They’re on their way to a party when Caitlin gets a text that it has already been broken up. Devon is the designated driver, as usual. The girls are always happy to take him up on free rides and they never give too much thought as to why he doesn’t drink like the rest of them do. April suggests they get some food at Denny’s so the night isn’t a total waste. In this winter chill a hot burger and fries sound perfect and a few minutes later Devon turns into the parking lot. As soon as he parks behind the building the four of them notice red and blue lights flooding the car. There is no siren, but their car is soon approached by an officer.
He taps on the driver’s side window with his flashlight and Devon slowly moves his hands from the steering wheel to the window, to make sure the officer can see them. He ducks his head and looks up for a signal that he can roll down the window. Meanwhile the officer flashes his light at Kamilah in the passenger’s seat, illuminating the whites of her eyes. She puts her hands on the dashboard in front of her. This isn’t her first stop like this.
“Can I help you, officer?” Devon asks, keeping his eyes lowered and his hands on the wheel.
“Well I was just wondering what your problem was, pulling into this parking lot the way you did. I’ll need to see your license,” the officer demands as his hand rests on the gun on his hip.
“Of course; this is my parents’ car though.” Devon retrieves it from the visor along with the registration card to show his parents’ last name matches his name on the license. Throughout this exchange, his head is spinning. It’s going to be okay. I’ve survived these stops before. I’ll do as he says and keep my hands where he can see them. It’s going to be okay. There are three girls in the car. Three sets of eyes watching what happens. I’ve been through this before. Stay calm, and don’t look him in the eye.
The officer studies the information then asks, “Do you realize you almost struck my vehicle?” He gestures to the parked police car along the side of the building. No one noticed it was there when the four friends pulled in and they are all sure Devon hadn’t come close to hitting it.
“No, sir, I’m sorry. I didn’t see your car when I pulled in.” Devon explains in a calm, respectful tone as his pulse throbs at his temples.
“Are you calling me a liar?” The officer moves his gaze to Kamilah and he flashes his light into her eyes again. “What about you? You didn’t see my vehicle parked over there either?”
Kamilah gulps and says, “No sir, I didn’t see it either.”
Kamilah’s heart had started racing as soon as she saw the lights. Her bedroom is often bathed in reds and blues as her neighborhood is frequented by police and their lights, their questions, and their demands. Her parents immigrated from Libya before she was born and believed their luck would change as soon as they became settled into the American way of life. They named their beautiful daughter after the Arabic word for “perfection” and she felt a daily expectation to live up to her name. She met Devon in kindergarten and they had been inseparable ever since the day they found connection over shared goldfish crackers. Kamilah always felt her name was a better fit for Devon, since he was about as perfect as anyone could get. They had grown up in the same neighborhood, but no one at their high school ever guessed that Devon’s family also struggled. He had just enough of the right clothing to fit in and he ended up being the school’s most prominent wide receiver for the football team as well as the star of the track team. He was also about to finish toward the top of their senior class and most students looked up to him as their moral, athletic, and academic guiding light.
Devon tries to control his breathing and steady his hands as the officer questions his best friend. He starts running through the options of what he might get arrested for. I wasn’t speeding, and I don’t have a tail light out so he shouldn’t be able to find a reason to book me. I checked the lights before leaving the house. I never exceed the speed limit, never forget a turn signal and I never make a turn too quickly. Please don’t do anything to her. Please leave her alone.
The officer turns back to Devon and with a smirk asks, “Well what are you doing out this late anyway? Are you looking to cause trouble here at this restaurant?” He sits back on his boot heels, scanning the outside of the car for anything broken. Devon reminds himself to stay calm, and avoid looking him in the eye. He doesn’t want to seem to be challenging the officer. He needs to keep his hands visible, no matter how much they shake.
“No sir, we were just getting a late bite to eat.”
The officer glares at him. “You think this is a fucking joke? You think you can just fly in here endangering an officer and act like you’ve done nothing wrong”? Spit starts to form at the corners of his mouth as he shouts down at Devon. The whole time his hand remains poised over his gun, ready to pull it out at the first opportunity.
Caitlin blinks in shock from the backseat. What’s going on? We didn’t fly in here. What’s this guy talking about? Caitlin’s cousin was a police officer and he was a great guy. She could never picture him talking to anyone this way, especially when they hadn’t done anything wrong. She keeps waiting for the guy to start laughing, revealing how it was all a joke, and then they’d head into the restaurant to breathe sighs of relief over their meals. Caitlin had only been pulled over once before when she was speeding, but the officer had been kind about it and let her off with a warning. She remembers how nervous she was once she was on the side of the road and waiting for the officer to approach her window. Would she get a ticket? How much would it cost? How upset would her father be when he found out? Maybe her cousin could get her out of it? But it ended up being a forgettable experience, one that seems so different from what she was witnessing now.
Next to her, April is also wide-eyed in disbelief. April has known Devon since middle school and he is pretty much the most responsible person she knows. He had never gotten in trouble in class, always had a correct answer when called on (and never spoke out of turn), and he was pretty much their school’s pride and joy. She thinks back to the time in eighth grade when Devon agreed to join her and her friends in singing Destiny Child’s “Say My Name” remix as a throwback for the talent show. Oh how the crowd roared when he entered the stage for his part, moonwalking between April and her friends while singing. She remembers the joy in his eyes when he told her he had been offered a full ride scholarship to Harvard. She’s struck by how much these images clash with their current situation. Does this cop realize he is harassing a future Harvard student and football player? April has the urge to speak up and tell this man just who he was talking to. She could explain what an outstanding and responsible person Devon is, and he’d have no choice but to leave them all alone. Her leg twitches with anxiety as she bites the inside of her lip.
“I don’t know what your fucking problem is, boy, but I think you better step out of the car.” The officer roars at Devon while Caitlin and April look behind them to see if there is anyone else in the parking lot witnessing this injustice. He turns to the radio near his shoulder and asks for backup.
Devon takes in a deep breath as he slowly moves his left hand to the door handle and steps out. He puts his hands on his head and spreads his legs as he’s up against the car door. He has been through this before and he wants to get it over with as quickly as possible. Once the officer finds no drugs he should be able to let them all go. Devon continues his internal mantra to settle his nerves. It’s going to be okay. Stay calm, and follow his orders. He has a gun but I can convince him he doesn’t need to use it as long as I’m not seen as a threat. It’s going to be okay.
He tries not to look at Kamilah, as she holds in the tears forming in her eyes. She has been through this herself a few times and has seen this happen to her father twice in just the past month. This is somehow her first time going through this with Devon though. She realizes they normally take the bus, even though he can borrow his parents’ car whenever he needs to. In this moment she is grateful Devon is doing everything he’s supposed to, and she silently thanks his parents for giving him “the talk.” Tonight she bears the extra humiliation of having two white girls in the back seat getting a glimpse of what it’s like to drive while black. She refuses to look back there, not wanting to see the pity in their eyes. She wonders how surprised they are, or if they know this happens all the time.
Caitlin clutches her knees in fear, thinking about what they would all do if Devon were arrested. This is California! Isn’t this stuff only supposed to happen in the South? And what could they arrest him for anyway, drugs? She is pretty sure he isn’t the type to have drugs on him, but she has only known Devon for the last year or so, through their yearbook class. His reputation is all positive though, as he was known for being quiet but smart. The whole class seemed to love him but he rarely brought attention to himself. She heard about his Harvard offer and couldn’t help feeling pangs of envy as she had received a rejection from her first choice university. She hadn’t even dared apply to the Ivy Leagues. When she first heard about Devon’s luck she noticed the words “affirmative action” pop into her mind, but she brushed those away. Caitlin knew he was a top-scoring football player and pretty much got straight A’s throughout high school. She looks through the window at Devon’s deep sepia skin glowing under the parking lot’s overhead light. She notices his eyes squeezed shut and wonders how this officer could be so mistaken.
April is fuming at this point and starts rummaging in her purse for her phone. I need to record this as evidence, she realizes. As soon as she pulls it out the officer’s blue eyes meet her hazel ones through her window and he seems startled. She assumed he knew there were two white girls in the backseat, but maybe he couldn’t see them with the headrests as high as they were back there. Both her and Caitlin were pretty short, so it was possible he hadn’t noticed them. He had been pretty focused on Devon this whole time, and then briefly on Kamilah. Before she can bring the phone up to start recording the officer mumbles that Devon is clean and that he should get these girls all home safely to their parents. His tone had dropped from threatening to almost wounded. He strides back to his car with a fake confidence and speaks into his radio to cancel the backup.
“What the hell was that?!” April whispers to no one in particular once the officer was back in his car. Devon and Kamilah exchange a tired glance in the front seats. “Shit, I’m so sorry, Devon. I saw his name tag so I can report him if you want. It’s so not okay what just happened.”
“No, don’t worry about it. Let’s just all get home.” Devon exhales and puts the car in reverse. He glances behind him and around the parking lot twice before backing out. He exits around the other side of the building so he doesn’t have to drive past the police car again.
They ride in silence as Devon drops April and Caitlin off in their neighborhood, then heads to the other side of town to get Kamilah home, and then he can sink into his own bed. He can’t wait to get to college and leave this town in the dust, but he knows that no matter where he goes, he can’t ever escape all of this.
Caitlin rushes through the front door into her room and sits on the floor with her back against her bed. She pulls up Facebook on her phone and searches her cousin’s name. She scrolls through his photos to see if that officer is in any of them. She breathes a sigh of relief when he isn't and goes through her usual bedtime routine before drifting off to sleep.
As April steps into her warm house she tastes blood and touches her lip. She hadn’t noticed how hard she had been biting it. She considers reporting the officer even though Devon didn’t seem to want her to. What’s the right thing to do here? Questions swarm her mind as she crawls into bed and brings the covers over her head to shut out the world and soak up her tears.
Kamilah enters her home to find her parents awake and watching tv in the living room. She curls up between them, bringing her knees to her chest and rests her head on her father’s shoulder while her mother rubs her back to soothe her. They don’t need to ask.
Devon opens the door to a dark house, finding their heat must have been turned off again. This is just practice for those cold winters I’ll have up north at Harvard, he thinks, looking into the mirror with a shiver after washing his face. Making his way down the short hallway, he rests his hand on his parents’ door, wishing them peaceful sleep and thanking them for preparing him for this world the best they could. He survived tonight and he’ll do everything he can to get through the next one.