It is impossible to sit handcuffed to the backseat of a cop car without feeling like a badass motherfucker. But I can only speak for myself.
I’m sitting on my wrists, and the handcuffs dig deep into my skin. I look outside at downtown LA, deserted except for the occasional crazy who wanders those streets at 2 AM on a Wednesday.
And in my back pocket, humming against the cold plastic, my cell phone buzzes in unending panic.
Let’s go back in time one hour. I’m at the Gold Room, a dive bar in Echo Park. Beer nuts, salty tacos, Angels game. My best friend Brendan flirts with the bartender. She tells us she’s an actress. He tells her he’s a musician.
A little after midnight, we stroll out of Gold Room toward my car, in that pleasant, oozy, melt-in-your-head state of mind that can only be achieved on a quiet weeknight with LA’s finest. We climb into my car.
Brendan then says, “Let’s blast the radio.”
I turn it on and up, and Nicki Minaj is playing. We start to drive down Sunset, my radio obnoxiously blaring into the mostly empty street. And almost instantly, I see piercing blue lights in my rearview mirror.
I pull into a parking lot. Brendan and I don’t look at each other. Instead we sit immobilized, a dead weight of doom pressing us down. I hear the crunching of the officer’s boots on the pavement growing closer.
Before I see him, I’m first blinded by his flashlight. The cop asks for my license and registration. “Have you been drinking tonight?”
I tell him the truth. “I had a beer about an hour ago.”
He then flicks the light onto Brendan. Brendan just looks straight forward.
At this point, I get a good look at the officer. He is in his 40s, and he has a shiny bald head. He catches me observing him, then smiles a strange smile. “Sorry to disrupt you two,” he says. “You,” motioning at me, “get out of the car.”
Something begins to sink in. The way he’s leering at Brendan and me is unsettling in a way that I’m not exactly used to, but I almost instinctively recognize. Brendan, despite being my straight best friend, looks like a trick. And I’m obviously gay, in my tank top and jean cut-offs. It looks like I picked him up from the bar, and we’re going home together, blasting Nicki Minaj.
I step out of the car. The officer, who we will call Officer One, proceeds to do a bunch of field tests on me. And I can honestly say that I pass all the tests. I don’t stumble once, I understand all his instructions, and I finish feeling pretty good about it. Officer One looks disappointed.
“You know,” he suddenly says, “we get a lot of your type. Lots of boys like you in this area.” He walks around me until my back is to him.
“Like me?” I ask. My mouth becomes as dry as sandpaper. “What do you mean?”
There’s no response, except for a loud metal click, and I feel him binding my hands together with cuffs. Startled, I turn around, and his hands instantly go to his belt, where a gun, a taser, and pepper spray all dangle within convenient reach.
“Don’t move,” he says. “Stay right there.”
I hear him radioing someone. I look back at the car. Brendan still sits in the passenger seat, motionless.
Officer One walks back to face me again. I clear my throat. “Why did you handcuff me?” I ask. “Am I being detained?”
The officer is grinning now, clearly pleased with himself. “Based on my expertise, I say you’re intoxicated. I’m going to perform a breathalyzer test on you, and if you resist me, I’m going to spray you in the face.”
Then, he adds, “I’m sure you’re used to that.” He smiles at me, as if expecting me to laugh.
And in that instant, any fear I’ve had is wholly replaced by a sharp fury. I feel my face burning, my teeth clenched so tightly that my breath becomes ragged. I look down, biting my tongue.
Soon, his partner arrives. We’ll call him Officer Two. He walks over to Brendan to talk to him, and lets him go within a minute. Brendan shoots me a sad look as he runs off into the night. I’m happy he’s gone; had they mistreated him in front of me, this night might have taken a darker turn.
Officer One, meanwhile, tries to shove his breathalyzer into my mouth. I move my head away.
Officer Two, as if acting the mediator, tells me gently, “If you’re not intoxicated, then just take the test and you can go home.”
I look at him square in the eye. “If your partner is going to profile me for being gay, then I’m not going to make anything easier for him.”
Both officers look at me, exasperated. Then Officer One radios for more backup.
And that’s how I ended up in the back of this cop car.
At the station, I am led to a bench where they sit me down. Officer Two reads me my rights as Officer One settles behind a desk. Then they have me fill out a form. It should interest you to know that one of the questions asks your sexual orientation. I give Officer Two a look when he asks me, and he almost apologetically explains, “It’s for your own protection.”
I answer, “From the inmates or from you?”
He then clicks on the machine, and as we wait for it to load, he suddenly rests a hand on my shoulder. We stand side by side in silence, until he says, “I don’t get your generation. You stand up for all these things but you can barely afford rent. A job is something you do just to feed yourself. That’s the real priority.”
I laugh. “That’s a funny thing for a cop to say.”
He smiles back at me. “I tell it to my kids.”
“How old are they?”
“19 and 21.”
“You’re a good dad, I can tell.”
The machine beeps to life. He unhooks the tube and brings it toward my mouth.
“You ready?” he asks.
“Just answer me this,” I say. “At any point of the night, have I seemed intoxicated to you?” I stare him dead in the eye.
Officer Two pauses for a brief beat. Behind the desk, Officer One rustles through some papers, but he is listening. Officer Two says, “No.”
I lean forward and blow into the machine. Officer Two tells me that the results take about 15 minutes to register. So I’m led back to the bench, where I sit on my handcuffs once again.
And as I sit there, I remember the time I came out to my mom. I had just turned 22, nearly done with college, and I drove home at 4 AM to tell her that I was in love for the first time, and that it was with a man.
And I remember her tears and her anger and her screaming, her holding me tight as I struggled against her, the rejection searing acid onto my flesh, as she told me that I couldn’t be gay, that the world is not kind to boys who like boys, especially to colored boys like me. Her tiny frail arms coiled ungiving around me, like she could squeeze the gay out of me, like it was pus out of a wound.
“I’m so scared,” she had said, right before we parted ways for a very long time. “You’re just a boy, and I’m so scared for you.”
And up until this night, what she’d said had haunted me.
I snap out of my reverie as suddenly the giant breathalyzer churns to life, its little lights flashing and the sound of the results being printed on paper, like an old-school fax machine. I don’t think I breathe for the next minute as Officer Two tears off the piece of paper and scans the results. His face is inscrutable. Doubt begins to course ice-cold through my veins.
He hands the paper to Officer One, who looks at it as well. Then, he suddenly lets out a loud laugh, a violent burst of amusement that startles everyone in the room. He walks up to me and shows it to me.
I see the result: .03. Officer One walks out of the room.
Officer Two motions for me to stand. He rests a hand on my shoulder once again, and he asks me, “Why didn’t you just take the field test?”
I look at him square in the eye. “I might not have every right, but I have that one.”
Officer Two sighs, but doesn’t say anything. I falter a bit. Maybe I was a little harsh.
So I say to him gently, “You are a good man, and I don’t want you to ever get in trouble. Your partner is homophobic, and that is going to be a problem very soon.” He looks up at me, and nods that he heard me. Then he doesn’t look at me again.
Officer One returns, and the two of them escort me out of the jail. We walk down several doors, each of which needs to be unlocked with a code. Finally we get to the front door, and I feel Officer Two uncuff me with a click. I clasp my sore wrists as I turn to look at them.
“Is this where I go?” I ask quietly as a glorious reality begins to sink in. You see, in my mind, I’m doing somersaults in a gold-spun field whilst clad in a glittery rainbow flag. I’m free. I’m FREE!
But I keep my face solemn and I bite my lip shut. Officer Two nods and pushes open the door. “Get home safe,” he says.
For a moment I wonder if I should thank him, but instead I spring out before any minds are changed. And I just sprint the fuck out of there. Out of the police lot, onto the deserted streets, the moon strangely visible despite the inner city lights. I run until I’m out of breath, panting near the 2nd Street Tunnel. My body hums with adrenaline.
I take a few breaths to calm myself, and then I reach for my cell and call my mom. She answers instantly after one ring, despite it being nearly 3 AM. “Justin?” she says, alarmed. “Is everything okay? What’s wrong?”
“I just wanted to hear your voice,” I say.
“Oh.” Her tone softens, and she yawns. “So you’re safe? You’re doing all right?”
I take a deep breath, and exhale the last of many things. “Yeah, Mama. I’m going to be just fine.”
I hang up and text Brendan. I walk to a scenic spot, where I gaze at the L.A. skyline as I wait for him to pick me up.
Special thanks to Brendan Deiz.
Take off your Google glasses, unplug your Wii Hologram, and let your father be corny for just a moment. You can eyeroll all you want at what I’m about to say (because you’re just like me), but allow me this moment to tell you just how much you mean to me, and what goes through my mind when I look at you and say your names.
I wasn’t supposed to have this moment. I grew up believing my life would be marked with solitude and stoic independence, because to hope for something that might never happen is like begging for unbearable pain. Your names were just whispers that lingered in the corners of my mind that I never had the courage to say out loud.
I can tell you about the darkness that I dwelled in as a young man, the mud I slept in, the mazes of my life in which I wandered blindly. I could tell you about the fury that I allowed to consume me whole. It spat me out each time more embittered than the last, it very nearly killed me, it broke me down, it called me a faggot and a pervert, and it laughed at me when I wondered if I was worthy.
But your names, those whispers in my brain, never left me. They echoed and grew stronger even in the darkest of times. They were battle cries when I needed to fight, they were exclamations of joy in happy times, they were tender words when I was wounded, and they saved my life. Sometimes the hope for you was the only reason I had.
Now I can say your names. They are no longer whispers; I can yell them as loud as I want (as I often do). When I say your names, even in anger or sadness, I am overwhelmed: You are real, sitting in front of me, listening to an old man think about a strange time – just a few decades ago – when his love was illegal. And you nod your heads with me, trying to grasp this abstract notion, and you think, “Of course we deserve to exist.”
As for me, you are an impossible blessing, a miracle from a kinder God. Because when I say your names, I also say the names of the countless lives that were dedicated and sacrificed so we could have this moment. This is why I never take you for granted: I love you in a way that is worthy of these many unspoken names.
I’m losing you, I can tell. It is through grace that you can’t begin to fathom what it feels like to grow up believing you are subhuman, and I promise on my life I will never let you experience it. There is fight left in this body yet, and like I said, I owe you big time.
I’ll stop being corny. This moment was enough. I will sit back and go back to reading (this thing I’m holding is called a book). And time to time I will peer over the top of my book and look at my family, marveling over the miracle that your names are no longer whispers.
With all my love,