Monday, November 28, 2022

Night Driving

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The moon made I-15 look special as it cut through a ghostly desert and distant hills. It was in the small hours of a morning in early 2011. I was returning to Las Vegas in my silver Saab S.U.V., having taken a break from my writing to go for a drive. I was a fellow at the Black Mountain Institute, at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. As someone who loves to drive at night, I was quietly enjoying the hum of the engine against the steady purr of tires on the tarmac, and relishing the contrast with Michigan, where I’d been living, as well as with my home state of Akwa Ibom, in southern Nigeria. I was so thrilled that I considered cruising past my exit.

Suddenly, my rearview mirror sparkled with the flashers of a police car. Thinking that it must be chasing an emergency ahead, I moved over and slowed down. Yet the car pulled up behind me in some California or Nevada city whose name I no longer remember. Afraid, I rolled down my window, switched on the interior light, and sat like a stone. The wind was warm and dry, as if I were being sprayed with fine sand.

The cop, a white man, appeared on the passenger side and knocked on the window. It startled me, because I didn’t expect him there. Worse, his eerie reflection made it seem as though he had two heads. I scrambled to lower the window and greeted him. When I said, “Officer, any problem?” he asked where I was going, his eyes searching my car. “Returning to Vegas,” I replied.

I was confused by his silence. Should I ask again why he’d stopped me? Or was it a mistake to have asked? My mouth became so dry that I kept sucking my cheeks as though to plumb them for saliva. I knew that he disliked my stupid facial movement, because his own face formed a scowl. “Officer, don’t you want to see my license and registration?” I asked. I handed them to him, then he disappeared. I studied the desert skies.

After he returned my papers, I made to leave.

“But your registration says Michigan. Is it your car?”

“I live in Michigan. It’s my Saab, as my registration says.”

“Did you ship it into Vegas?”

“I drove.”

“And how long a drive is that?”

“Thirty hours.”

“Alone?”

“Yes.”

“Quite a drive, huh.”

“Well, I slept in Omaha and Denver. My best memory was the sudden twisty descent into Glenwood Canyon on I-70. The scenery, the adrenaline, my car snapped out of cruise control. Look, I love to see this beautiful country. On my way back to Michigan, I plan to go north to revisit picturesque Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, before hitting Fargo, North Dakota—”

“But what are you doing in Vegas?” he said, cutting into my attempt to let him know that long road trips were normal for me. I said I was a fellow at U.N.L.V. He excused himself, then yawned and stretched. When he adjusted his belt, all I could see was his handgun. I wished I were in any one of the cars passing us.

“Could you come to the back of the car for a sec?” he said when I asked again what the problem was. My heart raced and my fingers shook, though I held on to the wheel. Fear glued me to my seat.

What if this strange officer who has refused to say why he stopped me shoots me? What if he says I jumped out and pursued him to the back to attack him? Ee-wi ben akpanikọ isọk irung ajid? Who will tell the truth to my family and friends? With all the ibak-ibak stories of American police and Blacks, everyone was already upset by my love of night driving. Stephen King’s “Desperation,” a novel about a possessed Nevada deputy abducting people, crossed my mind. Is it a crime to drive a used Saab? Why ask about my cross-country craze yet stop me from sharing? I was unsettled by his unusual behavior. Was he tired, having a bad shift, or just trying to provoke me?

He asked how long I’d been in Nevada. Since August, I said. When he told me that it was an offense not to change my license, I explained that my fellowship was for only nine months. “O.K., please, just come to the back of the car,” he said. “I want to show you something.”

I braced and told myself, if he pulled his gun, I was going to fight for my life. My spirit was set. I watched him carefully as he walked ahead of me. He was about my build. He stopped and faced my license plate. I stood close enough to smell his sweat. He pointed at the frame around the plate and complained that it was blocking the registration decal. “I mean, not the whole thing,” he corrected himself. “Just a bit of it.”

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