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.