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Travels With My Ex

INTOLERANCE AND FEAR ON THE FREEWAYS OF THE OC
by Susan Straight
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

Travels With My Ex

Susan Straight
20 Snaps

Southern California in mid-July. My ex-husband and I were headed to Huntington Beach because that’s where the Baller, a shooting guard who’d been playing basketball since she was seven, wanted to celebrate her eighteenth birthday.

(We have three daughters—herewith known as The Scholar, The Baller, and The Baby.)

“I hate Huntington,” I said. “My least favorite beach.”

“I didn’t want to go either,” my ex-husband said. We were driving behind my van, the dark green Mercury Villager I. Today my van was packed with teenagers. Behind the wheel was The Scholar. Next to her, The Baller. In the backseat, The Baby, along with Neka, one of our daughter’s high-school teammates. And in the middle was Bink, another former teammate, and The Baller’s boyfriend. We call him our Laurie. My house, full of my little women (though they are all taller than I am), has for years seen various successions of boys who have tried to be the equivalent of Louisa May Alcott’s Laurie. This one seems close. Our Laurie is willing to sit on the couch with all three girls and any attendant girls and watch She’s the Man or Fired Up! He cooks for himself. A lefty quarterback, he throws the tennis ball accurately and untiringly for the dog. His favorite phrase, uttered with deadpan sympathy: “That’s unfortunate.”

“Look at this traffic,” I said. “This is why I hate going through Orange County.”

The I-91 freeway. Four lanes each way, often the most congested in the nation.

My ex-husband and I have known each other since the eighth grade, when he was a basketball player and I was an ex-cheerleader. (My mother had run me over, accidentally, with her own 1966 Ford station wagon, effectively ending my career two weeks after it began.)

I looked at his foot on the gas pedal. He hardly ever wears sandals. Regulation boots at his correctional officer job. Size fourteen. When we were in high school, and he was an All-County power forward, one of his nicknames was Feets. Mine was It-Z-Bits. He’s six-four and goes 305 pounds. I’m five-four. 105.

We have been divorced now for twelve years. But we still see or speak to each other almost every day. Where we live, in the easily jeered-at Inland Empire, we know countless ex-couples like us. Whether it’s because we can’t afford to move away after we divorce, or we’re just too lazy to dislike each other efficiently and permanently, it seems to work.

The Scholar would be a junior at Oberlin, and this summer received a research fellowship at Cal Tech. The Baller would start USC in weeks, with nearly a full scholarship. The Baby had just won a DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) award for her history scholarship at her middle school.

But that’s why I was broke. Two kids in college. A California economy in shambles. My upcoming pay cut: 10 percent. Feets: 14 percent pay cut from the county juvenile institution.

He works graveyard. That meant he’d slept for two hours, ­after spending the night watching two teenage boys charged with a gruesome murder.

By two p.m., we’d gone about thirty miles in traffic that was now, unbelievably, stop-and-go. We talked about how many police cars we’d seen that summer, how everyone we knew was getting tickets, how The Scholar and The Baller had both gotten their first citations this year under dubious circumstances. “Revenue,” Feets kept saying. “The state is broke. They have to make money, and it has to be on us.”

A California Highway Patrol car drove past us on the right, then pulled alongside the green van. The cruiser slowed, at the rear of my van’s bumper, and then pulled back up to the side and hit the flashing lights.

“What the hell?” I said.

“He’s pulling her over,” my ex-husband said, resigned. “Of course he is. Car full of black kids in the OC.”

The patrolman was shouting at The Scholar through the loudspeaker.

My ex-husband said, “I’m going, too. He’s not gonna pull any shit. I’m not having it.”

My husband has a history with cops. He’s the six-four Black Guy, the one that fits the description, the one who was seen carrying the shotgun earlier, the one the gas station attendant saw and accidentally stepped on the silent alarm, the one who “attacked” a campaign worker in Pittsburgh, the one who carjacked Susan Smith, the one you make up, but in reality the one who gets out of his car to help a woman change a tire and she nearly falls into a ditch, she runs away so fast.

“He better not mess with her,” my ex-husband said was saying.

“It’s D———,” I said. That’s Our Laurie’s name. “He’s gonna make D——— get out of the car.”

Our Laurie is the six-five Black Guy, the one with elaborate braids under his NY Yankees cap, the one wearing size-thirteen shoes and a South Carolina T-shirt because he’d just gotten a scholarship offer from the Gamecocks, the one who’d returned only the day before from the high-school All-American basketball camp in Philadelphia, the one with brown skin almost exactly the same shade as my ex-­husband’s, the one we tease our daughter about because she always said the last thing she ever wanted to do was replicate my life.

*

Where you from?” one officer yelled at us, and another held the barrel of his shotgun against Feets’s skull, pushing it farther and farther until the opening seemed to be inside his ear, under his huge Afro. It was August 1979. Westwood, California.

Where you from? Where’s your license? Where’s your car? Is it stolen? Why are you here? Why aren’t you in Riverside?

We’d driven eighty miles from River­side, the land of uncool, of orange trees and dairy farms and a tiny downtown. I was ready to begin my sophomore year at USC. Feets played basketball for Monterey Peninsula College, and our friend Penguin was a linebacker for a junior college in Riverside County. After the beach, they wanted to cruise the streets of Westwood, the paradise we’d seen only in movies.

Feets wore tight khaki pants, a black tank undershirt, and a cream-colored cowboy hat on his big natural. Then two police cruisers sped onto the sidewalk where we walked, blocking our path. Four officers shoved us against the brick wall.

I remember how it smelled.

He was their target, I realized quickly. Power forward. His shoulder blades were wide, dark wings; he was spread-eagled against the wall.

He fit the description.

A black man with a shotgun and a cowboy hat was seen threatening people at UCLA, one of them shouted.

The cop who’d taken me aside looked at my license. Why’d you come all the way from Riverside to L.A.? Where’s your car? Whose car is it? Does your mother know you’re with two niggers?

Penguin was talking back to the cops, refusing to give them his license, and I thought they were going to shoot Feets. Through his ear.

They said a few more things to him, things I couldn’t hear. They lowered the shotgun. He lowered his arms. They told us to find our car and leave L.A. “Go back to Riverside!” They said they’d follow us, and that if they saw us walking again, they would shoot on sight.

The patrol car shadowed us as we walked. My boyfriend walked slowly, slightly ahead of me. I knew he was afraid of the bullet that might still come, if he moved wrong. We went back to where we belonged.

*

What did the highway patrolman want? The Scholar had been going thirty-two miles an hour, between stops. She had always signaled.

“The right taillight’s going out again,” my ex-husband said.

“My seat belt is still broken,” I said.

My ex-husband fishtailed in the dirt of the shoulder, trying to pull ahead of the van and the cruiser. The patrolman was yelling louder, his voice echoing off our door. “Ignore the white truck,” he shouted.

“Pull behind him!” I shouted.

“No, then he’ll get scared,” my ex-husband was shouting.

I knew what he thought: if the officer got scared, he might shoot us.

The Scholar stopped, and the cruiser stopped, and my ex-husband accelerated and went around one more time, a terrible dance which wasn’t funny but it kind of was when the highway patrolman leaped out of his vehicle then, agitated, staring at us, holding both arms wide in the air, saying, What the hell?

He had reddish blond hair, big shoulders, sunglasses.

He looked straight at me, and frowned. And that was good.

*

Oddly, this summer I read Travels with Charley: John Steinbeck, riding in his truck, named Rocinante, with a camper shell on the back, with his large French poodle, named Charley, who is “bleu” when clean, which means black. When they hit New Orleans, a man leans in and says, “Man, oh man, I thought you had a nigger in there. Man, oh man, it’s a dog. I see that big old black face and I think it’s a big old nigger.”

Once Feets and I were camping across the country in a different truck—a blue Toyota with a camper shell—and we spent an uneasy hot night in McClellanville, South Carolina. At dawn, he got up and took a walk beside the Intra­coastal Water­way. While we slept, the campground had filled with hunters. I lay in the camper, and from the open window near my head, I heard a father say to his young son, “See that big nigger? That’s a big nigger, right there. When you get older, I’m gonna buy you a big nigger just like that.”

I never told Feets exactly what the man had said. I just said there were scary people here and we should pack up and leave. We did.

*

If there’s anything scarier than Fits the Description, it’s Routine Traffic Stop.

The names or faces we’ve learned over the years. A brother in Signal Hill. Rodney King. The Baller’s basketball coach’s brothers, both of them. My younger brother’s best friend. Shot nineteen times in his white truck as he maneuvered on the center divider of the freeway, having refused to pull over. He might have been high. Either hung up on the cement or trying to back up. No weapon. A toolbox. He’d just delivered a load of cut orangewood to my driveway.

“I ain’t getting out,” Feets said. He had his hands on top of the steering wheel.

“I know! I’m going,” I said. I needed to get my wallet.

“He better not mess with her,” he was saying.

“I’m going!” I said. We both knew it was my job. I bent down to get my pink leather tooled wallet. My job is to be the short blond mom. At school, at basketball games, at parent-teacher conferences, in the principal’s office when a boy has called The Baby a nigger and the male vice principal sees my ex-husband—big dogs shirt, black sunglasses, folded arms the size of an NFL linebacker’s, and a scowl—and looks as if he’ll faint.

My job is to smile and figure out what’s going on.

By the time I got out of the car, the patrolman was looking at me, and The Scholar was pointing at me.

The traffic roared past on the freeway, twenty feet away from the silent weigh station. I took my sunglasses off and felt my mouth tighten. Who had smiled like this? (A foolish smile that angered someone. Custard inside a dress. What?)

“Why did you stop? What are you doing?” the cop said loudly at me.

“That’s my mom and dad,” The Scholar said, aggrieved. She wasn’t scared. She was pissed. Her default setting.

“We’re on our way to the beach for a birthday party!” I said, cheery and momlike. “Her dad and I didn’t want to get separated, ’cause in this traffic we might never see each other again!”

The little women hate when I do this. They imitate me viciously afterward. They hate that I have to do it, and that I am good at it.

“What’s the problem?” I asked. “Is it that darn seat belt?”

(Who smiled like this?)

The officer squinted at me, then at the van.

“One of the male passengers wasn’t wearing his seat belt.” But then he said drily, “He’s wearing it now.”

He asked for license and re­gistration and insurance, and I made jokes about how deep in the glove compartment the registration might be, and I pulled the insurance card from my wallet, and the registration was outdated and he glared at me but went back to his patrol car.

The Scholar started a low invective about California’s urgent need for revenue, and I leaned into the window to say to our Laurie, “You weren’t wearing your seat belt? You always wear your seat belt!”

He said, “It wasn’t me. It was Bink.”

Bink is darker than he is, nineteen, wearing her hair tucked into a black cap, wearing a huge black T-shirt. She rolled her eyes, furious.

“He’s coming back,” someone said. The officer approached the other side of the van. “I need the male passenger to open the door. Open the door,” he said.

Bink opened the door slowly.

He asked Bink for her license. He didn’t let on that he’d thought she was a guy. He didn’t ask her or our Laurie to get out of the car. I stopped having visions of people lying on their faces in the dirt. He wrote the ticket, our Laurie looked straight ahead, at The Scholar’s hair, and The Baller looked straight ahead, out the windshield, and I knew Feets was watching in the rearview without moving. I stood awkwardly near the driver’s-side window until it was done.

*

It wasn’t until that night that I felt my mouth slide over my teeth again and I remembered. A foolish, dazzling smile. Custard.

Toni Morrison’s novel Sula. The mother and daughter are on a train traveling from Ohio to Louisiana, and when the white conductor berates them for being out of the Colored car, the mother smiles at him, a placating, unnecessary show of teeth, and the black passengers hate her, and her daughter is ashamed of the custard-colored skin, and her weakness.

*

About twenty miles earlier, outside Corona, I’d been telling my ex-husband what I’d heard three days ago. I’d given one of our many nephews a ride home after football practice, with the Scholar. We’d spent a long time in the driveway of my father-in-law’s father’s house, talking to two of his brothers, three cousins, and a family friend. There is always a crowd in the driveway, because the house is not air conditioned, and the beer is in a cooler, and there are folding chairs, card tables, and ­stereo speakers hung on the wrought-iron supports for the carport. It’s the nerve center of communication for the entire neighborhood.

We talked about the newspaper article about the police review of the 2006 shooting of our coach’s brother. The commission had found no fault, though the brother was pulled over three times in thirty minutes, the first time because “he had a weird look” and the second time because after the patrol car continued to follow him, he ran a stop sign and made a U-turn. The official report said he had struggled when the officers attempted to put him in the back of the car for questioning. Witnesses said he was trembling, his hands shaking, and that the officers said they were arresting him. His brother had been shot by deputies when he was very young. One officer said the man’s brother reached for his Taser; the other officer shot him. The witnesses, who spoke mostly Spanish, said the man’s brother did not reach for the Taser.

Mr. T, a friend, said he’d been pulled over this year in the mostly white neighborhood where he’d lived for a decade. The officers said he fit the description of a robbery suspect. He gave them his ID. The suspect was described as six feet, 185 pounds, and in his thirties. Mr. T is five-eight, rotund, and in his sixties. He was told to get out of the car and lie on his stomach on the sidewalk. He refused repeatedly, and was kept there for over an hour while the officers berated him and asked him questions.

One brother-in-law was stop­ped while riding his bicycle to work at five a.m. He is a custodian at the community college. He was told drug dealers often use bicycles now. He was given a ticket for not having reflective gear.

The father of a basketball teammate was made to lie handcuffed in his own driveway for an hour by city police, who’d been called because his neighbors didn’t recognize him when he sat on his block wall. He was wearing sweatpants, working in the garden. He is an LAPD officer.

Every single friend and relative in the driveway had a story.

*

The Baller got her first citation earlier that year, in January. The highway patrolman followed her for five miles on the highway and had her pull over into the parking lot of a strip club. Our Laurie was in the passenger seat. He was questioned at length, about his identification, his address. The patrolman didn’t believe that he was seventeen. When our daughter called me, she was crying. She said she was afraid of what I would say.

She was right. I was furious, but not about the ticket. “When you get pulled over, you put D—— in danger,” I shouted at her. “You’re risking his life. Don’t drive even four miles over the speed limit! He could have been shot and killed!”

Only some mothers say that to their children.

*

It took two more hours to get to Huntington Beach and find a parking space.

The six-four Black Guy and the six-five Black Guy arranged themselves on chairs. They were surrounded by us and six more girls on the blankets now, friends of The Baller’s, eating chicken and watermelon and cupcakes.

Feets didn’t go in the water, as he usually did when the girls call him the whale and, even now, try to jump on his back. He read and dozed. He had slept two hours.

Our Laurie went in the water. He was alone for a long time, the farthest out in the powerful waves of that day, and because he was so tall the water reached only his chest.

Feets had a huge natural. We used to stand in the mirror together, back in 1979, and with his ancient, tiny black blow dryer I did my hair like Farrah Fawcett and then he blew out his Afro.

His hair is short now, with a lot of gray, under his ballcap.

Our Laurie always has braids, under his ballcap. It’s the braids that make people nervous. The hat. The long shorts. The intricate tiny braids that his mother makes every week, that cross his skull in complicated patterns and just touch his shoulders.

The Baby said, “Why does every­one make fun of watermelon and fried chicken anyway? Why did people always talk about Barack and watermelon?”

The Scholar said, “Oh, my God, could you be any more annoying? Learn your history, OK?”

“Why don’t you ever eat watermelon, Daddy?” she asked him.

“’Cause it’s nasty,” he said. “Just like green peas. They made me eat it when I was a kid, and I ain’t a kid now.”

He was slumped in his chair, half-asleep. His feet were covered with sand.

When I was pregnant with The Scholar, everyone in the driveway teased us. “You got size-five feet and he got them size-fourteen boats. What the hell is that baby gonna look like?”

Who said it? Him, or one of his brothers? Or did I dream it? “What if it’s a short baby with his feet? It’ll be like one of those plastic clowns—you can punch it and punch it and it’ll pop right back up, on them cardboard feet.”

*

That night, he called at eleven fifteen. He was on shift. “They make it back OK?” he said, quietly, anxiously, in the echoing vacuum of the cement walls.

We had left the beach in his truck after only two hours. He had to sleep before work.

“They came back about forty minutes after we did,” I told him.

“For real?”

“I guess they got cold,” I said.

Maybe they had been nervous. We didn’t talk about it. “You working security?” I said. “You gonna fall asleep?”

He said he had court calendar, making the schedule for juvenile offenders who would be escorted in in the morning. He has to shackle and prepare them. He’d already told everyone at work about the seat belt. A lot of co-workers had gotten tickets this summer. “Revenue,” he said again. Then he said, “I just wanted to know they made it back,” and hung up.

I stood in the kitchen doorway. Our Laurie was on the couch, with the little women heckling him while he took out his braids, which were full of sand. They had never seen his shoulder-length curls before, and they kept trying to take pictures with the cell phone. 

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