A collection of short pieces written by Rumpus readers pertaining to the subject of “Running Away.”
Edited by Susan Clements.
When you were a child, you knew how to run away. You packed a bag—a change of clothes, a toothbrush, a favorite toy. You removed the screen from your bedroom window in advance, hid it in the bushes. Climbed out the window in the middle of the night, ready to go as far as your legs would carry you.
Now you hold all the keys, but you can’t figure out how to do it. You don’t know what to pack. You can walk right out the door, get in the car and drive until you run out of gas, but still you can’t imagine an escape.
When you were a child, you didn’t know where you were going, but you knew why you had to go. Maybe your father was never home, and your mother was drunk all the time. Maybe it was even worse than that. Or maybe both your parents were perfectly normal, but they took away your Nintendo because you didn’t do your homework. Whatever your reasons, you felt a perfect self-assurance as your feet hit the soft wet grass.
Now you doubt yourself, you doubt your reasons. You know you’re unhappy, but you can’t figure out why. You don’t know if you’re in love because you don’t know what that word means. You turn it over and over in your mind, instead of just opening up the window, swinging your legs over the side, and never stopping to look back.
But the biggest difference, the one you only understand when you wake up at three a.m., the back of your head drenched with sweat, is that when you were a child, you knew what it meant to be home.
* * *
You used to think there was something wrong with you, something big and dark and undiagnosed, something clinical or chemical or quantifiable that would explain why you’re like this. You used to ask your therapist if she was absolutely certain you didn’t need medication.
“Are you sure?” you said. “Not even for just a little while?”
“I am, honey,” she always replied, and eventually you just stopped asking.
And now you do this thing you swore you’d never do. You actually do a lot of things you swore you’d never do, but here you are thinking of one very specific thing, which is this:
You are not talking about getting up from your chair in the middle of a bad date in a sushi restaurant and walking straight out the front door, although you have done that, too.
You are not talking about having a drunken fight with that same boy on a different night as the car he is driving hurtles down Sunset Boulevard and you are crying because he is just not getting it, and you wait until he slows to navigate one of those endlessly snaking S-curves before you yank up on the cold metal door handle and tumble out, end over end, into the soft shoulder, where you land with your knees pointing in two distinctly different directions, with a clump of dirt buried so deep in your purse it’s like you put it there for safekeeping.
No, the kind of leaving you do now has you poring over the Craigslist apartment ads in places like Portland and Prague, because that will surely fix you. Surely the crisp smell of a new cardboard box and the satisfying snap of a new roll of packing tape will quiet this thing in your head, this vibration, like the hum of a crystal glass made to sing under a wine-dampened fingertip, or the sound subway rails make when the train is travelling full speed.
This vibration speaks and what it says to you is this: GO. But this is as far as you take it these days.
You look at the clock and it is after five p.m. The shadows have lengthened and disappeared into dusk, and your paper coffee cup is empty and cold to the touch. The dog needs to be fed and you need to do something about dinner before your husband gets home.
— Shanna Mahin
* * *
My Imagination and I met at a party in Kathy Muldoon’s basement. Her basement smelled like guinea pigs because Kathy Muldoon’s sister, Mary Muldoon, kept guinea pigs down there, and I commented to My Imagination that it very much smelled like guinea pigs. My Imagination agreed, and we pretty much hit it off from there.
My Imagination and I decided to go steady early on. We slow-danced at the school dances. We fast-danced at the YMCA dances, like the public school kids.
I was so into My Imagination. I wrote “LB + MI = 4EVA” all over my binder in whiteout pen. I posted pictures of My Imagination in my locker. I stole his sweatshirt, but not really, because we were an item, and it was an unspoken rule that I got to wear his sweatshirt so that I could tell other people that I was wearing a boy’s sweatshirt, and not just any boy’s sweatshirt, My Imagination’s sweatshirt.
One night, My Imagination woke me up by throwing rocks at my bedroom window. I was like, “You’re crazy! My parents are going to kill you!” But he was like, “Come on, let’s get out of here!” And I was like, “Yes.”
My Imagination had stolen a car from his older brother, who’d been fixing it up for seven years. My Imagination’s brother is a low-life with no aspirations. He lives in My Imagination’s parents’ basement. The basement smells like warm clay and salt but, to my knowledge, neither clay nor salt is anywhere to be found.
I said, “Where are we going?” And My Imagination said, “Crazy!” And I was like, “Wait, you’re joking.” And he confirmed, “Yeah, it was a joke.” I was in love with My goddamn Imagination, so much so that I felt like an adult. An adult who could take the Lord’s name in vain.
I lost my virginity to My Imagination in a Super 8 Motel room, and it was weird. I didn’t want to cry but I did, and then a week later My Imagination and I broke up. Don’t feel bad for me, though. I was young. I was supposed to be living and learning, and I think that’s exactly what happened with the lackluster motel sex My Imagination and I had.
It’s all good. Really, it is. Now I’ve got my eye on Financial Planning, that fox.
— Laura Burns
* * *
A good man will make you wanna run away (from home). He will hold up a mirror of your faults and misdeeds, then will let you decide what you plan to do about it.
I always head for the door. A heaving, crying, irrational fit. Shake as I put on my shoes. Shove essentials into a bag, hoping that I don’t forget what I need, in those few frantic moments before I slam the door behind me.
Outside, the future hangs over my head, and I can choose, to run away from it all into the vast darkness of possibilities, variables of new destinies. I can become a new person without a single glance back at those demanding mirrors.
Or I can stay.
Reminds me of the time he was asleep in our bed and I couldn’t resist crawling on top of him. He woke up and said, “I dreamed that you saved me, but I can’t remember from what,” then he kissed me with the strength of the oceans and winds. I was reminded again of what I need.
Why do we think that it’s easier to leave than to deal? Fuck, after thirty-some years, haven’t I learned that you are always you, no matter where you run? No matter how much I have suppressed with liquid, powdered, or momentary cures, no matter how much I pretend, that those faults aren’t really me, I will be balancing those mirrors on top of my head, hoping that I don’t falter, lives shattering. The more that you run, the less you become and more like a stranger than the person you want.
There are kids playing pretend in the street. One pretends she’s a tiger, she makes sharp claws, mean teeth. Another is a wolf and she howls at invisible things, a little boy, he’s the hunter, shooting at the make-believe. The girls stop and stare as I pass, asking me why I am crying (girls, so caring). The boy takes one look, and innocently utters “Maybe she doesn’t know who to be” (boys, so intuitive).
A good man will make you want to run away, he will hold up a mirror of your faults. Don’t be insulted, don’t be scared, don’t run away. A good man will remind you of why you need to stay.
— Chelsea Morning
* * *
More than a decade ago, I quit my job as a newspaper reporter with the idea I would write a novel. The idea wasn’t fully formed and now that I am able to inspect it, I see it was really just the idea that I didn’t want to be a newspaper reporter anymore disguised as an idea about writing a novel. In any case, I tantalized myself for weeks—for the entirety of my long notice—about how wonderful it was going to be to have unlimited time to write. My last day came, followed by the weekend, followed by that first Monday morning.
I can’t say exactly how long I wrote that morning, but it was probably less than fifteen minutes before I found myself—as if transmitted by fugue state or narcotic blackout—on the golf course. This was strange. I didn’t really play golf. Or I hadn’t for long. I’d taken it up like a month before, to take part in some company outing. I’d bought a bag of crummy clubs and tried to learn how to use them, bloodying my hands one long evening at the driving range. I was terrible at it.
This went on every morning for a full summer. I woke up, sat down at my computer, looked at the page, then fled to this rundown municipal course. I was often the only one there in the blistering southern heat. The greens were brown. I had a bad slice. My drive on the seventh hole always swerved into traffic, my life flashing before my eyes in endless litigation each time. I didn’t get any better that summer, at writing or golf.
But then discipline and inspiration triumphed, right? No. I moved. I left my clubs behind. I buried them—like cursed relics—deep in my parents’ basement. I haven’t golfed since, though I still combat stray obsessions and incongruous whims almost daily. Given a choice between writing and ridiculous, sweltering futility, it’s almost always a close call.
* * *
You’re at a pawnshop in Brooklyn, selling the diamond earrings you got as a graduation present from your parents. The lining of your stomach is raw from a diet of bar fruit and olives. You go to twelve-step meetings for the free coffee and cookies. Feeling bad about the earrings, you remind yourself that things are worthless. You’re “enlightened,” which is starting to sound like a fancy word for homeless.
When you have no place to go you walk the length of Manhattan, across the BK Bridge, through Williamsburg and pray the cute bartender at the Tainted Lady’s working. He shares too much with you—vegan snacks, shots of Jack and tales of his abusive girlfriend.
Today isn’t about the bartender or the drinks. You need to sell these earrings and buy food, that won’t sour in you backpack, for the next couple of days.
“These babies are worth at least $100!” you say to no one and chew on your bottom lip.
You stare at the hairy man sitting behind bulletproof glass like an overweight patron saint of the bereft. Heart balled up into a baby’s fist under your New York Dolls t-shirt, anticipating his response. He pushes a button with his sausage-thick finger and leans into the glass.
“I give you, eh, twenty five dollar, for dis.”
Crestfallen, you picture your step mom carefully selecting the studs, holding them away from her face because she forgot her glasses, hoping this gesture will make you love her more.
Blinking away tears, you make up an address and sign.
On the train, you bob up and down, thinking this feels less like running away and more like standing still. A guy in a pink track suit jumps through the semi-closed doors. He looks around as if expecting a high five from each passenger and cranks up his old school boom box. The song reverberates in your chest, reminding you of the fully stocked fridge and safety of your parent’s twenty-eighth floor apartment.
For a moment, you lose yourself and sing along just as the train pulls into your stop.
You squeeze your eyes shut, throw your hands above your head and shout along with the music as you shimmy out onto the platform. It feels good to know that you can still sing and at least tonight, you get to eat.
* * *
We’re on the beach. I didn’t ask to come here, but you wanted it. You said we would catch crabs on strings.
It’s not a beach like I’ve seen. More sharp gray boulders, less sand. Less clear sky, less people, less peace, less sunlight. More moss.
You’re at the top of a tall rock, the tooth of a mountainous shark, and you’re balancing on its sharpness with waves exploding behind you. I motion for you to come down, out of their desperate reach, but you are smiling. I wonder if you knew there wouldn’t be anything out here but this.
I’m walking to where you are, but I’ve stopped because the waves are suddenly mute. A horizon-sized shadow is creeping across the rocks and onto my feet and up my legs and over my head. A tidal wall is towering over everything, pulling in all it can, cresting now that there’s nothing left, falling slow toward the shore.
I should run away from you and this beach, but I stay still in the closing dark and make a list: I’ll never go back to school, I’ll never make another friend, I’ll never kayak in Montana with a dog, I’ll never have a vegetable garden or grow my hair long or go to my mom’s funeral or have a gold tooth. I’ll never catch a crab on a string.
I have the urge to pray even though I promised myself in so many identical nightmares that I wouldn’t. I tell the big wave out loud that I won’t do it. But I do. I am praying. And it disappoints me more than anything else.
* * *
The window of time was slim. I took precaution, setting the CD to repeat the Ramones’ “I Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” off the Acid Eaters album. My mother would be on the phone with my grandmother for at least an hour, as she was every Friday evening. With the music, she’d never even notice I was down the stairs, in a cab, and stroking the shaved head of a boy named after his father in a very large house only eleven miles, but several tax brackets, north of us. In the winter it would be dark during their calls. But in July, shadows were just beginning to lay heavy in the alleyways as streetlights yawned to life and their tin cans stretched from New Port Richey to Yonkers. I dressed to not appear I was going out, tucked a handful of pilfered singles into my underwear elastic, and walked past her like I was going to the bathroom. I slipped out the front door next to it instead, shielded by hallway walls, flipping the lock open for my return. Carrying keys would be a giveaway. Cigarette smoke filled the hallway. My sister sat in the dark stairwell beside our glossy, maroon-painted door, sucking in deeply, eyes narrowed. She wouldn’t rat me out. We were confidantes that summer. But she might follow me and make a scene if I told my plan. I kept walking. Halfway to the lobby, I imagined the chutes-and-ladders series of highway ramps, the driveway with lions where he played bass guitar all night, whether I came or not. At the front door I watched two kids with bomb pops wave arms at each other. They had something like 200 pastel-colored clips in their braids between them. The pops melted patriotic pain all down their sticky limbs. Their voices were dull behind the glass. I retreated. He didn’t want to see me anyway, I suspected, but rarely admitted. Sister was still there. I took her cigarette. It went from her thin smile to mine. She watched. I filled my mouth, but not my lungs. I looked up. The landing above us had one door, deadbolted, leading to the roof. We lay there as children tanning on Tar Beach. That’s what our mother, whose mother still lived in Florida, where beaches were made of salt and sand, old people and older dreams, had always called it.
* * *
My old neighborhood was a community of runaways. We ran from Iowa, from North Carolina, from Montana, from the Inland Empire and the Central Valley, from high schools where band shirts and dyed hair branded us freaks, from towns where watching films with subtitles made you a snob, from megachurches with homophobic puns on their signs, from alcoholic families who we dreaded visiting over the holidays but gritted our teeth and did it anyway, from the people we had been in our prom pictures, from the cops, from those weird nightmares about things we couldn’t remember. We ran, drove, hitchhiked, flew, and rolled until we ran out of land.
We settled in a neighborhood of decaying Victorian houses sliced up into apartments with strange dead spots in the floor plans and mold shadowing half the windows. Our community was more like a collection of autonomous studios squashed close enough for our lives to bleed into each other. Neighbors you had to wave to in the hallways. The sounds of hushed and bitter arguments floating through the walls in the middle of the night. In the fall, the hot season, it was worse: We all had to keep our windows propped open, and the sparse ocean breezes would blow in along with the sounds of other people’s saxophone practice and TiVo reruns and uninhibited sex.
Somewhere in the back courtyard lived a neighbor who had those door-banging headboard-ramming screaming epic fucks, always in the middle of the day, always with running commentary that made everyone else update their Facebook and Twitter status updates with key quotes, or tap annoyed descriptions over instant messenger to friends in Minnesota or Belgium or Gainesville, Florida. She’d kick over stacks of books, break dishes, or fall to the floor and keep going, always squealing “Harder!” or “Fuck that slut pussy!” or “I love your cock!”
One day someone yelled back, “We love his cock too!”
The whole neighborhood got into it. People banged on their windowsills and hooted, or chimed in with impressions of her cries. Soon half the block was contributing pornographic chants, and finally the chided couple slammed their window shut to widespread applause.
That’s how we solve problems around here. Distance.
–Katherine Scott Nelson
* * *
The music is so loud that I’m thinking some kind of nuclear fission is happening inside my ears. I’m jammed in the backseat with these guys who picked me up at the 7-11, and the whole car smells like Polo cologne and pot. They’re leaning into me, and one of them has his hand on my knee. Their teeth flash under the streetlights. They’re shouting along with the Stray Cats in heavy Iranian accents and smiling expectantly—“She’s sexy and seventeen!” The truth is I’m fourteen, but no guy wants to hear that—they just want to think it, keep it hidden like a present. So I give them that.
I don’t know where we’re going. For the moment, I’m glad to be heading somewhere. I’m hoping maybe I’ll get lucky and they’ll give me something to eat. Pizza, if I’m really lucky. I stare past the guy on my right to see the moon gleaming like a seashell on a night table, under a lamp. It disappears when the driver takes a turn onto the highway.
The guy to my left has run his hand up my leg, where it’s resting on my inner thigh. The wind is pouring into the car like a fit of wings, sweeping my hair around. I keep wiping it from my eyes because I want to see. I want to see everything I can outside these windows—the passing cars swishing by, the spark and tail of every light, the trees standing like shadows in their quiet height, the bright green highway signs—
Sometimes I think I can see the whole of my life stretched out on the highway like clothes on a clothesline. It’s as if every trip, every song, every permutation of sky is with me, wavering in the light. The road is my favorite place because when you’re driving, the destination is always ahead, and there’s a kind of hope in that. Plus, it’s the only time you get to be somewhere and nowhere at once. It’s a magical time, driving, because it is liminal, because you can be perfectly still and moving at the same time, because sometimes the trees want to reach in and touch you as you pass. And in the summer, when it’s damp out and the cool dark is still a shock to the air, you can smell them, as I can now.
–Rita Zoey Chin
* * *
When I am twenty-three I train for a marathon. I train for a marathon because a self-help book said that instead of drinking whiskey alone or going on a lettuce diet, perhaps I should try yoga or meditate or run. And because I can’t fathom trading my vices for anything easy, I train for a marathon.
I run mostly uphill, through the town I spent my life in. I run past the homes of my old neighbors, past the ghost of my small self kicking a rubber ball and writing dirty words in pink sidewalk chalk. I run past the seedy dive bar parking lot where my high school boyfriend punched me in the face. I run past the headstone of my dead friend.
I run to clear my head like the book swears this will, trying to find solace in the rhythmic fwapfwap of Nike meeting asphalt. There is burning pain in my feet, gut, heart. I struggle to make myself like to run. It’s not working.
So I circle back to where I started, back to home. I stare in the mirror, search for improvement. It’s still me.
I plop down in front of a computer screen. By now I have memorized his agonizingly kind narration explaining how he inadvertently met “someone”. Nevertheless, I read it again. An age where your lover can sucker-punch you over a machine is also the age of virtual customer service and plastic money, so with one click I’m flying to Amsterdam on Tuesday. I am never so impulsive.
I toss essentials into a duffel and board my first flight in years. I picture myself walking for miles in solitude, weeping on a mountaintop with a blank journal and some outpouring of self-discovery. But instead I arrive and I have suddenly morphed into this human being I don’t recognize: one who drinks till dawn and flirts with strangers, who wears dangerously low-cut tops and black eyeliner, who kisses men with cute accents without ever catching their names.
It is under this brand-new persona that I return two months later, convinced I am cured and forever transformed. Broken heart and life-long self destruction successfully conquered by over-priced self-improvement manuals, beer and hash in Europe, and fucking a Spaniard.
Then I step back into invisibility like I was never away. I am different, but they are not. Same headstone, same hills, same mirror. Welcome home.
* * *
You never considered yourself claustrophobic. At least not in any clinical sense. You could ride an elevator in comfort and close the door behind you when looking for something in the closet. You even rode in that tourist submarine thing in Florida last spring.
But now, in the trunk of your car, you start to feel a light panic. Tell yourself to breathe and hold still. Pause to think about what exactly is making you feel this way.
“He was never excited about anything,” you say aloud.
Even though the car was old, the trunk still smelled new. Unpleasantly so, even. With your face inches away from the wiry chemicalled lining, you wrinkle your nose against the creeping stink. Turn your head upwards. Lie on your back. Keep breathing.
“Never. Not about a single goddamn thing.”
You can hear the two men in the car talking, but their voices are muffled by layers of metal and foam and upholstery. One voice is low. The other is very low. Feel the car starting and the nervous rush flooding your stomach. It was just like in the movies. Everything was just like in the movies.
The tape on your hands covered your watch, so you had no idea how long how drove for. You feel the car drive over smooth asphalt, metal bridges and eventually gravel. The breaks squeak and you lurch forward, knocking your head into the spare tire.
“Sorry!” one of the men yells.
The doors open. Feel scared. The trunk opens and the low low voice shines a flashlight on you.
“Sorry about that. We ran out of road. Are you okay?”
Feel fine. You’re fine. “I’m fine,” you say.
“The border is somewhere around here. Or maybe a little north. Either way, you can walk from here,” Low Low says.
Ask them if they found the money in the locker. Ask them if they left the note you wrote for them.
“Yup. All there,” Low says. “If it’s okay with you, some people had to have seen us nab you, so we gotta ditch your car in a lake somewhere. Just like in the movies.”
But that’s the way you wanted it.
Claustrophobia is the fear of small spaces, but also the fear of having no escape. And when you have that fear, the greatest relief is getting out.
* * *
The train lurched forward and suddenly she was in motion, her body still in the seat but undeniably hurtling through space, fence posts and telephone poles flying past the window in a ceaseless flicker. Her mind flew too and she couldn’t slow it; she could no more catch a single thought and slow it down than she could reach out and grab a branch from a passing tree. For now, this was okay; she was safe here, alone. She slid back in the vinyl seat and let the racing thoughts and rushing sights pummel through her. Later though, when the train finally stopped and deposited her at her destination, she would need to be still, need all of her faculties to soak up every detail of their precious time together and sock it away so she could dredge it all up later, again and again, to get through those terrible days ahead. How did it come to this? What had started as an escape had slowly expanded, blotting out reality, until she no longer remembered what it was like to be present in her everyday life. A part of her was always detached, separate, with him, quivering in an alternate universe like a subatomic particle with only a theoretical probability of being in any one place at a given time. Often this division felt so awful that she thought about ending it entirely, settling back into the banality of life as she had chosen it, predictable, but at least calm. Yet this was far worse, the prospect of waking up each day and not being able to count the time until she could see him again in weeks, or even months. She sometimes measured the time in the mundane actions she had to carry out, how many times she would hand cash to the toll booth collector, or ask the man behind the deli counter to slice a pound of turkey. When she thought about never seeing him again she hated these people, and the equivalent people in his life for accepting his pleasantries, feeling the brush of his hand, and not even knowing how lucky they were. How far she would travel, how much she would risk for those words! That casual touch! The whistle blew, finally, and the train slowed. She unclenched her fists, slid the ring off her finger and rose to leave. The wait was over.
* * *
I was determined to stay right up until the moment I decided to run.
Nagin was on the radio calling it “the mother of all storms,” and the hurricane trackers had us dead center in the three-day cone of despair. The situation had shifted, what was paranoia had became common sense, and so the bunker had to be taken apart and packed into the trunk of the car. I gave away my survival supplies: charcoal, steaks, ice, gas. I packed cans of Starbucks and fruit, peanut butter crackers, what few pictures I owned, and my autographed copy of Rocket to Russia.
My ex was taking my kids and running west. I thought that was a stupid idea, and I told her so. We yelled at each other in the street, in front of the house where she lived that was still half mine. I’d only left her eight weeks ago and I didn’t know that I didn’t have to stay and argue. I think the kids heard us yelling. I felt bad for them. She wouldn’t let me say goodbye.
The only way I could run was east. The opposite direction. I pictured my kids receding in my rearview at twice the speed limit, but you never get to go the speed limit when you’re running from a hurricane. It seemed like everybody had decided to head east at the same time and there aren’t but two bridges going that way. It was stop and go, mostly stop, in the brutal August sun.
At midnight, the Gulfport truck stop was like the Do Lung Bridge in Apocalypse Now. It’d taken seven hours to go seventy miles. I was trying to make it to Pensacola, which everybody says is Spanish for “hurricane magnet.” Only an idiot would go to Pensacola for a hurricane. But I had a place to stay there, and it was above sea level, and if the worst happened I wouldn’t have to defend myself against the looters. Or the police.
Pensacola Beach shimmered with red flags the next morning. Gawkers and lifeguards roamed the shore, and a lone asshole surfed next to the pier. I zipped up my sweatshirt against the wind and squatted down in the sand, and I tried to stare down The Beast. The sky was fish-belly gray above, stretching south to steel, to navy, to black. It was out there, just over the horizon. I dug my bare toes into the sand, and I hunkered down. I was done with running.
Rumpus original art by this guy.