It wasn’t his fault. The day before, he had worked for two hours with a prospect that turned out to be a roach. With the bad credit the scrawny fellow had, he had some nerve coming to the dealership. He probably just wanted the thrill of a test drive. When Mark got the job, they told him he would have a salary in addition to the commissions, but they didn’t give him a penny. The dealership just wanted cheap labor, which was another reason it was hard to make a sale. There were too many of them, hovering like vultures for a deal.
Suddenly, he saw an up and called it before the other guys did. A short man with a balding head got out of a red car. Maybe he was an older guy—could be rich. A plump woman, glittering with jewelry, followed him. That was a good sign, and she even had a fancy handbag. Maybe they were Iranians or something. He couldn’t tell. But it didn’t matter. Mark hoped that they weren’t mooches who demanded the invoice price. The guy looked too frightened though. Like a squirrel caught on a backyard strawberry patch. No, this guy was probably a lie-down. He was sure of it. Mark’s spirits lifted. He smiled.
A flock of Canada geese dashed across the sky honking petulantly. The sun had broken through the clouds, sending a shaft of yellow through the pine trees. Mount Hood framed the horizon, its ridges sharp and clear. It would have been a perfect day for a hike up to Beacon Rock. Vijay opened the car door and saw a man near the entrance look up and walk towards him. He had on a white shirt and crisply ironed trousers. The gel on his hair created a spiky wave over his forehead. With the glint of an eagle swooping down onto its prey, he sprinted from his spot. Vijay raised his head to meet the man’s eyes.
“May I help you?” the man inquired, and extended his hand. “I’m Mark.” He smiled, but his eyes didn’t. They were startlingly clear and blue. Cold.
“Hi,” Vijay replied, without introducing himself, pulling back the hand the man had grabbed firmly.
“We are looking for a 328i,” Maya said, with a Cheshire cat smile on her face.
Vijay stared at her. She had come all prepared. He should have done his homework, looked up prices on the internet. But he hadn’t.
“Great choice, follow me,” the man said. “Let’s go to the office and take a look at all your options.” He was in command now, homing in on his kill.
“We’re just looking,” Vijay interjected loudly, but he knew it was a lost cause. There was nothing to do but follow him.
By Saturday, Vijay had started to crumble. The rolling eyes he could handle, and the hissy fit was a cinch. He was a pro when it came to the near meltdown. Even the silent treatment, spreading slimy and cold into every nook and cranny of the house, didn’t faze him. But when Maya literally broke out into hives, his steely resolve began to show signs of rust. It was always the same old pattern. In the end, he would just cave in and give in to her whim like he always did. The creationists were right. He hadn’t evolved from an ape. He had descended from a spineless jellyfish.
It was funny how it always happened to Maya when she didn’t get her away. She had mastered so much mental control over her physiology. The doctor said it was strawberries. But there was a definite medical connection between the thwarting of her desires and the red patches on her body. Somebody could get the Nobel Prize for deciphering the mechanism.
20 years ago, she had a sweet smile and an hourglass figure that turned heads. Now it was more like a sack of new russet potatoes that beckoned a frying pan. That was OK. He wasn’t a shallow man. But with her exterior ravaged by a steady diet of cheesecake (New York style) and Kettle chips (Honey Dijon), he was at least entitled to some inner beauty. Lately, however, her inner landscape was more like the interior of Mount St. Helens. Periodically, plumes of smoke would come out. At other times, there was an ominous silence. But there was always this uneasy feeling that something was brewing and you didn’t want to get too close. You didn’t want to be merrily traipsing along the Loowit trail, taking pictures to show off to your friends. You had to have a healthy respect for the mountain. And he did, which was why he was going to get the Beamer even though he was more of a Honda Civic kind of guy.
It was a gorgeous spring day. A faint woody fragrance of cedar and sage, with a touch of white musk, wafted past Maya as Mark moved towards her.
“Maya. What a pretty name. Is your last name Angelou?”
“Oh, no,” Maya replied laughing, as a warmth spread across her cheeks. “But thank you.” That was surprising—a literary salesman. She tripped over the curb as they crossed the divider on the lot next to the service area. He caught her elbow to steady her, and moved quickly towards the stairs.
As Maya walked briskly to keep in step, a button popped. Her shirt must have shrunk in the wash. She pulled it tightly over the spare tire that surrounded her skinny waist. It was a circle of flesh that didn’t really belong to her body. It was there temporarily for some grand purpose, and until it left, she had to just put up with it patiently. Sometime after she hit 40, it had descended on her like an unwelcome visitor. At first, it seemed rather innocuous, just the evidence of a heavy meal that would disappear by the morning. But it didn’t. Then she thought it was a temporary hormone related thing that would wane along with the phase of the moon. But instead, it waxed. She stepped up her routine at the gym, but it raced ahead of her. The tire developed a mind of its own—a clever one. The more she exercised and dieted, the more it expanded. It was two steps ahead of her. Finally, she found that she could trick it by indulging in cheesecake and chips. Complacent that it had won, it slowed down. Now they had an uneasy détente. As long as she didn’t watch her weight, it stayed stable. She couldn’t get back her girlish figure, but at least this was better than expanding into a real blimp.
As she climbed up the stairs, her breasts swung low on her chest, surrendering to the forces of gravity like aging matriarchs. Whenever she ran on the treadmill though, they defied the restrictions of steel wire and flapped defiantly. Yes, motherhood had taken its toll, but Maya was happy with her 40-something body. In any case, there wasn’t any point in working too hard to be attractive. It wasn’t as if she was married to Johnny Depp. Vijay’s comb-over didn’t exactly hide the growing bald spot on his head. The Friday evening beers with his friend Suresh and spicy hot samosas from Taj India at lunch had also contributed to a Sumo wrestler look. And the last time he had given her long stemmed red roses was in the Reagan years.
“Take a seat,” Mark said pointing to a table. “I’ll get some catalogues for you.”
Maya’s heart beat a little faster. This was it. They were going to do it. When Mark came back, his cell phone buzzed. “Excuse me, my manager wants me, I will be back in a second,” he said.
Maya looked at Vijay. He was nervously fingering the glossy brochures. She probably shouldn’t blame him. It was his mother’s fault. Her apron strings stretched over several continents to rein him in. One time, when she had visited them, she homed in on Maya like a shark that had spotted a surfer. But Vijay never defended her. He had been programmed to respond to belligerence with docility. So he stood there like a spineless jellyfish, doing nothing.
Maya traced her fingers over a picture of a car, as if stroking it would help manifest it into reality. She felt a twinge of doubt, which made her stomach sink. Would Vijay really agree to this, or would he get into one of his stubborn sphinx-like moods? He had always been such a cheapskate. When he gave her a food processor for their first wedding anniversary, it was a tiny straw, but it was the first of many more to come on the back of the camel. Now, it really got to her, especially because of her friend Juhi Chopra.
Ever since the stock price of Juhi’s husband’s company had skyrocketed, the woman’s smugness had risen proportionately. It hadn’t been easy keeping up with the Chopras on a shoestring budget. An Alaska cruise hadn’t done the trick, neither had the kitchen remodeling. The African safari had been out of Maya’s reach and private school for the kids elusive. And for good measure, the woman’s son was some sort of a science prodigy. This was why getting a decent family car to protect the family honor was a reasonable idea. Her lips felt dry. Maya opened her purse to get a chapstick, and pulled her compact out. There was a small red spot on her cheek, sent out like a guard on sentry duty. Vijay had better not mess this one up.
The man came back, waving some papers in their face. “Good news! We have one out for you, come along, we’ll drive over to see it.”
Vijay had never seen Maya so animated. She jumped like a jack-rabbit to follow the guy and got into the golf cart with him. Vijay sat in the back. “Love marriages never work,” his mother had said. “And a Bengali girl at that. Eating fish and all.” He missed his mother’s puliyodharai—long loose grains of rice with tamarind and peanuts, and deep-fried vathal to go with it. When he was a kid, he would help lay out the black tarp on the terrace where his mother dried the batter of spicy white flour pressed into little squiggles. She would scold him for eating them raw, before they were dried and deep-fried in peanut oil. Maya’s idea of scratch cooking was thawing out a giant box of lasagna from Costco. He couldn’t understand how Maya could call the sweet old woman shrill. The way Maya snapped at the kids all the time, it wasn’t as if she was an angel herself. Lately, she was livid because the kids couldn’t get admission into the local prep-school, and she seemed to think he owed her a trip to Cape Town or Tunisia, or somewhere like that.
The man was chatting away, pointing to something. Maya replied to him, looking over her shoulder. In a way, you couldn’t really blame Maya for her behavior. You had to blame the IT boom that had taken hold of lowly engineers and transformed them into deranged tycoons. They felt obligated to display their acquired fortunes to the general public. It wasn’t exactly his fault that using budding yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) to identify and characterize host genes involved in the RNA expression of the barley yellow dwarf virus (BYDV) didn’t exactly catapult you onto the Forbes List. Of course, barley plants all over the world rejoiced, but Wall Street didn’t consider barley a darling.
The sun was really bright now, and Vijay was almost blinded by the cars stretched out like sea lions on a rock. Why couldn’t Maya understand that all he wanted was a simple life? When he had uttered those famous last words “I do,” in Sanskrit, on their wedding day, he hadn’t realized that he had signed a permanent contract with one of those seedy TV makeover shows. Ever since he had been forced to get a perm and made to pose on skis for a photograph (he didn’t ski), it was clear he was expected to step into some pre-ordained mold. And over the years, the mold had evolved. Now, it was a retired billionaire with a boyish look and indecent amounts of money that had to be spent before the government got its grubby hands on it.
The useful books he left around didn’t seem to be effective in inducing a transformation. How to Romance Your Man! with relevant pages highlighted elicited no response. For her birthday, he even got a DVD called Meditation for the Middle-Aged Woman. For some strange reason, she had the same expression on her face that she did when he had given her a food processor for their first wedding anniversary.
“Here’s your car,” the man said when they rolled to a stop.
The gleaming blue car looked as sleek and friendly as a dolphin. Maya opened the car door.
“Nice little beauty, isn’t it?” Mark asked. “It has a 230 horsepower engine with Valvetronic technology, and rear-wheel drive. Our least expensive car—starting at a little more than $30,000.”
The car was gorgeous, probably not meant for a guy who drove exactly at the speed limit on the freeway as other cars swerved around him, but it would look good as it rolled up Juhi’s driveway. And with a new hairdo from Très Chic, Maya could step out of the car like an actress on Oscar night.
“Do you have any used cars?” Vijay piped up, being difficult as usual.
“Our pre-owned vehicles are in the lot across the street,” Mark said.
“That’s OK. We’ll look here first,” Maya said, squaring her shoulders and stepping in front.
“Well, a new car is an investment you know. Tell you what, I’ll show you our featured car. You’re really lucky that it’s on sale.”
The wind ruffled the long strands of hair across Vijay’s head, and he patted it down in place. His hairline had receded a little over the years, but you could barely notice it. He didn’t have a six-pack for a stomach, but he was in great shape. He lifted weights regularly, so all that weight on him was actually muscle. He pushed his chin up and straightened his shoulders. If he was going to push back, he needed to look more assertive. Like a Saudi oil sheikh who could get three more wives if he wanted to.
The man pointed to an ugly jet-black car that looked like a shark with its teeth bared.
“This is our featured car for the month—a 335i, with a powerful 300 hp engine, with twin-turbo technology. For a few thousand more you’ll get more power and all-out performance.”
What Vijay needed was more power over Maya, not over the road.
“No, no, this is a little beyond our budget,” Vijay said, his lips quivering.
“Well you can get the 328i, but this is definitely superior. It’s a few grand more, but it’s worth it. If you are going to invest in a BMW, you might as well get good value for your money.”
Maya nodded her head wisely as if she was a native of Bavaria. Vijay walked up to her and whispered.
“If we are going to spend this much money,” he said, “At least we should consider the Prius.”
“Some other time, Vijay,” she hissed. “You promised.”
The man had won the first round. He was sucking Maya into his sticky web.
“Oh, don’t worry about the price. We’ll offer you a good financing deal. You will probably be only looking at something like $999 a month. And of course, you can trade in your car. We always make good offers on trade-ins.”
“Did you hear that, Vijay, only $999!” Maya said, poking him sharply in the ribs, as if that was the full price of the car. She looked like a gambler at a slot machine, staring at three cherries in a row.
“The offer is on until the end of March. So you have a week.”
“We’ll do it,” Maya said. “Can we take it for a test drive?”
Vijay could see her lips moving, but no sound seemed to be coming out of her mouth. The sky started to swirl and he saw the man waving frantically to another guy. Then Maya got really blurry and started to fade.
The first thing that Vijay saw when he woke up was a bright light above him. An IV-tube was attached to his arm. A nurse, a rather large woman with a generous bosom and flaming red hair, was measuring his blood pressure.
“What happened?” he asked.
“You passed out, sweetheart,” she said, “At the car dealership across from us. It’s lucky that you were so close. They thought you had a heart-attack, but you’re clear. Nothing is wrong with the ticker.”
“But how did I sleep through all of this?”
“You must have been tired. It happens. But don’t worry; you are going to be OK.”
“Where’s Maya?” he said, straining his neck to look around. “I mean my wife.”
“She stepped out to the reception office, you know, to deal with all the insurance and stuff. Nice lady. She was so worried about you.”
“Oh, thank you,” Vijay mumbled uncertainly.
“I’ll get something for you to eat. But are you allergic to anything? The doctor was worried. That’s why he wanted to monitor you here a little longer.”
“Not that I know of. Why do you ask?”
“You’re covered all over with red spots. Looks like hives to me.”
Lakshmi Jagannathan is a former agricultural scientist. Her writings have been published in Indogram.com, The Deccan Herald, and The Oregonian. She is the winner of a Kay Snow award for non-fiction from Willamette Writers. She lives in Beaverton with her husband and two sons.