I was about an hour outside of Dallas when I saw the flashing lights in my rear view mirror. The police car was an SUV, and the lights swooped like a party van. I felt weirdly humble in that moment. Surely all that fuss is not for me.
Turns out, it was.
“You were going 83 in a 65,” the cop said after we pulled onto the shoulder of the road. “Is there a reason you’re speeding right now?”
I had been on the road for 11 hours. I was so tired. I missed my cat. My back hurt. Sometimes, when I’m singing a song, my foot presses harder on the accelerator pedal. “Not a good one,” I said. I handed him my license and registration. He had a mustache. Pink cheeks and jowly. The buttons of his shirt strained as he bent over. If this sounds like a cop stereotype, I’m sorry. It’s actually an accurate description.
“Where you coming from?” he asked.
“Alpine, Texas,” I said. I’d spent the last four days having a great visit with Julie and her family. That morning, I’d hugged her goodbye at 7:30am, hit the road, and about 60 miles later, veered onto the wrong interstate. This is an easy mistake to make. At least, that’s what I told myself as I wound through dusty farm roads, trying to get back on track. The screw-up lost me valuable time. A nine-hour trip became a 10-hour trip. After lunch, I had to stop in Abilene for two hours to do some work at a Huddle House. I wanted so badly to be home.
“What were you doing in Alpine?” he asked.
“Visiting my friend,” I said. I had that dizzy sensation that comes with nervousness. I felt like I was lying, even though I was telling the truth. He went back to his SUV and when he returned, motioned me out of the car. I stepped along the shoulder to where he stood, the air breezy with passing cars. He and another jowly and mustachioed officer stood there, both holding flashlights, though it was not yet dark.
“Ma’am, do you mind if we search your vehicle?”
“Oh, no, sure. Go ahead.”
That’s how it happened. It was that fast, and that casual. It’s like he was saying, “Ma’am, can I get this fuzz off your shirt?” Or, “Ma’am, do you want to see a picture of my son?” And my response was so instinctual and blase. Of course you can search my vehicle. Why wouldn’t I let two cops search my vehicle? We’re all friends here, on this random shoulder off I-20.
I watched as Cop #2 dug in my purse, and flopped open my wallet. He rifled through my glove compartment, picking through my CDs like a friend in the passenger seat trying to figure out our next jams. Cop #1 was in my trunk, where my bags were kept. His hands ran along my jacket, my tank tops folded and squished in a suitcase. He unscrewed a metal jar that contained handmade goat’s milk soap — a gift from Julie’s friend Amanda — and sniffed it. I know for a fact that it smelled delicious: Peppermint and rosemary.
But my heart was pounding. I felt (the only word that came to me) violated. Why had I allowed him to do this? What kind of journalist was I?
I was not afraid they would find drugs. I don’t do drugs. Even when I was a hopeless little lush, passing out in the back of taxi cabs, I did not do drugs. I’ve gotten stoned maybe four times. Maybe six. The last time, I forgot the word for “table,” and I thought: Never again. This is some bullshit. So I knew for a fact I did not have any drugs in my car. But my mind was rolodexing through the names of everyone I have ever given a ride to, who might have accidentally/purposefully-because-it-happens-in-movies left some drug-type residue thing in my car. What else might the cops find? There are a lot of illegal things in this universe. There are a lot of embarrassing things in the universe.
I watched Cop #2 dig his hand along the bucket on the side door and it occurred to me how easy it would be to plant something there. Do I sound paranoid? Next time your car is randomly searched, see if it doesn’t activate a little paranoia in you.
I crossed my arms. I sighed. I cringed. Finally, I couldn’t stay silent anymore. “I’m sorry, but is there a reason you’re searching my vehicle? Was I suspicious in some way?”
The first cop looked at me with irritation. I think, some days, he wishes he had a different job. “Ma’am, we’ve had a lot of problems with people bringing narcotics over the border. I search nearly every vehicle I stop.”
The absurdity of this plunked me on the nose: I search nearly every vehicle I stop. For what? For a spliff and an old roach? I’m not going to pretend to know the complexities of the narcotics trade and its significance to the uniformed men of Whatever County Off I-20, but surely they have something better to do with their time than this? I thought of all the fast food containers that man has to stick his nose in, all the confrontations on the side of the road. All the huffy drivers crossing their arms. Do each of them submit as easily as I did?
I took a deep breath. “I’m just nervous watching you go through my stuff,” I said.
He gave me a look, almost like: A-ha! You’re nervous! That means you’re guilty! But we locked eyes, his hands on my nightslip, and then he said, “Yes, I understand,” and zipped my suitcase back up.
Eventually, they were done. “I’m going to leave you with a verbal warning,” the cop said. I was relieved. But as I drove away, I felt rattled. Later Julie would warn me to never consent to a search. She is a smart lawyer whose experience has taught her it is not a good idea. I value her judgement. Of course, I would have almost certainly gotten a ticket. But I wouldn’t have left with the guilty feeling that someone walked over me.
Now, I’m too tired to think. Twelve hours on the road. Back still cranked. I’m wearing the nightslip the cop stuffed back in my suitcase. But my cat is curled up at my feet. And I got what I wanted: I’m home now.