Officer, I Can Explain

Driving back from, yes, the health food store with my daughter in the back on a cold Monday afternoon after school—got the heat cranked up high and we’re listening to Eno—when I see in the rearview mirror, a police car behind us and, also, an inputting of information. The next second, it’s lighting up and I’m pulling over.

I think, It’s probably just that smog check deal. I know I missed the deadline, but I could take it in and pay an extra fine. It isn’t called “smog check” here in Maryland, but I insist upon using words like “patio” and “freeway” just ’cause I’m from California, even though I haven’t lived there in a long time. I add the phrase “and stuff” to most of my sentences. People think I sound like a teenager on the phone. I need to go to Old-Fashioned Studio Speaking Lessons so that I can speak like Madeleine Elster instead of Drew Barrymore.

My daughter immediately begins to ask me, “What’s happening?”

I say, “We’re just getting pulled over, it’s probably nothing.”

The officer, whose nose took a wrong turn to the left, was young and called me ma’am. I wanted to tell him not to worry about the nose, it was actually an asset. But he wasn’t asking for my motherly wisdom. He said that I hadn’t been speeding, but that he had just pulled my tags and all sorts of things came up.

I got this car about a year ago. Gave the old one to charity. Filled out all the paperwork with the DMV—or MVA as some might say. I got the official Not-Owning Certificate and the New-Owning certificate, screwed on the new plates, tagged them up. I paid the insurance bills as usual. I get e-bills and never look at them.

It isn’t just my failure to report for the emissions test. Turns out I’ve been driving an uninsured vehicle in all that time. I had no idea. He said he was going to have to tow us. I was trying to keep my voice down (and pitched to a lower, more queenly tone). “Couldn’t we just drive it home?” I ask.

“I know you have a little girl in there,” he says. “But you can’t drive an uninsured vehicle. I could give you a ride to the precinct.”

We also have a lot of food. I didn’t bring enough bags and took a free cardboard box, which is sitting on the passenger seat next to me, full of canned goods ’cause we’re having our kitchen redone. The box looks a little suspicious, suddenly, like we just came from a food bank.

“Is there someone you could call?” he says. “Your husband?”

My husband is at a faculty meeting and doesn’t even have a cell phone. “No, he’s unreachable,” I say.

It’s way too far to walk and I wouldn’t even know how to take a bus, and plus, we have all the food. I do not want to have to take my daughter to the police station. This is the stuff of which very bad memories were made. All it would take was one lowlife to hiss at her when she walked by or just look at her too long to give her nightmares and take me down several notches in her head, permanently. We’ve had a hard few years and I haven’t been as available as I would have liked for her. This is not what I need to happen. This is definitely not what she needs to happen.

“Just a minute,” says the police officer. He goes back to his cruiser.

“What’s going on?” my daughter says. “What’s going to happen?”

“We’re fine,” I say. “The police officer is trying to help us. We’re just figuring some things out.”

He’s in his car for a long time. I see a female cop get out of the car and look in our direction. I can hear the squawk box, remotely. What do I do? I begin to pray. I concentrate on all the protective forces in the universe (including my guardian angel) and turn it over and over again in my mind. Please just let us get home. Please just let us get home. Please just let us get home.

We sit and sit. I pray harder. My daughter asks, periodically, what’s happening? Are we going to be okay? I turn and put my hand on her knee and tell her we’re going to be fine. This is just part of driving. Sometimes they stop you and just make sure that everything’s okay, since there are a lot of rules about driving, to keep everybody safe. I am not crying or even betraying the slightest hint of wanting to do so, but I want to cry so badly. Everything seems to be crashing down on me in this moment. I consider that I acquired this car during a very, very dark moment in my life. Halfway through two years of cancer treatment and in an extremely dubious mental state, I took off into the falling snow and quickly got in an accident. Luckily, no one was hurt. I wanted to die even though I was trying to stay alive. I’m not even sure if I wasn’t trying to make it happen that snowy morning. The chemo had fried my brain and then I was taking a commonly-prescribed drug for chemo-induced menopausal hot flashes. This drug (Effexor) did nothing short of wrapping my soul in plastic. I was bald and feeling terribly, terribly alone. Suffering had long since exceeded joy. Even though I was an adult and time should have been speeding up, cancer time was grinding along one moment at a time. I was beginning to think that the world was better off without me, or maybe just I’d be better off without the world.

I can’t tell this to the policeman. I can’t say it in front of my daughter. It would be inappropriate, anyway. No one really wants to know all that much. I am trying to get my personal Show Back on the Road. I’ve recently announced a new era of Not Being Such a Miserable Bitch, which coincides with a new era of Deep Gratitude and Letting Go. It wasn’t just the cancer. I have been phenomenally depressed and not really participating for years. I was recently talking about fugue states with a friend and said “I think I’ve been in one for at least ten but possibly thirty-five years.” The cancer just kind of ground me into an even finer pulp, one that would slip right through the baleen of a great whale, in whose belly I often imagined myself during my physical suffering.

He comes back. He says that the old car is actually still on the insurance, and I have been paying insurance for two cars, just not the right two. This makes me feel a little bit better, even though I’ve been committing a felony every day for the past year. He says if I can get my insurer on the phone, and they can add this car immediately, he will let me go, but there will be tickets, and I will have to appear in court.

“Okay,” I say. I am relieved that my cell phone is charged, and that I recently acquired a new purse which is full of little organized pouches. I also have a pen handy. These are all signs that I am a solid citizen, I think. The insurance woman is quite nice, and agrees to do it. I hand the phone to the officer. He nods, gives it back. He tells me in a quiet voice that if I were a scuzzbag, he would have arrested me. He tells me that if I show up in court, they will probably waive the tickets. He says he’s not trying to ruin anyone’s day here, but…

“Of course not,” I say. “Thank you so much for your kindness.” I reach through my window and shake his hand. “It’s actually a good thing that I learned about this.”

Having seen how far things can fall apart in one family when the human hearth breaks down, I can see quite clearly how families, cities and nations fail. It’s a lot of little things that add up.

Taking a deep breath, I put on my turn signal and head for home. My daughter’s worst complaint about this little adventure is that it took a really long time. I take this as an additional warning to mind the details, pull up the slack, and to be grateful to do so. And I say additional prayers of gratitude that I didn’t have to inflict any more suffering on her as a result of my negligence. I have been issued a warning in every way possible. At last, I am paying attention.

Mary Valle lives in Baltimore and is the author of Cancer Doesn't Give a Shit About Your Stupid Attitude: Reflections on Cancer and Catholicism. She blogs on KtB as The Communicant. For more Mary, check out her blog or follow her on Twitter.