Travels With My Ex

In mid-July, my former spouse and I took a road trip to Huntington Beach, California in honor of the eighteen-year-old shooting guard known as the Baller, who had been playing basketball for eleven years. We were celebrating her special day.

Our family is comprised of three daughters, whom we call The Scholar, The Baller, and The Baby.

I voiced my distaste for Huntington, which is my least favorite beach.

My ex-husband stated, “I didn’t want to go either.” We were driving behind the dark green Mercury Villager filled with teenagers. The Scholar was at the wheel, and The Baller was beside her. In the backseat was The Baby, along with one of our daughter’s high-school teammates, Neka.

The middle seat was occupied by Bink, another former teammate, and The Baller’s boyfriend, who we call our Laurie. My home has been home to many boys who have tried to be the equivalent of Louisa May Alcott’s Laurie.

This particular Laurie willingly sat with the three girls and any other girls that were present to watch She’s the Man or Fired Up! He cooks for himself and is an accurate, lefty quarterback when throwing a tennis ball for the dog.

His favorite phrase, which is always uttered with deadpan sympathy, is “That’s unfortunate.” I expressed my distaste for traveling through Orange County as I pointed out the traffic situation.

The I-91 freeway, with its four lanes in either direction, is frequently the most crowded in the United States.

My ex-spouse and I had the privilege of being acquainted since our eighth grade when he was a star on the basketball court, and I was a former cheerleader. (Sadly, my mother accidentally drove over me with her 1966 Ford station wagon two weeks after I started, ending my cheerleading career.)

I noticed the size fourteen footwear on the gas pedal, as he rarely wears sandals. He had to wear regulation boots for his job as a correctional officer. When we were in high school, his nickname was ‘Feets’ because he was an All-County power forward.

While my nickname was ‘It-Z-Bits.’ His tall stature and heavy weight were an imposing figure, standing at six-foot-four and 305 pounds, while I was a much smaller five-foot-four and 105 pounds.

It has been twelve years since our divorce. Yet, we remain in frequent contact daily. In the much-maligned Inland Empire, plenty of former couples are just like us.

Whether it be due to a lack of funds to relocate after the divorce or simply being too numb to dislike each other, our current arrangement is functioning.

The Junior at Oberlin was recently awarded a summer research fellowship at Cal Tech. USC was set to welcome the Baller in a few weeks with a generous scholarship. To top it off, the Baby was rewarded with a DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) prize for her history research at her middle school.

I was having financial difficulties due to having two kids in college and the California economy being poor. This was made worse by the 10 percent pay cut I was expecting and the 14 percent pay cut that the county juvenile institution faced.

He was employed in graveyard shifts. That meant that he had only had two hours of sleep after being a witness to the arraignment of two teenage boys accused of a brutal murder.

By two o’clock, we had traveled approximately thirty miles in the unbelievably slow stop-and-go traffic.

We discussed the number of police cars we had observed that summer, how everyone we knew had been receiving tickets, and how both The Scholar and The Baller had been handed their first citations in the current year in dubious conditions. “Revenue,”

Feets often remarked. “The state is short of money. They must make money, and it has to come from us.”

As we traveled, a California Highway Patrol car passed us on the right, and then it drove up beside the green van. The cruiser reduced speed, positioned itself behind my van’s back, and then pulled away and switched on the flashing lights.

I uttered, “What in the world?!”

My former spouse remarked resignedly, “The cop is stopping her; it’s no surprise, considering there’re several African-American children in the car in Orange County.”

The patrolman was vociferously addressing The Scholar through the megaphone.

My ex-spouse declared, “I’m also going. I won’t permit him to do anything inappropriate. I won’t put up with it.”

My spouse has past experiences with law enforcement. Being six-foot-four and African American, he often fits the description of someone who’s seen carrying a firearm or is mistakenly identified as a perpetrator.

Once, a gas station attendant accidentally set off an alarm when he saw my husband, during another time, he was accused of attacking a campaign worker in Pittsburgh.

People have even accused him of carjacking Susan Smith, but these claims are all false; in reality, he was simply stopping to help a woman change a tire, only for her to flee in a hurry.

My ex-spouse declared that he better not provoke her.

“That’s Our Laurie’s moniker,” I declared. “He intends to get D—— out of the automobile.”

Laurie, the six-five Black Guy with the intricate braids and NY Yankees cap, was wearing size-thirteen shoes and a South Carolina T-shirt due to his recent scholarship offer from the Gamecocks.

He returned from the All-American basketball camp in Philadelphia the day before. His brown skin closely resembled my ex-husband’s, leading us to joke with our daughter since she had always said she never wished to replicate my life.

One of the officers shouted at us, “What’s your origin?”. At the same time, the other pressed the muzzle of his shotgun against the head of Feets, pushing it further and further in until the opening was almost inside his ear, underneath his giant Afro. It was the month of August in the year 1979 in Westwood, California.

What is your hometown? Do you have a driver’s license? Is the vehicle you are driving registered to you? Is it stolen? What brings you to this location? What is the reason behind you not being in Riverside?

I had driven eighty miles from Riverside, the home of orange orchards, dairies, and a small downtown area, to begin my sophomore year at USC. Feet played basketball for Monterey Peninsula College, and Penguin was a linebacker for a junior college in Riverside County.

After a day at the beach, they were eager to explore the streets of Westwood, a place we had only seen in films.

The individual wore a pair of close-fitting khaki trousers, a dark tank top, and a pale cowpoke cap. Suddenly, two squad cars raced onto the pavement where we were walking, hindering our progress. Four policemen pushed us up against the brick wall.

The aroma is something I still recall.

I soon noticed that he was the one they were aiming for. A power forward, his broad shoulder blades appeared like dark wings, his arms and legs outstretched against the wall.

He matched the details given.

At UCLA, it was reported that an individual wearing a cowboy hat and brandishing a shotgun was menacingly threatening those nearby.

The police officer glanced at my license and asked why I had traveled from Riverside to Los Angeles. He wanted to know whose vehicle I was using and if my mother knew I was with two African-American individuals.

I feared that the police officers would aim at Penguin’s ears because he was being defiant and not handing over his license.

They spoke to him further in a way I could not pick up. They then decreased the shotgun, and he put his hands down. They commanded us to locate our vehicle and depart Los Angeles. “Head back to Riverside!”

They informed us they would be behind us and that they would fire without warning if they noticed us on foot again.

As we strolled, the police cruiser trailed us. My partner walked in front of me slowly, aware that a shot could still be fired if he made the wrong move. We made our way back home.

The highway patrolman wanted to know why the Scholar had been driving at a speed of thirty-two mph, with all the stops in between, and why they had signaled each time.

My ex-husband commented that the right rear light was once again malfunctioning.

I exclaimed that my seat belt was still not working.

My former spouse attempted to surge in front of the van and police car by spinning their tires in the roadside dust. The officer was screaming louder, his words bouncing off our vehicle. “Don’t worry about the white truck,” he bellowed.

I yelled, “Drag him behind you!”

My ex-husband was bellowing, “No, it would frighten him!”

My understanding of his mindset was that if the police officer was frightened, he might fire at us.

The Scholar halted, and the cruiser followed suit, and my ex-husband stepped on the gas and circled the area one more time, a strange spectacle that was not humorous; however, it was a bit comical when the state trooper hastily leaped out of his car, looking incensed at us, with both arms raised high and uttering, What the heck?

His hair was a combination of red and blonde, and he was broad-shouldered with a pair of sunglasses.

He glared directly at me, and his expression was stern. This was a positive thing.

This past summer, I read Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck. He and his sizeable French poodle, Charley, who had “bleu” fur when groomed, were traveling in a truck called Rocinante with a camper shell on the back.

When they reached New Orleans, a man leaned in and exclaimed, “Man, oh man, I thought you had a nigger in there. Man, oh man, it’s a dog. I saw that big black face and assumed it was a nigger.”

Feet and I took a trip and ended up camping in McClellanville, South Carolina. We didn’t get much rest that night, as hunters soon filled the campground. As I kept lying in the camper, I heard a father speaking to his son. He said, “Look at that tall man, son. When you get older, I’ll buy you one like him.”

I didn’t divulge the specifics to Feet regarding what the man had conveyed to me. I communicated that some alarming individuals were present and that it would be prudent to gather our items and depart. Then, that’s precisely what we did.

If anything is more intimidating than Fits the Description, it has to be Routine Traffic Stop.

We recall the names and faces from our past. A family member in Signal Hill. Rodney King. The Baller’s basketball coach’s brothers, both of them. My brother’s closest friend. He was shot nineteen times while driving on the freeway’s center divider in his white truck, as he wouldn’t pull over.

Perhaps he was under the influence. He was either stuck on the cement or attempting to reverse. No firearm. He had a toolbox. He had just delivered a shipment of cut orangewood to my home.

Feets declared that he would not be exiting the car, his arms resting on the steering wheel.

I declared that I was on my way since I had to retrieve my wallet.

He made a statement warning against any interference with her.

My mission was apparent, so I exclaimed, “I’m going!” I bent down to get my pink leather wallet and assumed my role as the short blond mother.

At school, basketball games, parent-teacher conferences, and the principal’s office, my ex-husband’s intimidating presence often caused alarm: His NFL linebacker size, black sunglasses, and menacing scowl, combined with his giant dog shirt, had a formidable effect.

I’m tasked with being friendly while trying to ascertain the situation.

When I stepped out of the vehicle, the law enforcement officer had his eyes on me, and The Scholar gestured in my direction.

The loud bustle of cars whizzing by on the highway, situated just a few yards from the serene weigh station. I removed my shades and felt my lips tense.

Who had worn this foolish grin that seemed to rouse somebody’s fury? (What was it compared to? Something akin to custard inside a dress?)

The cop demanded to know why I had come to a halt and what my intentions were, his voice echoing around me.

The Scholar spoke, her tone aggrieved, and pointed out, “That’s my mom and dad.” She was not frightened, rather she was angry – that was her usual reaction.

I was in a festive mood as I announced that we were headed to the beach to celebrate someone’s birthday. I was concerned that the heavy traffic would mean my companion and I would become separated, so I didn’t want that to happen.

My little sisters are not pleased when I do this activity which I am pretty skilled at. Afterward, they often mockingly imitate me, as they find it annoying that I excel at this task.

I inquired, “What’s the issue?” “Is it that troublesome seat belt?”

What sort of smile was it?

The police officer peered intently at me and then at the van.

The male passenger had neglected to fasten his seat belt, yet the comment was dry, “Oh, he has it on now.”

He requested my license, registration, and insurance documents, and I attempted to lighten the situation with a joke about the registration being buried within the glove compartment.

I pulled the insurance card from my wallet, but the registration was out of date and he gave me a stern look before returning to his patrol vehicle.

I leaned into the window and sternly reminded Laurie that they had not put on their seat belt, which was something they always did. Simultaneously, the Scholar was discussing California’s dire need for additional funds.

He professed, “It was not me who did it; it was Bink.”

At nineteen years old, Bink was significantly darker than himself and had her tresses coiled up in a black cap, accompanied by a vast black tee. His gaze was full of ire as he rolled his eyes in annoyance.

One person remarked, “He’s coming back.” The officer then drew near the opposite side of the van. “I require the male traveler to open the door,” he instructed. “Please open the door,” he requested.

Ever so cautiously, Bink opened the entrance.

The officer requested Bink to show her license. He hid the fact that he initially believed she was a male. He did not ask either Bink or Laurie to disembark from the vehicle. I no longer had imaginings of people face down in the dust.

He wrote the citation, Laurie stared directly at The Scholar’s tresses, The Baller stared ahead out the front window, and I could tell Feets was observing in the rear view without a single motion. I stood stiffly close to the driver’s-side window until the citation was completed.

It wasn’t until that evening that I noticed my lips were curved over my teeth again, and I recalled the delightful, dazzling grin. Custard.

In Toni Morrison’s work Sula, a mother and daughter are on a journey from Ohio to Louisiana. While they are on the train, the white conductor speaks harshly to them for not being in the “Colored car,” The mother responds by smiling and showing her teeth.

This causes the other black passengers to feel contempt for her and her daughter to be discomfited by her custard-colored skin and her lack of strength.

Earlier, around 20 miles from Corona, I had been relaying what I had heard a few days ago to my ex-husband. I had offered one of our numerous nephews a drive back home after his football practice with the Scholar.

We took a while in the driveway of my father-in-law’s dad’s house, conversing with two of his brothers, three cousins, and a family friend.

A crowd always gathers in the driveway due to the house not having air conditioning, with a cooler of beers, folding chairs, card tables, and stereo speakers attached to the carport’s wrought-iron supports. It’s the communication base for the entire neighborhood.

We discussed a newspaper article concerning a police investigation into the 2006 shooting of our coach’s brother.

The commission found no fault with the officers even though the brother was stopped thrice in 30 minutes, the first one because of his “unusual look” and the second time because he ran a stop sign and executed a U-turn.

The official report stated he had resisted when they tried to place him in their car for questioning. People who were presently mentioned that he was shaking, his hands trembling and that the officers declared they were arresting him.

The man’s brother had been shot by police officers when he was very young. One of the officers said that the brother had gone for his Taser gun, but the other officer fired at him. The witnesses mostly spoke Spanish and said that the man’s brother did not reach for the Taser.

Mr. T, a friend of mine, shared that the police had stopped him in the predominantly white area where he had lived for ten years. The authorities informed him that he resembled the description of a person involved in a robbery.

He gave them his ID, though the suspect was said to be 6 feet tall, 185 pounds, and in his thirties, whereas Mr. T is only 5’8″, rotund, and in his sixties. He repeatedly refused to exit the car and lie down on the pavement, but the officers kept him there for over an hour, insulting and asking him questions.

Early one morning, a man who is the brother-in-law of someone was riding his bicycle to his job as a custodian at a nearby college. He was stopped by the police, who said that drug dealers often use bicycles, and he was given a ticket for not having any reflective gear.

A basketball teammate’s dad was put in handcuffs and made to stay on the pavement of his driveway for 60 minutes by a police squad summoned since the neighbors failed to recognize him when he was seated on his block wall. He had on sweatpants and was tending his garden. He is an LAPD officer.

All the people in the driveway, from friends to family, had a tale to tell.

In January, the Baller was given her first citation. A highway patrolman trailed the car for five miles, causing it to stop in the lot of a strip club. Our Laurie was inside the vehicle.

The officer pressed the driver for information regarding his identification, address, and age. The patrolman appeared uncertain that the individual was seventeen. When our daughter phoned me, she was in tears, expressing fear of my reaction.

I was livid, not because of the ticket. “It’s dangerous for D—- when you surpass the speed limit, even by a few miles,” I yelled. “You could have put his life in jeopardy! Don’t ever exceed the speed limit!”

Not all moms speak those words to their offspring.

Getting to Huntington Beach took two additional hours, and securing a spot to park the car was an added chore.

Six-four and six-five Black Guys took a seat in the middle of our gathering, which consisted of six additional female companions of The Baller’s. We all partook in a feast of chicken, watermelon, and cupcakes.

He avoided putting his feet in the water, as was his custom when the girls jokingly referred to him as a whale and tried to hop on his back. He alternated between reading and dozing. After two hours, he managed to get some sleep.

Laurie ventured into the sea by himself and stayed for a while. The waves were strong that day, and since he was pretty tall, the water only came up to his chest.

In 1979, my buddy and I had a great time together. We used to stand in front of the mirror with his outdated yet small black hairdryer. I used to style my hair like Farrah Fawcett while he blew out his Afro.

A ballcap sits atop his head, under which lies a head of short gray hair.

The ballcap that covers Laurie’s head can’t hide the braids that his mother carefully styles each week – intricate, tiny plaits that cross his skull in intricate patterns and brush his shoulders. It’s these braids that make people uneasy.

The Baby inquired, “What is the cause of the teasing and jokes about watermelon and fried chicken? Why are Barack and watermelon so often discussed?”

The Scholar exclaimed, “Goodness me, could you be any more irritating? Please take the time to become familiar with history, alright?”

The little girl posed a query to her father, inquiring why he never ate watermelon.

He expressed his disdain for the food item, noting that it reminded him of the green peas he had to consume when he was younger, but he was no longer a child.

He had slumped in his seat and was in a state of semi-slumber. His toes were filled with sand.

When I was expecting The Scholar, the people in the driveway joked about us. They said, “Your feet are a size five, and he is a size fourteen. What is that child going to look like?”

I’m curious to know who uttered these words–him or one of his siblings? Or was it just a figment of my imagination? “What would happen if a small child was born with their feet replaced by those of a clown? You could hit it and hit it, and it would just keep bouncing back up, propped up on the cardboard feet.”

At 11:15 pm that evening, he phoned in. Since he was at work, his tone was calm and concerned as he asked if they had made it back safely. The sound of his voice reverberated off the stark, concrete walls.

We departed the seaside in his vehicle after just two hours. He needed to get some rest before his job.

I informed him that they returned roughly forty minutes after we had arrived.

“Are you serious?”

I commented that they likely became chilled.

We were both aware that they may have been apprehensive, but we didn’t bring it up. I asked, “Are you on duty now? Don’t you think you might doze off?”

He revealed he was responsible for developing the court calendar for juvenile offenders to be brought in the morning, and his job was to shackle and prepare them.

He had informed workers about the seat belt law, and many of his colleagues had received tickets during the summer. He remarked, “Revenue,” and added, “I just wanted to make sure they all got home safely,” before ending the call.

I paused in the kitchen entryway, observing our Laurie on the couch, who had to deal with the little women teasing him as he unraveled his braids, loaded with sand. They had not seen his shoulder-length curls previously and were trying to capture images on their mobile phones.

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