Carmen is dead. I do not mourn her. I cannot bear the pain. And I’d had enough of the expense.
She died late one December night on our way back from a trip down the New South Wales coast. We were climbing a big hill south of Kiama when her lungs gave out. Emphysema and dehydration probably. I’d given her plenty of fluids, but in my weariness and haste didn’t notice her sweating, didn’t notice the heat radiating off her fevered skin. No, she just whimpered and slowed down so that I had to heave her the last few yards to the safety of a grass patch by the treacherous road, where she collapsed. I stayed with her all night until a couple of fellows came along and took us to the local emergency room. The big burly guy at the intake desk convinced me the situation was hopeless, that I ought to brace myself for the worst, that in fact she’d had a major coronary and was a goner. He eased her out of my vacillating hands, examining and handing back the paperwork for my quick releasing signature.
Carmen was a good looker but she was a cougher from the start. She had an unpredictable temper too. I took her on because, well, Sydney is a big, brutal and lonely place and I was desperate for something to get me going. When her “dander was up” so to speak, she’d boil over and then squat down and not move. Passive aggressive behaviour they call it. It was quite an effort to coax her out of it though. The first time I tried she literally spat gunk at me. I took her to a doctor. He said he was a specialist but I had my doubts. He seemed a creep but I just couldn’t prove it, and there was no one else to trust in this big town full of sharks. The guy soothed me with words like, “she’ll be right as rain. Ready tomorrow arvo,” and “for shore, mate, for shore.” But all the work seemed to be done by his assistant, a tired old Chinese guy in a smock whom the boss bossed around.
I called next morning. “Ahh Mate,” he sang into the phone in his Aussie Lebanese accent. “There’s been a problem mate. Worst-case scenario. Means I gotta operate. She’ll be ready tomorrow arvo mate, for shore, absolutely for shore. No worries mate.” This went on for days. The doctor kept giving me bad news in small doses so I wouldn’t rush off to get a second opinion. I got crisp with him. I got steely. But he was a smooth operator, smiling his shiny-lipped smile. Cost me a thousand bucks in the end.
But I say to myself philosophically, in order to grow, a man’s got to be unlucky in love at least once. I’ve had relationships with cars before, relationships I’d initially put little faith in because, I said to myself, I am just SETTLING for this one. It’s all I can afford, all I am really worthy of at the moment. They won’t last anyway. I’ll probably be left in the lurch on some dusty road miles from home. Or even worse, I’ll have to face the embarrassment of being dumped right in the middle of a crowd, maybe even on some busy street where I’d have to endure the mockery of guys who hadn’t settled for less themselves. So I said to myself, I won’t go searching high and low for the perfect one, or save and save for something out of my league. I’ll just settle for what a poor sod like me can get, something I won’t regret losing in the long run.
I’d actually been quite lucky in the past. My first love Constanza cost me almost nothing, and she was a really fast little ride, if you don’t mind my vulgar way of putting it. I met her in Seattle and we had more than two good years travelling together. God, we saw a lot of country. She was a bit shabby in her torn blue outfit, a bit embarrassing to take out in public, but we had great times on the open road. She took me camping in the mountains as though she knew those tracks like the back of her hand. And when I took her back to New York to settle down for a while it was kind of exciting, being so anti cool, having a relationship with this battered, broken nosed little thing. She and I were like street poetry. But she ended up going with someone else. Some punk stole her right off Van Corlear Place when we were living in the Bronx. I didn’t realise love could change you. I was so miserable I didn’t want another relationship ever. I just paid for my rides, so to speak, with cash out of my pocket.
But after a few years I knew I couldn’t go it alone anymore so I started looking again. Dino was big, really big, really noisy and a terrible drinker. He lived with a weedy little Russian guy down the street from me in Queens and at first I wanted nothing to do with him. But he grew on me slowly and finally I said yes. I guess you could say I hit the switch and went over to the other side of the tracks with this one. I always felt strangely comfortable in his beefy embrace. He wore formal black and white but had sweat under his armpits and grime under his collar. Once he got going he’d croon smoothly in a mellow baritone. He drank like Dean Martin and he looked like a dinosaur, which is why I called him Dino. In the end poor old Dino got into a fight with my best friend who ended up bashing his head into a tree. He never recovered. Maybe it was jealousy, or even drugs, but I forgave and sort of forgot.
But this latest one was petite, spiffy and wore bright red, not my usual type. She smoked heavily and she always cost money to go out with. I called her Carmen like the cigarette factory girl in the story. She was the kind that a man loves to worry about. After all every Carmen worth her smarts knows that worry makes a man feel less like a boy and more like a man.
Carmen could not quit smoking. She had to have a smoke first thing, and she was smoking last thing before I parked her and put her to bed. I read anti-smoking manuals out loud to her. I coaxed her. I tinkered with her supplements. Nothing worked.
Carmen was always running late, always spending far too much time getting herself ready to go out. As she used to say, all cute, a girl’s gotta FEEL ready before she gets going. You can’t push her. You’re a pig if you try to push a girl like Carmen. I read the sections in those relationship manuals on how to get her to want to be on time, but nothing ever worked. So I was patient. I learned to be soothing, patting her on the shoulder and cooing “hey girl, ready to go?” and “oooooh, you’re MY girl!” She loved this. It worked like a charm every time. Every damned time until the last time. I must have been tired. She must have sensed I didn’t mean it. But why do I torture myself. She’s gone.
Sometimes though, I wonder. Maybe I didn’t work hard enough at our relationship. I’ve finally admitted to my therapist that I wasn’t ready to make the financial sacrifice needed to take my commitment to the next level. He’s been hinting for weeks that I only left her for dead out of exhaustion and impatience. Well, I reply bitterly, if that’s the case good riddance. So what if someone who had an eye for a quick profit gave her an overhaul, put brake fluid in her instead of oil so she’d purr for a week and sold her to some fresh sap with credit cards falling out of his wallet.
I pass by quite a few spiffy red Carmen types on inner Sydney streets. Most men consider them quite low maintenance. You even see a few women with them on Glebe Point Road. They must be lipstick lesbian Carmens. Perhaps I cannot bear to think of her giving up the ghost in the hospice that took her in the end. Every time I see one just like her I wonder if she’s mine, back on the market with a cheap overhaul and a facelift. I’ll walk up and peer closely, trying not to look obvious. Same shiny red outfit, same dark grey accessories, but either the freckles or the blackheads are different, or her rear end bounces in an indefinably different way when I give it a discreet squeeze. No. None of them are my Carmen. I have to tell myself she’s dead and gone.
Author’s note, 2013:
Constanza: 1979 Datsun 200SX
Dino: 1988 Oldsmobile Delta Royale
Carmen: 1992 Ford Laser hatchback
Three other vehicles have been approached for this story but as yet they have vetoed discussion.