Top Down, Windows Up

by marinashifrin

Jason expectedly died earlier in the day and I was furious with myself for crying so much. I could tell my tears were making Allen nervous. I wish it were more socially appropriate to carry on a conversation while crying.

Allen, albeit kind, was more concerned about what people would think if they saw a young woman exiting his auto body shop while hysterically crying. He threw tissues at my eyes and softly cooed me into calm. Jason, a 1999 Ford Mustang convertible I’d bought the day before, hung above me on the lift — lifeless. Prior to emptying out my savings account for that car, the largest purchase I’d made was three years earlier in the form of a root canal.

The next day A, the only person I knew in California, and I went to return the car. We drove in her BMW convertible which I had grown to resent. I didn’t hate her car initially, in fact, I used to be completely in love with its shiny exterior, its power and beauty.

The first time I saw it, was the first time I saw A since we’d graduated college. She pulled up with the top down. Her long brown hair floated around her head. It wrapped around her mouth when she laughed and reminded me why brunettes always end up on top. She smelled like warmth and her skin looked like the coffee-flavored drink I used to buy on Fridays in Taiwan. I was pale and thin. I’d been sleeping at rock bottom for a while and it was imprinted on my face. The dark circles under my eyes carried their own baggage; videos of massacres, a hospital stay, mind-numbing construction and the (very public) dissolution of a friendship sat within their metaphorical zippers.

When I got into her convertible that first day I tried to tell her the real story of how I ended up in LA. I wanted to explain what happened behind those doors, the things no one knew, how I’d nearly died the weekend before, but A just grabbed my bag, tossed it in the back seat and took off. No questions were asked. Watch how fast I can go, the car hissed.

Soon my hair was also floating in a halo around my head. The car’s hissing turned into purrs of delight when she rested her foot on the gas. I shut my eyes and tried to imagine what it’d be like to have the kind of money that could afford a car like this car. Even the leather complimented my ass: “Nooo! It’s not flat, it’s just Jewish,” it softly whispered in my ear. I looked so good; the seat began heating up. It got warmer and warmer until I felt like I’d urinated all over myself. Now that’s luxury, baby.

Behind the wheel, A blissfully ignored the stares of men driving past. She’s too pretty to notice the hungry eyes of those around her. I basked in the attention. The sun kissed the top of my head, my skin tingled in the fresh air — I wanted it all.

Five minutes after getting into her car I asked what everyone was wondering: “How can you afford this car?”

I noticed a flicker of shame tickle her beautiful face. It was there long enough for me to notice, but not long enough for the gawkers around us to see. “My boss,” she replied.

That’s all she needed to tell me, but of course more was said after a bottle of wine was opened. There we sat: one of us extorting a man who used his age and power to manipulate her, the other publicly shaming a man who attempted to use his age and power to manipulate her. One had a luxury car and an even better paycheck, the other: nothing. I was amazing how similar our stories were, yet she was still living hers and I left mine in Taiwan.

That week A brought me back to life through food, laughter and hiking. When she drove me back to the airport — in what we playfully began referring to as her “Blood Diamond” — I threw my hands gleefully in the air and screamed. We sang along to Macklemore, like confused white girls do, and I stood on my seat to show the world I didn’t care anymore. We were a car commercial for being young and alive.

I returned to Taiwan, packed up my life, said bye to my friends and coworkers. Then I headed back to Chicago where I vowed to hide from the world until I decided how to rebuild after a horrendous person broke me into 17 million pieces. I healed myself through calories and comedy. I grew stronger, fatter and I fell in love. Then, I made a plan. Part of that plan was coming back to California and attempting to restart my life as a comedian.

A and Blood Diamond were at the airport waiting for me when I returned. But the second time around, the Blood Diamond looked different to me. It was probably the newly acquired dent in the back bumper, but it also could’ve been the story behind how she got the car that made me bask in it’s glory a little less.

After weeks of borrowing A’s other, less nefarious, car, I knew it was time to get my own. Jason wasn’t my first choice. I went to a Honda dealership before, but I when told the sales associate my budget, I could see a twinkle of laughter hit the corner of his lips. He professionally suppressed it and printed up lease paperwork instead. I didn’t want to lease.

“I want to buy.” I told him. Had I more time, I would’ve explained that this car was to be a symbol of my new life in LA. And, if that new life did not pan out, it’d also be my future apartment. I wanted to buy. I needed to buy.

After spending a couple of hours with the sales guy, he and I both came to terms with the fact that I couldn’t afford any of the cars at their dealership. I decided to head over to a used car lot but not without noting the irony of being unable to buy a car while simultaneously being in a nationally aired Honda commercial.

Dennis, of Dennis Buys Cars, had long hair and round sunglasses. I liked his height and smile enough to trust him. In life, there are some lessons you have to learn on your own. For example, don’t buy a car the same way college kids buy liquor. I hadn’t learned this lesson yet, so I asked for whatever was cheapest. I knew as I was signing the check that I was making a mistake but it was a convertible and it was beautiful. I wanted the power, the luxury but more importantly: I needed to show A that independence was sexier than a BMW M3 convertible and more important than financial stability. If I could come out on top, she could too.

I couldn’t wait to feel the sun kiss my head, to feel the same rush I felt the first time I sat in Blood Diamond. I wanted my hair to blow in the wind, the hungry eyes, the chocolate skin. As I pulled off the lot it began to rain  — during one of California’s biggest droughts in history. I sat in my new convertible and cried.

The next day it stopped raining long enough for me to put the top down. It took me half an hour of wrestling and sweat. At one point I hung from the top, using my body weight to get it to fold down. A happened to drive by in the middle of my maneuver.

“Do you need help?” She asked. Worry was written all over her face.

“No! I am good! It just– it just needs some muscle!” I said with tears creeping back into my eyes.

“Okay honey, call me if you need anything. It’s a beautiful car,” she said sadly. The Blood Diamond zipped off, softly laughing at Jason.

RIP Jason.

RIP Jason.

When I finally got the top down, I headed to Allen’s Auto Body Shop hoping that all the problems were “quirks that’d disappear once it was driven for a little bit” like Dennis had promised. That’s when it happened. I was making a turn and Jason died. Just turned off. When a car shuts off on its own volition you feel stupid, when it’s a flashy muscle car bought to prove a point, you feel like the Queen of Stupids.

I was finally getting the stares I’d craved earlier, but this time they were looks of pity.

Back at Allen’s Body Shop he gave me his professional opinion: The car was a piece of shit. Despite its beauty on the outside, the insides were rusted and broken. No amount of driving was going to fix that. The two of us hung from the top to get it to close and I went into his office to cry some more. Later in the day I ended up finding a used car that was over my budget but had a clean history and low mileage. I decided furniture and food could wait and splurged on a car for the second time in three days.

The car is 11 years old and used. The driver’s side door doesn’t open with a key so I have to climb through the passenger side to get in. Sometimes the radio stops working. The paint is peeling on the outside and the fabric is coming off on the inside. No one looks at me when I drive it, but the thing is, when you’re in your 20s no one should look at you. No one should crave your life because it hasn’t begun yet. You’re just a silly child, in the body of an adult. You shouldn’t have money because you won’t know what to do with it. You shouldn’t let others tell you how to live because you’re going to mess it up. That’s your job; to make mistakes. If you ever see a young person in an expensive car or with an awesome job or anything else desirable, think about Jason and his beautiful exterior yet broken interior.

I decided not to name the car I have now because it’s just a car. Just some plastic and metal that gets me to comedy shows and production meetings. That’s it. And this car will eventually die too. Last month, I asked A to move to the city with me but she needed more time. “I have responsibilities, Marina. I have mortgage payments, I can’t just drop everything and leave.”

My shitty used car didn’t fit in with her shiny facade, so a few weeks later I found a place in Hollywood and we parted ways. I packed up my suitcases, and shoved them into the trunk where they nestled neatly between my anxiety and my dignity. I pulled out of her nice house in her nice neighborhood with her nice stuff and her nice car for the last time. It was still raining but I rolled down my windows anyway. I drove to my new life leaving A waiting for her’s to begin.