It is Wednesday morning, and, like all Wednesday mornings, Sophia and I are in the car, headed two hours North for my mother’s nursery school. Sophia is happily chewing her way through a Dunkin’ Donuts cinnamon raisin bagel, quietly watching the scenery fly by. Something compels me to turn on New Jersey radio, usually so offensive to my ears, to listen to the traffic, which I know comes on at exactly 7:33 AM.
The report is said in one long sentence, full of clauses referring to this highway or that parkway. The ability to take in this information, to single out the roads you depend upon and quickly listen for the state of their alternate routes, should be a subtest on an IQ exam--maybe for processing speed. Or perhaps it is a form of decoding. There is a certain music to the these reports, a language with its own grammar and vocabulary. When I listen to the traffic in other places, it is foreign and impenetrable. PA, with it’s colloquial terms for it’s main arteries took me several months to learn: The Shulkill, The Blue Route--roads never referred to by the numbers that appear on maps. But NJ, I speak fluently.
So I am quickly able to discern that we are going the wrong way. Two exits up (exactly 14 miles away) there is an overturned car and a 10-mile back up that will cost me at least an additional hour. I quickly take the only exit that will spare me this fate.
As I head down the road less traveled, a calmness passes through me. Sure, we will now be plagued with red lights and 40 mph speed limits, but at least I will not be a prisoner, sandwiched between other cars, inching my way mile by mile.
When we finally re-enter the highway, I feel liberated. Sophie is listening to her music, I’m plugged into a Fresh Air podcast, lost in an interview. I steer us into the fast lane, gain speed, pass two cars on my right and--
Oh no. A police car.
I am in the cars-only lanes. The police car is in the truck lanes. A median stands between us, so it is possible that he will stay on his side. I quickly maneuver into the middle lane, hitting the breaks to match the speed of the cars I have just passed.
Oh no. He’s coming over.
I am the kind of person who cries when she gets in trouble. The sting that precedes the tears makes me sneeze.
Red and blue lights flash behind me. I’ve got to give Sophie a heads up. “Sophie,” I say, “I am getting pulled over by a cop. I need you to be very quiet.”
“Because mommy was going too fast.” Why do I speak of myself this way, in the third person? Am I trying to separate myself from her--this person who was breaking the law--or do I do this all the time?
“Why were you going too fast? What is he going to do? Are we going to stop right here? On the road?”
“Yes. Shhh. Please.”
He walks over to the car. I’ve got my hands at ten and two. He bends down and I lower the window. He looks like a teenager. I feel my cheeks flush.
“Do you know why I pulled you over?”
“No, officer.” I don’t know why I am saying this, because I do know why he pulled me over.
“You were going 87 MPH.”
“Really?” I say. I am incredulous. I speed, but I generally try to keep to the flow of traffic. Eighty-seven is completely uncalled for. And with Sophie in the car. I am appalled at my own behavior,
“I’m so sorry,” I stammer, “I must have been zoning.” I should shut up right now.
“License and registration.”
“I need to reach into my glove compartment.”
“Mommy, what are you doing?’
“Shhhh. Sophie. I’ll talk to you in a minute.” I hand him the cards. He studies them for a moment.
“You have a clean record?”
“Spotless.” I say, hopeful. I was going more than 20 miles over the speed limit in a 65 MPH zone, which means the fine is doubled. I’m looking at 4 points on my record and--I don’t know--400, 500 hundred dollars.
Why was I doing 87? Why? It would be one thing to have been doing this alone, with no one’s life at stake but my own. But I had Sophie in the car. What kind of an example am I setting for her?
“I’ll be right back.” He leaves me with Sophie.
“Mommy? What is he doing?”
“Mommy is in trouble because she broke the law.” Still in the third person. I can’t own it. “I was going too fast. Now he’s writing me a ticket to punish me. I’m sorry Sophie. I shouldn’t have been going so fast with you in the car. I’m sorry.” Tears are running down my face.
“It’s okay mommy. It’s going to be alright.” Sophie coos. I smile at her in the mirror and wipe away my tears.
The cop comes back. He looks uncomfortable. “Because you have a clean record, I’ve knocked it down to careless driving.” He hands me the ticket. “A lesser fine. Fewer points.”
“I really appreciate that,” I tell him sincerely. “Thank you, officer.”
And then, worse than any fine he could have slapped me with, he says. “Now, c’mon. Slow down. You’ve got a little girl in the car.”
I nod, humiliated. Wanting him to go away so I can cry the tears of shame that are welling. He pulls onto the road first, so that I can pull ahead of him.
And then the dam breaks.
“Don’t cry, Mommy. It’s okay.”
“No! It’s not okay!” I sob. “I did a bad thing. Mommy shouldn’t have been speeding.”
Suddenly, the words sound like a revelation. Like a directive that comes not from a cop, but from deep within. What am I speeding for? Is saving a few minutes worth risking our lives? Why do I rush from thing to thing to thing--always in such a hurry?
What if I did slow down? Could I change this deeply-ingrained way of being--not just for my own sake, but for Sophie’s as well?
I decide in this moment: It’s worth a try.