He lost five hundred dollars; I lost two hours. It’s impossible for me, as a rational person, to feel wronged. In Perth Amboy, and probably everywhere else, you can’t charge someone with intangibles: the reading abandoned, the composure shattered, the discomfort you inflicted on strangers, or the discomfort they inflicted on you. Not even, at the end of the day, that question you were compelled to ask your mother by some twisting self-doubt that’d never been there before: “It’s not all in my head, right? I didn’t make it up?”
The system took good care of me, which is more than anyone could reasonably hope of New Jersey. My home state has assembled, I’m pleased to report, a truly excellent little bureaucracy. I’ve watched enough seasons of “The Wire” to be wise in this, to know that no city court can give you catharsis. But I was offered a more than adequate substitute — efficiency. Efficiency’s powers of assimilation, of attenuation, imparted the kind of powerful relief that I may never know again — the relief of being dispatched quickly, of knowing that the wheels continued to turn, gray, dingy, and impersonal. The machinery creaked. After I left, it would be onto the next thing: a disputed fence between neighbors, a fine for traffic violations.
Before I had my day in court, the cops made sure that I understood the legal parameters of what had happened. The greener of the two detectives sitting across from me at the kitchen table said that the charge was like a speeding ticket. His partner shot him a look — she’d chew him out on the ride back to Perth Amboy — but however insensitive, the analogy was perfectly accurate. These are the laws that now govern humanity: densely-layered, perfectly-zeroed fistfuls of technicalities, rules so myriad and municipal that they shrink into exasperating insignificance.
With their measure in hand, the police had determined the precise location, and thus the nature, of the infraction: my inner thigh, but no genitalia; the length of his forearm, but not his hand. I was eighteen, not seventeen. The man had run my red light on the train from Penn Station to Aberdeen-Matawan, which is why I was speaking to transit police, and not the local ones. It was actually a remarkable taxonomy, calming even, under which my case was categorized as a crime of reckless disregard. Not at all dissimilar, the senior detective conceded equitably, to a speeding ticket.
Yet we operate in these dissectible localities, and they try their best to make things livable. That day, the series of adults in uniform had all hastened to reassure me of what hadn’t been taken from me: the integrity of my body; the weekend spent with friends in New Haven (“You keep thinking about that, all right sweetie?” said one, in that ineffable Jersey twang); the sense, they hoped, that there were good people in the world. The policeman who brought me to the station was especially keen on my knowing that my fellow passengers had not allowed the man to get away. While I’d fled to an adjacent train car, struggling to steady my breathing, a man and two teenagers had caught up with the perp, beating him bloody on the platform. This explained the teenagers, sweatpanted black kids around my sister’s age, who’d come and found me in my retreat — it must’ve been sometime after their vigilante heroism. “Aw, don’t cry, bitch,” one urged, not at all unkindly. Legs swinging, he fidgeted on his perch across the aisle, trying to catch a glimpse of any action out the window without appearing to be impolite. This also explained the man, who, throwing the door open, had shouted at me with the most incredible anger, “What did he do to you?”, then bolted out. Later, he’d wear his broken hand like a badge of honor.
Their swift retribution didn’t comfort me, and neither did the middle-aged woman who drifted to a nearby seat, lingering until the authorities came. Nor did the peppy, ludicrously unnecessary paramedic whom they’d been obligated to call. Checking my pulse, she squeezed my forearm earnestly. “You’re a hero,” she told me confidentially. “Really.”
Such reactions felt oppressive in themselves, dizzyingly embarrassing, imploding any sense of self-containment. They were more humiliating than the advances of some sick guy who’d gotten off on my fear — despite the best of intentions, the interventions of strangers had wrested away the last of my self-control. Suddenly, I became this lost girl in a short dress; I couldn’t speak up for myself; I needed to be sheltered. I had caused trains to get backed up past the Hudson. It didn’t seem fair that I didn’t have a third choice, some slender option lying between action and inaction that would allow me to escape home on schedule, no one ever having to know my name or remember my face. Only much later could I appreciate these gestures, each in its own way reaching out to tell me that people were not indifferent.
Now my desire to control the narrative strikes me as funny, in its total impossibility. At the police station, I wanted to call home using my cell. I planned to tell my father that transit was delayed, and that I didn’t know why. Then I tried to get the cops to give me a ride home, so that my parents wouldn’t have to fetch me from the station — I’d figure out what to tell them on the drive there. But the system loosened my grip, gently but firmly. If he was my dad, the lieutenant told me, he’d want to know the truth. He handed me his desk phone, dialing when it became clear that I’d have a hard time doing it myself. My fingers twisted in the cord.
Afterwards, I was relieved by the geographical unreachability of those friends I could think to tell, scattered as they were across Latin America and Europe; I thought about those back in New Haven, and knew there would never be a right time, or a right way. In my secrecy, conspicuous to only myself, I have regained my poise retroactively. I have erased from the record that unrecognizable girl in her summer clothes, too frightened to do anything but shake in her seat, her voice made high and vulnerable by some much-scorned evolutionary instinct.
These became my small, daily defiances, though now they strike me as somewhat pitiful. These everyday rituals and decisions became invested with meanings that they’d never been built to bear: I can look strange men in the eye without flinching; on hot days, I put on that short, star-spangled dress. I was — before this — proudly, tightly wrapped in my inuring silence.