I’m not sure what to say.
The world is sick and America is burning- burning like a greasy dumpster behind a KFC… that’s been stuffed with explosives…and kindling.
How was everyone else’s week?
It’s a technicolor disaster… a high-def detonation. It’s a mortar gone off so close to my head that there’s blood dripping from my ears and I’m staggering around in the settling dust, wondering which way to start running. I mean, I’d go see my therapist but, get this, she’s black. And let’s be completely honest, paying a black woman to help me process my feelings about the civil unrest in America right now kind of feels like the biggest privileged-asshole move I can pull- ever.
Because here’s the thing, I find myself on the “wrong side of the battle lines on this one. Not only do I work alongside the police every single fucking day of my life, I also sleep next to one every single fucking night of my life.
Yes, you read that right. And maybe that fact is a little TMI, but it seems to me like your heart on your sleeve is the accessory of choice in the year 2020. Let it all hang out, kids. Scrawl it on the side of a building in spray paint. Put it in a bottle and throw it at someone. Anything goes.
The experience is something like that awful nightmare. You know the one, we all have it. You’re trying to scream and the breath just evaporates into a whimper when you open your mouth. You can feel your ribcage squeezing your lungs like handfuls of jello as you try and try and try to make a sound. But all that comes out is a single, wheezed syllable, “no” or maybe “stop“
If I could say anything, I think that would be it: “no…stop…“
But I’m not sure who I’d be saying it to. Besides, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t listen anyway. No one seems to be listening right now. To anyone.
My friends are all posting pictures of themselves holding signs over their heads that say “ALL COPS ARE BAD COPS!”. Or they’re making blanket proclamations that if someone doesn’t echo their narrative, then that person has clearly chosen the side of the oppressor and should be silenced, unfriended and ostracized.
So, I haven’t said much. I’m frozen in panic, watching as my liberal community of friends unanimously votes the love of my life off the proverbial island. And I suppose they’re voting me off too. I’m a collaborator after all. I’m in collusion with the enemy. I’m cahoot-ing with him every night. It doesn’t matter if he’s the kindest, funniest, most emotionally evolved, honest, compassionate, earnest dude I’ve ever met. He still straps on a gun and a badge everyday. And the worst words I can add to this conversation are, “Hey, not all cops…”
It’s awful. From every angle it’s awful and I’m not going to pretend it isn’t. I’m also not going to to kidnap the story and say it’s about my pain. Nor am I going to defend excessive force on the part of the police. My goodwill toward them is not so all encompassing that I believe they can do no wrong. If anything, my relationship with the police means I know them better than anyone. And therefore I know how fucked up their behavior can be. After 5 years as a paramedic and almost 12 as a deputy medical examiner I’ve seen some of them at their worst. I’ve seen things in the middle of the night when no bystanders lurk nearby with cell-phones recording every move. I’m there when we’re all exhausted and pissed off with the endlessness of our work. And sometimes, it’s truly stomach-turning. Sometimes, we’re bad people. Myself included.
But you already know that.
So I’m going to tell you a story you don’t know.
The way I see it, before everyone decides I’m a fascist and unfollows me, before the thronging hoards beat at our door with tar and feathers in hand, crying out for Mike’s head… I’m going to tell you about the day we met.
I’m going to tell you a love story.
I was working.
No surprise, I’m always working.
Specifically, I was working the second day of a two day shift. It was mid-morning and I was already miserable and exhausted. The day kicked off with a shot-gun-to-the-head suicide that tore me from sleep like a screaming drill sergeant. I had staggered off to that grotesque scene, dragging my wits behind me like the fraying hems of my work pants. And, while finishing up the investigation, my pager shrieked out it’s ear-splitting alert. I had another death- this time a motorcycle accident on the other side of the county. I extricated myself from the teary, imploring grip of the suicide victim’s wife and stumbled back to my truck when another page heralded yet another death. This one was a fatal overdose, located roughly midway between my location and the motorcycle accident.
Grumbling every incarnation of “fuck” under my breath, I called back the deputy at the motorcycle crash, telling him that he would have to wait while I tackled this overdose first. He sounded downright chipper, “No problem! See you when you get here!” It was probably the first sunny day of the year. Doubtless, sitting in a rural field with a sandwich was a beautiful relief for him compared to the usual inane cop-bullshit he handled. I sighed and turned my wheels onward toward the overdose, where a decomposing dead girl, a roomful of dirty detectives and fate were all waiting for me.
Pulling up to the scene, the first thing I noticed was a middle-aged couple, laying facedown on the front lawn of the house and writhing with distress. The woman’s jagged howls rose and fell like a ship on a stormy ocean. The man held her, rocking back and forth, pleading for her to calm down. I side-stepped the couple, making for the front door. “Those are the parents,” said the patrol officer standing on the front step. “Sounds like she didn’t respond to calls or texts for about a week and a half, so they decided to come here and check on her. They found her… like that.”
I didn’t have to ask like what. I could already tell. The scent of decomposition was worming its way out the decedent’s bedroom and toward the front door as I approached. I cringed. It’s bad finding a loved one dead. But finding a loved one decomposing leaves a dent on your psyche that no amount of therapy can buff out.
After burning most of my bandwidth of the suicide victim’s wife, I would have to dig deep for this one. Contrary to what deputy medical examiners present to the public, our wells of empathy do run dry. No one can endlessly exist in a state of sympathetic benevolence. I recognized this woman’s death was a life-ending event for her parents. But for me it was only my second out of three tragic deaths that morning. Somehow, I had to convey the appropriate emotional involvement to these devastated people, while still hurrying the fuck up to get to the motorcycle crash 20 miles away. And I figured telling them their daughter’s death was merely a 3 out of 10 on my salty, overworked trauma scale, probably wasn’t the most compassionate approach.
God, I was tired. Not so much sleepy-tired, but more bone-weary, fatigue. I was impatient-tired, annoyed and defeated under the weight of all the paperwork and inane tasks already crowding my day. I grit my teeth as I stomped through the carpeted entryway and glanced around the living room of the woman’s house. A few patrol officers and drug-detectives crowded the small space, milling around and sifting through our decedent’s belongings. Unreasonable frustration sizzled up my throat and gathered like a crackling storm cloud in my head. There was no organization, no leadership. Clearly, no one had done jack-shit because they were all waiting for me to get there and make sense of it all. They should have done some work. They should have pulled something together. Why do I have to handle every little goddamnned THING? I seethed. I drew a breath and barked, “WHO THE FUCK IS IN CHARGE OF THIS SHIT-SHOW?”
“I am,” came a male voice behind me.
I turned, poised to unleash a wrathful lightening-storm on whoever was stupid enough to claim ownership of this professional insult I was suffering.
-And my ire evaporated. The incinerating rage burning in my frontal lobe extinguished like someone had smothered it with a wet blanket-
– a sexy, sexy, wet blanket.
-or some other such floundering inanity stumbled out of my mouth. And the realization slapped me, I hadn’t showered in at least 38 hours. I hadn’t worn anything resembling make-up or perfume in at least 5 years. My hair was flat, my clothes were rumpled and flecked with blood spatter. I had pretty much just mother-fucked every officer at the scene and the odor of decomposition simmered around us. All the same, beams of sunlight broke through my morose, overworked funk. Choirs of angels sang as the overcast sky split into a glorious, luminescent dawn-
-And I was going to get this dude’s number if I had to beat it out of him with the dead woman’s leg.
I haven’t asked the witnesses, but I imagine I underwent probably the most dramatic before-and-after transformation since Bruce Jenner became Caitlynn. I was A GIRL!
He was tall, easily over 6′. He had a broad chest, biceps that bulged out of his short-sleeved uniform, a firm jawline and the slightest hint of dimples at the corners of his mouth. But, above all, he had the most impossible green eyes I had ever seen. The kind of eyes that steal your breath and leave you blank… trying to remember that there’s a dead body in the next room and her family is freaking the fuck out on the front lawn.
I gaped, likely working my mouth like a suffocating goldfish.
“Body’s in here,” he said, motioning for me to follow him into the bedroom-
oooooooooohhhhh…. the BEDROOM…..
-where our decedent lay, oozing into the mattress where she met her end. I shook my brain loose and began working. But I was a new creation. I was effervescent and charming, giggling and smiling and batting my eyelashes. I cracked jokes, I teased- and I watched Officer Sexy-Pants for signs of interest, even as I performed the perfunctory ring-check to see if he advertised his taken/not-taken status.
He wasn’t wearing a ring, but I knew that didn’t mean anything. Lots of cops forgo weddings rings on shift. And even if he wasn’t married, he could still be in a committed relationship. Hell, he might even be gay. How could I know? I worked my scheming mind like a blacksmith’s bellows as I went about the investigation, wondering how to unearth the goods. Was he single or not? Was he single or not? Was he single or not?
It wasn’t until I was perched on the mattress, straddling the putrefied body of our decedent when the stroke of genius overcame me. I glanced up at the officers gathered in the doorway of the bedroom as I grabbed the woman’s limp arm and heaved her over so I could examine her back. Undeterred by the looks of abject disgust on everyone’s face, I set my plan into action: “HARD TO BELIEVE I’M SINGLE, RIGHT,” I bellowed at the horrified assembly.
The officers and detectives stared blankly at me, not quite registering that I was talking about dating at a time like this. But I was on a motherfucking mission and was not about to be deterred by anything so paltry as “tact” or “appropriateness” So I wound up and took another swing: “Hahahaha, yeah. On my dating profile, when they asked me to share an anecdote about myself, I told them, ‘technically, I’ve dismembered more people than Jack the Ripper!’ Hahahaha!”
A couple of the officers shifted on their feet and tittered nervously as they angled back out the bedroom door. The others either didn’t hear me or had decided to ignore the comment and in rapid order I was alone with the corpse. “Goddamnnit” I sighed and jumped off the bed, following them back into the living room where detectives had found an array of pills and powders arranged on the coffee table. Some of these had clearly been cut into lines and snorted off a dinner plate. The detectives discussed toxicology and autopsies while I listened with half and ear and watched Officer Adonis walk out the front door to retrieve a field test kit. I kicked myself repeatedly for my clumsy, half-cocked attempts at flirting and figured the whole scene was a wash as I followed suit and went out to talk to the parents. They were ravaged to the point of numb acceptance by the time I got to them. I described what they could expect and what was going to happen with their daughter’s body as they stared through me with empty eyes, nodding mechanically. I wanted to say something more- something meaningful or comforting. Anything at all that might relieve their suffering, but they were so far beyond the reach of my words all I could do was hand them a card and back away. Drifting back to my work-truck to go tackle the motorcycle wreck across town, I paused to say my farewells to the law enforcement officers and take one last look at what was probably the highlight of my day…
You see, because the thing is, I was tired. I know I already said that, but it went beyond current circumstance. I don’t just mean I was tired of death and work and blood and trauma. I wasn’t just tired that morning. I was tired of life, tired of loss, tired of people, tired of dating. Literally a week before this shift I had more or less ended the music with the last dude I attempted to date. It was a decision I didn’t make lightly and I was still agonizing over the possible mistake. His name was Nate and he was fine. He was great, even. He was friendly and mellow, even-keeled and quiet. He had a stable job as a dental assistant and got along with his family. He didn’t display anything resembling a temper and always paid for dinner unless I insisted on doing so myself. Unlike anyone else I had dated in the past 10 years, Nate was not a psychopath. He wasn’t sinking below some quagmire of PTSD. He didn’t have maniacal exes or a substance abuse problem. He wasn’t addicted to video games. His record was cleaner than a model home: no assault charges, no DUIs, no possession with intent to sell. He didn’t even have any tattoos or ride a motorcycle-
-And I was decidedly NOT in love with him.
This, latest defunct relationship had me seriously wondering if I was officially ruined. What was wrong with me that a suitable suitor had left me bereft of excited tingles. Nate was… good… adequate… preferred. Solid as a pylon. But I struggled to work up anything resembling giddy enthusiasm. I liked him a lot. And given my track record, he seemed like a really safe bet. But I felt a hollowness that I was beginning to suspect could only be filled with chaos, drama and … assholes. Ultimately, I was describing this fear to a friend of mine when she gave me the girlfriend bitch-slap that I needed. I was telling her that I couldn’t figure out what my problem was. I was broken. I was shallow. I was a glutton for punishment. But Alexis, bless her heart, denominated the whole mess down to a single statement: “Grace,” she said with her characteristic, no-bullshit gravity. “If it’s not a ‘fuck yes‘ then it’s a ‘no.'”
I broke up with Nate the next day.
He wasn’t a ‘fuck yes’ and I was killing myself trying to turn him into one.
Now, here I was, making an ass of myself on the scene of a drug overdose because something about Officer Fuck-Yes had lit up my brainstem like a goddamnned Tesla coil.
I was just about to take my leave of my latest embarrassment when he piped up, seemingly out of nowhere.
“Every now and then when I’m on a dating app and I see someone’s profile picture is just a photo of a flower or something… I swipe right just to roll the dice and see what her deal is-“
He had a dating profile. Like, he was talking about using it in the present tense and everything! I stopped dead in my tracks and smiled.
“Oh my God, right? People’s photos are crazy. Like, I see some guys’ photos of themselves in sunglasses with a baseball cap on, taken from 50 yards away and all I can do is wonder what he’s hiding. And I don’t know what makes dudes post pictures of themselves looking downward at their phone. Don’t they know that angle gives them 3 chins and their nose hair is their most prominent feature?”
He laughed and the next thing I knew we were commiserating over the woes of “app-dating” Nevermind the fact that there was a fatal motorcycle crash mucking up the county until I got there and dealt with it. The roads could stay closed as far as I was concerned, I was having a moment.
Or rather I was having a moment right up until all of the officers suddenly went silent. I had been mid-joke with Mike when something happened over the radio that dropped a cinder block on the whole scene. I didn’t hear it myself since all of them were wearing ear-mics, but I watched their faces change and a heaviness fell. Apparently, while I had been blithely wasting time at the scene of this overdose, flirting with Mike and hoping I was making a lasting impression, one of the officers who was blocking off the scene of the motorcycle accident got hit by a car.
Officer Fred Warren had been in his cruiser, closing off the rural highway and waiting for the idiot medical examiner to arrive and clear the motorcycle accident. He had just been relieved and was leaving to get lunch as another officer took over when a distracted driver slammed into Fred in his squad-car, trapping him and essentially snapping his leg in two. The officers around me had gone silent, listening to Fred gasp and groan and howl in pain, even as he attempted to raise dispatch on the radio and get himself an ambulance.
Quick as a wink, all the officers- including Mike- disappeared into their squad cars to render aid to poor, squashed Fred. And I was left there, with the horrified realization that it was MY FAULT.
If I hadn’t been intentionally lallygagging around at the scene of this overdose… I could barely bring myself to think it. Fred was the cream center of a smashed Oreo and I let it happen because I wanted to flirt with a cop.
The guilt washed over me as I scurried back to my truck to haul ass over to the motorcycle accident. I was such a dick. And perhaps even more of a dick because, much like the distracted driver who had slammed into Fred, I was now driving with my phone in my hand and hurriedly doing some Facebook recon on Mike. Within the 20 minutes it took me to get to the motorcycle accident I knew that Mike had two young sons, a gray truck and 6 months earlier he had gone to some kind of formal police banquet thing with some bitch in a blue dress (the girl, not Mike) who I officially hated. Nothing recent regarding girlfriends or relationships. Fuck it! I said to myself and punched the “friend request” button with my thumb. It’s fine, I told myself. I’m friends with lots of officers. It doesn’t mean anything. We just had a nice time talking. It’s fine.
To hear Mike tell the story. He had absolutely no idea that I was flirting with him and he only vaguely registered that “the medical examiner had a nice ass” at the scene. Right up to the moment he got my friend request, he was utterly unaware that anything was going on. He and one of the other officers who had been at the overdose were in the middle of getting lunch when his phone dinged with my request and Mike had pulled it out, gazed at in in confusion and then showed it to his co-worker. “That’s weird,” he reportedly said. “the medical examiner just sent me a friend request.”
His coworker, who was clearly more observant than Mike, said something to the tune of: “Are you oblivious or just stupid?”
Mike was measuring how best to respond in the affirmative to being both oblivious and stupid when his co-worker went on.
“You guys were having a moment,” he told him.
“We were?” Mike gaped. “Oh shit… should I ask her out?”
-which earned Mike an eye-roll from his co-worker
The rest, as they say, is history- a slightly mortifying history in which I have to admit that I let Officer Fred Warren get hit by a car so I could get a date. It’s okay, though. Fred is on paid medical leave and rumor has it he actually began walking last week. And as much as people told me I wasn’t responsible for Fred getting hit by a texting driver, I still maintain that I played a part in his accident. But I made it up to him. I sent him a card with a certificate in it that officially gets him out of helping the medical examiner move any dead body of his choice… you know… in the event that he ever makes it back to patrol.
I guess if I could leave you with anything, dear reader, I hope that you’ll remember that cops are people- most of them are good people (but I’ve got the best one) Also, it’s worth waiting for the person who turns your world from black and white to technicolor. As Alexis so adeptly summed it up, “If it’s not a ‘fuck yes‘ then it’s a ‘no’.
Oh yeah, and don’t text and drive.
This has been a public service announcement.