by Jen Rubin
When I was 23 I thought I killed a woman. I was convinced of this by the Ann Arbor Police Dept who interrogated me for five hours as their prime suspect in a manslaughter case. It was a hit and run that left a young woman dead on a sidewalk. Up until that point my worst crime was cutting physics class.
I had moved to Ann Arbor a year earlier from New York City. I felt like I had been living my life as if it was a dress rehearsal and wanted to do better in Ann Arbor. I liked the life I had begun to build for myself.
The night in question I was leaving a meeting of the Homeless Action Committee. I started the car and turned the volume up high on one of my handmade mixed cassettes. I made u-turn from a parked position, coasted 20 feet to the red light by Olga’s restaurant, waited for the light to change, drove to Krogers to buy some milk and cereal and then drove home.
As I pulled in my driveway, four police cars pulled in after me. By the time I got out 2 cops were under my car with flashlights and another asked where I had just been. I said I was at the grocery store and held up my bag as evidence. He said that my car and license plate had been identified at the traffic light in front of Olga’s as the car that had hit a young woman and fled. I said that before I went to Kroger I had been at that intersection. Angrily, he said “oh, now that I say you had been spotted at the intersection you say you were there”. I started to correct his inference, but he cut me short to say to follow him to the station for questioning.
I got in my car, followed them and tried to sort out what just happened. I didn’t see or hear my car hit someone but I was also not the most attentive driver. I have always participated in the sport of self doubt at the Olympic level and questioned my memory of what occurred. Maybe my music was too loud to hear a thump. Maybe my eyes were distracted as I fiddled with the tape deck at the exact wrong moment.
Once in the station a policeman led me to a small room and left. The first cop to question me came into the room yelling. He said I was a horrible person I was for hitting someone and driving away. He told me the dead woman was white with a brown ponytail in her mid 20s, who was jogging and carrying a yellow Sony walkman when she was hit. Before leaving the room he told me that lying to the police will make my sentence more severe.
It was impossible not to notice the similarities between the dead girl and me. Even down to the Sony walkman. I hadn’t gone for a run without my Sony walkman since I was 16. Back then I didn’t have the arm muscles to carry it for more than a mile at a time. Clipping it to my shorts pulled them down. When I attached it to a belt it bounced against my skin and left bruises. Eventually I duct taped it to my skin. My point is I was so devoted to listening to music while running that I was willing to pull skin off my body to do so. I knew it was the music that prevented this woman from hearing an oncoming car.
I am the latest in a long line of Jewish mothers; I have worry coursing through my blood and I have elevated it to an art form. As a kid I kept a hand sized rock between my mattress and the box spring because you never know if you might be attacked while sleeping. My plan was to grab the rock, smash it against the picture above my bed to break the glass and in the moment of confusion take a glass shard and stab my attacker. On a daily basis I write disaster scenarios in my head but this was different. This wasn’t the kind I had been mentally preparing for my whole life when something horrible is happening and I need to react in an idiosyncratic yet heroic way. The police were telling me I hit the woman and I didn’t know how to react.
Eventually another cop came into the room. He sat down, smiled at me and offered me a soda. I might have been out of my element but I’ve watched enough Hill Street Blues to recognize the good cop/bad cop routine when I saw it. I knew I was allowed to remain silent. I knew I could ask for a lawyer. But I didn’t care. All I wanted to know is did I do it. I wanted to know if it was possible to hit someone while coasting slowly to a stoplight with enough force that the impact would throw the person several feet and kill them and for me not to notice. He wouldn’t answer me so I had nothing to say.
Next the bad cop came back in. I asked him the same question. Could you hit someone with enough force to kill them and not know it? I felt desperate and wished I hadn’t cut physics class because I was sure there was a simple formula involving velocity and motion that would answer this for me. Did I do it? He wouldn’t answer me and yelled some more. The good cop came back. He told me how much better this will go for me legally if I didn’t also obstruct justice. He also told me I could call someone so I decided to call my boyfriend. We had been dating for several months and he was a well known lefty on campus. Right from the start of our relationship he told me he loved me and that was enough information for me to ignore every red flag he proceeded to wave about himself. He wasn’t home when I called so I put the phone down and returned to the interrogation room.
What I did not do was ask to speak to a lawyer or my parents. I didn’t want to talk to a lawyer until I knew whether I was guilty or not. Clearly I did not learn enough from Hill Street Blues.
Five hours later I was free to go. Not because they found who did it but because there was no broken glass on my car headlights and there was broken glass at the crime scene.
On my way home I couldn’t stop thinking about the young woman and the randomness of fate. I didn’t feel ready yet to talk to my rigidly lefty boyfriend since I knew he would be more interested in criticizing the police than hearing about how sad I felt. This would further confirm my growing suspicion that he was really an asshole. When I got back to my apartment, I rummaged through my box of mixed tapes until I found one titled loud women. I had promised myself that I would never turn the volume up high in the car or in my Sony walkman again. But that did not apply at home. I put in the tape, turned the volume up all the way, lay back on my bed and listened.
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Thank you for sharing this!
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As wake-up calls go, yours was harrowing! What wonderful dignity you’ve given to that tragic girl as you tell your own story. I’ll think of you both, she cast to the side of the road as inconsequential and you, holding her death so your life could be one of more consequence. Beautifully told. Thank you.