The Cop

Interstate 80
Somewhere in Nebraska

I had seen no one for miles as I traveled Interstate 80 across Nebraska, the highway cutting through pasture after pasture after flat green pasture. It was as if I had the state to myself, which was fine by me. I was driving cross-country alone in my little red ragtop Miata. I didn't have to; I'd chosen to. The trip was a form of traveling therapy, my way of coping with one of those life transitions that change everything. I had just finished a two year-long writing assignment on the California coast, the first place I'd lived in my life that curbed my travel yen. Now I was headed towards Chicago to rejoin my spouse, the only other constant in my life beyond my wanderlust, whose nice, steady job had already forced him back north.

Through Vegas and Nevada, through the badlands of Utah, through the Rockies, I drove, the trip slowly working its magic. And then I entered Nebraska. After almost an hour of not seeing another driving soul, I finally spy a car. Ahead of me.

It was a state trooper. And he's going slow. Very, very slow.

I tap the brakes on my little car, over and over, until I am almost on his bumper, not a wise place to be. For a mile or so, I drive behind him, the irritation and anxiety growing, until I am forced to make a decision, one of those "against my better judgment" kind: I can keep driving 50 mph on an Interstate with a speed limit of 75, or I can edge around the state trooper, very legally pass him, and go on my way. I go another few miles behind the state police car, listening to my wiser angels. We are alone on the highway, still no other cars in sight, not even a tractor in the infinity of green framing the highway, just two cars in the same lane driving well below the stated limit. It all seems very odd.

I keep my imagination in check, a feat considering the headline fresh in my mind—the San Diego woman, driving alone, who stopped on I-15 for a policeman and was raped and killed. The rules changed after that. No stopping until someone else was in sight, so every new California friend cautioned me over and over. The same friends who were shocked I'd even consider this kind of solo cross-country trip at all.

I wasn't being naive; I was being stubborn, a long-practiced refusal to live my life within fences beyond my own common sense.

I travel another five miles at 50. When I pass a "Speed Limit" sign (75 mph), I cannot take it any longer. After all, I have every right to do this. I'm not doing anything wrong, I tell myself.

I pull into the left lane and then, ever so excruciatingly slow, I pull my little red sports car around the clunky cruiser, making no eye contact, minding my own business, until I am safely around him and back into the right hand lane, with the prerequisite driving manual distance—7 car lengths (one for every 10 miles an hour)—between us.

His red lights come on, the siren sounds. He is now doing 75.

For a quarter mile, I keep driving. I've done nothing wrong. I keep waiting, hoping, he will roar around me.

He moves closer.

He flashes his headlights.

So. I stop.

The officer, crewcut and baby-faced, slams his door and approaches with a hitch in his stride that's a little too cocky for comfort. He is frowning, adjusting his gun belt. I watch his hands.

"Ma'm," he says, coming to a stop by my door. He leans down to see into my little car. "When I signal you to stop, you stop."

"What did you pull me over for, officer?" I respond, keeping my voice even. "Was I speeding?"

He eyes me, says nothing. Finally: "You didn't use your blinker when you changed lanes."

My blinker? I gape. I feel my face flush. My blinker!?

"You should always...." he is saying.

I want to scream: How dare you scare the hell out of me for a damn blinker!

He is still talking: "License and registration, please."

I watch his face, his body language, my radar up. I don't know what to think, how to feel. Is the man bored? What is going on? I take a breath, quiet my imagination over the pounding of my heart, and begin the dig through the stuff piled up in front of my glove compartment, and pray to God I can find it in there.

He gets tired of waiting, tells me he'll be right back. Finally, paper pieces everywhere, I find the right one.

He returns. I hand him the registration. He goes back to his trooper car. And now I must wait. I feel the heat rising up my neck, even as I tell my logical self that, while this seems weird to me, it's probably just part of his Nebraska highway day. I'm overreacting. The meditative miles have done their job too well; my street-smart radar has been switched off. That's all. Still, I can't help but recognize the feeling; the metallic taste in my mouth; the spike of my pulse and perspiration. I have felt it halfway around the world and back. I felt it at 20, on my way toward the Louvre, happy little art major, high on being alive, suddenly accosted. I felt it at 30, strolling along a Jamaican beach, seasoned travel journalist, high on nature, again accosted. I felt it at 40, striding toward a Chicago train station, at midnight, expecting to be accosted. I cannot recall a single trip that I haven't felt it, even if momentarily. It is now a familiar mixture of dread and adrenaline, alarm and offense.

A smell of pasture grass flows through the Miata, and I work to calm all the way down. As I wait for him to check me against all the other little red Miata fugitives in his database, my fear ebbs but my anger rises. I cannot decide what I'm more angry about, his abuse of authority to cure his obvious boredom or the fear fence of my gender I've been bumping into all my traveling life. Because the fact of life intrinsic in this little drama is that I feel this anxiety, not because of some speeding guilt, not because of any violation of drivers' rights, but because I am a woman, traveling solo. And he is not.

And so I do the second thing against my better judgment.

I pick up my little camera from where I'd tossed it in the registration paper hunt. I had been taking pictures across country for the creative helluvit, the disposable camera kind, driving with one hand and taking photos with the other (there's an action worthy of ticketing). As he is walking back to my car, I sneak a snapshot of him in my rearview, even as I can picture him catching me in the act, grabbing the little disposable camera and dragging us both in for further questioning for photographic crimes. A stupid stunt, of course, so dramatic. As if it were my way of documenting my righteous anger or leaving clues in case this turned into some cable-tv crime episode. But, really, I know what it was: Just a gesture, meaningless, except for the tiny feeling of control it lent me when I needed it the most. Later, one of my worried California friends, an ex-Navy man, will tell me I should have called someone on my cellphone. But that would have been smart, and anger is never smart.

He leans in, hands me back my license and registration, then stands back, hands on hips, and says, "I'm not going to give you a ticket this time. But remember to use your signal in the future."

"Yessir." I say. And I hate myself for it: Yes sir.

And before he can get ahead of me again to go 50, I pull away, pushing my little car to 75, fast and furious. I will be all the way across Nebraska before I stop bumping into that anger. But my gender's fear fence—that, I know, I will never stop bumping.