There is a level of distracted driving that exists far above that enjoyed by the texting teen or harried housewife haranguing her husband via shattered-screen iPhone 4. It is the level where one’s mind is in the grip of an idea so compelling, so overwhelming, that the task of driving the car has to be handed off to the not-quite-conscious mind, the dream state of anxiety and anticipation and frustration that caused me to accidentally steer my thirty-seven-thousand-tired-mile rental Altima to Lexington (via Route 75) when I had every intention of traveling to Louisville (via Route 71). Every three minutes and twenty-seven seconds, my right hand reached out to my iPod and reset it to play The Stylistics again. Fifty times, maybe, I listened to the song, driving in the wrong direction, animated by the single thought:
I will see her tonight.
Betcha, by golly, wow.
Seven months ago, I said my final goodbyes to the female hurricane I know as Drama McHourglass. On a fluffy bed high above some city we performed the old rituals of seduction and resistance then dressed and shared a chaste embrace beyond the bedroom’s sliding doors. She had given me the choice: choose her and forsake all others, or let her go forever. My pragmatic mind chose the latter and I felt like Michael Henchard making his will as I whispered it to her among a iceberg field of big pillows strewn across the bed. To this, I put my name. Now be free.
Free she was. Free to date a remarkably handsome and significantly younger man in my absence, according to Facebook. They made quite the couple. In due deference to the aging-hipster reality distortion field surrounding their shared home of Franklin, TN, he painted and “made art” in a style best described in the old “original and good” damnation: the original parts were not good, the good parts were not original. I tracked the progress of his latest opening on his website, read his heartfelt but spasmodically misspelled professions of gratitude to Drama for rescuing his life as an artist and human being, and vividly imagined using a dull butter knife to skin his face in the most leisurely fashion imaginable. She called me regularly, usually at the worst possible times, saying things like “You destroyed my ability to love. I had to… degrade myself with him, to claim my body back for myself. From you.”
“What,” I sputtered, choking on my morning bagel, “do you mean by that?”
“You know what I mean by that,” she replied.
“No, I don’t. Take the two dolls and show the court what the bad man did to you.”
“More than you’ll ever do to me again.” The perils of dating intelligent women. They understand how to reach into your heart and squeeze each ventricle individually.
“I love you,” came my involuntary and desperate response.
“But not enough,” she replied, “to choose me.” I wanted to die. At least, I consoled myself, you’ll never have to see her again.
Naturally, a week later a client of mine mandated that I visit their facility all of, gosh, eleven miles from her house to fix a rather expensive and difficult problem. They were willing to spring for a rental car, and that’s how I found myself driving to Nashville in last year’s Altima by way of Lexington.
The Nissan Altima 2.5S is just the vehicle you need to dream-drive, for unconscious piloting, for the fugue state of independence. The exterior is perfectly forgettable, a slightly melted version of the previous Altima, yet another shadow of the original Skyline G35 displayed to the Plato’s Cave of the Nissan dealership and its slightly credit-challenged inhabitants. Higher-end Altimas have all sorts of awful-looking shiny-silver trim splattered across their dismal black interiors, but shorn of that costume jewelry the car has a sort of poverty-stricken pride in its appearance. It’s all the same grade of plastic, from radio knob to hooded center-vent cover, and it’s all bad, but it’s not so bad as to keep you awake.
The seats are short in the thigh, resistant to rental wear, unpleasant in the short encounter but serviceable for the 425-mile trudge. For some reason, my Altima had keyless entry as its possibly sole option. Unlike the “Kessy” systems in my cultivated Phaetons and sporty S5, the Altima requires a press of the rubber door button both to lock and unlock. It’s depressing and cheap-feeling to operate. There isn’t much surprise and delight in the 2.5S, unless one considers how surprising it is that there’s nothing at all delightful about a car that was originally marketed as the enthusiast alternative to the Camry.
Yet with a couple left-foot approaches to off-ramps as I escaped Columbus, Ohio and headed southward, some of the Nissan’s underlying character was able to peek through the dismal interior and Fiat-124-esque ergonomics. The car handles pretty well and BMW could do worse than to transfer the Altima’s basic steering feel to their latest barge of a Funfer. The trip computer reported a steady twenty-eight miles per gallon. Not bad for such a big car with such a tiny engine. I plugged in the iPod through the crackly 1/8th-inch input jack and slept to dream on the long featureless freeway.
By the time I realized oh, God damn it, I’m in Lexington and need to go the other way, the Altima and I had come to be friends. It’s quieter than an Accord of similar vintage, for sure. Some cars are tiring to drive and this isn’t. All good points. Then I saw an iffy merge situation ahead of me; the traffic runs at 85mph down south of Lexington and some grandmother in a Sienna was about to enter the freeway in a manner designed to make that speed impossible for everyone around. Time to floor it and ditch the situation.
Eff me if the Altima didn’t pick up and scoot into triple digits with alacrity. It took me a minute of staring at the tach, which was perfectly fixed at the car’s horsepower peak while said car continued to accelerate, to remember: oh yeah, this has a CVT. The hated and dreaded transmission. The soul-sucking appliance twister that one of my favorite online auto writers, Damon Lavrinc, likened to herpes in an article last year.
No, this isn’t herpes. Herpes is bad news, and the CVT is good news. Over the thousand-plus miles to come in my time with Mr. 2.5S, I tried to put the CVT into all sorts of bad conditions. I Morse-code-pumped the accelerator on steep grades. I brake-torqued it from lights. I would lull it into low-rev complacency then jam the throttle into the cheap-carpet firewall like John Bonham kick-drumming a warning of a levee’s imminent collapse. Sometimes I would hit both pedals at the same time for no reason.
Still. Through all that. Couldn’t ruffle it. The CVT just kept working, kept delivering the most power available and ruthlessly optimizing for economy. I tried the manual-shift mode briefly then laughed at myself for even bothering to do it. Why bother, when the CVT knows best? It doesn’t jerk the driver around, it doesn’t punish him the way the Malibu’s stupid six-speed loves to do with unhappy low-speed shifts and inappropriate grade-logic gear choice. It simply works. While I can understand the reasons why a driver might want a manual transmission instead, I don’t see why somebody would get all excited about, say, Toyota’s Camry automatic over this stepless, efficient choice. It does the right thing far more often than any of its geared competitors can.
If only I could claim the same virtue. That evening, Drama came to my hotel room earlier than she said she would. I saw her peeking through the peephole in reverse and I let her hide outside the door while I played Natalie Merchant’s “My Skin” on a Martin 000-15M. When I was good and ready, I played her game and opened the door so she could surprise me in the act of being needy. She trembled in my arms, cried on the threshold, and collapsed on the bed. Her ensemble was stolen equally from the stylebooks of librarians and burlesque dancers and it showed way too much of her spectacular legs.
We lay next to each other and dreamed wide awake, staring empty-eyed at the blank ceiling. “Do you love him?” I asked.
“Do you love me?”
I caught the next question in my throat, because I was afraid the answer would be that she loved him more, but I was terrified of the possibility that it wouldn’t. I wanted alternately to scream with joy because she was with me and throw up from the sheer misery of knowing she’d be back in bed with that half-assed painter before the sun rose. My mind and heart thrashed. I prayed for a continuously variable emotion, a placid face to meet the faces that I would meet, a flat torque curve of affect to hide the cowardice and sickness in my heart, a toroidal transmission between the high-rpm beat in my chest and the places where our bodies met beneath the sheets.
Our eyes met and she said, “You’re as over me… as you’re ever going to be. I need to leave. It’s three in the morning.” Indeed it was. And though we saw each other again in the nights and days that followed, by the time I pointed the Nissan back towards Louisville I mostly loved her at a distance, isolated by the mechanism I’d placed between me and her, the relentless rationality that denies love and says this: move forward, engage drive, smooth from the light, empty of revs and dreaming in the space between here and home.
“How’d you like the car?” the rental agent inquired.
“Honestly,” I lied, “I don’t remember the trip.”