The trooper had pulled me over because he thought my registration was expired. The sticker was for the wrong month. The car dealer had run out of April stickers when I bought the car on April 29th. He had given me a sticker for March.
The trooper had a flat affect, no expression on his face. He was soft-spoken and had an accent that led me to believe he was from an African nation. “Did you have a protective order against you, or did you file one?” he asked.
I was surprised by the question. I didn’t know that would show up on my registration. “Yes,” I told him, “I did have a peace order. I was the complainant.”
“What was his name?” the trooper asked evenly and quietly. I told him. “Was he your boyfriend?” he wanted to know. I blinked behind my sunglasses, wondering why he was asking, and explained that he was not, that he had been a stranger to me. “What was the order for?” the trooper asked.
“Stalking,” I told him.
“Well,” the trooper said softly. “Don’t file a complaint against me.”
My hackles rose. “Excuse me?” I risked a lack of courtesy.
“Don’t file a complaint on me for stalking you,” he repeated, just as softly.
A beat. Was that supposed to be a joke? Or an implication that I’m just some bitch who makes up legal complaints against men?
“No, sir.” I was firm. “My complaint against him was quite valid. He was found guilty and went to prison.”
I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the way the trooper was questioning me. Where did I work? What’s the location? What did I do there? Where was I going now? What would I do when I arrived? Did I have a business card? When I told him I did not, but offered other proof of my employment, he declined. Then he asked me for my license, for the first time since he’d gotten out of his cruiser. I thought he held onto it for too long, stared at it for too long. And as he studied it, he asked me what time I would be off work.
Eventually, he let me go with the understanding that I was watching the mail for the registration sticker. The next day, I was still uncomfortable about the encounter. But I didn’t know if he’d crossed a line or if the cultural difference was the reason for his demeanor. The problem is that my experience with that stalker has made me more sensitive, heightened my suspicions. I hate it. I resent it. I was always cautious, even before I had the stalker. I always looked around, not fearfully, but consciously, so I knew who was where and what cars were new in the lot. My stalker came out of the darkness from his apartment 100 feet away. I never saw him when I got home late at night because he was never out. He stayed inside, looked through the front door of his building for my car, and waited until I was inside my home to creep up. Now every night, even though I don’t live there anymore, I look around a little more carefully when I get home. I look around a little more carefully, even though I could have looked forever before and have never seen the danger.
I am far from paranoid. I don’t live in fear. But perhaps the most unfair part of my experience is this: knowing I have a heightened sensitivity has made me question my own instincts. Sitting on the side of the highway with the trooper at my window, I had felt my anxiety flush through the skin of my chest. Even two days later, something about the incident still felt wrong. But I didn’t want to get this trooper in trouble if he hadn’t done anything out of line. So I hedged my bets and asked an acquaintance who works for the state police whether the trooper’s behavior had been SOP.
My acquaintance responded that he wanted as much information as I could provide on the incident, and that I should call him immediately at an unpublished number if this trooper stopped me again. And then he encouraged me to make a formal complaint against the trooper to his commander.
I was glad to know that my instincts were right, that I wasn’t just oversensitive. But I was alarmed, too. And I was worried; if I file this complaint, does that count as a strike against me somehow? In some future traffic stop, will two legal complaints now come up, painting me as one of those women perceived to have filed one too many sexual harassment lawsuits, one too many concerns about her treatment at the hands of a man? The trooper’s commander was polite and professional, but did not seem terribly bothered by what I told him. Inexplicably, I found myself near tears as I tried to calmly justify my complaint.
Nearly two years after the stalking began, I would like to believe I’m past it. It was an isolated incident and he was punished according to the law. My concerns, coupled with those of a state lawmaker and his staff, translated to action that might protect the safety of countless other individuals by giving them an opportunity to know when an offender is out of jail or prison – something they wouldn’t have known any other way. But every time I hear something that sounds like a pebble against a window, every time I hear someone joke about stalking someone, every time I sense that a stranger’s behavior is odd, I am reminded that I have been changed. And I still feel like a girl with a stranger at her door.