Driven by Desire

One couple, two cultures, and what it means to buy a car

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The first sharp pang of desire hit me in the parking lot of my daughter's preschool. It was a cold winter day in North Carolina, and as I buckled my seat belt, another mother maneuvered her gleaming new Volvo station wagon into the space beside my 1992 Honda Civic. She smiled and gestured for me to roll down my window so we could talk.

She was on my passenger side, so I unbuckled my seat belt, leaned across the seat, and groped for the handle to open the window. Once I found it, I rotated the crank, slowly and painfully, counterclockwise. The window jerked down in spurts, as stubborn and recalcitrant as my 3-year-old in the back seat. Meanwhile the Volvo's window glided down in one smooth motion, as if melting into the door.

When I had finally worked my window into its slot, I sat up, brushing away the hair that had fallen in my face. The other mother cocked her head slightly and said, with a hint of awe, "Wow! I didn't even know they made cars like that anymore!"

If only I'd had power windows at that moment, I could have, with a touch of my fingertip, coolly drawn a barrier between us.

Later, at the bank drive-through, I admired how the other cars' windows slid gracefully open, like curtains before a performance. At night, I dreamed of windows that closed effortlessly, saving me at the last moment from attackers. I became convinced that my manual windows were giving me carpal tunnel syndrome. If only I had a car with power windows, my life would be good.

But how would I convince my husband that a new car was an urgent necessity? We had discussed purchasing one when our daughter was born. In the first raw weeks after her birth, when I was too scared even to carry my infant child downstairs for fear of falling, I'd insisted we needed a safe vehicle. But my husband -- the same man who went to our daughter's crib throughout the night to check on her breathing and murmur a prayer over her sleeping body -- balked at the suggestion that buying a big, expensive car was part of being a responsible parent.

My husband was raised in a mud hut on the coast of Libya, where families collected water from a common well and filtered it through empty flour sacks before giving it to their children to drink. By the time he was a teenager, the sound of his mother wailing in labor was as familiar to him as her haunting moans of grief. She gave birth to thirteen children, five of whom did not survive early childhood. Today three faint gray lines are visible at the center of my husband's chest -- the last traces of a tattoo his mother gave him when he was a child, slicing his skin and filling the wounds with ash, to protect him from evil spirits. That was his health insurance.

I grew up on a cul-de-sac in Southern California, where children didn't talk to strangers and we displayed Neighborhood Watch stickers in our windows. Though the names of the developments all around us were Spanish, the only Mexicans we children knew of were the ones our parents warned us roamed the canyons around our neighborhoods. We knew these Mexicans were real because when we ventured into the ravines, farther than our parents permitted us to go, we sometimes found their tattered blankets and the charred remains of their campfires. We feared these dark, dusty apparitions and made the same mistake our parents did: We confused poverty with evil.

During the early days of our relationship, my husband and I traded tales of our childhoods, captivating each other with descriptions of our "exotic" backgrounds. I described earning my pancake-flipping badge at summer camp; he recalled reciting the Koran to a blind imam at the local mosque after school. We reminisced about our first jobs: mine, at Baskin-Robbins at age 16; his, at age 5 (for no money at all), stocking the shelves of his father's tiny shop in the village market. We thought we had escaped unscathed from the hazards of our childhoods and would build a new life together, one that combined the best of American freedom and Middle Eastern tradition. But the birth of our child brought to the fore the conflicting realities of our pasts.

Some aspects of American parenting thrilled my husband -- such as the first-class university hospital, five minutes from our house, to which our health insurance gave us easy access. But most middle-class parenting rituals mystified him. He could not understand why I spent hours on the Internet, looking up recalls on baby cribs and car seats. He questioned my using hypoallergenic detergent on every cloth item that came in contact with our daughter. He refused to plug in the baby monitor I'd purchased for our small home. When I came back from the store with the entire series of Baby Einstein videos, he seemed skeptical of claims about the beneficial effects of classical music on developing minds. He was deeply suspicious of the idea that being a good parent means making the right purchases, that with enough money we can protect our children from the pain and ugliness of the world.

When it comes to cars, my husband feels that the best way to reduce risk is to drive less, and that a good car is a car that's paid for and reliable. Both of our cars meet these criteria. Besides, my husband loves the car he drives. He shakes his head scornfully at other drivers, wondering aloud why more people don't own a car like his. When he's feeling exceptionally magnanimous toward our 3-year-old daughter, he tells her that maybe, just maybe he will give her his car one day.

His pride and joy is a 1986 Toyota Tercel. Its paint is chipped, its cracked vinyl upholstery is held together by duct tape, and remnants of bumper stickers from the '80s still cling pitifully to its rear end. Since I'm getting older and have a few dents in my own fender, I should take comfort in his display of loyalty. Instead, it annoys me. When we park this car amid a sea of Volvo wagons and SUVs at my daughter's preschool, I feel a burning shame.

According to the commercials, a new car comes with an overhaul to the buyers' self-esteem, but not for my husband. Looking at his reflection in the gleaming paint job, he would see only a materialistic sucker mired in unnecessary debt. In his mind, to value something that's old and flawed is a sign of integrity. In our consumer-driven society, which promises to erase all signs of age and decay for a price, it's also an act of defiance. His car has more than 200,000 miles on it. Its market value is irrelevant, because it will never be for sale. He is committed till the bitter end. When it could no longer exceed 50 miles an hour, he adjusted his driving route accordingly. When the air-conditioning died, he drove stoically through a steaming North Carolina summer. Not even an August heat wave that melted a videotape to the dashboard would make him consider a replacement.

When my husband talks about his car, his voice softens, as if he were talking about an old friend, one who came into his life long before I did. This friend shows up at our house, all rough and scraggly and full of stories about the past. He makes me uncomfortable, because he and my husband share a bond I cannot completely understand. And I know that I must never ask my husband to choose between the two of us -- because if I do, I will be a sorry, lonely woman.

But I was not asking him to give up his car. I wanted to replace mine. My husband listened carefully to my argument. He looked skeptical as I described my parking-lot shame, my power-window dreams, and the repetitive-stress injuries to my wrists. But he loves me and could feel the force of my desire. So instead of trying to talk me out of it, he agreed to begin shopping for a new car.

A couple of months later, we found ourselves in a vast used-car lot, scrutinizing a midsize sedan as if it were a work of art.

"Do you love it?" my husband asked me. "Because if you do, let's get it."

I walked around the car one more time, trying to determine whether this was the one that would banish my shame and quell my desire. I looked under the hood. I sat inside and examined the interior. It met all my criteria. But nothing about it -- not even the power windows -- made me feel anything close to love. All I felt was a growing awareness that I was going to get what I'd asked for -- and that it would cost me more money than I'd ever spent on a single purchase in my life.

"You decide," my husband said. "It honestly makes no difference to me." He made a sweeping gesture across the row of cars before us. "All these cars look the same."

My eyes landed on a late-model foreign sports car with sleek lines and a gleaming hood. Next to it, an old, rusty American car with a crumpled fender bulged out of its parking space. The first auto brought to mind a drive down a winding Tuscan road at sunset, en route to a mountaintop wine tasting. The second screamed claustrophobic American poverty: sitting in a traffic jam on the way to Wal-Mart, the floor littered with fast-food wrappers and cigarette butts. To my husband, though, they were both just metal boxes on wheels. In that instant, I glimpsed the lifelong challenge of our marriage: He and I may assume that we see the same thing when we observe an object, but because of our different backgrounds, our interpretation of what we are looking at -- which is more important than what's actually there -- will never be the same.

We bought the car we saw that day. Thousands of dollars, representing years of savings, flew from our hands in an instant. For that, I got a used car that smelled faintly of a family I didn't know. On the way home I tested the power windows, watching them glide up and down.

In truth, my new car could do little to protect me from the real dangers of driving on crowded freeways and living in a credit-driven consumer culture. But at least I'd no longer feel like an outcast, peering in through the gates at the American middle class. In my new car, I'd be able to slip back into that neighborhood, where most of what glitters is borrowed: the houses we live in, the cars we drive, sometimes even the clothes we wear. "In a consumer society, there are inevitably two kinds of slaves," writes priest and activist Ivan Illich: "the prisoners of envy, and the prisoners of addiction." Looking out the window at the traffic pressing in around me, I couldn't help but wonder whether the gates around our affluence keep the dangers out or the slaves in.

Reprinted from the literary magazine The Sun (June 2005). Subscriptions: $36/yr. (12 issues) from Box 469061, Escondido, CA 92046; www.thesunmagazine.org.