To be sure, I was speeding. There’s no grey area on this point. Imagine I left a chemtrail in the wake of my Dodge Caliber, bright white in the early morning, but there was no one else on the road to see it. The speed limit was 50 mph, which I took for a suggestion on that particular stretch of highway so flat and straight that accidents had to be caused by sheer boredom. It was almost 5 am, just thirty minutes into what would be an 18 hour day of driving. Maybe, it was the knowledge of how much further I had to go, maybe it was the residual emotions of the day before when I’d left my boyfriend of two years in Phoenix, or maybe I just didn’t care that I was speeding, exactly five miles over the speed limit. It was a calculated risk.
So when the blue, white and red lights started behind me, it took a moment to process. It was 5 am. It was dark. It was five miles over the speed limit. I pulled over to the right. Charlie, my cat, who’d quietly resigned herself to the crate this morning (after yesterday’s three straights hours of yowling), began yowling again as soon as I slowed down. I rolled down my window, turned the engine off and put both of my brown hands on the wheel. The headlights of the SUV cast a shadow of my head on the dashboard. I was thirsty, tired, and intrigued at the possibility that I might be getting my first speeding ticket for doing a mere five miles over the speed limit. I did not in that moment feel fear. That would come later.
Many years ago, I was in another car that was pulled over by a cop. I was in South Carolina, and my boyfriend at the time was driving us to a concert in Charleston. His car was a 1985 Chevy Celebrity, a battering ram of a car that we loved because it represented our freedom as teenagers. My boyfriend, who was white, had been rocketing down the highway, doing at least 80 mph in a 65 when the lights flashed behind us. And yet, as the officer did his slow swagger toward us, my boyfriend told me to relax. He put on his best shit-eating smile (I loved that smile, until I didn’t) and threw it up at the officer through the open window. I was sitting on my hands. The cop leaned down to look at my boyfriend and then leaned over to look at me.
“Hello, Officer.” I could not believe the levity in my boyfriend’s voice. If he was worried at all, it did not show.
“Folks.” And with that one word I knew this cop was born and raised in South Carolina, a good ole boy, and my nerves were completely shot. If I’d been standing I would’ve fainted, as it was, I kept sitting on my hands.
“Where are y’all headed today?”
“To Charleston. For a Jump Little Children concert. Heard of em?” I’m sure he was smiling again. How could he be smiling again? Or had he ever stopped?
“Can’t say I have. Are you aware of how fast you were going?” Of course we were. We’d been singing and dancing and the highway couldn’t hold us.
“No, sir. Was I speeding?”
“Doing at least 80. The speed switched over ’bout a mile back. License and registration, please.”
I could see the officer as he walked toward my car, the beam of the flashlight playing off the ground then up into the open window of my hatchback trunk. Charlie yowled in earnest. I said something comforting like, “Shh shh. We’ll be back on the road soon.” I was still bemused. I don’t know how awake I really was, not being a morning person. I was still not concerned.
The cop paused at the trunk of my car. I could see him craning his head. I’m not sure what he expected to see, but the trunk was full of my possessions, so it could’ve been a pair of my underwear or an anthology of poetry. He walked around to the right side of car and the beam of the flashlight pierced the slates in Charlie’s crate. She responded with a real zinger of a howl and the hairs on my arms stood on end.
The officer retraced his steps and came to my window. I looked up at him. And I felt fear for the first time. Nothing in his face was threatening, but there was no kindness either. He asked if I knew how fast I’d been driving. I said yes, sir, 55mph. He asked if I knew the speed limit and I said, yes sir, I did. He asked for my driver’s license and registration which I gave him.He went back to his SUV.
This is when I became aware of how dark it was still, I couldn’t see past the trees to the side of the road. We were the only vehicles on the highway on both sides for as far as I could see in front of me and behind. I remembered a time a boyfriend of mine had been pulled over in South Carolina and how he hadn’t gotten a ticket even though he was really speeding. I resigned myself to the ticket as long as I could get back on the road as soon as possible.
The officer came back to my window. I looked up at him and noticed he had nothing in his hands, not my license or registration. I didn’t know what that could mean and then he asked me to step out of the car. What had I done? My stomach dropped. We’d barely spoken more than three sentences to each other. Was it my license? I’d only had my AZ license for a few months, so I knew it wasn’t expired and my plates were new, too. I opened the car door. At the sound, Charlie gave a low meow, as if asking “What’s going on?” The officer turned and walked to his SUV, midway he turned and said “Get in the passenger side.”
Here it was, 5am in March about twenty miles from OKC on the flattest road in America, and an officer of the Oklahoma State Police was asking me to get into the passenger side of his vehicle. It was the longest walk of my life. I could hear my mother in my head. I considered going back to my car and locking the door and calling 911. I considered asking him if we could speak outside where a car or truck would see us. I knew that I should feel safe in the presence of an officer of the law, but that had not been the case since I was a little girl. I did not want to anger the officer. I wanted to be as compliant as possible. I wanted o take my ticket so I could get back to my car and my grief.
I climbed into the passenger seat of the SUV and heard the quick scrabble of toenails on plastic and then panting. I turned my head to see mesh bars that separated us from the back of the vehicle, but instead of a backseat, there was an elevated flat space and a German Shepherd. It was so close to me I could feel its warm breath on my neck and smell doggy breath. The officer was watched me. I wasn’t scared of the dog, but was scared of what the dog could do. I didn’t know if I should speak or what to say, so I didn’t say anything. The officer turned away and began to fill out a sheet of paper. Once or twice he would look back at the dog, and I saw his hand move in a way that had to be a signal; each time he did it, the dog would begin sniffing vigorously, toenails tapping furiously on the plastic.
Finally, I couldn’t take the silence. I cleared my throat. The officer ripped the paper from the pad and looked at me. He said, “I’m giving you a warning.” His hand held out the paper. I took it.
“May I go?”
He nodded. “Drive safely.”
I got out of the SUV and walked back to my car. The window was still down, and I could hear Charlie meowing in earnest. I started my car and pulled onto the road. The SUV was still on the side of the road when I crested a hill and lost sight of it. As the morning turned to afternoon and evening, I came up with a million different scenarios to what could have happened. What if I’d refused to get out of my car? What was the dog looking for? Why did he make me get out of the car to write me a warning? It was hard not to attribute what happened to race. Sure, I was a lone woman with a car full of personal items, with a recently issued driver’s license and plates from a state known for drug trafficking. But I was also a woman who had never gotten a single ticket for a driving infraction. I’d been compliant and accepted fault.
When I told friends what happened they were surprised, shocked. Why? — they’d ask or they’d say, “I would’ve called my dad.” But I though I’d had ssimilar thoughts, my default setting had been to diffuse the situation, to get away intact. I had been speeding. I was at fault. It was a calculated risk. I just didn’t know how high the stakes could be.