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Bubble o’ Trouble

Driving a brand-new car feels like driving around in an open billfold with the dollars flapping by your ears as they fly out the window. — Grey Livingston

I led the uniformed man around the hood to the front tire on the passenger side of my Mini Cooper. “See?” I said, pointing to the golf-ball-sized lump in the tread. “It just appeared out of nowhere. Is this something that happens regularly to this kind of tire?”

I’d Twittered the question the night before, so I knew if he said no he’d be lying. Most people who’d responded to my tweet explained how they’d suffered so much frustration with their “run-flat” tires that they eventually replaced them all with the cheaper “stop-flat” kind. After this guy — Brian was his name — said yes, I was going to push the warranty angle. But he didn’t exactly say yes.

“When did you run into the curb?”

My look of surprise was genuine. I wondered if I could use that to my advantage and act like I didn’t know what he was talking about. Me? Never, that strange bump just happened. By the way, isn’t this under warranty? But his question had given rise to a blistering memory that percolated into my brain like acid reflux: three months earlier, downtown, when I’d spun the car around to snag a prime parking spot right in front of the Civic Theatre; you’d think the turning radius would be tighter on such a small car.

I looked up from the deformed tire to Brian and smiled weakly. I’ve never been good at lying (a defect I attribute to having been born with a puny prefrontal cortex). But that didn’t mean I was incapable of working the facts to my advantage.

“I’m pretty sure I’ve brushed the curb a few times while trying to park. I wonder if that might have caused this,” I said.

“This was a huge hit; you’d remember it,” said Brian.

I squinted at him, as if tightening my eyes could somehow ward off his imposing psychic powers. “Okay, yes, I remember,” I said, copping to the fact. “I tried to flip a bitch to grab a parking spot downtown. But then the light changed and another car was coming, so I hit the accelerator and sort of rammed the curb.”

“Yup, that would do it.”

“But that was months ago,” I argued. “This bump only appeared last week. Wouldn’t I have noticed something before now? You sure the tire’s not a lemon?”

I hadn’t actually noticed the bump, not on my own. I have a catlike ability to ignore things that do not interest me…things like tires. It was David who’d shown it to me.

“See, right here, that’s where the curb hit the rim,” said Brian. I had a flashback of David pointing to the same nick on the metal right after I’d parked that night, like a dog owner pointing to a mess on the carpet. Brian continued, “You’re lucky you had these run-flat tires, or else you’d need a new rim as well, and those run around $600.”

“And how much is this going to run me?” I already knew the answer. David had done the research and crunched the numbers: two new run-flat tires (you can’t get just one, makes the car drive crooked or something), $587; fancy, full-weighted alignment (the only kind they do), $380; taxes, $44; the bittersweet satisfaction David would get from doling out a colossal I Told You So: priceless.

In his never-ending bid to fortify his daughters against the advantages an unscrupulous man might take, Dad had passed along some techniques to help us avoid being finagled, one of which was the old wince routine. “No matter what they say, regardless of whether I think it’s reasonable or not, my first reaction to hearing a number is to wince and suck air in through my teeth,” he told me, scrunching up his face and inhaling sharply to demonstrate. “It’s a New York thing, baby. I know they’re trying to screw me, and it kills me to be played. When I react like that, they go, ‘Oh, no, okay,’ and they drop it down a little bit.”

It was hard for me to refrain from balking at the numbers. But this wasn’t the corner-store mechanic; it was the dealership at which I’d bought my car. The fees were nonnegotiable. At least I could rest assured that doing a sub-par job wasn’t in their best interest.

The Mini is the first new car I’ve ever bought — I got it in the beginning of 2008, right before another kind of bubble popped and left my bank account in shambles. I chose to cut back in other areas so I could keep the car. David drives a 1992 Saab with a busted electrical system — he has to manually attach and detach the battery each time he starts or stops. Because the Mini is the primary source of transportation for both of us, it only makes sense to keep it in good shape. Even when fixing the Mini means breaking the bank.

After a few hours of sitting in the lounge, surfing the ’net on our laptops, and doing my best to ignore the blathering soap opera that is CNN, I looked up to see Brian, offering me a telltale “Your car is ready” smile. At the counter, I tried not to groan when handing over my credit card. A young woman with a sympathetic expression on her face passed me a purple pen, with which I signed over $985.86.

“At least the wash was complimentary,” I said to David as I slid into the driver’s seat, a pained expression on my face.

“I know what you need,” David said. Too defeated to muster a brow-lift, I stared at him to continue. “A Hacienda Margarita.” That coaxed a small ghost of a smile from me. Hacienda de Vega is our oasis in Escondido, just a few miles from our Mini dealer on Auto Park Way. My eyes brightened as I pictured the vibrant purple bouganvillea, the waterfall and all the little birds it attracts, the exotic southern Mexico fare, and my favorite margarita — a tasty, easy-drinking, intoxicating blend that includes tamarind and chili powder. Already I was beginning to feel soothed, but it was David’s next two words that turned my wispy smile into a grin: “I’ll buy.”

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