What If? Quick Take: 2006 VW Phaeton RSi
Welcome to What If? Quick Take, a new feature from imaginative illustrator Abimelec Arellano and Hagerty. While the cars shown in our regular What If? features are full 3D renderings and can appear in any number of images, the Quick Takes are off-the-cuff expressions of Abimelec’s imagination. Each one is accompanied by a short story. Enjoy! — Jack Baruth
“I don’t want to spend this Christmas around you,” Jake’s wife told him, via email because that seemed to be the only way they communicated now. “If I’m going to make a new start, and you seem determined that I do, then why not make that new start today? I’ll come back for the rest of my things after the holidays.” So the house was empty when he came home from the airport. Not as empty as it would be when Danielle came back and took whatever felt like her half, but empty enough. Her nightstand was empty. Their daughter’s room still showed the depressions in the carpet from the four feet of her crib, but it was otherwise empty.
Jake tried to imagine his wife moving the crib out herself, with their ten-month-old daughter doing… what, exactly? Crawling around at Danielle’s feet? Tucked into a car seat? In the arms of a friend? There was a half-full bottle of Ketel One in the freezer. He pulled it out, trudged upstairs, and finished every drop sitting in the phantom rectangle made by his daughter’s crib.
He woke around noon the next day. It was Christmas Eve. There was new snow on the ground and there were five messages in his phone from Tammy, his girlfriend. One of them said something along the lines of
do u want to go to Cassies dads house for a party tonight
Jake’s first reaction to that was less than I want to have my fingernails pulled out but he knew it wouldn’t fly. After almost two years of staying more or less under the radar, Tammy was eager to step out with him for the world to see. They’d conducted their affair in the negative spaces delineated by their marriages, careers, and public lives. Each of them had a select group of friends who were in it. At first it was exhilarating, like being a secret agent, but as time passed it began to feel like a madman’s straitjacket, constricting them in a bear hug of paranoia where the slightest misstep could lead to disaster.
His car didn’t help matters. He’d bought it fifteen months ago, from a VW dealer eager to rid himself of a $148,000 showroom paperweight, and initially it seemed like a brilliant vehicle with which to squire a sassy mistress around the city. Fast — my God it was fast, with a full Continental-GT-spec twin-turbo W-12 in the engine bay. Five hundred and fifty-two horsepower twisting a five-speed auto with real aluminum paddle shifters, fixed to the steering column behind a wheel that was half fine leather and half piano-black wood.
And it could handle, particularly given its 5700-pound curb weight. You’d head into a fast corner on a rural road and the big multi-spoke wheels would just dig those Michelins in. The transmission was too stupid to give you the downshift you wanted, even if you asked for it via the paddles, but no matter, because the W-12 would whip-crack it out on the exit and blur the view in the windshield. And the interior! Not quite Bentley spec, but a visibly sportier grade of leather than one got in the standard Phaetons, plus contrast-color piping. Carbon fiber on the magic disappearing center vent cover. To own and drive this car was to feel like the prince of a city. Yet to most people, his clients most critically among them, it was still just a Volkswagen. One of them asked him if it was a Passat, and he responded in the affirmative. What a way to fly… and to fly beneath the radar to boot. “Stealth wealth,” he would occasionally repeat to himself, and laugh.
Except it wasn’t stealthy at all to a certain group of people, namely the grunting morons who populated a site called “VW Tornado” online. They knew the 2006 Phaeton RSi on site. Knew that only fifty of the three hundred Phaetons imported for 2006 had the RSi spec. Photographs of his car were omnipresent on the site, and they often featured both his and Tammy’s face, looking like accused criminals on the courthouse steps.
That night was no different. As they rolled down the freeway to the house owned by the father of Tammy’s friend, Cassie, an outrageously loud Jetta pulled up next to them, sparks flying from where the lowered frame was scraping the concrete. The windows rolled down and a pair of pimply kids started hanging out with point-and-shoot cameras. After months of this, Jake had figured out a way to end these situations in a manner that pleased everyone: he floored the throttle and the Phaeton left the kids deliriously happy in the rocking wave of his 140-mph exit.
“WHY. CAN’T. YOU. STOP. DOING. THAT.” Tammy was already drunk, having fired up on a bottle of Absolut in Jake’s fridge.
“I told you,” he snapped, “it gets us away from the kids who are obsessed with this car.”
“HOW,” she drawled, “COULD. YOU. BE. OBSESSED. WITH. THIS. CAR.” Then, after a reflective pause, and quieter, “You should get the Lexus. Like Kenny had.” Kenny was her ex-boyfriend, an executive at UPS who had cajoled Tammy into any number of what she called “checking the box” situations with other girls, special outfits, and video cameras before leaving both Tammy and his wife for the organist at his church.
“I assure you,” Jake snapped in response, “that I will chew glass through my tongue before I get whatever Kenny had, that you liked so much.” Last year, he’d been going through her purse while she was in a restaurant bathroom and he’d found a Polaroid of her in a slinky gold dress leaned up against “the Lexus”, which he recognized as a 2003 LS430. Half the car of his Phaeton. If that. But she didn’t know any better. Not for the first time, Jake took a moment to tell himself: Stop hating her for things she doesn’t know and people she will never be. You destroyed your marriage and abandoned your infant daughter to be with her. Make the best of it.
Cassie’s father’s house was a massive Sixties split-level occupying an enviable acre in the nicest part of town. It sat in a hill so you parked at a level below the home then climbed concrete stairs for the front door. Jake could hear the music and noise even before they made it up the final step. Just get through it, then you can go home, he told himself.
Yet it wasn’t so bad once he got there, not really. Cassie’s father was perhaps five years older than he was, which had the potential to become awkward, but as it turned out Cassie had a new boyfriend who was older than any of them. He was also, as far as Jake could see, a Xerox copy of Cassie’s father.
“Cassie was cutting his hair,” Tammy said to him in what she drunkenly thought was a whisper but which would have served well to warn London of a Luftwaffe attack, “and he offered her a thousand dollars to spend the night, and he was so handsome she’d have done it for free. He’s such a gentleman.” Jake had family in the Social Register and was unaccountably offended at the idea of this slicked-back dude in a French blue shirt with a black tie being considered a “gentleman” anywhere. Cassie’s father didn’t seem to mind, however; the two of them were engaged in a roaring game of eight-ball on the massive pool table that dominated the middle level of the home. Jake decided to engage them in conversation.
“Gentlemen,” he said, ironically.
“Oh, you’re Tammy’s fellow. Know her from the salon, eh? Frank says that’s where he met Cassie.” Across the table, Frank smirked as he chalked a cue.
“Actually, I met Tammy singing with a jazz band at a club she liked to visit.”
“Is that so! Hey, folks, we got a singer over here? You want to sing something?”
“No need to stop the party for that,” Jake said, and started casting his eyes around the room for someplace to go. Then he heard the downstairs door bash open and SLAM! shut. Cassie tumbled up to the three men, clearly thrilled.
“Did you hear that? Katrina’s here!” And from fifty feet away, Jake could hear a voice.
“THE PARTY’S STARTED NOW, GIRLS!” Katrina had a cultured, powerful contralto that said private school and a tangible energy that screamed dirty deeds. She came up the stairs in a lurid peasant dress that wouldn’t have been sufficient clothing in June, much less the freezing end of December. She enfolded Cassie from above — had to be five ten at least — and then, to nobody’s surprise but Jake’s, expertly dropped and pinned Cassie to the ground, smothering her with kisses in an odd mixture of dominance, playfulness, and total self-confidence.
When Katrina stood up she looked at Jake and took him all in at once. “Who are you now?” Tammy forced herself into the space between them.
“Trina, this is my man, Jake.”
“Well, la-di-da. Nice to meet you, Jake.” She held out a hand and he was surprised when it did not physically shock him. “Now, Jake,” she continued, her voice dipping into a part of the register Jake thought of as “Karen Carpenter”, “is that… a Phaeton RSi outside? And is that… yours?” Now Jake felt a shock, from his toes to the top of his head.
“It is,” he replied. “Would you like to take a ride?”
“I sure as hell want a ride,” Cassie’s father interrupted. “In fact, I’d like to drive it myself. You mind, there, pal?” Tammy had her fingernails dug into Jake’s left palm.
“By all means,” he replied, tossing the keys over. “You kids have fun. I’ll watch the pool table.” Katrina and Cassie’s father skipped down the stairs, laughing. Jake felt drunk, though he was nearly sober. Tammy’s face in the corner of his vision was starting to shake and crumple; Jake knew that it would eventually reveal the truth, that in this party of twentysomethings she was a late thirtysomething, thrown in with young friends through bad judgment and chance. And Jake could feel the chances of a physically incandescent night slipping away from him with every moment he did not turn and reassure her.
Somehow he couldn’t bring himself to care. That voice. That girl. She would be his. There was more than a decade between them, he didn’t know anything but her first name, and all inquires would have to be done with surgical precision through a veil of people who would all be determined to derail his purpose. None of that mattered. Ten minutes later the door burst open again, Cassie’s father ran up the stairs like the old goat he was and placed the RSi’s keys in Jake’s hand. Katrina was across the room; distant, smoldering. Two hours later, as they prepared to leave, he contrived to place himself between her and the place she was going. She blinked in surprise then said,
“I meant to tell you… thank you for letting Cassie’s dad drive your car. It’s really something special.”
“The pleasure was all mine,” Jake said. His Omega Speedmaster flickered in the low light; it was already past midnight. Today was Christmas. With the daring of an acrobat, in full view of the woman he’d just promised to love forever, Jake took Katrina’s right hand in both of his. Kissed it lightly. Looked up and winked.
“I’m certain,” he purred, “we will meet again.”