October 2010

Travels With My Ex

Intolerance and Fear on the Freeways of the OC

by Susan Straight

Southern California in mid-July. My ex-husband and I were headed to Huntington Beach because that’s where the Baller, a shooting guard who’d been playing basketball since she was seven, wanted to celebrate her eighteenth birthday.

(We have three daughters—herewith known as The Scholar, The Baller, and The Baby.)

“I hate Huntington,” I said. “My least favorite beach.”

“I didn’t want to go either,” my ex-husband said. We were driving behind my van, the dark green Mercury Villager I. Today my van was packed with teenagers. Behind the wheel was The Scholar. Next to her, The Baller. In the backseat, The Baby, along with Neka, one of our daughter’s high-school teammates. And in the middle was Bink, another former teammate, and The Baller’s boyfriend. We call him our Laurie. My house, full of my little women (though they are all taller than I am), has for years seen various successions of boys who have tried to be the equivalent of Louisa May Alcott’s Laurie. This one seems close. Our Laurie is willing to sit on the couch with all three girls and any attendant girls and watch She’s the Man or Fired Up! He cooks for himself. A lefty quarterback, he throws the tennis ball accurately and untiringly for the dog. His favorite phrase, uttered with deadpan sympathy: “That’s unfortunate.”

“Look at this traffic,” I said. “This is why I hate going through Orange County.”

The I-91 freeway. Four lanes each way, often the most congested in the nation.

My ex-husband and I have known each other since the eighth grade, when he was a basketball player and I was an ex-cheerleader. (My mother had run me over, accidentally, with her own 1966 Ford station wagon, effectively ending my career two weeks after it began.)

I looked at his foot on the gas pedal. He hardly ever wears sandals. Regulation boots at his correctional officer job. Size fourteen. When we were in high school, and he was an All-County power forward, one of his nicknames was Feets. Mine was It-Z-Bits. He’s six-four and goes 305 pounds. I’m five-four. 105.

We have been divorced now for twelve years. But we still see or speak to each other almost every day. Where we live, in the easily jeered-at Inland Empire, we know countless ex-couples like us. Whether it’s because we can’t afford to move away after we divorce, or we’re just too lazy to dislike each other efficiently and permanently, it seems to work.

The Scholar would be a junior at Oberlin, and this summer received a research fellowship at Cal Tech. The Baller would start USC in weeks, with nearly a full scholarship. The Baby had just won a DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) award for her history scholarship at her middle school.

But that’s why I was broke. Two kids in college. A California economy in shambles. My upcoming pay cut: 10 percent. Feets: 14 percent pay cut from the county juvenile institution.

He works graveyard. That meant he’d slept for two hours, after spending the night watching two teenage boys charged with a gruesome murder.

By two p.m., we’d gone about thirty miles in traffic that was now, unbelievably, stop-and-go. We talked about how many police cars we’d seen that summer, how everyone we knew was getting tickets, how The Scholar and The Baller had both gotten their first citations this year under dubious circumstances. “Revenue,” Feets kept saying. “The state is broke. They have to make money, and it has to be on us.”

A California Highway Patrol car drove past us on the right, then pulled alongside the green van. The cruiser slowed, at the rear of my van’s bumper, and then pulled back up to the side and hit the flashing lights.

“What the hell?” I said.

“He’s pulling her over,” my ex-husband said, resigned. “Of course he is. Car full of black kids in the OC.”

The patrolman was shouting at The Scholar through the loudspeaker.

My ex-husband said, “I’m going, too. He’s not gonna pull any shit. I’m not having it.”

My husband has a history with cops. He’s the six-four Black Guy, the one that fits the description, the one who was seen carrying the shotgun earlier, the one the gas station attendant saw and accidentally stepped on the silent alarm, the one who “attacked” a campaign worker in Pittsburgh, the one who carjacked Susan Smith, the one you make up, but in reality the one who gets out of his car to help a woman change a tire and she nearly falls into a ditch, she runs away so fast.

“He better not mess with her,” my ex-husband said was saying.

“It’s D———,” I said. That’s Our Laurie’s name. “He’s gonna make D——— get out of the car.”

Our Laurie is the six-five Black Guy, the one with elaborate braids under his NY Yankees cap, the one wearing size-thirteen shoes and a South Carolina T-shirt because he’d just gotten a scholarship offer from the Gamecocks, the one who’d returned only the day before from the high-school All-American basketball camp in Philadelphia, the one with brown skin almost exactly the same shade as my ex-husband’s, the one we tease our daughter about because she always said the last thing she ever wanted to do was replicate my life.

“Where you from?” one officer yelled at us, and another held the barrel of his shotgun against Feets’s skull, pushing it farther and farther until the opening seemed to be inside his ear, under his huge Afro. It was August 1979. Westwood, California.

Where you from? Where’s your license? Where’s your car? Is it stolen? Why are you here? Why aren’t you in Riverside?

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

Susan Straight’s seventh novel, Take One Candle Light a Room, will be published this month by Pantheon Books. Her essays and short stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, Zoetrope, the New York Times, and elsewhere. She still lives in Riverside.

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