“This life came so close to never happening” -David Benioff, The 25th Hour
A bit of fortuitous timing can make all the difference. Just missing a particular wave by even the briefest interval can radically alter a particular outcome.
(N.B. Unlike most Sunday Stories, this story is true. Names, dates and other details may have been modified.)
“Swipe right or swipe left?” My father is holding up my iPhone, screen towards me, a thumbnail photograph of a fairly attractive young woman is on screen. We’re sitting in the kitchen after dinner on a Friday night. My brother and I are showing him how to use “Tinder“, the latest online dating app, where users can view photographs and a brief biography and either swipe right (yes) or left (no) on-screen. If both parties swipe right, then they are notified of a potential match. If there is a discordant selection between the two, nothing happens.
“Right!” comes the cry from my brother and I. My father breaks out into his characteristic cackle as we flick through several more. “Right! Right!” with a few “Lefts” thrown in, intonated with mock revulsion. He’s still howling. “This is great! I love this app!”. I want to tell him how Tinder is the most ruthless manifestation of r-selection, an entirely superficial appraisal of one’s value in the dating market, a place where I am consistently matched with the obese, the tattooed, the homely. My pseudo-intellectual train of angsty thought is interrupted by his display of a woman, pudgy, dressed in bargain basement clothes, clearly from a lower socioeconomic background. This one is a slam dunk. “Left!” says my brother. I concur. My father swipes right and we break out into laughter yet again.
Despite my earlier meditation on Tinder, I’m at it again mere minutes later, as I wait for my father to bring my press car back. I’m driving a 2013 Acura RDX, a car so utterly anonymous that I struggle with how I’ll even write about it. “It’s a two row crossover. It’s nice” is about all I have so far.
While he’s out taking it for a spin, I’m swiping right in a catatonic trance, hoping to be matched with somebody, anybody, with a BMI under 25 and no tattoos. Elizabeth is a year older than me, and resplendent in her main photo, coyly smiling while lounging poolside in a deck chair. Instead of the absurdly contrived faux-candid bikini shot so common to most profiles, she is wearing a white men’s button up shirt, demurely hiding most of her figure – except for a pair of slim, shapely legs. I hit the button to pull up more photos, and I like what I see – a big mane of wavy brown hair, grey eyes and that trademark smile. I swipe right.
“You have a match!”
Before I could even revel in my moment of triumph, I catch a glimpse of her bio.
“Location – Calgary, AB. Visiting for the weekend.”
We message anyways. She’s here visiting friend and family. Works in Oil & Gas. Went to a good school. “You’re cute,” I message her, trying to sound like the aloof, cocky archetype that so frequently brings success, “but you live in Calgary. Poor ROI for me.”
“Trying to throw around business terms to impress me?” she replies. “Noted.”
We meet that night, and she is just as attractive and charming as she was on Tinder. She tells me that I came so closing to blowing it all up with my attempt at arrogant humor. And then she returns to visit me in Toronto, twice.
“When you’re here, I want you to drive my car. Driving is a blue job.”
Not long ago, it was my turn to visit her, and the anticipation gnawed away at both of us in the weeks leading up to it. We kept in touch via Skype and FaceTime, but the internet connection in my condo wasn’t always the most stable – for example, the garbling of the word “blue” made is sound like something else entirely. The term “blue job” connotes something undesirable, like pumping gas, or apparently, driving her car around while I stayed with her. Who was I to argue?
“What do you drive?” I asked
“I have an RDX. Is that a good car? I wanted a CR-V, but I also wanted leather. By the time you optioned it up, it was as much as a two-year old RDX, so I got one from Acura with a warranty. Certified, or whatever they call it.”
“That’s what I drove down to the bar on the night I met you.”
“I really like mine. It feels sporty. Is it a good car?”
One of the most dreaded questions a woman can ask. Almost as bad as “does this make me look fat”. How do you tell them their 2005 Cavalier is not a shining example of automotive engineering, and not risk getting kicked to the curb?
“Well, yeah, but the new one is a lot different. More of a mom car.”
“That’s ok. The turbo is really bad on gas. I think I’d like an MDX when it’s time to upgrade. But not for a while – I want to drive my car into the ground.”
Having never been to the Rockies, Elizabeth and I decided to take a weekend trip to Banff and Lake Louise, a couple of hours north of Calgary. Both sites are some of the most popular tourist destinations within Canada, attracting visitors from around the world who are looking to take in the majesty of pristine Canadian wilderness. I was ashamed that I had been to all points in Canada except Alberta.
Elizabeth’s car is about 5 years old and has barely 30,000 miles on it. Aside from a small scrape on the rear bumper, it might as well be brand new. Elizabeth doesn’t know a lot about the RDX, just that is has a turbo and takes premium gas. I don’t think many consumers or enthusiasts understood it either. When it launched in 2006, it had the first turbocharged engine that Honda had ever brought to the North American market, a 2.3L 4-cylinder engine that put out 240 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque.
Mated to a 5-speed automatic, this motor was never used on any other product in the Honda or Acura lineup, even though it’s possible to think of countless applications where it would have been appropriate. Putting that power to the ground was a trick torque-vectoring all-wheel drive system dubbed SH-AWD. At the time, SH-AWD was novel for being able to send as much as 70 percent of torque to the rear wheels and distribute torque laterally between the rear wheels. Inside, heated seats, XM Radio, navigation and an ELS sound system added up to a pretty generous equipment list for the time.
But it all added up on the scales, with the RDX weighing a hair under 4,000 pounds despite being the size of a Honda CR-V. The difference between Elizabeth’s first-generation example and the new one is a great contrast in how quickly the automobile has changed in the few short years that separate the pre and post recession environment.
The road to Banff is a fairly smooth and straight, but it gave me a chance to sample what the first-gen RDX was made of. As the air thinned out and the grades got steeper, the turbo engine kept chugging away, and with careful throttle application, it was possible to stay out of the boost enough to maintain a decent 23 mpg (on winter tires and in unfavorable terrain, cruising at a steady 80 mph). The hydraulic steering is a bit light but transmits a fair amount of feedback, while the chassis is keen to tackle curves with enthusiasm. The only conditions that unsettled the RDX were the harsh cross winds in the low-lying areas approaching Banff, which blew the Acura around as if it were a Fiat 500.
The new RDX feels lifeless by comparison, with numb steering, and well-appointed, well-finished but anonymous cabin. It’s 3.5L V6 gets the job done, but is rather unremarkable in operation, and still requires premium fuel. Fuel economy is up, thanks to a conventional, less-complex AWD system and the V6 engine. Ironically, this is the kind of car that you’d expect to have existed prior to the wave of engine downsizing and technology bloat that flooded the post-recession market.
Instead, it’s Elizabeth’s 2009 model that, on paper, seems more modern, with the turbo engine, the torque vectoring all-wheel drive and the sophisticated technology. In many ways, it was the analogue of the current Ford Escape, but launched five years too soon. In 2006, the market wasn’t willing to accept poor fuel economy in exchange for sophisticated mechanicals and an engaging driving experience.
When we left Calgary, the temperature was close to 40 degrees and the sun was shining. Two hours later, we were standing on the now-frozen Lake Louise, with overcast skies, blowing snow and temperatures back into the high twenties. In my naivety, I imagined that I’d be able to enjoy the magnificent views of the lake, so common in Canadian iconography. Instead, I found cross-country skiers, families building forts and snow men, Japanese tourists posing for pictures and snapping away with telephoto lenses.
Elizabeth and I wandered hand in hand along the frozen lake and the grounds of the Fairmont hotel, pausing to watch a pond hockey tournament on the lake. I tried my best to shut my brain off, to purge thoughts of cars, TTAC, the auto industry, and I was mostly successful.
But I was left with a nagging notion about timing, about how with the RDX, Acura had been too far ahead of the market and suffered for it, while Ford had launched a similar crossover at just the right time and enjoyed massive sales. I thought about how the new RDX, launched in the midst of a recovering luxury market,rapidly outsold the old car. It was a safe, affordable choice, dull, charmless but competent.
“What are you thinking about?” she asked me. This was a common question. I have a bad habit of staring off into space, getting lost in my own head, of not being present. “I want to know everything that goes on in your head,” was something she said to me time and again. “No you don’t. It’s a mess,” was my constant reply.
I snapped out of it, stopped thinking about sales volume, scale, emissions regulations and everything else that normally occupies my mind. I thought about Elizabeth, and how fortunate – in the most literal sense of the word – I was to be with her in this setting, with the snow softly blowing, the natural wonders of the wilderness obscured in a soft focus of hazy fog. I thought about my silly pickup line and how for the first time in my life, I didn’t need to put on any kind of persona or hide who I really was. I was with someone who liked me for my vulnerabilities, my anxieties over the future, my job and my family, who forgave me for my mistakes, who asked for nothing more than communication and some company while she watched the kind of reality TV I normally disdained. And in return, she gave me everything.
I thought about timing, and how it all came so close to never happening.
But what I told her was “nothing.”