Millhone responded to the chaos as many men might: Late one night, he logged on to eBay and bid on a vintage BMW—his fantasy car, but not exactly what the doctor ordered when it came to his family's finances. As if sharing the news that he'd won the auction with his already-peeved wife weren't bad enough, it turned out that he had to travel from New York to Texas to collect the car. His estranged dad joined him, and together they embarked upon a dysfunctional road trip—a comedy of errors that would lend Millhone the perspective he needed to save his marriage and to understand what was really important in his life: his family.
Acerbic and hilarious but with heart, this memoir offers a male perspective on a troubled marriage, raising children, coping with loss, and rejuvenating a relationship with a parent.
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"YOU DID WHAT?" Rose said when I told her about the car.
Her brow seemed perpetually furrowed now, even in sleep--her cute freckle- face a mass of wrinkles in the making. She tucked a lock of hair, gone white at the roots, behind one ear, watching me, bird-intense, glasses askew like she'd been punched, as I stalled for time before answering her question. When did she get so thin?
Rose had gained so much weight during her last pregnancy that I had made peace with the idea of being the guy with the fat wife. I sincerely missed my fat wife. Not only did the plus-size Rose seem more healthy than the scarecrow with whom I now shared my bed, I also thought that having a fat wife would confer upon me a substance of an extra-physical sort; people would assume that I was a man of character, who cared about the things that really mattered in life. Alas, Rose had disappointed me by dropping seventy- five £ds, seemingly overnight, without ever once resorting to physical exercise. She liked to joke that our year from hell had saved her the price of a gym membership. Nothing like personal tragedy to really attack those thighs. A strict diet of Coca-Cola and migraine pills didn't hurt either. Rose took one while I was talking to her.
"Is it a bad one?" I asked.
"I feel like someone is stabbing my right eye. The usual. I'm sorry, you were saying something?"
"I found you a new car."
"Me? I don't drive."
"But don't you remember that road trip up to your folks' place over the holidays when you said our car wasn't big enough for the two of us, let alone the kids?"
"That had nothing to do with the car."
I sighed. "Well, since you're stuck with me, I thought maybe a bigger car would help." She slowly shook her head, giving me ample time to ponder which part of my statement was false--the part about the car or the part about being stuck with me. It had come to my attention that Rose viewed the rest of her life as a husband-optional event. Little signs like taking off her wedding ring and slamming it down on my desk.
"Why don't you just admit that you want the car?" Rose finally said, taking a sip of Coke and cranking up her laptop. Our bed was always strewn with her work, making going to sleep like curling up on her desk.
"Fine. I want the car."
"Thank you. Too bad we can't afford it."
"Well ... technically I already bought it. I won the auction on eBay last night." I braced for her counterattack, but she just rolled her eyes. Was I so predictable? When had I lost my ability to surprise this woman? To surprise myself, for that matter?
"What's so special about this car?"
"It's, um ... well ... it's kind of this Field of Dreams thing. It's like it's calling to me. I can't explain it, but I have to have it."
Rose nodded, pretending to take me seriously, and then said, "You need help."
"I mean it. You have a problem."
"Thank you, Imelda Marcos."
"Hey, I will wear all those shoes."
I felt sorry for my wife's shoe collection. Imagine the life of Cinderella's glass slippers if Cinderella never went to the ball. The world had proven a dangerous place of late, and more and more Rose ventured out less and less. She rarely left our bedroom. Even the living room seemed hostile territory, under siege by my insurgent home-improvement projects. She still had an office, a nice one, with two assistants--whom, I imagined, felt as abandoned as her shoe collection now that Rose worked almost exclusively from home, running her pocket business empire from her bed, in her pajamas. Like Hugh Hefner but without the fun. Rose said she liked to work from home, but still, I felt for those beautiful shoes of hers. There was something heartbreaking about all of them lined up in her closet like soldiers at parade rest, waiting for Rose to get all dressed up, but there was no place to go. No place Rose felt comfortable. I tried to see her recent return to shopping as a hopeful sign--she was starting to accessorize for her return to a life where all she had to worry about was what to wear.
"Well, I'll drive this car, too," I said.
"It will only take a few days to go get it."
"A few days? Where is it?"
"Dallas. I thought I would see if I could talk my dad into flying down with me so we could drive it back together, have some father-son time."
"Since when do you and your dad have father-son time?"
"I think he's lonely without Mom. This trip could take his mind off things."
"But what about your work? What about all the renovations here on the apartment? What about the kids? You're just going to take off and leave me to deal with all that? This is making my headache worse." She turned away from me, a hand over her right eye, almost as if I was the one stabbing her there.
"I'm sorry. I know it's a bad time for you," I said.
"It's always a bad time lately."
"I'll take care of everything. Trust me."
"But what if something happens?!"
"Something like what?"
"Like ..." she said, her voice trailing off. Her face twitched and I could tell she was filling in that blank with all the "somethings" that had already befallen us and a detailed list of all the new potential "somethings" that kept her up nights worrying. Rose was nothing if not thorough.
The phone rang, the sudden noise making her flinch.
"Leave me alone!" she yelled at the phone or at me or at her headache or at the world.
"This is Rose," she said, startlingly calm as she answered the phone. Her ability to juggle her work with her ongoing nervous breakdown truly amazed. She was our family's primary breadwinner. Compared to her, the money I brought in as an itinerant writer and college professor was the occasional bake sale. "No, this is a perfect time, just a sec." She covered the phone and then turned to me. "Don't you dare do anything about this car without talking to Sam first."
"Great idea!" I said, turning to walk out of our room. While I knew that "Don't do anything without talking to Sam first" was miles away from an agreement, it was within shouting distance of plausible deniability as long as I could get Sam to go along. He was the linchpin. A lot of pressure for your average kindergartener, but he could take it.
Our year from hell had made Sam old beyond his years. After the first Christmas without my mom, a Christmas of too many presents to make up for the emptiness in my parents' house, I was walking Sam to preschool when he cleared his throat and announced, "Dad, I want to go live with Grandpa John."
"Well ... we can sure go visit him again soon."
"No, Dad--I want to live with Grandpa John."
"Um, okay ... why?" I said, kneeling down to look into his wide-set gold- green eyes, the color of leaves turning.
"Well, now that Grandma Carole's gone, he's really all by himself."
I hugged him. That he would have the ability, at his tender age, to look beyond his own sadness in this way ... I was in awe. Nothing can make you more proud as a father--or more humble--than having a four-year-old who's a bigger man than you are.
sam was now six years old, his brother Benny, two and a half. I gathered them around the kitchen table, ants-in-my-pants giddy about showing them pictures of our new car on my laptop. Even Spike, our French bulldog, was barking, excited. Spike had a hoarse little bark that sounded like an old man coughing. I wish I could say I found it charming. A year after getting the little beast, I was still waiting for it to grow on me. Its round, feline head and gravity-defying ears made Spike look like Frankenstein tried to whip up a dog using leftover cat parts.
"See, it's a BMW just like Speedy, but it's got a V8 engine so it can go really, really fast," I said, pointing to the pictures on eBay.
"Faster than Speedy?" Sam asked. He had named our current car (another low- mileage used BMW I had found on eBay) "Speedy," after the cartoon character Speedy Gonzales because he thought it was the fastest car in the world. (Sam, as the oldest, had jurisdiction over the naming of all cars and pets, at least until Benny got old enough to get wind of this.) Speedy Gonzales was a dark green 1998 5 series. The "new" used BMW was a 1994 7 series and had a bigger engine. "Yep, faster than Speedy," I said.
"But nothing's faster than Speedy!"
"Okay, it's as fast as Speedy, and it has more room for when we go on a long drive."
"Cool!" Sam said.
"C-c-c-aaarrr ..." Benny struggled to get out.
"That's right, Benny! Car!"
Benny beamed. He has my father's blue eyes and a smile so infectious it's almost physically impossible to frown in his presence. Every time he said a new word, we would praise him to the moon. Now two, he was still hunting and pecking for words at an age when Sam had been speaking in complete sentences. This speech delay and a scar on the right side of his chest where doctors had inserted a tube to reinflate a collapsed lung were Benny's souvenirs from spending the first two weeks of his life in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. He pulled that chest tube out three times. While this dramatically demonstrated his will to live, it had the unfortunate side effect of almost killing him. For better or worse, Benny had inherited the stubbornness gene from both his parents.
"This is so awesome," Sam said, looking at the car on eBay. "Mommy, now we're going to have two cars!" Sam said.
"No, we're not," Rose said.
"But ... what's going to happen to Speedy?"
"Well, I've been talking to a friend of mine, and her family could really use a good car like Speedy."
"You're going to sell Speedy?" Sam looked at me in open-mouthed horror and then started to bawl as if I'd just told him I was going to sell Benny to another family. I looked up at Rose.
"You're on your own. You broke him, you fix him," she said.
I looked at Sam. His face gets all smooshed up when he cries, which just accentuates his scar from the dog bite. It makes the line of pink scar tissue running down the center of his nose glow bright red, like blowing on hot coals. Each new pain just seems to add heat to the old injury.
Benny pointed at Sam, concerned.
"Sa-sa ... Sa-sa!"
"Don't worry, Benny. Sa-sa's going to be okay."
I tried to hug Sam, but he pushed me away. Of course, to Sam, Speedy was like a member of our family--he had named him. There was nothing wrong with Speedy except for the memory of too many weekend getaways that got us nowhere but someplace new and different to have the same old issues. Speedy wasn't like new anymore.
"Sam, listen to me. I didn't want to make you sad. I know this would be a change, but change can be good. Change is ... is life, and if we don't embrace change, then it's ... it's like saying no thank you to life. It's like giving life a timeout. And you don't want to give life a timeout, because if you do, then maybe life will give you a timeout."
Sam stared at me like I had three heads, trying to make sense of what I said. I didn't know if this line of bull was going to work for him, but I had myself half-sold--say yes to change, yes to life!
"You mean, if we don't get the new car, I'm going to be in timeout for the rest of my life?!" Sam yelped and collapsed on the floor in a puddle of his own tears. I picked him up and hugged him tight, shaking my head.
"Sam," I said. "Sam, I'm sorry." I'm sorry that your old man is a selfish bastard who thought only about himself. I knew at this moment that my firm belief that I could never mess up my kids the way my folks messed up me was a hundred percent correct: I could be worse.
I called the eBay seller, a BMW dealer down in Dallas, and gave him the Reader's Digest version of our tale of woe to beg out of my commitment to buy the car. The used-car salesman, Bill, just made the whole thing worse by being awfully, terrifically nice about it.
"I'm not worried about selling the car. This car sells itself. It's a honey. Just too bad because it seemed like you really wanted it, and as a salesman, that's what I take pleasure in--finding the right car for the right person."
"You don't talk like a used-car salesman."
"Well, I'm also a deacon in my church. I don't think of the jobs as being all that different. Just helping people get where they need to go in life."
I hung up the phone and went to Rose's fortress of solitude to tell her the news.
"I'm not getting the car."
"Really?" Rose said, looking up from her laptop.
"Why is that a surprise? You saw how Sam was."
"Well, I know, but it seemed like you really wanted it."
"And you thought I would choose a car over my kid, thanks a lot."
"I didn't say that."
"You implied it."
She shook her head. "I knew that if this didn't work out, you were going to figure out some way to make me feel bad."
"I didn't say I blamed you for anything!"
"Well, I guess you just implied it then."
"I'm sorry I got so crazy about that car," I said. "I really thought I was supposed to have it ... for some reason. It just felt ..." I shook my head. "It was dumb. I've wasted enough time on it. It was just silly. Maybe that was the whole point, I don't know ..."
"What?" Rose asked.
"Just to do something silly."
"That's ... silly."
"Well, we used to do a lot of silly things. We bought that old farmhouse together, before we were married, even. Bought it sight unseen. That was--"
"I was going to say fun. We used to be fun."
We both smiled, but sadly, like we were remembering good friends who'd passed on. We had become that special kind of strangers, the kind who know each other only too well. The kind you want to think only lived in other people's houses, in other people's unhappy marriages. We lived around each other, separated by the morning paper at breakfast and by everything that had happened to us when we went to bed each night.