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 2AM 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.
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, and 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 Shern, proceeds to do a bunch of field tests on me. 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 Shern 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 Shern 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 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 Lopez. 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 Shern, meanwhile, tries to shove his breathalyzer into my mouth. I move my head away.
Officer Lopez, 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 Shern 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 Lopez reads me my rights as Officer Shern 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 Lopez 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. At any point of the night, have I seemed intoxicated to you?” I ask him, staring him dead in the eye.
Officer Lopez pauses for a brief beat. Behind the desk, Officer Shern rustles through some papers, but he is listening. Officer Lopez says, “No.”
I lean forward and blow into the machine. Officer Lopez 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 a.m. 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 long time. “You’re just a boy, and I’m so scared for you.”
And up until this night, what she’d said 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 Lopez 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 Shern, 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 Shern walks out of the room.
Officer Lopez 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 Lopez sighs, but doesn’t say anything. I falter a bit. Maybe I was a little harsh.
So I say to him in a gentle voice, “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. He doesn’t look at me again.
Officer Shern 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 Lopez uncuff me with a click. I instinctively 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 tongue. Officer Lopez 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 is still humming 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 a.m. “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, exhaling 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, and I gaze at the LA skyline as I wait for him to pick me up.