2 Essays by Eloísa Pérez-Lozano

Traffic Stop

“Are you sure you don’t want me to drive the whole way? I don’t mind,” I tell him.

He reassures me he’s fine. He’ll take the first two-hour shift and I’ll take the second one. I go on.

“I really liked meeting your parents,” I say with a smile.

Even as he watches the road, his dark brown eyes crinkle as he smiles back, driving with one hand. His other hand squeezes mine.

They were a close-knit family, humble and hardworking, living in the Midwest after coming from their native land years ago and putting in long hours to live as peacefully as they did now. Like many Mexican families, su casa es mi casa, their house is my house, regardless of the short three months I had been dating him. They were a little more reserved than I was used to, something I saw in him too, but I could live with that.

It was still early enough in the Iowa summer that the sun’s rays were but a thin layer of warmth shining through the car windows from the western sky, perfectly complementing the cool air blowing from the AC. In the fields, the corn was just starting to crop up, a sea of yellow surrounding us. As we passed a stretch of farmland, the pungent scent of manure creeped into my car and I made a face.

“That smell is really gross,” I said.

He turned briefly then, a feigned expression of indignity on his face.

“It’s the smell of fresh farmland!” He takes an exaggeratingly deep breath to make his point. I shake my head at him, smiling at his unbridled optimism as he coughs it back out.

After about 20 minutes, we drive down a slight hill and the town of LeMars comes into view. Besides being the home of Blue Bunny, the “ice cream capital of the world,” it is just the first of the many towns we will drive through on Highway 3 before getting home to Ames. We pass by what will eventually be familiar shops in the coming years, towards the first traffic light. Always a careful driver, he makes sure the light is still a solid yellow before making the left turn.

As our eyes look ahead for the next turn, the lightning flashes of red and blue ambush us from behind, a pair of predators catching their prey unaware. I force my eyes upward to the rear view mirror to see what I already know, a dreamlike calm taking over me and shoving away any feeling of doubt or worry. Is it denial? A complete Hail Mary on the field of faith? My fingers clutch the edge of a cliff, completely and utterly holding onto it with a small ray of hope while my boyfriend has practically let go.

A cloud of anxiety surrounds him, the fear etched into his face. I hold his hand, feeling a sudden clamminess exuding from it that wasn’t there before. I feel powerless, utterly useless to him as he shrinks into the driver’s seat, like he wants to disappear. He stares ahead at what used to be the open road that is now just a gravel shoulder, one that brings out a stoic, unmoving stranger I’d yet to meet. He’s trying to keep his composure for both our sakes, but I can tell he’s terrified as he takes short breaths and seems to forget I’m there, desperate to run yet frozen with fear. “What do we do?” he says in a voice barely above a whisper.

My nerves of steel come through as I squeeze his hand. “We’ll be fine. Just stay calm and act normal. We haven’t done anything wrong.”

A car door slams. Pebbles crunch under the officer’s boots as he slowly approaches the already-lowered window.

“How are you doing today?” he asked in a clear, authoritative voice. His uniform is crisp and looks freshly pressed. I’m sure I saw his name tag with my eyes, but my mind wasn’t there to confirm it. It was waiting for an answer from his uneasy subject.

He slowly looks up. “Fine, officer.”

“I pulled you over because you turned on a red light back there. Can I see your license and registration please?” Though he gets right to the point, he doesn’t seem rude or overly aggressive like others in my not-too-distant past. The reply he’s expecting, however, is in short supply and it doesn’t bode well for us.

“I have my student ID, sir.” He hopes to stall what he believes is inevitable as he flips through his wallet and takes out the card, handing it over. “Here’s the car registration too.”

“No license?” His inflection heightens on the second word as it hangs in the air, waiting for an answer to rescue it.

I mentally urged him forward as he answered, “Well, no sir…I don’t…have a license. This is my girlfriend’s car…”

“Yes, officer,” I confirm calmly. I may have smiled. “We’re just on our way back to Iowa State where we are going to graduate school after visiting his parents.”

I’ve taken a chance with the academic and familial cards I just played and hope to God I’m right. Is my flawless American accent, fair skin, and revelation of our educational and personal aspirations enough to make the policeman think twice? Enough to excuse his dark skin and lack of a driver’s license? The officer’s sunglasses hide his eyes, protecting them from the sun and our eager desire to read them. I respond in kind, my eyes giving away no emotion as I wait for him to call us out.

He pauses and takes a breath. “Well, son, you know you really shouldn’t be driving without a license and since it’s her car, you’re not on the registration either. You really should be careful.”

We feel him give us an opening, a space to rectify our mistake. Our hope grows exponentially. We are still in the car and he hasn’t accused him of anything. I think it’s safe for me to explain our error in judgment.

“You see, sir, it’s about a 4hour drive back to school and he offered to help me so I wouldn’t drive the whole way. He was going to drive for the first two hours so I could rest before finishing the trip myself.”

“I understand,” he replies, “But he really shouldn’t be driving without a license.”

I pray he just wants to emphasize this one more time and I take the cue and nod in agreement.

“You’re right. I think I can handle the trip myself and we’ll go ahead and switch right now.”

“That would be good.” He puts away his notepad and continues, “You just be careful from now on and make sure to get that driver’s license.”

The last bit of tension dissipates and I smile, genuinely this time. It feels lighter in the car and my “partner in crime” recovers his voice. He acknowledges the officer one last time. “I will, sir. Thank you very much.”

He had to have been an angel in disguise. Not even a written warning. We both realize how lucky we are and how much worse it could have been. He could have asked why he didn’t have a license, and taken him to jail for not responding. There, he would have found his lack of status in this country, the reason he has had to live in the shadows since he first got here when he was twelve. He could have been sent back to Mexico, permanently separated from me. I’ll never know why others have suffered that fate and we were spared that day, but I am eternally grateful.

We breathe a collective sigh of relief as the officer walks back toward the patrol car. My boyfriend doesn’t speak, but I can see a sparkle in his eyes, appreciation for having his life and future handed back to him in one piece.

I snap us back to reality. We need to go home.

“I’m driving the rest of the way.” He couldn’t argue and I wouldn’t have let him.

Cancer and Cognitive Discomfort

“We find out today what the prognosis is,” she tells me. “It will all depend on how his stepfather responded to the treatment.”

I grow quiet as I hold the phone, solemnity seeping through my ear into the rest of me. One minute we’re catching up on the weather, our move to Houston, our husbands. Now we are serious as brain tumors and the fallout they typically warrant.

“They’re coming over later to tell us, but I have class so I won’t be there,” she continues. “He’s been stressing out about it.”

“That must be hard for him,” I reply, not really knowing what else I should be saying. The mention of terminal illness or death has stopped me dead in my tracks. I become mute, my vocabulary and ability to speak tucked away for the duration of these moments.

You want to be optimistic, but cancer just strips away any possibility of that. You can’t pretend they’ll just bounce back because they won’t, more often than not. Though I’ve had an aunt, uncle and cousin die from it, my immediate family has been safe from that fate thus far, though I have friends who haven’t been so lucky. Luck isn’t really the right word, but nothing else finishes the thought as it should. I’ve never felt the realization of an impending deep and bottomless void of loss I’m assuming my friend and her husband feel right now. In a morbid moment, I wish I had, just so my words would come back to me and I could say more than just the cliché platitude I reach for instead.

“Well, we’ll be praying for him and for you guys,” I tell her, rolling my eyes at myself for not even trying to spruce up the delivery of the boring, overused phrase. I mean well and she knows I’m doing the best I can, given the subject, but the words still come out empty and meaningless. Might it help if I actually followed up with God later and actually prayed? I don’t do it often enough for it to mean something so maybe that’s my problem. God can tell I genuinely mean to pray even if I just feel like I’m going through the motions right? The “Our Father” is quite the classic in Catholic and Christian circles, but eventually, I feel the same way I feel after eating leftovers for two weeks after Thanksgiving. I enjoy them at first, but eventually I’m just eating them because they are there and I can’t let food go to waste.

I nod along and “mm-hmm” to the rest of my friend’s details as I walk around the room, straightening up a pile of papers or staring way too intently at a photo I’ve seen a thousand times. I feel rude but, she can’t see thatThere’s nothing any of us can do to change what will eventually happen whatever that is so please finish talking about this. I’ve told you you’ll be in my thoughts and given you a cursory prayer IOU for later, but mortality makes me very uncomfortable so please wrap this up, I think to myself. God. I’m such a selfish bitch.

But I don’t say it. I suffer in silence as she goes on. The awkwardness inside refuses to leave, an uninvited guest only she can send off with a change of subject. In those moments, I recall a previous run-in with it a few years ago.

I was talking with one of my best friends from college whose mom had passed away from breast cancer a year or two before. On my way home, as we chatted on the phone about mundane and ordinary things, I became curious. “How often do you think about your mom?” If it was painful or ill-timed, she didn’t let on and graciously accepted my query. “Every day,” she answered truthfully. “I think about her every day.” The enormity of it hit me like a bus and I said nothing, thinking of my own mom and fighting back instant tears, dreading the day when she too would be with me only in my thoughts. “Oh,” I croaked after a second or two. It’s all I had, all I could say before she consciously saved me from further anguish by going on with a subject I could talk about. I felt bad for not being as brave as she was, though I’m sure she wouldn’t want to be if she didn’t have to be.

My friend on the phone tells me she has to go to class. I tell her to call me later because I still want to talk more. But not about this. Anything but this.

Eloísa Pérez-Lozano grew up bilingual and bicultural in Houston, Texas. She graduated from Iowa State University with her M.S. in journalism and mass communication and her B.S. in psychology. She is a long-distance member of the Latino Writers Collective in Kansas City, and a member of the Gulf Coast Poets. Her poetry has been featured in The Texas Observer, aaduna, Diverse Voices Quarterly, The Acentos Review, and VONA’s Voices Against Racial Injustice: An Arts Forum, among others.