"Just had one," I answered.
There was a system after all, a sacred decorum, whereby each of us salespeople took ups in turn. Having just had one, the next one was Eric's. But Eric was with four or five others of the sales team in a riveting conversation about their preferred level of spice in chicken wings. "Go ahead, Daugherty. Try, try again," he said. The others laughed as I nodded and made my way to the pre-owned kiosk where the up was typing away, looking through the total selection of cars on the network of lots.
I had only been selling cars for about a month. My whole car salesman career spanned only 3 months total. An in-between job is what I had been calling it, although it wasn't clear at that point what this job was sandwiched between. I wasn't getting the hang of it and didn't care to. I just wondered what the next thing was going to be. It was March 6th, 1998. I was single. I had bad hair, worse pants and, among some other debts, a great car. It was a ridiculous monthly payment, but it was a sweet ride nonetheless. Kalapana black Mitsubishi Eclipse. Turbo. When I drove it I became objectively better than other people, despite my hair and pants. This is true. People with better hair and lesser cars confessed as much to me. I had little direction in life, but I had this overpriced, overfast car as compensator.
I walked around the corner of the kiosk to introduce myself to the up, hoping this interaction went better than the last. I had just made my March car payment after all, so the ol' well was dry. And promises to come back, later, maybe, and buy busted sedans couldn't scare away a repo man.
The woman standing at the computer stopped me in my tracks. She was the kind of beautiful that immediately makes you review your first impression chart: Breath? Posture? Bats-in-cave? But I couldn't think clearly about those things. I couldn't think of really anything. Least of all, me. No thought beyond the fact that before me were two of the most beautiful brown eyes I had ever seen. And perfectly big as well. Surely her blinking affected local weather. I was a bit stunned.
"...I'm Steve, uh. Can I... help you with anything?"
I would find out her name was
After a couple minutes it was clear that nothing in the system fit what she was hoping to find, so she agreed to walk the lot with me to see what we had. I don't remember much about the conversation's content. I just remember it was an easy one to have. And I remember at one point there was an eager interruption on her part:
"There!" She said, pointing suddenly. "I'm looking for one like that!" I followed the path of her finger over into the last row of cars in the lot. I was looking for silver, until I remembered she was also open to black. Then I realized she was pointing into the last isle, the staff parking isle. She was pointing at my Eclipse.
"The one with the fin?" I asked, smiling.
"Yeah, what is that?"
Boom. The monthly payment could have been double -quadruple- and it was still worth this moment.
"That's my Mitsubishi," I continued, trying not to sound as cocky as I was feeling about the whole event. "Wanna take a look?"
She sat in it, smiling and exploring and admiring. I quietly thanked God for allowing me to make such a asinine purchase a year prior. 450 cars on the lot and my car was the one she wanted. God was good.
But, this was only a bonus. There was already something great happening. That was the thing; I wouldn't have been into a girl just for being into my car. Her interest was somehow gravy, or sprinkles, or icing. Choose your food metaphor. There was a deeper something that her interest in my car seemed to validate rather than cause.
We went back to the kiosk for a final perusal. This time she found one with strong potential. A silver Honda Prelude. The problem was that this particular car was up at one of our sister lots, 45 minutes away. And protocol functioned such that, she would leave my lot, drive up to the other and get a salesperson who worked that lot. We weren't allowed to sell cars on other lots, although we did get an almost insultingly small kickback for our initial involvement.
None of this was I about to tell her.
"Well, I guess I'll drive up there and take a look." There was finality in her voice, but also a slight hint of sorrow. Could it be that she had felt like I had- that perhaps we'd just hit it off a bit?
"Ok. But I'd be glad to take you," I said, with little emotion in it so that it didn't sound as desperate as it felt inside my head. "No big deal."
"Oh, I couldn't ask you to do that. It's fine." She was opening the door, stepping through it backward.
I wondered how fine. Was she saying it was her preference I stay behind, or was she saying she didn't want to come off desperate but was open to my insisting? I opted for the latter.
(Kids, hide your eyes for a few lines, because I can't recommend the following deceptive behavior...)
"No, really. We do that. It's sort of a policy to walk a customer all the way through the process. It's kind of expected."
"Ok, well, if it's no problem."
In my memory three seconds passed before I pulled around in the Eclipse, the car of our dreams, to take her to Troy, a 45 minute jaunt north of Dayton. 45 minutes for lesser beings. I was prepared to do it in about 31. I also had to be stealthful, since I was not in any way supposed to put customers in my personal car to extend time with them for reasons not pertaining to our revenue stream. Selling her a car couldn't have mattered to me any less than it did. I just didn't want that door to close with her on the other side. I earlier let that up go with a promise of buying the sedan in some ethereal future because I ultimately didn't care. But this was no up. Kristi, with these eyes, great taste in cars and this easy connection with the likes of me, was something to put in the very least my month-and-a-half auto sales career on the line for. She got in, and we were off.
We small-talked while I only a little bit wondered how it was going to go to have me, a salesman from another lot, showing up and showing off their lot's inventory to a customer. I assumed when the sales team saw her they would still be mad at me but would at least understand. (I caught plenty of flack the next next day for all this incidentally. A couple of "never agains" and "out of lines" were leveled at me from management. But I was fine with it, for I had learned the day before that sometimes if you pay big, ridiculous amounts- even monthly- it sooner or later pays off nicely.)
She drove the Honda, then I drove it too and gave my opinion when she asked me for it. 30 minutes later we started back to Dayton in my car and the conversation continued. Easily. We talked about family, childhood, and the fact that we had each only recently moved back to the state from elsewhere. Me from St. Louis and her from Japan. We were laughing. We were mutually interested in our backstories. We were, in a very short period of time, friends.
As the drive came down to its final minutes, I thought I would attempt to manage a balancing act between being creepy, unprofessional and tuned-in to the reality I sensed was in front of me.
"So, I uh....I would just shoot myself if I didn't, uh...ask you if you wanted to...uh, go hang out later...er sumthin."
This felt like bowling. I had been studying the pins, strategizing and imagining a best case scenario for well over an hour. Now, the ball was out of my hands, spinning or perhaps careening toward either the pins or the gutter.
"Oh, I was wondering if that was ok or not. I was hoping you'd ask. I'd love to."
Inwardly: "YESSS! OH MY LORD, YES! I CAN'T BELIEVE IT- SHE'D LOVE TO! YES!
We agreed to meet at a place called Sneakers that was almost literally between her apartment and the lot at which I worked. We would see a well-known local band and continue what had been a great conversation. I rushed home, changed clothes and met her there a couple hours later. And there the conversation continued. Just as easy, though a bit louder as it was now yelled over top covers of 90's music. At one point I bought a rose from one of those I-sell-roses-at-bars-at-a-premium-because-of-the-power-of-impulse-in-douchey-guys guys. Kristi smiled, knowing that somehow, I didn't see it as romantic but as a silly parody of it. Stepping fully into the cheese, I put the rose into my teeth while some alt-rock song blared, offering my hands to her like a seasoned salsa dancer. She took my hands, stepping toward me with the sternness of a worthy dance partner. I turned my head to initiate the routine, though the rose and the clinched jaw were the only moves I knew. As I turned my head to the side, the stem of the rose went into her beautiful brown eye.
"AH!" she said, holding her hand to her scratched cornea, while smiling forgivingly.
I apologized profusely while she laughed. This wouldn't be the last time I inadvertently hurt her.
I don't remember the drive home that night. It may be because I floated on a cloud. Kristi had dropped out of nowhere, expected no pretense, and somehow had become a lifelong friend in one evening. It was all very strange. Perfectly, undeservedly strange.
We went out the next night. We agreed on authentic simplicity, so it was Bob Evans as the setting for our second date. Biscuits and gravy. No ophthalmological damage. Plenty of laughter.
And we went out the next night.
And then the next.
And then she bought a car from someone else on another lot. I wasn't insulted. Surprised, but not insulted. In fact, when it turned out she'd been ripped off, I was glad to be involved as a sympathetic friend rather than mixed up in the weirdness.
She took a one week business trip a few weeks later. But other than that five or six days, we were always together. Always laughing. Always listening. Always trying to understand, if even through arguments, ourselves through each other. To this day, though I many times prefer to be alone- I enjoy being with her. Laughing. Talking. Sharing reality with her. Sitting and thinking about how, if not for an inane conversation about spicy chicken wings, I might have missed out on everything I hold most dear.
Despite thinking for a couple minutes, I can't figure how to successfully wrap up this story. Probably because it never did.
My dear, brown-eyed Kristi, whom I met 15 years ago today. Thanks for daring to be seen with me that night. And for every night after. Thanks for being beautiful to look at, and then even more so to know. Thanks for having low standards and high intelligence. Thanks for being one of the few people that can make me ugly-laugh. Thanks for our three children who represent the best in us while probably keeping the future psychotherapy industry afloat as well. Thanks for being the best thing that ever happened to me. Sorry I can't dance and have a regular low-life person's car. At least I fixed my hair.
I love you.