We planned it for months, even bought an old car, up on blocks and without tires, for ten dollars, not that either of us had a license. Other kids at school brought us canned goods, which we stored in our lockers. We thought that as soon as we escaped, our lives would finally begin. We’d cross some barrier to the real world, where we would belong in a way we couldn’t while living at home.
I was inspired by Jerry Rubin’s book Do It, which made me understand that I was being held captive by the state (as represented by my parents). It was my duty to resist them in any way I could.
One night my friend and I climbed out my bedroom window. My parents were in their room watching Johnny Carson. We hitchhiked to the next town and got some university students to take us in.
Eventually the police found us. Our parents picked us up at the police station. They were crying like it was a big deal, but we weren’t sorry. We were going to do it again the first chance we got, but next time we’d get farther — Florida, maybe Key West. We were going to dance on their graves.
I didn’t forgive my parents for being who they were until I had my own child. It was then I felt embarrassed and remorseful for the pain I’d caused them. But it was too late to tell my father. By then he was dead.
The first time we kissed he said, “I feel like writing a poem or painting a picture.” Right then he asked me to marry him. It was only our first date, but I said yes. I was seventeen.
On my eighteenth birthday he presented me with an engagement ring in front of all our friends. “You couldn’t get out of this if you wanted to,” he crooned. “You’re too nice.” I smiled weakly.
We never fought. Sometimes I’d stare silently out the car window instead of making a scene. I couldn’t share my misgivings about our engagement, but finally I went away one weekend to think. “I’m letting you go,” my fiancé said, “because I trust you.” When I returned, he was waiting at my apartment with a box of candy he had made himself. I dissolved into tears and pushed him out the door. “I’ll let you get some rest,” he said softly.
I jumped in my car and went to see my matron of honor. Debbie was a large woman who rode a motorcycle and went to church. We worked together at a local nursing home, and I loved her dearly. She was already in her nightgown and robe when she answered the door.
“I don’t want to get married,” I blurted.
“So don’t,” she said.
“But the flowers are ordered.”
“But you already bought your dress.” It was a voluminous, burgundy polyester-crepe number.
“I like it,” she said.
To each concern I raised — my politeness still threatening to seal my fate — Debbie replied, “Send it back. Cancel it. Lose the deposit.”
“Hey,” she snapped. “Plenty of people wish they’d done what you’re doing.”
We crawled into her king-size waterbed and watched a John Wayne movie. The Duke never had much patience with folks who were “yellah,” and I had been raised to appreciate his ethic. But that night I decided that sometimes the bravest thing to do is run away.
I first ran away when I was nearly sixteen, after thinking it through for about ten minutes. I left with a boy one year older than me. George planned to hitch a ride to Louisville, then St. Louis, then Las Vegas. He wanted to visit cities with lyrical names. He could barely play guitar, but he wanted to be like Cat Stevens.
I took with me a hundred dollars — money from pawning the watch my grandmother gave me when I was nine — a jean jacket, and a few other items stuffed in a paper bag. I was five months pregnant.
My parents didn’t know about my pregnancy. I’d sat in school during my second and third months, feeling the baby kick. I wore bulky T-shirts and sweaters and pants so tight they hurt. I jumped off chairs, hoping I’d miscarry. George wasn’t the baby’s father, but I left with him, wishing I could leave my pregnancy behind as well.
We hitched a ride to Louisville with a truck driver who was popping black beauties. That night, in a halfway house downtown, I brushed my teeth with water and a paper towel. The next day we rode with another truck driver to St. Louis, then to Columbia, Missouri. We stayed there a while, first in a halfway house, where we lived on day-old cheese Danish, then in an apartment on Hitt Street with a lot of other runaways and junkies. I fell very ill and had to be hospitalized; I weighed ninety-seven pounds and was six months pregnant. A Swiss cheese sandwich I had at the hospital I still remember as one of the best meals of my life.
George became the assistant of a pimp named Slim and stole television sets. Soon he grew tired of me and called the police. After I spent a few days in jail, my father came and took me home. I married the baby’s father, but we gave our son away. Shortly afterward, we divorced.
Twenty years later there are still memories from that time I can’t leave behind. Feeling the skin of my stomach grow tighter and tighter, touching sharp edges beneath it — an elbow, a knee. Waking with my sheets circled in milk. Hearing the strange, thin cry of my newborn son after forty-eight hours of labor. Is he all right? I asked. Of course he is, now lie down and shut up, I was told. I never once saw his face. My son will be twenty-one years old next June or July. I can’t remember the date, but sadness always overwhelms me at that time of year.
What else have I run away from? I never remarried, and an eight-year relationship I was in ended two years ago. I’ve moved from town to town, state to state. I’ve become a writer, but I fear finishing my novel. If I truly write, will I come to the end of remembering, of grieving, where nothing is left?
Or is there, after all, some redemption for those who run away? Can we dive into the dark place of loss, and then emerge into an understanding of what we did and why? I want to believe it’s all right to feel again, to forgive and not always run from the precarious possibility of joy.
Karen S. McElmurray
That Sunday my mother was drunk again, and she’d told me and my six-year-old sister to go to our uncle’s house. I was only nine, but I knew where to catch the trolley, and I knew the part of town in which he lived. Uncle Bob was surprised when we showed up at his door, but we spent the afternoon with him anyway.
My mother would not come for us, so Uncle Bob brought us home. Mom was waiting at the door, and she waved goodbye to him as he drove away.
My sister and I had been fighting all day and were screaming at one another by the time we walked into our house. Mom’s eyes were unsteady, but her face was full of hate. She took a handful of my long hair in her fist, opened the front door, and threw me out onto the porch. “Get out and don’t come back,” she hissed.
I walked for miles as daylight faded into darkness. I considered sleeping in a doorway, but it was so cold. I saw no way to survive out here.
Finally, I staggered to a pizza place. The middle-aged couple inside were kind to me, but I couldn’t look them in the eye. “I’m lost,” I told them, and gave them my phone number when they asked. The woman phoned my mother, who came for me in the car. She wouldn’t speak to me.
“Mom told the neighbors that you ran away,” my sister informed me at home. “She says you’re just a bad kid.”
I went to my father in the kitchen. We were alone, and I began to cry. “Did you look for me?” I asked him. But I already knew the answer. He turned his back to me. “No,” he said.
I died that day, but it didn’t show.
For years after Vietnam, I traveled compulsively, usually loaded. I ran from memories and feelings, jobs and family. I couldn’t face all I had seen and done in Nam.
Then one night, asleep somewhere in the Nevada desert, I dreamed that I was lying on my back in a Vietnamese hamlet. A group of ancient village men sat in a circle observing me with obvious good humor as a large rat gnawed on the palm of my right hand. The men’s faces radiated the deepest compassion I had ever experienced, and I yearned to join their circle.
But every time I tried to reach out to them, the rat grew ferocious and would swing me around and around. The harder I tried to escape, the faster the rat would swing me, and the more desperately I strove to free myself.
Then I noticed that the men’s laughter increased the harder I fought. In my worst moments they actually howled and rolled on the ground. Whenever I ceased fighting, their glee faded to a calm and gentle attention. So I tried to relax. The more I relaxed, the more I was received into that circle of mischievous elders.
My dream taught me that accepting my dilemma, not running from it, gave my yearning a chance to be fulfilled. Twenty years later, helped by therapy, meditation, and life in a loving family, this is a lesson I am still trying to learn.
Grass Valley, California
The heat that had welcomed me to this California town two weeks ago felt stifling now. The sun glared white, and the jasmine smelled of syrupy decay. I found the library and walked in. It was cool, protective. It was familiar.
I was seventeen and had left the East with birthday money from my parents. When I’d arrived, stale from a six-day bus ride, I’d felt bold and bohemian. My relatives here had a pool in their apartment complex. My aunt vacuumed naked. Bushes flowered. It was paradise. I’d felt so free.
My aunt and uncle asked me right off what I drank, and I said beer, but they put a gallon of Gallo in their empty refrigerator for me. They rarely ate, and this was a relief; I didn’t have to hide my anorexia. For energy I chewed gum. Once I found cold pizza beside the Chablis and scraped onions and peppers from its crust to make a sort of cooked salad. My relatives ate only a banana in the morning, having read that its potassium replenished what their breakfast vodka drained.
I swam and sunned for days in a wine-fed blur. My relatives, so hip, badmouthed my parents, and I agreed with them.
I was invited to stay, to drop out of college and enroll here in a community commuter college, to study computers instead of art, to cut free of my upbringing, its rules and stuffy intellect. Maybe this is me, I thought — this heat, this nudity, this fuck-all-the-rules.
But now I wanted this library’s dull safety. I wanted its low light and quiet. I wanted to be alone, but I was scared, too. I wanted someone to care about what happened to me.
With immediate clarity I understood what had been going on these last two weeks, and fear came on me like a flood. Last night, when my uncle had ordered me into his bedroom, I’d cried from the start, not numb enough to wait until the end as I had before. I’d cried as my aunt — who’d dragged so elegantly on her cigarette holder when I was young, whom I’d thought so chic, who thrilled me when she liked me — urged me on to her husband. And I’d choked and cried as my uncle mashed his red face into me, as he slapped his belly on mine for twenty minutes, as he told me that this was how parents should teach their daughters and how he’d taught his own. When he’d finished, he drank his drink.
Now I could see that my home here was an apartment with no clothing in the closets, no food in the kitchen, and two crazy people for guardians. I turned down an aisle, found a phone, and called a bus line. By midafternoon I was heading back east, to the parents who had let me run off to find out what is and isn’t free.
San Geronimo Valley, California
When I was four years old, I packed a paper bag with all my belongings and announced to my mother and older sister my intention to run away. They laughed. I walked right out the door, but once I got to the end of the street I realized I didn’t know where to go.
Reluctantly I turned back and hid for a while under the front porch, squatting down amid the cat droppings and bugs and peering out through the latticework. I waited for them to come looking for me and considered how long I’d hold out before accepting their apology, but they never came. Eventually I went back inside, and no one said a word about my leaving.
The older I got, the more I ran away from: the teacher who didn’t like me, the boy in whom I was no longer interested, the friends I had outgrown. I never learned how to leave lovingly. Ending anything became a violent wrenching away, and I justified my every departure by finding things to hate. The job was the worst job, the boss the most demeaning employer, the neighborhood the most dangerous place, the school the shoddiest institution, the husband the most critical man in the world. I had to be ready to live forever without them, and I turned every parting into a bridge-burning.
Of course, by negating all, I had nothing to carry with me, no lessons learned. I had only flight and escape, a nearly empty bag. I cheated myself out of the good memories by setting fire to the hurtful ones.
I am trying to do things differently now. I practice sitting still, and writing about my feelings rather than fleeing them. It’s a challenge. I keep thinking I’ve got to stay on the move, stay one step ahead of myself or a feeling will come and capture me. But when I allow my feelings to move through me, they actually leave me intact, even peaceful. I’m constantly learning that “there” isn’t any different than “here.”
When I was twenty-nine I bought a horse. That mare was sweet and loyal and honest, and I learned many lessons from her. The most important one was that horses run. Horses run to their barns, to their grain, to other horses, but mostly they run to safety and away from danger and pain. This is, after all, how they survive.
By the time I was thirty-nine I was the father of two wonderful, healthy sons. Soon after my second child’s birth, I realized that I was trying to run away. While my children napped, I would sit on my deck, look at the pasture where my horse quietly grazed, and feel a compulsion to walk into the surrounding oak woods, never to be seen again. This was not a new feeling, but it had become intense. Eventually I learned that I, too, wanted to run from danger and pain.
When I was a young child, my mother used me as a living vibrator, a toy to service her needs. For some reason she finally stopped, but later, before I was six, my father sodomized me. His boss, too, raped me, and once he shared me with one of my father’s co-workers. They raped me simultaneously, and when I crawled off to puke they raped me again. A knife at my throat ensured that I wouldn’t tell.
I remember wanting to run away — to a circus, to another state, to another family, to the bottom of the East River. Instead I ran from my memories, denied that there was pain or terror, and used food to build a sheltering cocoon of fat.
Today I am learning to face the pain, to own it as a horrific, regrettable, but absolutely unforgettable piece of my own past. Yet some days I still need to run from the danger and the pain. It is, after all, how I survived.
Great Meadows, New Jersey
My sixteenth birthday was only a few weeks away when I left the sunny suburban home my immigrant mother had provided for us. I cared nothing for it. What I wanted were empathy and acceptance.
So one day, my heart pounding, short of breath, I stuffed a backpack with my toothbrush, makeup, and a few clothes and slipped out the back door. I wore an ankle-length flowered skirt and a granny blouse that I’d sewn in Home Ec. I’ll show you, Mom, I thought.
I hitched a ride up the highway and endured an embarrassing lecture on hitchhiking from a well-meaning truck driver. After he let me off, I walked furtively in the bright sunlight to my boyfriend’s house, where he lived with his parents. When I knocked on his window, he was surprised to see me there. I was surprised. I had run away from home.
In the days that followed, I learned that my distraught mother had begun smoking cigarettes again. My friends urged me to return for her sake.
Eventually I agreed to go home, and my father came to pick me up. Gently he said, “You look like shit.” After a long week of guilt, pot, mushrooms, and late-night sex, I could only agree. As the car rolled down I-95, I nestled my head against my father’s leg and stared at the nighttime sky and the lights along the highway. He stroked the hair off my forehead as we sped home, and I cried.
In March of 1969, our four-year-old son, Patrick, lay in the intensive care unit of the hospital. He’d been hit by a drunken driver and had suffered severe head injuries. He was in a deep coma, breathing only with the aid of a respirator. Morning and night, we maintained an agonizing vigil, knowing what awaited us at its end. During those endless hours, I ached to take him in my arms, but the tubes and machines surrounding him prevented that. To endure it, I fixed my mind on a single thought: when this is over, when they take away all the machines and tubes, I can hold him.
But nothing had prepared me for death’s cold, white emptiness, and when it came I fled, sobbing, from my child, from my husband who stayed at his bedside, and from our parents who wept but let me go. Later I prevailed upon my husband and the funeral director to keep the small coffin closed.
I never saw Paddy again after running from his bedside. I never held him or touched him or kissed him as I had longed to do — and I never said goodbye.
A few summers ago I worked with a documentary film crew in Zimbabwe. After the shoot was over, we went to a safari camp. Initially, I was thrilled to see lions, elephants, and giraffes, but I quickly became bored because we weren’t allowed to leave our jeeps. It felt like watching a movie at a drive-in.
I’d read that in nearby Botswana you could travel from island to island in a dugout canoe, camp in the wilderness, and see herds of African wildlife on foot. When the rest of the crew went home, I decided to go.
On the plane I hooked up with a young Australian couple. We went together to Oddball’s, a relaxed, hippie-style camp that rented equipment and arranged for boats and guides. We had a choice of fiberglass or wooden dugouts; we rented wooden ones, of course. We also hired two local guides, James and his cousin Lena, both of whom lived in a village nearby.
In the bar that night the Australian couple and I avoided conversations with other travelers, pretending that we were adventurers and they were only tourists. The next morning, we pushed off into the remote, mysterious everglades of Okovanggo, our canoes stocked with supplies. We told James and Lena to steer away from other westerners; we didn’t want to ruin the authenticity of our experience.
Sitting low in the water, holding a black umbrella against the fierce sun, I closed my eyes and listened to the papery scrape of lily pads against the wooden boat and the long, hollow slicing of reeds. I trailed my arm in the cool water, dipped in my tin cup, and drank. I’d never been able to drink the water when camping.
Lena whispered, “See the African jaçana,” and a delicate, splay-toed bird landed on a lily pad a few yards from the boat. In the distance the sound of a waterfall turned out to be a herd of impala galloping through the shallow water. Silhouetted on the horizon were tall palm trees and, swaying among them, giraffes.
James knew the delta like it was his back yard — and it was. He could tell exactly where we were by the shadow of the sun on his forearm. A tall, quiet man, he wore tattered pants, a T-shirt, and slip-on city shoes, and he used an old black suitcase instead of a backpack. When we walked, James went first, carrying a spear. He led us to herds of water buffaloes and kudus and once to within a few yards of a spotted hyena.
One night as we sat around our campfire eating our freshly caught fish, we heard a rush of barking, panting, shrieking, and moaning in the bushes. James calmly said they were dogs and, still carrying his plate and eating, gestured for us to follow him.
We moved to where we’d heard the attack and saw flashes of black and white in the grass. Then the dogs ran away, and there was an impala, not only dead but eaten, after only a minute. Both its hind legs and stomach were gone, and only its thin forelegs, neck, and head remained. I knelt and stroked the fur, still warm and sweaty like a horse after a race.
As my heart’s heavy thumping gradually slowed, a wave of gratefulness came over me. I’d finally left behind all things civilized. The Australian couple and I settled around the campfire with our cups of tea, tired and self-satisfied.
I think the conversation started about the tea. James asked (as Lena translated), “Why do white people not eat sugar?” He and Lena loaded their tea with sugar, while the Australian couple and I used honey. After we’d explained that sugar rots your teeth, I said magnanimously, “If you have any other questions about white people, go ahead, ask me anything.”
Very gently, not accusingly, James asked, “Why don’t white people talk to each other when they see each other in the bar? Why don’t white people want to meet other white people in the Okovanggo? Why do the white people at Oddball’s charge visitors for the tent, the food, everything? When people visit us from far away we welcome them to the village and give them food and shelter.”
I had a hard time with the answers. There were none, really. There, in the wilds of Africa, I’d met a truly civilized man.
San Francisco, California
I ran away from home when I was nine, while my father was in Saudi Arabia and my mother was in bed with hepatitis. Before I left I brushed my hair with a hairbrush my mother and I hadn’t yet broken in arguments. I put on my favorite clothes, the ones with the most pockets. I tucked into them a Girl Scout knife, a small flashlight, and two dollars and sixty-three cents.
I headed for the playground to meet a boy from school. We had decided to run away together; it would be easier if there were two of us. On the way, a young man walking his bicycle quietly came up behind me and asked if anyone had ever told me I was beautiful. Me? No. My sister was beautiful. Next to her I felt dark and sullen.
Then he asked if I had ever seen a . . . something. I couldn’t hear over the traffic. But I figured that, whatever it was, I probably hadn’t seen one. So when he asked if I’d like to see one, of course I said yes. We turned, bicycle and all, into the partly wooded lot we’d been walking past.
He told me again that I was beautiful. Then he knelt on the ground so that we were eye to eye, and he started kissing me. His tongue in my mouth made me think of slugs, but it also felt good. He stood up and told me to unzip my pants. He unzipped his, and what I saw made me think of slugs again. I was stunned. “Do you know where this goes?” he asked. I screamed. He looked startled, and he asked me to close my eyes and count to fifty. As I did, I heard the panicked rustling as he scrambled out of the bushes back to the sidewalk. I ran home and lay on my bed trembling. I never again spoke to the boy with whom I’d planned to run away.
It took me nine years to tell anyone what happened that spring.
“If you don’t like it, get the hell out!” my father boomed, bulldog neck straining, massive arms poised to strike again. At sixteen I did, leaving that hellhouse where, as the eldest of ten children, I had borne adult responsibilities from the age of seven.
I stayed in St. Louis and kept my carhop job, sleeping at my grandparents’ and Uncle Harry’s flat. Soon I fell in love with a passionate fourteen-year-old girl. One night Harry lent me his ’55 Olds, and Kathy rolled with me in the grass to the romantic rhythm of trains rolling west. When it was time to go home, I couldn’t get the car to start and left it. Harry was furious.
Scooping up what was left of my carhop tips, I split. That night I sat for hours on the bank of the Mississippi River, staring at the tiresome flash of the Peabody Coal sign over East St. Louis.
Finally I walked to the Greyhound station and bought a ticket to L.A. I arrived carrying half a pack of Marlboros and eleven dollars. I couldn’t find work and became easy prey for a friendly man who admired my blue eyes, showed me Hollywood, took me to a movie, then offered me a place to stay. He reached for my thigh in the middle of the night, but I was stronger and hit the streets again.
I headed for the bus station through a gauntlet of transvestites and men on the make. My last three dollars got me a ticket to Riverside. The bus continued east from there, and I hid in the toilet, hoping to get back to St. Louis. I was discovered though, and booted off in Texas. I borrowed a dime and called my grandfather, who said the police were looking for me, my father was threatening everyone, and he didn’t want to get involved.
Three nights later I’d found my way back. I slept under leaves in a gutter and woke to the sound of high heels clicking off to Mass at the St. Louis cathedral. During the days I hid. At night I walked the streets with Kathy. Finally I called home. Dad was muted, even faintly respectful. He was concerned that I might bring home a disease. I did: soon my other siblings started leaving, too.
I finished high school, college, and medical school. I had children. And now I’m running away again. This time, though, I live in an old adobe house in self-imposed exile, my family only a few miles away. I deeply love my children, but my responsibilities are suffocating me. Maybe my need to break away is the anguish of my joyless childhood. Or maybe I’m not running away but running to something — discovery, adventure, possibilities I can’t yet imagine. I am the descendant of runaways from Ireland and, yes, they cut themselves off from family. But they also saved themselves from famine.
La Jara, New Mexico
Every afternoon when I was six, I rode the school bus to my grandparents’ farm, where I waited for my stepfather to pick me up after work. One day my spoiled little cousin was there, and, angry at my grandmother for letting him be so bad, I decided to run away. I made a tall stack of sandwiches, put them in a brown paper bag, and stormed out the back door. By the time I reached the fence at the end of Grandpa’s farthest field, I was breathless and panicked at being alone. I crept sheepishly back to Grandma’s kitchen, expecting a lecture. Instead she put her arms around me and said, “Next time, honey, don’t make so many sandwiches.”
The following year my parents and I moved away. I missed Grandpa’s songs and the ice cream he bought for me when we went to town. I missed Grandma’s stories, her yellow kitchen, and, most of all, her hugs.
Within a year I wanted to run away again. My parents had threatened to put me in a home for bad girls. They never told me what I had done to make them want to send away their only child. I resolved that from now on I would do everything perfectly so that they would keep me. I was afraid to run away. I didn’t know where to go.
At nineteen I married my high school sweetheart and worked in a factory until he finished college. I’d hated being an only child and had vowed not to have just one. We had twin girls first and two more daughters in quick succession. As we raised our children, I tried to give them everything my upbringing lacked.
I took in ironing and babysat so that I could afford to stay home with the girls. I was a room mother at school for all four. I did mountains of laundry and made most of the girls’ clothes. They each had dance classes, piano lessons, and 4-H animals. They were in sports, high school choir, church choir, and youth groups. Between the four they played piano, viola, violin, flute, clarinet, cornet, baritone, trombone, and tuba. They went to string camp, band camp, twirling camp, and church camp.
My husband’s job became more demanding, and he spent most evenings in meetings or classes for his master’s degree, leaving me to run the household. I stretched the budget as far as it would go but still maintained an open-door policy for all my daughters’ friends, becoming adept at putting together impromptu lunches with leftovers. I doubled cookie recipes, freezing the extras for the many unexpected guests, who were always in the house until nearly bedtime.
One evening, the house full as usual, I excused myself early, went into the bedroom, and closed the door. I’d intended to rest, but an uncontrollable urge rose within me — an urge to run from this hubbub and the constant demands. I removed the screen from the window, climbed out, and dropped to the ground. I ran across the fields until I came to a boulder embedded in the hillside. I sat on the rock, pulled my knees to my chest, and wrapped my arms around my legs. Lights flashed on in my house. I heard the back door slam and my husband call my name. “Lynn!” (My given name is Linda, but my parents had nicknamed me Lynn. I hate to be called Lynn.) The girls were calling, “Mom! Mom! Where are you, Mom?” I hugged my knees closer to my body and closed my eyes. Too tired to cry, too drained to care, I heard my name called over and over, and then there was silence broken only by the buzz of mosquitoes. I sat on the rock, thought about Grandma, long dead, and wished she could be waiting for me when I returned.
I began running away as a young child. My first getaway was a brief trek at sunset down a busy highway. I didn’t know where I was headed, just felt I had to get away. I turned back at dark beset by hunger and fear.
By the time I was ten and living in south Florida, my constant companion Carol and I trained nearly every day to survive as runaways. We had no date for departure in mind, knew only that we’d leave when we felt ready. To prepare ourselves, we fished in the lake behind our apartment complex and built unsteady bridges from fallen branches to cross the mini-inlets around the lake’s edge. Hour upon hour we played out our fantasy, stopping occasionally to snack on provisions of crackers or raisins we’d carried from home.
We never had an opportunity to test our survival skills together, but at seventeen, in north Florida, I ran away on my own. I hit the road one spring morning before the fog lifted and walked the few miles from my high school to Interstate 10. I wore corduroy jeans, a tight cotton T-shirt, black feather earrings, and beaded Indian moccasins through which my feet felt every pebble and soft cushion of grass. A trucker picked me up at the on-ramp. I rode two hundred miles west with three different drivers, got out near Pensacola, met up with some other young people, and slept for three nights in an abandoned trailer. Then I went back home.
I dropped out of school a few months later and took a bus to San Diego to look for the Doors’ California, though it was now 1982. All I had packed for the trip were a box of Fig Newtons, a few articles of clothing, and ten dollars. In bus stations across America I ate soup made from ketchup and boiled water (I’d seen somebody make it on TV). A pimp tried to hustle me in Houston. After two and a half days, I was in California.
I scraped by on the West Coast for three years before I returned to my mother’s home — to a comfortable bed, good food, and college. I’m now twenty-eight. I have a husband I love and four dogs. Yet when I’m feeling tired or hopeless, or, more often, when I’m broke, my wanderlust returns. I imagine abandoning my job, changing my name, chucking it all.
My father ran away emotionally long before he actually walked out the door. Mother grieved, wondering how she could have been a better wife. Finally she gathered her courage to ask him if they could try again. She still loved him, and there were three young children to consider. But when she knocked on his door, the landlady answered and said, “Jack? Why, he and his wife and baby left yesterday.”
Her discovery of his double life seemed to wipe out any lingering feelings my mother had for him. Father remembered us by sending an occasional gift but after two months never any child support. Mother rarely mentioned him as we grew up, leaving our hearts open to a relationship with him should he ever decide he wanted one.
In the meantime my mother remarried and I dealt not only with my faithless father but with a new sense of rejection as Mother focused her time on her new husband. I discovered safe places with happy endings between the covers of books, and I used stories to escape the chaos of my life, which peaked with Mother’s separation from her second husband.
That was a pivotal time for me and Mother, when our relationship changed from parent and child to that of two adults. The problems seemed overwhelmingly huge as we tried to make ends meet, but I enjoyed our long conversations. My younger brothers did not fare so well. They were at the stage in adolescence for testing limits and exploring their own lives. They often ran away.
Usually they went to a friend’s house and were gone only a day or two. Mother told them to at least call, but they rarely did. She couldn’t get through to them — so she ran away.
She didn’t tell me where she was going, but she explained that she would be gone several days and asked me to say nothing to the boys. After she left, they were cool at first, appearing to take it in stride, but an uneasiness haunted their eyes. By the second day, they started to argue about what to do. One wanted to call relatives, the other wanted to call the police.
After three days, Mother returned from the homeless shelter where she had been volunteering. She endured a lecture on responsibility from her sons, and we settled down to a period of relative peacefulness. The boys stayed home.
Years later, when one of my brothers contacted our half-brother, our father told him to have nothing to do with us. He rejected us again, and the long-buried bitterness and pain resurfaced.
Father ran away and taught us nothing but resentment. Mother ran away and taught us responsibility and love and the importance of communication. Mother came back.
Carol Durnin Hedge
I wake up and try to decide what I should do today. This cabin needs repairs. A pack rat’s gotten into the shed. The upper ditch is washed out. My late father’s unfinished manuscript deserves completion. My own book lacks illustrations. Three letters lie unanswered on the table. The checkbook isn’t balanced, the corral’s falling apart, the truck needs oil, that stack of moldy hay needs to be hauled off, my bronzes need finishing, a second novel’s boiling around in my head. Instead, after I get out of bed and dress, I walk westward with the rising sun’s light, grain in my pocket and a halter over my shoulder, looking for my horses.
There are miles of open range, and they could be anywhere. I cross the draw, where a blue heron flies from a pond, long legs dangling. Swallows skim and squeak through newly leafed cottonwoods. I jump a little stream and follow horse tracks up the rocky slope on the other side. At the mouth of a dry ravine I glance up at a huge nest high in a cottonwood. Red-tailed hawks have used it for the last few summers, but this year great horned owls inhabit it. Two young owls fly into thick willows nearby and drop two feathers, which I pick up and put carefully in my jacket pocket.
I near the top of a ridge, over which I glimpse seven pronghorns. Torn between fear and curiosity, they stare, stamp, snort, run away, then stop, stare, and trot closer. I angle northward across a level stretch of sagebrush, where prairie dogs stand on the dirt mounds beside their burrows. When the adults bark, the babies pop out of sight.
Soon I can hear the faint rattling of sandhill cranes, the cries of loons, the honking of a few wild geese. I reach the crest of a knoll, and the distant lake comes into view, sparkling with white pelicans. But there’s no sign of horses anywhere.
I walk down into a hollow of wild grass. Suddenly I come upon a small bowl of bright, impossible green. No one takes such grass for granted in these drought years, and for a moment I can hear my heart beat. Then I spot the horses. I whistle as I approach so I won’t spook them, and their heads come up. The red gelding walks toward me, ears pricked. I lure him back to the orange mare with a handful of grain and give it to him where she can hear it crunch in his teeth. She comes, neck arched, her big eyes rolling expressively. I put the halter on her and feed both horses a handful of grain, admiring how even in their greed they never bite my fingers. I pull myself up onto the mare’s back. She whisks her tail and trots a little, then settles into a gentle walk. The gelding follows, breathing softly on her rump now and then to speed her up. Her sorrel hide is smooth and warm under my palm.
I reach home as tranquil as if I’d been praying all morning. I put the horses in the corral and feed them, then pound a couple of spikes in the corral’s loosened poles, enough to keep the horses in for today anyway. I set a rat trap in the shed, answer my letters, and eat breakfast with Mom. I work on a sketch for my book until afternoon, when I remember the ditch that needs repairing and the waterproofing I need to do on the cabin. But a cool, moist wind blows the scent of balsam from the east, so I saddle the gelding and trot up rocky ridges toward the mountains.