I have a deep-seated fear of policemen. If I didn’t also have a crippling fear of therapists, one would probably lie me supine on a couch and subject my feeble mind to a heady mix of hypnotherapy, Freudian analysis and Hostess products to reveal that high school was the genesis of my law enforcement angst.
The culprit was my prom date. A tall, gangly basketball player who looked unfortunately like Bull from Night Court. He asked me to prom, and I accepted out of the misguided adolescent notion that prom means something even if I would have elected for another semester of AP Physics than spend an evening surrounded by the prominently displayed cleavage of my graduating class. When he arrived to my house, I consented to a few awkwardly posed photographs in the driveway. As he turned to walk to his Altima, I shot my brother a pained expression through the living room window and flopped into the passenger seat.
We were headed along the route I’d driven countless times when my date turned unexpectedly and violently on to a side road. He apologized and explained he preferred traveling by quieter passes. A few moments later he turned suddenly again, then again, and finally parked his car in front of a foreign house before switching off the headlights.
Great. This is the crack den in which my body, denuded of all essential organs, will be found in a heap on a soiled mattress.
As we sat there in silence, I strained to recall survival skills gleaned from Angelina Jolie movies. Could the fumes from my hairsprayed updo cause him to black out? Could I use lipstick to scrawl a message on the window? Do I run in a zigzag or climb up a tree? He turned to me with a hard expression as I waited breathlessly for the van of drug lords that would be pulling up any moment.
“Sorry,” he stammered. “I have a thing with cops. They make me nervous.”
He went on to explain that when he was not making a reputation for himself shooting a basketball, he was making a buck buying used cars, fixing them up by highly dubious means, and selling them for a neat profit. After checking the trunk to be sure he didn’t have a toddler beauty queen in duct tape, I breathed easier. I wasn’t going to prom with a teen killer; He was just your run-of-the-mill corrupt car dealer.
Approximately three hours later, we arrived to the prom. And a fear of cops was born.
The paranoia flared again in college when I borrowed a friend’s car one night. I was headed down a hill when the dreaded flashing lights appeared in the mirror. As I rolled down my window, straining to emanate an angelic aura, I wondered if my cafeteria meal plan credits could be applied to this citation.
He asked for the requisite items. However, my license was an out of state one. The registration was in another’s name because it was not my car. The license plate was also from another state. The trifecta of offenses induced the officer to treat me as though he’d caught Charlie Sheen blowing rails off the dashboard with an unbuckled and underage escort.
He narrowed his eyes and said, “Have you been drinking, Miss?”
A probing question from a man with a badge and a weapon holstered at his hip signals the purging of past indiscretions, family secrets, and every wayward impulse I’ve ever had. It’s as though I’m a fallen sheep laying bare my soul to Jesus.
I was blowing into a breathalyzer as soon as I was finished with my soliloquy. I walked the center line while calling over my shoulder that inferior balance and disproportionately long limbs are the reasons I’d never excelled at gymnastics. I waited for the cuffs to clamp down on my wrists. Fortunately, a clean record and his growing concern I needed an exorcism, not a raise in insurance premiums, spared me incarceration.
Now that I live in Maine, my fear has amplified again. The highway patrolmen in this state have upped the ante on unmarked vehicles. They drive Ford trucks or Jeeps that suddenly — horrifyingly — illuminate with red flashing lights once on your tail. Friends know how deep my terror runs and they exploit it liberally for a laugh. They will yell “Cop!” just to see me react exactly as my prom date had so many years ago. I swerve into a lot, park the car, and pull out a newspaper, pretending to search for soup kitchens I could donate canned goods to.
Most recently, during a road trip with the kids, I had a hankering for Dunkin Donuts. A few miles after the stop, we were pulled over by a policeman assisted by a German shepherd. As I sweetly talked to the officer, his dog behaved as if the car seats were lined with narcotics and atom bomb ingredients. The aroma of Munchkins had sent the dog into a Pavlovian fever. The officer eyed me suspiciously.
“We have donuts in here,” I offered as explanation.
“Is that a cop joke?” The officer demanded loudly.
My jaw dropped. My eyes widened. My seat was wet. He let me wriggle and stammer for an eternity until he finally released me with a warning that my inspection sticker was overdue but not without shooting me a stern look of disapproval.
I drove away, hands trembling upon the steering wheel. I tried to steady myself with comforting thoughts. All I could summon was: At least I wasn’t operating an illicit used car ring.