For an expat, coming back to the States you realize you've lost some sense of cultural ease. Whatever's in, you didn't know it yet. Like in L.A., where there's botox ads on the radio and the guy behind me at the checkout counter observes, "that's a lot of carbs."
But then I went back to Boulder to buy a car to travel west this summer for work.
I know Boulder. I lived here for seven years. So it doesn't take me by surprise when I call a number for a 1988 Subaru wagon and I get a guy--typical flake--saying, "Does it drive well? I imagine it would. I haven't driven it in a couple years. The women have taken over you see..."
It didn't sound promising. But I didn't have other prospects.
He told me I should just come over so I drove out to Louisville to meet him. "Oh, hello," he says.
"The car?" I ask.
"Oh. There's a car?" His creased blue eyes peer out the screen door. "Well, there is! A red car!"
I still think I am being toyed with. I enter his house, with a soothing mix of Asian art, Buddhist prayer flags and family photos. No one else is home. Can I drive the car?
"Ah. Drive the car. Of course!" Does he have the keys?
"The keys...." and he starts to putter about the kitchen, moving things. He grabs a stack of cds. Mahler, Debussy, Mozart...not here!" I start to notice things. There is a large note written in marker with a name and number that says YOUR ROOMMATE. At eye level there is a note SUBARU LEGACY IS FOR SALE, with details of the car. I start to put it together. He doesn't remember anything.
"Can we call your wife? Does she have a cell phone?"
"Oh yes! My wife. She has a cell phone. Very good."
The doorbell rings and he's off. I overhear, "here for the Subaru." Despite its age, the Subaru actually looks pretty good. I hear the man do his thing. "A car?" He might as well be helping me, stalling for time. After a look around I see a copper pot with 2 keys. LYNDA'S SUBARU they say. Bingo.
He's back. The woman went away. I will not be so easily deterred. "Shall we go for a ride?" I ask. I feel like I am kidnapping him.
"I don't see why not!" He's beaming.
I find out a few things about Jim. He used to be a physicist. He does puzzles now. He loves the flowers that fill the front yard ("You call them irises? he asks me with all seriousness). He has great affection for the car but is a calm co-passenger, even when the Subaru stalls out (my stick shift driving is kind of rusty). Unfortunately, the right joint that's faulty according to Lynda's note makes a clenching noise in any right turn that makes you think the axle will snap. Not good. Not good enough for a road trip to Wyoming.
When we get back Jim shows me his wedding picture ("at least I think that's me"). We chat a bit. I leave a note for Lynda, so at least she knows what happened today. Jim will return to his 1000 piece puzzle. "You should come back," he says.
Just when I am sure the encounter was more for me than for him, he's standing on the porch as I leave. I roll down the window to hear him. He's waving his two fists in the air, scrawny arms up at right angles."
"I SAID, ENJOY IT. LIFE!"
That night his grown daughter calls me. She's seen my note. "My father has Alzheimers. I hope he didn't bother you. He didn't make you any promises, did he?"
Not at all. In fact, I'd been thinking about the encounter all day. And I figured out what was so strange and wonderful about it. These are the kinds of encounters we make in foreign lands. Where strangers might not treat each other as such. I never have these kinds of experiences when I am back home. And maybe this time I've only had this one because the other party has lost his mind.
At least that's what they think.