collected a lot of things.

Being practical people, they wanted to remain friends. Discussions with their accountant were matter-of-fact. In marriage counseling they stayed under control, considerate of each other’s feelings, so as not to spoil the dinner out they always shared after their sessions. They did not admit their panic even to their friends. They plowed ahead, suppressing their rage and disappointment, the ache in their stomachs.

As they sorted through all the assets in logical, orderly fashion, there was one topic neither of them raised, and that was the subject of Car Number Four. In an unspoken “joint custody” agreement it passed back and forth between them, just as it always had.

To look at it, Car Number Four was nothing to covet. It was already twelve years old the day Dave drove it to the airport. The once-luxurious heated leather seats were chilly, brittle and frayed. The balky sunroof was framed in rust. Gravel-pocks scarred the windshield, half the accessories didn’t work, invisible parts rattled and squeaked. The once-glossy finish was patchy and faded. The previous owner used it to cart around barrels of wine, leaving a distinctive “nose.” The muffler clattered. But under the hood she was immaculate, thanks to Dave’s doting attention.

Now that they were breaking up, conversations they had about distributing money and property always managed to steer well clear of the tender topic of Car Number Four. Finally, after six months of separation Darlene said, “You know, Dave, there’s one thing we’ve never discussed.”


“Do you know what I’m thinking about?”

“I think so. I’ve been waiting for you to bring it up.”

“Well, why didn’t you bring it up?”

“I didn’t want to upset you.”

“Well, how were we going to break up if we never talked about which one of us was going to get the Saab?”

“I don’t know,” shrugged Dave. “Maybe we weren’t.”

“Weren’t what?”

“Weren’t going to split up.”

“Oh.” Darlene let that sink in for a moment. She didn’t feel ready to make a decision, but she didn’t feel unready either. And Christmas was coming. So she said, “Well, then I guess you’d better move back home.”

“I guess,” Dave grinned.

So they returned to their lives as joint custodians of the house, the bird, the dog, the four vehicles, and everything else. It was an uneasy peace at first. On the advice of their marriage counselor, they tried behaving as if they loved each other. At first it felt like practicing being in love, but after a while it became natural. They had both changed, although neither of them could put their finger on what was different.

“Can you believe how close we came to divorce?” asked Dave as they toasted their next wedding anniversary.

“Did you have to mention it?” Darlene replied. “Are you trying to spoil our celebration?”

A few weeks later, while Darlene was back at a class reunion, Dave phoned with bad news from home.

“Dar, I crashed the car. A head-on.”

Which car?”

“I’m okay, incidentally.” Darlene realized she had forgotten to ask — a sign she still didn’t have this marriage thing mastered. “It was the — you know,” continued Dave, going on to describe the demolition, concluding: “It’s terminal.”

Darlene postponed mourning until she started her long drive homeward. She and Dave had been through a lot together, she reflected, but they still had completely different ideas about what kind of car to own. Besides, it hurt to say goodbye to a vehicle that delivered them into so many adventures: to the mountains, to the desert, across and around the state, out of and back into loving each other.

The death of Car Number Four marked the end of an era. Remember when we had that old black turbo? they might someday reminisce, once the pain of its loss dulled. Did I ever tell you I couldn’t leave you because I was afraid you would wind up with the car?

It was dusk when Darlene pulled into their driveway. In the garage where their old black Saab would have been was . . . an old black Saab. Yet somehow different.

She pulled up, got out, and circled it, admiring its fresh ebony lacquer and charcoal-tinted windows, its lowered profile with extra-wide tires and spoilers, and its trumpet-shaped tailpipe promising a symphonic exhaust note. She could only guess what was under the hood, and hoped it was street legal. Peeking through the window, Darlene saw freshly reupholstered tuck ‘n’ roll leather seats, a glossy ersatz-walnut dashboard and a miniature steering wheel, gear shifter with a corny eight-ball knob, and aftermarket speakers tucked in every orifice. It was Dave’s and Darlene’s dream car rolled into one. She screamed for joy and ran for the front door.

Dave met her on the porch, tears of laughter in his eyes, ready with the explanation. “The day after I wrecked the old car, I drove by the Auto-Mart and saw this for only three thousand bucks. Like it? Want to drive it now?”

© Susan Starbird, 2008

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