It’s been six months now since my latest root canal was started, and the painful procedures, the crowning of the tooth followed by its de-crowning, followed by an endodontist’s re-evaluation and an encore performance of the root canal, have proved more disruptive and distracting than even the upstairs neighbor’s teenage kids playing Rockband all afternoon.

The pain is bearable – made so recently by 800mg of Ibuprofen every six hours – but it affects my moods, as well as my daily routines. I had to reduce my weekly running mileage because the pounding only aggravates the pain.

I hate causality. Causality is coarse, unimaginative and mostly plain wrong. Listen to any Tea Party member for proof. My teeth need root canals because I ate bags and bags of Haribos as a kid and teenager. That causality I can agree upon, but what about my mother’s teeth, which went missing after she gave birth to me and were replaced by dentures? What about the bars of chocolates and the hard candy and chewy toffees and the licorice I found every day in my lunchbox? Once you take a hard look at causality, it all becomes fuzzy.

So maybe it was the yellow Lamborghini, which triggered thoughts of what it was I wanted from life, coupled with my father-in-law’s remark last night, but maybe it’s the tooth, which, dying and refusing to die, makes me feel as though nothing much around me will last, least of all this body I’m writing from.

Last night on the way to my in-laws, on a dusky northbound 101, a yellow Lamborghini Murcielago passed us in heavy traffic, and it is a machine that, if you are so inclined, can stop your breath. Both my wife Sanaz and I went breathless, and to get over that sudden ache, asked ourselves jokingly what it might cost and then became very silent after that. Half an hour later I was sitting at the dinner table with my in-laws, who were looking after my wife’s grandmother for several months, but were preparing to leave LA and head back to Western New York. When I mentioned that one of the people I interviewed for an article had once been a high-ranking government official, my father-in-law Cyrus said that I should become an ambassador. One of his friends, he said, had been one and, “Boy, he made good money.”

I’m 44 and a writer and editor. Why would he suggest I become an ambassador? Cyrus is almost 70 and Persian. Persians in Los Angeles, or Tehrangeles, are notorious for pursuing only two professions: doctor or lawyer. The third possibility is businessman, and this last one is never being talked about. My wife’s uncle is a businessman, but nobody in the family, and I suspect not even his wife, know exactly what he is doing. It’s a cultural thing. You talk about money and accolades. You boast if you are a doctor or a lawyer. If you’re a businessman you drive a Lexus or Mercedes and keep your mouth shut.

However, Cyrus is no doctor or lawyer, and he prefers the small town in the Finger Lakes area to Los Angeles. He was never a businessman either, but a botanist at an Ivy-League university, a job he was cheated out of years ago. Cyrus himself has failed to make “good money.” So why did he bring it up?

The reason his remark irked me is, quite possibly, that I struggle to make money, good or bad. My highest total I reached one year when I worked two steady jobs, completed several freelance editing assignments and wrote as a freelancer for the local monthly.

My wife and I don’t lack in material things. What we do lack are status symbols. We drive a Ford Escort station wagon, and our apartment is in a shady section of Long Beach’s East Village. Half our clothes were bought second-hand. My wife does not own a rock and my wrist doesn’t own a Rolex.

But that’s not the nagging problem, nor is it an explanation for why Cyrus’ remark made me feel uncomfortable. My in-laws are getting on in years, and my father-in-law has lost much of his hearing and seems forgetful. And tired. He tires quickly, from driving or conversation. He shuts down and goes to sleep. He’s fit and in rather good spirits, but you wonder how long he can fight off age. He isn’t curious. He’s never understood what I do for a living, even though it’s simple enough. He’s seen the books on current topics I put together for high school students. Watching him while I again try to explain freelancing I get upset. Or unsettled. Watching him is like watching a washer at the laundromat. You can see it whirling and spinning inside, but the door is shut, you can’t add anything anymore. The door is shut and can’t be released. He’s helpless.

But the real problem I have with his remark might be a moment when I am 17 and hitchhiking from Berlin back to the small town in northern Germany where I’m still finishing high school. I just secretly visited my girlfriend, having told my parents that I’d be staying the weekend at a friend’s house. Instead I’ve hitchhiked the 250 miles to the still-divided city to make love to the woman I’m in love with and imagine I will marry (I will not, but future turmoil is still hidden, every gray cloud still has a tinge of pink).

At Checkpoint Dreilinden, a Mercedes stops and four of us heading north get in. We don’t know each other, are just happy to be in the car and we wait in the long line in front of the Eastern German checkpoint where we will receive visas to use the transit highway toward West Germany. It is spring, a car window or two might have been open. Then on the transit highway, which is littered with East German Wartburgs and Trabants, a Ferrari, yellow maybe, passes our car. It must be speeding, which is no problem if you know the spots where East German police is hiding with radar guns, or if you don’t care. You can’t be forced to pay the fines, the only punishment being a ban from future use of the transit route.

One of the hitchhikers who looks about 20 but later turns out to be 14, stares after the yellow Ferrari and says, “I’ll never be able to afford one of those.”

Ferraris are common nowadays in Los Angeles, where you need a Spyker to turn heads, but back then, in 1983, I had seen only a handful. The small town I grew up in harbored none, and the district where the woman I was in love with lived, held none either.

That day in 1983, inside the large Mercedes, I am lucky enough to have a seat by the window, on the left. I have the time to stare after the Ferrari, perhaps a 308 GTB, and I don’t say anything in return to the boy’s words. I am 17, 18 maybe, and I’m in my last year of German high school, the Gymnasium, which added grades 11 through 13 – the most advanced version of a three-tiered high school system. The 14-year-old is in a home for difficult students, which also serves as a vocational school. He is on his way to be a bricklayer, a carpenter, a construction worker. I am on my way to university – officially – and unofficially on my way to acting school and a career in film. I squint into the sun and watch the taillights of the Ferrari disappear and am thinking, “I might have one of those,” the way you look at the menu of a pizza place and think, “Maybe I have a Meat Lovers pie tonight.” It’s a thought without urgency. I own the world.

I did go to acting school and I also did go to university, but I had a knack for working long hours without pay. In college that’s expected, on off-off stages unfortunately too. But the big breakthrough was around the corner. Just that next one. Now it’s been so many corners I’ve lost count. I drive a Ford Escort station wagon.

Yesterday, before arriving at the apartment where my in-laws are staying during their visit to Los Angeles, the yellow Lamborghini Murcielago passed us on the 101 toward White Oaks. I’m not dying to have one, really. But its sight made me ache. And then at the dinner table Cyrus said I should become an ambassador, because his friend, “Boy, he made good money.”

Money has never come to him, yet he insists on it and I ask myself if it’s his upbringing he can’t shake or if it’s regret that makes him say that. Does he regret growing old in his own Ford Taurus station wagon, a bigger car than mine, an older one too? And is the money thing just regrets over growing old and looking for what will be left of you and not finding much, and over going out in a Ford Taurus station wagon instead of in a yellow Lamborghini Murcielago? Over realizing that you only took one road and at the age of 17 you were not yet presented with choices and you hitchhiked and there was still time to invent a career for yourself? Is Cyrus’ remark the swan song of a man who was never a doctor and who is the poorest of his cousins and friends? Is it regret that his hearing and his memory are failing him, regret that the world overwhelms and kills him?

This essay doesn’t come to a conclusion, since I feel short of conclusions these days. One ending sees the Lamborghini as the dream of youth vanishing from sight and what I’m left with is a 44-year-old body not enclosed by hand-stitched leather, my spine un-tingled by 12 cylinders. In another ending, the car becomes the symbol for what we get without having to earn it. Because what I earn, I don’t enjoy. I see every bit of hard work in it. What comes to me without work, however, almost as though I had a right to it, makes me happy.

What is it that makes me ache and shake my head at Cyrus’ remark? Maybe it’s the dream I had in 1983, of getting married to the woman who I then still loved, of becoming my own person and leave the small town where I grew up. The Ferrari was built to deliver what was humanly possible, not what you could measure in dollars or time. In that Ferrari I saw my dreams zooming ahead, and also the means by which I’d be fast enough to hang on to them – achieving and dreaming packaged in one. But I’m not 17; I don’t think that way anymore.

For now, I will end with this ending: I regret having only this life with its limited time and possibilities. But a Lamborghini, while it would keep me thrilled for 6 and a half months, is only another space to fill with such useless regrets. In fact, yesterday evening – and most every day in LA – we were all stuck on the 101 and only dreamed of the open road. On the open road, just one touch of the pedal, one feral scream of the mid-mounted engine, and the Lamborghini would become a small dot and disappear. In heavy traffic on the dusky 101, however, I caught the yellow Lamborghini Murcielago at the White Oaks exit. It turned left, I turned right.

My wife Sanaz was in the car. And my dog Dunkin. In the trunk, there were two Meat Lovers pizzas.

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STEFAN KIESBYE is the author of Next Door Lived A Girl. His second novel was recently published by Tropen/Klett-Cotta Verlag in Germany; the American edition, titled Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone will be released by Viking/Penguin in 2012. Stefan lives in Los Angeles with his wife Sanaz and their dogs Dunkin and Nozomi.

34 responses to “Yellow Lamborghini”

  1. Don Mitchell says:

    Ah, Stefan. My friend, this is your best TNB piece. The car theme, Cyrus, it’s all wonderful.

    Even though I’ve known you for a long time — what, 15 years? — I now know more about you than I did fifteen minutes ago.

    We ought to write twin pieces. I’ll write about you, and you write about me. Unlike that unholy alliance of S&S&Z&R, we won’t hide our identities.

  2. Irene Zion says:

    If I won the lottery, I would make sure my kids were safe for life, and also my grandkids, and then I would give lots to charities I’m fond of, for children and dogs and cancer and heart disease and restless legs syndrome, and then I would go on lots of super-weird trips all over the world with Victor, and, nowhere in my wildest dreams, does a car of any kind enter into it.
    But you’re a guy.
    Guys dream of cars, even if they don’t really want them.
    It’s in the DNA.

    • Stefan Kiesbye says:

      Sanaz does too, though. And really, it’s not the car, but the dream of the car. And maybe men and car-loving women were made by some extra-terrestrial robot on four wheels. I’d like that.

  3. Richard Cox says:

    I agree with Mr. Mitchell. This is definitely your best TNB essay. Or the best of them I’ve read.

    Of course it reminded me a bit of your piece about the FX 35, but this was so much more heartfelt and meditative about life and what really matters.

    It’s easy to say money makes one happy, that owning a fast car and a big house and being a famous author will turn life into a grand fantasy.

    But very rich and famous and attractive people don’t seem any happier than anyone else, and in fact maybe they’re even less happy than those who never have to worry about living such an extravagant lifestyle in the first place.

    If I won the lottery, I’d set up my family and friends and then travel, the same as Irene. But after I’d seen the places I wanted to see, and done the things I wanted to do, I’d still be left with plenty of years to enjoy, and the only way that would realistically happen is if I shared it with someone I loved.

    And you know as well as I do that no amount of money can ever buy that.

    • Stefan Kiesbye says:

      Thanks for your comment, Richard. Oh yes, the FX 35 (and Irene’s Murano), but I might not even get angry being cut off by a Murcielago.

      yeah, I do want to believe that richer and more famous people are not happier, but then what do we strive for? And yes, maybe the answer is that all that striving is pretty boorish, but it’s so damn hard to let go of shiny toys and the salvation they promise.

      To love and pizza!

      • Dana says:

        I know a rich man very well. I sometimes have to remind him how enormously fortunate he is to have his loads of money. He’s definitely not happier than me, and he never ever has been. Money is totally wasted on the rich. 😉

        If I had his money, I’d be ecstatic!

  4. Zara Potts says:

    I too, must join the chorus, and say this is a great piece, Stefan. I really enjoyed the way you gathered up all the threads and sewed them so nicely together.
    It has tremendous heart, this piece.
    Oh money. I love it and hate it at the same time.
    I appreciate the freedom it bestows, but I’ve seen how empty it makes people and how in itself it really can be the root of all evil.
    But Goddamn, it’s a necessity, especially when root canals are involved!

    • Stefan Kiesbye says:

      yes, it’s a necessity, oh Dark Empress! If only they had cast you as Dark Zara!

      The thing that really gets me most is that it’s so easy to see that money isn’t really everything, but how it still seems to promise so much fun. Like coffee, booze, ice cream sundaes. Hard to get over that, especially when it’s not by choice, like, “Oh, I gave up on all my millions.” Sigh.

      • Zara Potts says:

        Nothing beats an ice cream sundae, it’s true.
        Especially if it has a cherry and a wafer and a colourful spoon.

  5. Ben Loory says:

    great piece, stefan. thanks for posting it.

  6. Simon Smithson says:

    The best thing I’ve found to say to people, when they say ‘Money doesn’t buy happiness,’ is to say ‘Sure. Remind me again what no money buys you?’

    If I won the lottery, Stefan, I’d totally buy the rights to this piece from you. Because, like Don, I think this is probably the best thing you’ve written for TNB. And it feels, stylistically, a little different from some. Not in a good or bad way, it just showcases the fact you’re a man (a writer), of many parts.

    “Both my wife Sanaz and I went breathless, and to get over that sudden ache,”

    Ah, that ache. It’s not just cars, brother.

    I do like causality – I just wish I knew more about the back-end machinery of it.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laplace%27s_demon

  7. Stefan Kiesbye says:

    Good to hear from you, Simon, as always, and thanks for the link. “if it knew the precise location and momentum of every atom in the universe then it could use deterministic principles to reveal the entire course of cosmic events, past and future.” Wow, that almost transcends causality and replaces it with THE big book of fate.

    You’re right, the back-end machinery is what counts. Our own attempts at causality are just so darn flimsy.

  8. Dang, Stefan, this piece resonated with me on so many different levels. It spoke to so many issues I’ve been dealing with recently.

    Other than that, this comment doesn’t really come to a conclusion. Like you said, I’m feeling short of conclusions these days.

    • Stefan Kiesbye says:

      Rich,

      I blame age. Might be a commonplace, but the older I get, the less I believe in conclusions and the less likely it seems that anything will ever be concluded in my personal or public life. It’s just changing.

  9. dwoz says:

    An apt aphorism appropriately alluded:

    “If your goal is to ‘make money’, then at the realization of that goal, you’ll have money but not the least shred of an idea what to do with it. If you instead set out with a dream, you’ll get to the realization of that goal a fulfilled person, and the money will take care of itself.”

    My paraphrase, though not original with my by any stretch.

    I’ve personally never had any kind of problem whatsoever making money. Its the holding-onto-it part that eludes me.

    • Stefan Kiesbye says:

      I’m not sure about the “money will take care of itself” thing. In a way, that sounds like a Puritan’s dream. I think that fulfillment and money can exist on different planes.

      Holding on to it? Let me know when you figure it out 🙂 I need that too.

      • dwoz says:

        Well, it isn’t to say that you can IGNORE the money. Do something vital and worthwhile, and the money flows. But yes, you cannot treat it as manna, you have to pay attention to it.

        “fulfillment and money can exist on different planes”

        that’s the whole point, except I’d change it to remove the conditional “can.”

        Money can be characterized as “energy channeled within a flow.” When you look at it this way, you realize that money is just potential energy. When you collect energy for energy’s sake, what you end up with looks exactly like a bomb.

        If I may offer a defense of Cyrus: He’s probably not as much motivated by status and stature that money brings, but more by the old-world notion that your children should live a better life than you did. He wishes a comfortable life for his daughter, by the only measure he knows.

  10. Dana says:

    This was wonderful, Stefan. It made me bristle on your behalf that your father-in-law would insinuate that you don’t make enough money. I suppose it could be a cultural thing, or maybe just a generational thing – this obsession with titles and money? I’m mostly sorry that he’s not curious.

    I love this: “Watching him is like watching a washer at the laundromat. You can see it whirling and spinning inside, but the door is shut, you can’t add anything anymore.”

    And of course, your closing was perfect. (Although at first I thought you had the Dunkin in the trunk. Might be time to slow down when I read.)

  11. Stefan Kiesbye says:

    Thanks, Dana, for bristling!

    I don’t believe he’s seeing it that way, or might not even notice what he’s saying (which is part of the problem). He wants to make sure we’re okay, that we’re doing fine, but he has no way of expressing such thoughts directly. And there’s only one way for him to achieve that, one way to make sure you’re okay, and he’s unable to see or accept other ways. He’s mostly a gentle, nice man, which makes that part even more maddening. Ah, family!

  12. Erika Rae says:

    I am struck by the comparison of yourself as a young man on your way to university, etc. and the 14-year-old in the car with you. So much there- you could write volumes on this alone. I think the reason this post is so great is that it resonates with us, the writer community. There is this great dream (“the yellow Lamborghini”) where we get published and make loads of money, but at the same time most of us know it’ll never happen to *us* – that even if and when we get published that kind of success is limited to the few. We’ve all got that dream, but at the same time we also simultaneously have that 14-year-old somewhere inside of us.

    It’s like the monkey test, I suppose. There are three buttons: One delivers treats regularly, one delivers treats never, and one never delivers treats. Which one does the monkey hit the most to the delight of spying scientists? Why, the one which sometimes delivers treats, of course!

    Not ever fully giving up on that dream (and neither should any of us).

    • Erika Rae says:

      And i just realized I wrote that wrong. One of those should read, “One SOMETIMES delivers treats”.

      Sigh.

      Clearly, Stefan, the monkeys have me flustered, as well.

  13. Stefan Kiesbye says:

    I wish you hadn’t told me about the monkey. Uh, oh. Now I’ll be depressed for the rest of the day…

  14. Stefan, your writing style is richly lyrical. I need to get a copy of your first novel. As others have already noted, you have a talent for writing in the memoir style.

  15. Stefan Kiesbye says:

    Thank you, you made my day!

  16. Marni Grossman says:

    “In that Ferrari I saw my dreams zooming ahead, and also the means by which I’d be fast enough to hang on to them – achieving and dreaming packaged in one. But I’m not 17; I don’t think that way anymore.”

    Those were just fantastic lines. Wistful and beautiful and true.

  17. Stefan Kiesbye says:

    So good to hear from you, Marni!!!

  18. Luke Kelly-Clyne says:

    This is really incredible. The dirty, hairy, “money thing”. I think we all struggle with this, no matter how much or how little we have, and it’s nice to read about someone exploring it (and, maybe even conquering it) so beautifully.

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