Finding Normal

“Shit. We’re about to get pulled over,” my wife said as she put on her blinker and changed lanes on our last stretch of I-29.

“Huh?” I responded, looking into the rear view mirror while trying to gather my bearings.  Shit.  It took me a few seconds to notice them, but there they were, the flashing blue and red lights of the Iowa state trooper in the mirror.  I had been trying to sleep away the last forty miles of our drive back to Omaha and the lingering effects of our late night in Kansas City while my wife was apparently channeling Speed Racer. She often does that when I’m not paying attention.  “Way to go Bubba,” I said as we pulled onto the shoulder and she turned on the hazard lights on our Hyundai.

“Fuckin’ A,” she responded as we both watched the officer walk up to the car in our respective rear view mirrors.  I fumbled through the glove compartment for the insurance card and registration, noticing that the insurance card was expired.

“Where’s the new one?” I asked as the trooper approached my window, offering a bit of half-awake displeasure along with my inquiry.

“It’s in the trunk in my bag,” she responded as I rolled down the window.  I passed the items through the window to the young looking officer hoping that I wasn’t about to get hauled out of my seat and into the ditch because of my beard.  You never can tell with those bastards.  He declined to have us retrieve the updated insurance card out of the trunk, and asked my wife to join him in the squad car after a brief discussion over her rate of speed, a casual admission, and a half-ass apology.

I watched her ass walk away from me in the mirror as she scurried along the shoulder to the prowler, then I put on my sunglasses and fell into my bucket seat, a bit anxious.  Even when you’re innocent, any police interaction can cause some distress.  Look at a cop the wrong way and you could find yourself on the wrong end of a body cavity search.  This time was no different.  I turned the radio back up and waited, heart pounding, for her return to our vehicle.  As I waited, I thought back to my own run in with the cops a few months back.  On that occasion, I was definitely innocent of any wrongdoing, but it didn’t matter.

I had been walking back from The Waiting Room Lounge to my home in the Benson neighborhood after a show when an Omaha Police car pulled up shining that fucking spotlight in my face.  I had been minding my own business, so I stopped to oblige the officers, hoping they were just being good public servants offering me a ride home.  That was obviously the beer thinking. 

“Where are you going?” one of them asked me.

“Home.  I’m walking home,” I replied through chattering teeth.  It was freezing.  I was a few beers in, but not publicly drunk by any means, just cold as hell.  Apparently the answer wasn’t good enough.  Suddenly both officers were out of the car and molesting me.  I was patted down, handcuffed, and my pockets were emptied.

“What the hell is going on?” I asked, a bit miffed.

“We are on the lookout for a white male in a black jacket who was involved in a knife attack,” one of the officers abruptly responded, “Do you have a knife?”

“Your hand is in my pocket, do you see a knife?” I responded, the beer and my innocence allowing my mouth to say things my brain probably didn’t want it to. “I was at The Waiting Room and am merely walking home officers,” I added.  I had never been in handcuffs before, and I definitely wasn’t enjoying it.

“We’re going to put you in the back of the car while we figure this all out,” the officer said, shoving me into the back of the squad car as he handed the other officer my wallet.  I watched the second officer run my information through the computer as the other kept chirping back and forth through his radio outside of the car. 

“White male with a black jacket, huh?” I asked, not expecting an answer.  “Do you think I’m the only white guy with a black jacket in Omaha tonight?” I continued, my frustration mounting, “Did they say anything about a beard?”  After a few minutes of research, a short back and forth on the radio, and more of my annoying commentary from the back seat, they seemed to start to figure out that they had the wrong guy.  The officer outside the car opened the door and pulled me out.  He uncuffed me and handed me my wallet.  I started to walk home again towards the pedestrian bridge when they got out of the squad car again and chased me down.  “What the hell is going on now?” I asked, more pissed than before.

“You’re coming with us,” the officer with the biggest attitude said as he pushed me back into the back of the car sans handcuffs this time.  I started to run my mouth like my drunk brother at a baseball game as they drove me back across town almost all the way back to where I had begun my late winter walk.

“If I did it, would I just be walking down main street nonchalantly?  Did the guy have a beard? Where are you taking me?” I continued, firing questions faster than they could have fired their sidearms. We drove almost a mile and pulled in behind another squad car and a few people milling about in an alley near the club.  They opened the back door and put me on display for their apparent victim.

“Is this the guy?” the officer riding shotgun asked.

“No way.  The guy was a lot taller and didn’t have a beard,” he responded.  Go figure, I thought, but surprisingly kept my mouth shut until they instructed me to exit the vehicle and be on my way.

“You’re not even going to drive me home or back to where you picked me up?” I inquired, not exactly enthused to be heading back into the frigid air to retrace my entire walk again.

“Get the fuck out of here, we have an armed assailant to track down,” Captain Asshole shot back.

“Good luck smokey,” I muddled under my breath as I walked out of the alley, “you wasted all your time harassing me.”  That dude was long gone while they profiled me based on a beard and a black jacket.  I started my cold journey home once again.

I shivered a bit just thinking about it, as I watched Julie and the Iowa trooper in the squad car in my mirror, trying to hide my beard and not make any sudden movements.  I didn’t want to end up in the backseat again.  I rolled down the window and rested my arm on the car door, adjusting the side mirror for a better view into the police car.  Twenty fucking miles away from home, I thought.  This was not helping my hangover.  I closed my eyes and continued to wait.

This side of the highway snafu was a shitty ending to what was a pretty damn fabulous weekend.  We had just spent the night in Kansas City, without Jack, seeing Pearl Jam and Band of Horses and drinking strong, hoppy beers chased with some arena Miller Lite.  We enjoyed a sunny drive from Omaha without worrying about a kid in the backseat or a whining dog.  We ate a meal of black pepper salami with Irish Whiskey cheddar cheese, soft pretzels, and gourmet tater tots.  We met some fellow Pearl Jam fanatics, rocked out for three plus hours, wandered the streets of Kansas City, and even finished things off with some drunken hotel room sex.  We felt childless for a sweet twenty four hours.  It was just like old times.  We needed it.  But even before our excursion, things were feeling pretty damn good: pretty damn normal. 

The weekend had started with our celebration of Pizza Night in America.  We joined a crew of my wife’s fellow young professors and friends at our favorite Friday night stop, the Pizza Shoppe.  Jack crawled around the place sucking up every last bit of attention from our fellow patrons, before eating his very first slice of cheese pizza.  Talk about a rite of passage!  There’s nothing that says “I’m an American” more than devouring that first slice of pizza on a Friday night.  I watched him explore each portion with his hands and mouth having to almost hold back a tear.  Just a few months back, this moment seemed like an eternity away.  Now, there I was taking in every second of my son enjoying something that I held so dear to my own heart. He was now old enough to be a real part of our Friday night pizza tradition.  I was so proud.  He had pizza sauce everywhere and a full mouth.

My pizza night revelation was only the beginning of a trend towards normalcy that I would go on to slowly uncover throughout the remainder of the weekend.  On Saturday, Jack attended his first ever Kentucky Derby cookout.  It was here that he finally unveiled his clapping ability, his new found hide and seek ability, and some hands free standing.  He also found himself amidst his own derby race in the backyard as he chased five dogs on his hands and knees from deck to lawn to deck again, picking up his first batch of splinters on his bare feet and ending up completely covered in the juice of strawberries he discovered on the patio table.  He encored by eating his first batch of grilled whole vegetables between bouts of clapping for his Uncle’s Derby horse pick, Super Saver, on the infamous Dr. Sanchez’s new flat screen TV.  All the while, my wife and I got to kick back and actually enjoy a beautiful Saturday afternoon barbecue with some good friends and good beer while our eleven month old amused himself and others just like one of the gang.

Later that night, after a second late bedtime in a row for Jack, my wife and I sat on our own back deck listening to music and spying on the teenage neighbor and his girlfriend sprawled out on a blanket in their backyard next door.  We reminisced about doing the same thing over a decade ago, falling in love all over again as we shared stories of our early moments together, our almost breakups, and the unbelievable reality that we were now here in Omaha, with an almost-one-year-old child sleeping soundly inside.

We gazed at the stars, reflecting back on life before our marriage, our dog, and our child.  Alone amongst the newly blossoming trees and the familiar songs on the stereo, we were transported back there, in my parent’s backyard in Chicago, lying on a blanket under the late Spring night sky.  It was there and then that we both realized we were in love.  Over twelve years later, it was comforting to know that we could easily manage to find that moment again almost five hundred miles away and toward the end of a hard year of learning how to live as parents.  For a few minutes, it was as if it were just the two of us again: no dirty diapers, no middle of the night crying, no drool, no car seats, no one depending on us but each other.  It felt good to be back there, just as it felt good to be away for a day and night in Kansas City forty eight hours later.

Sure, we sat there knowing full well that we could never really go back to those days, but I don’t think either of us really want to anyways.  Our new reality is that we did have a sleeping child inside, a child that amazes us by the day, reminds us constantly of who we used to be, and makes us fall in love with him and each other over and over again.  And, one that, no doubt, would wake us up earlier than we wanted to the next morning.  We have a completely different life, but we’re settling into it.  Jack is close to that first birthday now and with that, things are starting to feel normal again.  It’s not the same normal, but it’s something.  I guess it’s our new normal, and we’re getting closer to finding it by the day. 

I was shaken out of my own head by the sound of a car door slam and glanced up to notice Julie finally emerge from the passenger seat of the squad car and head back to our car thankfully, alone.  She relayed to me her last twenty minutes with Johnny Law and showed me not only her speeding ticket, but a warning for expired insurance, a writeup for supposedly illegal window tinting on our windshield, and an order to have it removed in five days or face further penalty from an Iowa government obviously in need of some funds and looking for Nebraska residents to provide them.

“Well Speed Racer, I hope you’ve learned your lesson,” I joked, knowing it probably wouldn’t go over too well.  She took it in stride, gave me the bird, and attempted to rejoin the traffic to finish the last twenty miles of our journey.  “I wonder how many other new parents can say they’ve both been in police custody in squad cars before their kid’s first birthday,” I added, trying to cushion the blow of the last twenty minutes.  She allowed herself a slight chuckle, then set her cruise control for the speed limit and turned up NPR on the car radio.  We were like a boring version of Bonnie and Clyde or Mickey and Mallory from Natural Born Killers: outlaw parents, extremely tired, slightly hungover, and cursing “the man,” on our way to pick the kid up from the babysitter’s.