(Over the past year, I’ve participated in a few The Moth Story Slams in Asheville. This tale I told back in June of 2016 –the subject of the night was Fathers. The text version (more or less) is below. I won that night)
Please note: there is cursing
My parents divorced when I was thirteen years old. I’d seen it coming for a while. There was tension. There were arguments. There were spectacular displays of passive aggression. There were of self-help books and Outward Bound and repeat plays of Steve Winwood and Paul Simon’s Graceland, which suggested that someone was having a midlife crisis. In the late 80s, parents splitting up felt like a rite of passage, falling somewhere between Growing Out Your Spiral Perm and Discovering The Cure on the road through puberty. They worked out a custody plan, Dad moved into an apartment in the same zipcode and I spent a lot of weekends there failing to communicate with my father. We argued a lot. We had a lot in common, which we mutually seemed to ignore. He didn’t seem to realize how unhappy I was or that my version of unhappy went deeper than “sucks to be thirteen.”
My father could be oblivious. I knew that. Sometimes it takes something big for him to notice, said my mother. Sometimes it takes a grand gesture.
It was Dad’s idea that I go to boarding school. He’d been to a place in Virginia for a when he was a kid and he sent me out to tour the school in October of my freshman year. It was beautiful. Students made eye contact, some even talked to me without making sure no one else had seen them talking to me. They recited Shakespeare and used British names for things. I had been so lonely and so miserable for so long. It seemed like heaven. I told Dad I was in.
Once I got accepted, I felt liberated. I could walk through the crowds of assholes unfazed because I would never have to see any of them again. I mouthed off. I cut class. I crashed a party at the most popular kid in my class’s house on the last day of school and didn’t even care that I got called out. I burned bridges. I didn’t give a shit. It felt great.
So it came as some huge surprise to me when my father cavalierly announced in the car one night, about a month before my sophomore year started, that he’d changed his mind. He’d been thinking about it and thought it was an unnecessary expense and that I’d be returning to public high school in the fall. Dad was often wonderful, but was famously mercurial in those days. I was accustomed to spur of the minute changes and altered promises I’d known better.I sat stunned in the back seat and felt the seams of my new life sort of fall apart. I couldn’t go back. I couldn’t go back to being lonely and bored and miserable and friendless and directionless. I couldn’t go back to plugging my ears in a bathroom stall so I wouldn’t hear my ostensible friends talk shit about me during lunch. I could go back to wishing I were invisible.
I decided to run away. It was a stupid and desperate and counter-productive, but so is being fifteen. I coerced my father into taking me by my mother’s new house, where I rooted through drawers fetching mixtapes, band t-shirts, my cool new sneakers, the jar of cherry red hair dye I’d never been brave enough to try. I threw them all in my backpack and met my mother in the kitchen. I looked at her. I wanted to tell her what was happening, but I knew she couldn’t help. She couldn’t afford to pay tuition. She didn’t really approve of private school. She thought my misery was at least partially self created. And maybe she was right. I told her I loved her and gave her a hug that I hope would suffice if I never saw her again
At Dad’s house, we watched old episodes of “Saturday Night Live.” I was electric with anticipation, and I found it both galling and also vindicated that my father was so oblivious. As time passed, he and my sister drifted off to bed, leaving me plotting in the blue light of the television. It was maybe 10:30. I called the bus station. My plan was to go to San Francisco. I’d never been there. I know anyone there, but it seemed like an iconic place to run to. The lady at Greyhound said they had a bus leaving at midnight thirty for Atlanta. I could get to California from there. I was like, perfect timing.
I dyed my hair. It didn’t seem like enough. I poured myself a half teacup of scotch and cut it all off, which felt like both a handy disguise and a statement of purpose. New fucking life. I packed a backpack with two changes of clothes, four mixtapes, a Walkman, six novels, deodorant and a toothbrush. I took Dad’s credit cards, all of the cash out of his wallet and a half-empty pack of Winston Lights. He was in the process of trying to quit and I was technically a few months away from starting. But smoking seemed like the sort of thing a tough runaway with seriously punk rock hair would do. I took his keys, thinking I would drive his car to the bus station, but I’d only had a few lessons with the stick shift and, after several frustrating, panicked attempts, realized I couldn’t even get his car out of the lot. So I ran back of stairs, replaced the key and called a cab.
The driver was an old white man with a thick county accent with hair like late-period Elvis. He didn’t say much, as he drove me to the bus station, and I was glad for that. When we got there, I paid him and rushed in. There was only one person still there. She told me I’d missed the last bus by about ten minutes.
I don’t know how most people deal with anticlimax. As it turns out, I cry. A lot. I went into the bathroom, and upon seeing my cherry red, chewed up self in the ugly flurorescent light. I cried more. It took about ten minutes for me to sort myself out and buck up and face options ranging from mostly unpleasant to utterly humiliating.
To my surprise, the taxi drive was still sitting outside. He rolled down the window and said, “Darlin? You need me to take you back home?”
I nodded and started crying again and let him drive me back to my Dad’s house. HI tried to pay him but he wouldn’t let me. “I got a daughters,” he said. “I wouldn’t want them out this late either.” And then he said something about the Lord making things okay, but prayer never did me any favors, so I just hid out behind the stairs until he drove away.
I couldn’t bear to go upstairs. I couldn’t stand to see my father—I was still angry. I was still hurt—and so I set off during the wee hours, to walk to my mother’s house. It felt like a weird, brave nighttime odyssey through danger but in reality, it was about a mile and a half, through the mean streets of North Asheville.
My mom is a night owl. She was awake, reading a novel, when I shuffled up to the back door and tapped on the glass. She started and sat gobsmacked as I turned the knob.
After a short, frankly unhelpful conversation about what I did to my hair, she sent me off to bed and said we’d deal with it in the morning.
We called Dad the next morning around ten am, at which point neither he nor my sister had noticed I was gone and, in fact, responded with remarkable passivity. Was I still planning to come to my sister’s birthday picnic? Would I mind stopping at the store and picking up some groceries since he didn’t have a wallet?
A couple days later he agreed to send me to boarding school and I was relieved. I had a few more grand gestures I’d thought about in the meantime, but I thought if Dad and I were going to make it through high school, I should probably keep a few in my back pocket.
Tips, drinks, donations toward acquisition of Italian villa (you can totally come stay):
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