The Lost Lexus
Lexus, Lexi: I wanted the Lexus. For Christmas, my husband had given me a card on which he had written Hybrid—a replacement for my ancient Toyota RAV4. I was newly enchanted with the phrase carbon footprint and the idea of lightening mine. Temperamentally, I’ve never been a light-liver: when I wear clothes they wear out quickly; downstairs neighbors complain of my heavy tread. But I was enamored with the effortlessness of a hybrid—of purchasing one’s way into a superior relation to the planet. All I had to do was pick the hybrid.
It was the eve of our first wedding anniversary, and I was still trying to understand my husband’s financial philosophy and the extent to which it was a philosophy. I was hoping it was more a matter of habit because one thing was plain: it was different from mine. Michael was frugal. By chance, I discovered that the Lexus RX hybrid was the same price as the Toyota Highlander Limited hybrid when configured similarly, with GPS. Both had similar reliability ratings, since, in fact, both cars are manufactured by Toyota. But the Lexus was prettier, with a comelier snout, a curvier body, and superior interior decoration. If Michael’s thriftiness was simply about saving money, then he would be fine with whichever car I chose. But I had a feeling it wasn’t.
“A Lexus!” he exclaimed with dismay. I harped on the similarity of the price and—since it is also manufactured by Toyota—reliability rating. “I’d be embarrassed to drive it.” There was a Lexus or two in the parking lot at work, he acknowledged—and Acuras and Infinitis—but he was “glad they didn’t belong to me.” His was a magnetic gray Toyota Camry with an ash interior: nice, but not too nice, and that was the way he liked it. “It’s a neutral car—it doesn’t make a statement,” he explained. “But I wouldn’t want to influence you. If I have to drive it to work sometime, I can park inconspicuously,” he said glumly. “I guess, I just didn’t see us as a Lexus kind of family.”
When we had gotten engaged, we were financial equals. To be precise, Michael had six times the savings I did—but since six of not very much is still not very much, we were, to my mind, roughly in the same financial category. There was no particular reason to expect this would change. But shortly before our wedding, it became clear that the business he founded – a small, “emerging” software company, as they call it in the business world, or “struggling startup” as he often described it to me—was going to be acquired by a giant computer company. When that happened, we would become distinctly, dramatically unequal. The unhappily paired in his circle counseled him to make a prenuptial agreement.
In relating his rejection their advice, I understood that Michael wanted me to feel that this money would also belong to me—that we would be financial partners. The first time he referred to the share of the buyout that went to “us,” I assumed he was referring to his board, and I caught my breath when I realized he meant me. Our share, us. He had worked for many years to build the product and the company—years during which he had been with other women—and I met him just when all his efforts had come to fruition. And suddenly—without my so much as having grasped what scalable, highly-available file serving, or database consolidation was—it was all “ours.” Or even ours.
“Of course, we’re not going to change our spending habits, anyway,” he said.
“We’re not? Why not?”
“Because that would be bad.”
“What about what I’m saying aren’t you taking seriously?”
Perhaps he only wanted me to be his financial partner in the same way that I wanted him to be co-owner of our blue-point Balinese kitten, Crumpet: to share responsibility, certainly, but to do so in the way I saw fit which meant—for example—not just leaving her food when we went away for the weekend, but arranging for a live-in professional pet-sitter to keep her from being bored or lonely, even if he was of the opinion that she could amuse herself because “the species survived for thousands of years without humans to amuse them and she will survive the weekend.” She is our cat, to be sure, as long as he is with the cat-care program. But if there is dissent, she is my cat.
I wasn’t with the financial program.
“Our income has changed,” I said.
“Our income has not changed. I’ve explained this before. This was a one-time financial windfall.”
“Okay, okay, fine, our assets have changed. Our bank balance has an extra zero! Our financial situation has improved by an order of magnitude.”
“That’s not relevant.”
Was it a dim anxiety that we’d need this windfall someday—that we would irritate the gods with frivolity and they’d show us how swiftly fortunes can reverse? Did luxuries strike him as unseemly, in the face of poverty and increasing financial inequity? Or was his attitude the product of a small town New England upbringing by the kind of serious-minded academics who refinanced their house to send their children to private schools because education is important—but who bought cars second-hand, clothes on markdown, and checked videos out of the library? Was Michael afraid that if he bought things his parents wouldn’t buy, he’d be rejecting their values—or them?
I had also grown up in an academic family, but with parents who were far less thrifty. My Lexus-driving mother is, however, prone to fits of guilt about extravagances—a problem she likes to solve by taking my father shopping with her. He’ll settle into a chair in Saks or Neiman Marcus or Bloomingdales, reading, munching on cashews, and looking up from his thriller from time to time to nod approvingly at everything she tries on. “Well, I don’t know,” she’ll say, pursing her lips, “maybe it’s too expensive.”
“Nonsense,” he replies, right on cue: if she wants it, she must have it.
When I coyly suggested to Michael that something I coveted was too costly, he simply concurred. When I talked about want, he refocused the conversation on need. When we first moved in together, I thought we should become a two iPod household; he thought we should share mine. “Come on—“ I agued, “everyone has their own iPod. Kids in ghettos have iPods.”
“Kids in ghettos have automatic weapons and satellite TV,” he said. “Do we need those too?”
For me, purchasing decisions have always been guided by a single frighteningly simple criterion: what you can afford. They’re not intricate moral decisions—just personal, practical ones. What is it worth to you and what do you have to give up to get it? But now, Michael and I could get lots of things and give up nothing, which should make everything deliciously simple.
A few days after the company acquisition was finalized, I was unloading groceries in the kitchen.
“How much were the clementines?” Michael asked casually.
“I read that clementines are expensive this year due to the unusually cold winter.”
“You didn’t notice?”
“Sweetie.” We unloaded in silence for a few minutes.
“Oh, good, you bought wine.” He held up the bottle. “How much was it?”
“4.99! I bought it at Trader Joe’s. Since every single thing at Trader Joe’s is something we can afford, there’s no need to look at any of the price tags, including clementines.”
Michael hates to criticize people and when he does, he is usually so excessively tactful that it’s easy for the other person to miss the criticism entirely. His New Year’s resolution was to be more assertive, and I seconded it. But although his tone was mild as ever, I could tell the suggestion of a blithe state of mind in which price was of no concern perturbed him. I knew he wanted me to reassure him that I agreed in principle that price always matters, because frugality is a principle. He had no lapses of frugality during business travel. When he flew to Europe on business, he booked himself in coach, even though his new employer’s policy allowed for business class; when I flew domestically, I drained his frequent flyer miles for an upgrade. Arriving at an airport on an expense account, he looked for public transportation; arriving on our dime, I looked for a cab.
Yet hundreds of dollars could disappear without a second thought to a random charity I never knew he cared about (Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic) or to one I chose, hoping he would not be interested (Save the Tiger) or to one that obviously needed no help from us (The Association of American Rhodes Scholars). But a $2 call to directory information or a bottle of water when I was lost and thirsty caused consternation. For Michael, charity is not inconsistent with frugality. Only carelessness is.
I like to be careless. As a writer with no certain income, I had bought boxes of clementines whenever I wanted, even if half of them were rotted; my spending philosophy was based on the idea that one has to take care with major expenses, but little things never add up. “As a former mathematician, I assure you,” Michael solemnly informed me one day, “little things add up.”
As a former mathematician, he enjoyed all that adding—minimizing expenditures, maximizing returns. He enjoyed entering his expenses into his Quicken program and being able to tell you how much he paid for a decaf latte on the second Tuesday in November seven years ago. I refused to keep my receipts—I hated the idea of every purchase being on the record. As a result, his Quicken developed what he referred to as a gaping hole called Melanie.
“For me, frugality is protection against deprivation,” he said. “For you, it is deprivation.”
Deprivation, or just a drag. I didn’t want to drive to another gas station because he thought the price at the one we had stopped at was a tad high. Even though the alternative was only five minutes away and we weren’t in a hurry, it bothered me. I felt those minutes were being kidnapped from my life. On my deathbed I would want them back—or I would want to have shortened my life by smoking five cigarettes instead. My fantasy of having money had been that it would render money invisible, like a return to the world of childhood, where everything is free, the clementines in the bowl like fruit on a tree.
My friend Amanda has a system she calls Princess Math, the gist of which is that a penny saved is a penny earned. Therefore, if you buy something on sale, you’ve saved the savings and you can take that savings and leverage it into a faux-fox-trimmed buttercream pashmina. I had tried to live in the world of Princess Math, but I was always bumping into the limits of my resources. I had wanted to be able to write checks without checking my balance, but I was afraid they would bounce. Now, finally, they would never bounce—if only my husband didn’t keep dampening my spending spirits.
When mutual friends bestowed Michael upon me, I knew he was perfect. After two decades of relationships with men who were decidedly or subtly not quite right, I felt entirely vindicated. He was even younger—so much for clichés about older women. They say one must never congratulate a bride, but I basked in congratulations. His friends and family were happy for him, but my friends and family were thrilled.
So was I. His was the kind of beautiful, beguiling mind I had always prized—the kind you can get lost in. The transatlantic phone call after our first date when he flew back to London, where he was living then, lasted six hours and still felt abbreviated. The lesson of my excessively long dating life had been that you always paid for fascination: if you wanted someone brilliant and creative, count on him also being narcissistic, difficult, and probably—despite or perhaps because of his brilliance—unhappy.
It’s not just that being fascinating and being a good partner are distinct qualities (as intelligence and attractiveness are) and do not always turn up in one person. In men, I decided, they were actually competitive, and the drive to be special usually overwhelms the drive to be giving. I dated writers, entrepreneurs, academics, physicians, and scientists for whom relationships were the area in which they least excelled. But if you can’t fall in love without being both dazzled and nurtured, you have to wait—and be prepared to stay single.
Michael was sweet, sensible, sensitive, and endlessly good-natured. For the first time ever in a relationship, I was haunted by the sense that I was the difficult one—the one prone to crankiness and self-absorption, the one who, when all was said and done—usually owed the apology. Once, when we quarreled, I declared triumphantly you are definitely not perfect. He laughed and I realized that basically, I thought he was. Now finally, with finances, I was almost pleased to identify a definite foible—an area of irrationality.
Unless the irrationality was mine.
I understood that by the standards of Michael’s world, his share of the sale of his company had been modest because the company had required large investments, with the result that almost all of it was owned by the investors. I knew that, as Michael kept reminding me, we weren’t rich—not by the standards of rich-people, anyway, or the price of real estate on the Upper West Side. But by my standards—writer standards, with the multiplications of Princess Math—we were. Rich enough for treats: for clementines, cashmere, champagne, orchids, massage, antique teapots, and Parisian Mariage Frères tea ($21 at Dean & DeLuca’s for a tiny tin, unless you went to Paris to pick it up which was clearly the thing to do). Rich enough for Highlander hybrids—and now, it seemed, rich enough for Lexi.
“By the way, I think the plural of Lexus is just Lexus,” Michael said. “Or maybe Lexuses. It’s not Latin—it’s just a made-up word trying to sound like luxury.” But to me, it didn’t sound like what it probably was—an arid acronym for luxury export to the US. It sounded like lucky. It was akin to other appealing l words like lucid, luscious, and lovely. I remember the first ads for the Lexus, where the car was shown with a tower of champagne flutes neatly balanced on its hood or parking between pyramids of them—as if the owner would momentarily step out of the car to take down a glass and toast her choice.
The Toyota Highlander owner—who was she? Was she joyous? Was she beautiful? Did she drink champagne? I disliked the name Highlander, which sounded like it was trying to sound Scottish, and which seemed absurd for a Japanese car (though why that was sillier than trying to sound like Ancient Rome, I couldn’t say). Clearly, the company thought she was afraid of Lowlands and would buy this big boat of a car to protect herself against vague fears, like the kind of person who voted Republican because it claimed to be the party of national security. Or perhaps she was just a sturdy suburban soccer mom who valued the fact that the back could be turned into a third row of seats for carpooling and still have room to lug stuff home from Costco.
Certainly, she was not discriminating about color. The Lexus came in special shades: Smoky Granite Mica, Golden Almond, and one I was particularly enticed by, Bamboo Pearl—the palest of pale golds—whereas the Highlander’s only distinctive color was Iced Amethyst Mica, a lavender that sparkled in a tacky way, like cheap eye shadow. Even the shades that were common to both cars were inexplicably less nice in the Highlander’s version. The Lexus had Black Onyx; the Highlander a don’t-bother-to-give-it-an-adorning-adjective Black—not even a modest moniker like Basic Black. Perhaps they just didn’t want one to feel too good about a non-luxury line. After all, why call Michael’s Camry Magnetic Gray? The first time I saw it, I thought it looked like a black pearl—not a magnet. And surely they could think of another way to describe the interior besides ash.
Lexus, Lexi, Lexorum. Lexorum Melanie: Melanie’s Lexi, unless that meant the Lexi’s Melanie. (I could no longer remember how the possessive declension worked.) If the latter it would unwittingly illustrate Michael’s belief that luxury purchases always involved falling for marketing: good for the marketing department, bad for you. “He leases an Audi,” he once said of a friend, “because he is short.”
How clever of Audi to convince him it would help, I thought at the time. And yet I now realized that I pictured that the woman in the Bamboo Pearl or Black Onyx Lexus was less likely to be suffering from the early arthritis that afflicted me —as if in buying a new car, I would be buying myself a new body—a bejeweled gold or black skin over my skin, a sturdy frame over my disappointing skeleton. When I peered through its specially sound-proofed windows in my mind, the Lexus driver looked healthier because she was luckier, more immune from misfortune. She married an amazing man. The unhappy part of her life was over. The happy, married part had begun. She was exceptionally lucky.
That part was true. What did the Lexus add?
“It’s your Christmas present, so you should get whatever you want,” Michael said. I love presents—giving them, receiving them, wrapping them, scattering glittering scraps of paper all over the floor – so it was startling to realize that he did not. When wedding presents arrived when I was traveling, they’d still be in their cardboard boxes when I came home. When I brought him a present, he’d always want to open it later—after dinner, after he had a shower, later. Why not now, I’d say. Aren’t you excited?
“Maybe they’re not always things I want,” he finally said, in a careful tone. “Maybe I feel pressure to want them so I don’t disappoint you.”
“I can get you something else! What do you want?” I constantly had the impulse to buy him presents to show him how happy with him I was. The more I sensed they weren’t right, the more I’d want to shop.
“I don’t want anything,” he said. So there it was: he preferred not to want anything. I know the truth of the truism that truly precious things—true love, bravery, good genes of the sort that for the most part I received, but which were inexplicably overlooked in regard to my spine—are not for sale. But channeling desire into things that can be bought or leased or put on layaway seems to offer a certain beautifully straightforward kind of fulfillment—as long as you make sure to covet things within your means. Desire and the fulfillment of desire: the two parts of pleasure.
Previously, the most expensive thing we had bought together was an engagement ring, about which we found ourselves in accord. I woke at dawn in excitement the morning of our excursion to Tiffany’s—a place I had always gone to buy other people’s wedding and baby presents. Finally, it was my turn!
But when we got there, it turned out the basic design of the rings was similar and their respective allure was entirely a function of price. Although the one-carat ring was expensive, it was less than half as nice as the two-carat ring and much less than a quarter as nice as the four-carat ring (niceness and price increased exponentially). Who wanted a less than quarter-nice ring? We weren’t going to have a quarter-nice marriage.
The saleswoman helpfully suggested we could consider a starter ring and trade up later on—an idea more suitable, I thought, for a starter marriage. The clarity of commerce seemed to quell all the sparkle. The trays of rings began to look like platinum-mounted price tags: lumps of compressed carbon-money whose function was not to express the mystery of your love, but to indicate the size of your portfolio—or (worse) the size you wished to indicate. They were hedge-fund-manageress rings, not Dorothy-ruby-slipper rings; they contained no secret power. In the end, we found a 1920’s art deco ring at a little shop in Oregon. It was an artful, intricate creation made from an old mine-cut diamond whose price only we would know. Why the last part was important, I didn’t know, but we both intuitively felt that it was.
For Michael, the Lexus was like the Tiffany’s ring: the imagined prominence of the price tag precluded romance.
“But if you prefer the Lexus and think it’s nicer,” Michael said, “or, as you say, more Princess—”
“Do you think it is?”
“I can’t speak to the princess factor. I never wanted to be a princess, or to be married to a princess.”
As a little girl, I thought a princess was one who dwelt in a world in which everything was pleasant and the most that could bruise her was a pea. Moreover, a princess wasn’t a princess because other people were paupers; her fortune reflected her internal worth, and could accordingly be reversed. But by middle school, I had a dismaying suspicion of a connection: perhaps the princess was rich because she had more than her share and other people didn’t have a ball of string. Perhaps being a princess was selfish, and one should aspire instead to live modestly and not monopolize resources. These two conceptions—Princess or Callous Consumer—remained vaguely in my head, unreconciled.
The Lexus: Princess or Consumer?
Once, reporting a story in Northern Uganda, I found myself at a Displaced Persons camp. Nauseated by the crush of hungry people, I gave a man all the money I had on me—the equivalent of $60.00. It was enough, my translator said, for his family of six children to survive on for half a year. I will never again have a mediocre $60.00 sushi dinner. This is the call, I thought, to change my life. I took off my sweater. It was my favorite, a dark gray Tse pullover made of a thin cashmere designed to accentuate the body at the expense of warmth. Retail price at Barneys: $200. Market value in the camp: $2.00—if anyone would buy it.
When I got back to New York, the call seemed less clear. Friends invited me out to dinner. What was I to say—I’m saving all my money to send to Africa? Wasn’t my money a drop in a leaky bucket? I missed my sweater. Even if I sent some money to Africa, surely I wasn’t going to send all my savings. As long as I had some savings, couldn’t I take $200 to buy the same sweater again?
I continued eating sushi and bought the sweater.
“Take a long drive,” the Lexus saleswoman said, with a soft Vietnamese accent as she handed us the key to the Classic Silver Metallic. It had a black leather interior, like one of those inside-out uramaki rolls. “I hope you give me a chance to earn your business.”
We turned off the highway, into an unknown neighborhood. It was Sunday afternoon: families were in the yard, kids played in the street. The car, with its electric engine, was eerily quiet.
Materialism, Empty Status Symbols—Bad
Renouncing desire—Bad, in a different way, unless you are an ascetic or a saint.
When I bought my first car twenty years ago, my body was good, but I was young and lost. If this car lasts as long as it’s supposed to last, by the time I buy my next car, I’ll be old and in pain. This is my time. This is my time to be happy.
Not falling prey to luxury car marketing.
Not buying the less nice car in order to avoid the luxury label, which is silly.
Writers don’t drive luxury cars unless they are screenwriters.
People who buy new cars of any kind instead of Building A School don’t care about Africa.
A rich car is not a rich life. People who think so suffer from Lack of Imagination.
Stay away from the colors of money, my friend Nicky said, silver and gold. And also black—people who drive black SUVs want to push everyone else off the road.
Just buy the car you want to buy, Claudia counseled. Don’t worry about what other people think.
People who drive Lexus are assholes, her husband said.
The price of knowing your car isn’t saying about you behind your back: Priceless.
It began to drizzle and the rain-sensing intermittent windshield wipers ingeniously activated themselves. We pulled over to the side of the highway just before we reached the dealer where the saleswoman would be waiting.
Thinking Too Hard about what kind of car to buy—Ridiculous.
“I don’t need it,” I said to Michael.
“You don’t have to need it. Do you want it?” There was an urgency to his voice. “I know I was negative about it at first, but I want you to do what you want. Really, I do. Look at me. Do you believe me?”
The happiness of belief suffused my mind. I leaned into his shoulder and thought this is what I want: talking, deciding, turning into our future. If only we could stay nestled in this space forever, like the ebony inside of a silver egg—the Platonic egg in which everything was us and ours, and I wanted what he wanted and nothing was broken, or divided, or different.
The feeling didn’t begin to ebb until the Highlander was sitting in our driveway.