Everyone has a nemesis, real or imagined. A sneaky co-worker you’re sure wants your job. A personal or professional competitor who wants to crank up your materialism envy, run off with your wife or your “big idea” or your market share. Or all of those. Health can be a nemesis, too. Holy crap. Allergies? I’m sure ragweed is good for something, but I would gladly volunteer in a ragweed eradication project starting yesterday. Even bad habits. I won’t try to name them all, but they can be adversarial and out to get you just like a living, breathing nemesis with a face. Just ask anyone who’s quit smoking.
I’ve noticed that some of them hang with us for what seems like almost ever. Allergies since childhood. Bad habits since who knows when? Most of the really scary things, monsters under the bed, Zombies in the closet, the Blob; those are long gone. However, the reality of a nemesis and the fact that they often haunt us, follow us around like a ghost’s shadow for most of our lives and pop up when we least expect them was made clear to me the other day.
The first insidious nemesis that gave me bad dreams for a long time wasn’t a person, allergy, habit or even anything living. It was inanimate. Dangerous. A Don Juan and Lord Byron with four wheels. A formidable, treacherous, wicked, unstoppable suitor. The Chevelle SS396. They sat in parking lots like Tritons, calling away the fair damsels of my youthful heart. No kidding.
First there was Betsy. Being young and stupid I should have known that a girl who was an officer in the local Tom Jones fan club had something on her mind. Of course I missed it. What was Tom Jones selling, anyway? His finely honed operatic tenor? No. Tom Jones was selling sex. Duh. Me? I thought how stupid. Tom Jones? Please. I thought I could maybe do without Betsy for a while in the summer, and maybe find a girl who liked Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull, so I let her down gently. Figuring unwisely the Tom Jones girl would be jonesing for me pretty soon and things might heat up a little more, her missing me so much and all.
Betsy’s turnaround time on returning my calls was getting longer and longer, and when she did call she was brusque. Yes, no, bye. Oh well. A few weeks later I showed up at a party with my cruising friend because I couldn’t buy a date, and I for sure didn’t want to call Betsy and ask her because she would know I was a chump. We pull up and there she is, sliding out of a Garnet Red SS396 convertible with Mr. Underwear Model. The baby fat went somewhere, she’s got a tan and looks great.
I wait until she’s inside then get out and investigate the pretty boy’s car. Horrors! What a loser! It had split bench seats, not buckets. In retrospect I now realize that he was no loser. He had my girlfriend, an SS396, Tom Jones tapes and a big slab of vinyl real estate where Betsy could lay on her back and look up at the stars. Ouch.
She was nice to me at the party. Really nicer than she had to be. He was one of those guys who was way too pretty and more into himself than anyone else and I don’t think she was laying on her back all that much in his front seat. Betsy and I got back together for a while toward the end of the summer but it was never the same. She saw right through my new Tom Jones tapes. Plus, my Camaro was smaller, had bucket seats and a hard top. And she was never sold on the blanket in my trunk and a private picnic table.
Jackie was next. She had a Firebird the same color as my car and we used to trade them at lunch, much to both of our parents’ chagrin. I thought we had more in common than that, particularly since every time we ran into each other at a varsity sporting event we left together holding hands. We went out a few times, but her father was a crazy conservative and hated me almost as much as their little rat dog that bit me on the ankle. That was okay because I was always kind of afraid to get too friendly with Jackie. She was a classic waif. Thin as a pencil, long, strawberry blonde hair and light golden freckles. She was almost translucent. Ephemeral. Even to someone of my unintimidating stature, she seemed fragile. A real-life Tinkerbell. But I ran out of history class anyway one Friday afternoon so I could ask her out. Our lockers were almost next to each other, it was a sure thing. Bam! Big guy, big sideburns, letter jacket. I walked right on by and dumped my books. Sure enough, in the parking lot after school on the other side of her car, Senior Jock was waiting in his Le Mans Blue with black vinyl top SS396. Shit! He was no dork, either. Black buckets, fake woodgrain console, Clarion tape deck. Jackie and I hardly spoke after that until a year later when I was at a different school and we saw each other at a drive-in. We traded phone numbers and then cars a couple of times again, but the magic was gone. I asked her about the jock and she just shrugged and looked at the ground. Way to go Chevelle. Love ‘em and leave ‘em. Deflower my Tinkerbell, put another notch on the console and move on. Can you call a car an asshole?
Here is where I have to disagree with the old adage that familiarity breeds contempt. Shake your nemesis’s hand, look it in the eye. Hang out with it. Ride in it. Think you understand it? Forget that. When I swapped schools, I made friends with a guy who had another Le Mans Blue, black vinyl top SS396. I spent a lot of time in that car. But it was always something. I was making out with a girl in the back seat when my buddy who was driving failed to say “railroad tracks” and I chipped a tooth. Those damn cars knew me, I swear they did. I had a hot date with a hot girl and we were going out in that car because a double date was the only way she’d go. After about three hours of making excuses about why I was late because the damn muffler welds wouldn’t hold, the girl bailed and rejected any offer of a do-over. There I was, dumped before I even got a chance. Hosed by an SS396 I mistakenly thought was my friend. It knew. I know it did. The SS396 was no longer a nemesis. It was now a superstition.
For about three weeks when I was a senior in high school I was head over heels in teenage boy love with a girl I’ll call Darla. When I was supposed to have a girlfriend or two already. But Darla was like a primo girl drug. A real back-up-on-the-freeway, sneak out, sneak around, lie to people about it girl. She wasn’t Miss America or anything, but she was plugged in electric. Cute, fiesty, smart. Sexy. It wasn’t going anywhere, and I knew that. But still. Friday night of week three she said that she was just going somewhere with this guy, she’d be home at 9:30, come by and get her. I tell any of my regular obligations I’m sick, and about 9:20 I’m on the way to the rendevouz. One more time, two years after my initial confrontation with a Chevelle, there I was again. What do I see idling in front of her house? An SS396. Nine-thirty comes and goes while I sit a block away with my lights off, waiting. That’s something I should have known better than to do. Me, a girl and someone else’s SS? Just go on home, call the girlfriend and tell her it was a twenty-four-hour bug. Kiss her ass a lot and offer her Steak and Ale on Saturday, hope that smirking brother of hers doesn’t know anyone with an SS396.
I retained all those lessons the SS396 taught me when I was young and impressionable. Which is a good thing, because where I live now I have this neighbor who likes my wife a lot more than all three of the ones he’s had. Guys can tell, and my wife is cute. He’s not a real nemesis in an amorous way because he’s as old as I am and he’s a dork. He’s a grown up dork with money from somewhere, but he’s a for-sure dork who drinks too much sometimes and listens to whiny Americana too loud in his garage just to look hip and trendy and makes eyes at my wife. My wife would eat him alive the first time his eyes glazed over when she brought him into one of those “that’s poor scholarship” arguments about Beowulf with an editor from Harvard who wasn’t even there. Anyway, he throws some of that money of his at restoring things. Old boats, old furniture, old jukeboxes, old houses. And old cars. He offered me a beer the other evening and invited me over to see his latest project even though my wife wasn’t home yet to join us.
In his garage, sitting on jack stands, was a stripped, sanded and primer coated 1969 Chevelle SS396. He even pulled out an original 1969 sales brochure, handed it to me and asked, “What color d’ya think?”
I wanted to sell him on the pukey butternut squash color like my father’s ’68 Impala wagon. But no matter how much I sometimes dislike my dorky, letchy, posey neighbor, and those damn cars, in my heart I knew that SS deserved better. I told him I was always partial to Le Mans Blue.
I’m also more than a little partial to my wife, so she was surprised when she came home that evening to find me escorting an attractive, over dressed, overly made-up and overdone young woman out our front door. I got the quizzical look that comes from her knowing how old I am and being married a long time.
“And that was…?”
“The girl who sold the house down the street in like ten days.”
“Don’t ask, just start packing. And stay inside.”