I’m going to tell you the real true story of when I was sixteen and ran away from home with my boyfriend Shadow and hitchhiked through eight states and ended up — well, I always say ended up in jail in Arkansas after being in a car chase with the cops because the truck I was in was being driven by an escaped convict. But while that’s entirely true, it’s not the entire truth.
It’s a good story, one I’ve tried to tell a bunch of times, but never quite as honestly as I’m going to try to tell it now.
A word to any of my parents, aunts, people who knew me when they were adults and I was 16 — you can read it if you want, but there’s going to be stuff in here you’d probably rather not know.
Chapter One: Me and My Shadows
So this was November 1987; l’d been sixteen for a couple of months, and I was living in Washington, D.C., and going to a weird “alternative” high school (the sort that allowed smoking and didn’t mind too much if you skipped class).
Here’s what I looked like:(I didn’t usually do my eyes like that. I’m being silly and pose-y in this picture, but it’s the only one I’ve got).
I was into punk rock and The Rocky Horror Picture Show and wanted to dye my hair purple but didn’t quite have the nerve. I devoured fantasy novels, I wrote dreadful poetry, I read tarot cards, I wished I was better at applying eyeliner, and I would sometimes sit in my room and toast marshmallows over a candle. I spent a lot of time worrying about whether it was okay to call myself punk — maybe I wasn’t quite cool enough? — and always had some guy I was mooning over, and smoked cigarettes even though I was terrified of what would happen if my folks ever found out. I was a nice person.
I usually begin this story with the moment when we walked down to the highway, but in order to make you really understand what happened, I’ll have to give you some background. I’ll start with Shadow.
Shadow was a very cute homeless punk rocker in his late teens (or maybe early 20s? Unclear. Early college age if he’d done college) with a black mohawk and freckles, and I was gone on him pretty much immediately. Shadow also had more red flags than probably anyone I’ve ever dated. (Fun game idea! Why not try to count them as we go along, and comment with how many you found?)
I would have met Shadow at some point anyway, but I met him when I did because a friend gave him my number and said it was really important that he call me. That’s because the friend saw his mohawk and heard his name and assumed he was Shadow Cat.
Ok wait, first I have to tell you about Shadow Cat. Nine months earlier, in February 1987, I was a sad wanna-be punk girl living in the suburbs and spending a depressing amount of time trying to hang out with the cool kids at school.
Shadow Cat, a 19-year-old punk guy with a black mohawk, came by the “tunnel” where a lot of the “alternative” kids (punks, hippies, metal heads, drama club, etc) hung out. Looking back I think he was maybe there to deal drugs? But not, like, hard drugs. Or maybe he wasn’t. At the time, I just thought he was there to hang out. What mattered was that he was there. It was the fastest I ever got a crush on anyone. The very moment I set eyes on him I was certain he was the only boy for me. And — I’m not sure I’ve gotten over the shock even though it’s been more than 30 years — he liked me too. He walked me home, and while I somehow did not lose my virginity to him that day, I did pretty soon after.
I know a lot of people are sadly shaking their heads at that and I know I should be too, but I don’t care. He was gorgeous and cool and it was awesome. And we were smart and safe and no, I don’t think most teenagers should behave this way because I don’t think many teenagers would be as unbelievably lucky as I was. I’m glad that the first time I had sex it was with someone exciting and amazing who made me feel amazing.
Shadow Cat and I were not some great love story. I got all sorts of obsessed with him, but it was very one-sided. He dated lots of girls, some of whom he liked better than me. Sometimes he was heartless and mean. But a lot of the time he was a pretty good friend, and he was romantic and great when his attention was actually focused on me. He was the first person, probably, to make me think I might actually be cool. He taught me how to do my makeup, too, and went through my wardrobe with me and helped me dress better.
The real way Shadow Cat changed my life — which he definitely did, permanently and for the so much better — was he led me to the people who lived in and hung out at the house where he was crashing. I went there the day after he walked me home (I don’t remember who told me where he lived; I could be quite the detective when it mattered) and he was out somewhere, but they invited me to come on in anyway. I spent the afternoon hanging out at their place. I still think of that day as a sort of second birthday, which I know sounds melodramatic and super goofy. But, even now, more than thirty years later, I remember it as turning a corner.
They were punks in their late teens and early twenties and they were incredibly cool and they liked science fiction and fantasy books like I did and most importantly: They liked me.
Hanging out at their house after school was the first time I’d felt really, honestly happy in almost two years. The first time these punks — who all the sorta-punks at school wanted to grow up and be — picked me up at the “Tunnel” remains one of the happiest memories of my life. So many kids who disliked me, trying to show off for the real live punks who were there for some reason. I saw a couple of my classmates groan when I approached, thinking I’d be weird and embarrass them. Heard one of them saying the stupid, mean nickname they’d given me.
And then these larger-than-life punks saw me, and smiled, and Eddie said, “hey kid, we’re going to Dave’s so we thought we’d stop and pick you up on the way.”
At 49, I feel I’m old enough to categorize some moments as the best of my life, and that was one of them. Of course it wasn’t a coincidence that I had this perfect movie-like moment; they knew these kids were mean to me, and came by specifically so I could have that pure joy. Good lord I loved them.
Some of you are probably wondering why these sort-of-adults wanted to hang out with a 15-year-old. My parents certainly wondered. But it was fine. They didn’t give me drugs and they didn’t sex traffic me or anything else horrible. I was a sweet, sad kid who needed them, and I was reasonably smart and funny, and I liked the same books and music they did. And a fair number of them had been just like me at fifteen. They just… liked me. There was nothing nefarious about it. They introduced me to Rocky Horror, where I made lots of good friends (some of them my actual age) and a little later to sci-fi/fantasy conventions, which were the best thing in my life well into adulthood.
Anyway, so Shadow Cat was great but also sort of a jerk, and he was incredibly flaky and I was way too into him. He eventually left that house and the suburbs and moved to an apartment above a club in D.C., and then he just… disappeared. I found out a long time later that he’d moved back to San Diego, but in November of 1987, when this story begins, anyone who knew me knew that I desperately wanted to find him and know that he was ok. (I had a tendency to sometimes get a little bit obsessed with a guy and talk about him a lot. This is something it took me a disturbingly long time to outgrow.) So when a friend of mine (I can almost remember who, but not quite) met Shadow, she gave him my number and told him to call me right away. Which he did, even though he didn’t know who the hell I was. I suspect my friend described me to him. See above picture. (Yeah, yeah, horribly conceited. Whatever. I was cute.)
When I got home, my Dad — nervously — informed me that Shadow (Cat, we both assumed) had called, and gave me the number he’d left. (I can’t remember how it happened that he called the regular house phone — I had my own phone line. That was a thing teenagers sometimes had, before cell phones.) So I called the number and was immediately disappointed.
But, I mean, we were teenage punk rockers and it was my understanding that he had a mohawk, which was pretty much all I needed in a guy. We talked for a while, and he said he knew Shadow Cat and knew where he might be (not, as it happened, a lie), and we agreed to meet the next day in Georgetown. I was almost as excited as I would have been if he’d been the original (and, as it turned out, superior) Shadow.
Okay, going to stop here. I’ll post more next week. And I’ll get to the incredibly exciting hitchhiking part eventually, I swear. This is just super-necessary back story.
I leave you with a page from my diary, written a few months before all this happened. Since my handwriting was (and is!) abysmal, I will transcribe:
The pros and cons of getting a mohawk
- Shadow would like it [Shadow Cat, not Shadow, though he would have too]
- everyone would freak [they would have, and it would have been such fun]
- It would be a new experience [I think in my mind, this was a very mature way of looking at it?]
- I would be able to meet people in D.C. easier [by “people” I of course meant other punks]
- My mom would have a fit [Honestly surprised this was not in the pros]
- People would think I was trying to be punk [as noted earlier, I was worried I wasn’t cool enough to call myself punk]
- I might look goofy [a genuine possibility everyone thinking about a mohawk should consider]
- I couldn’t run my hand through my hair when I was confused [something I guess I did back then? I’m pretty sure I was trying to talk myself out of it at this point]
- People would automatically stereotype me [well, I mean, yeah. Stereotype me as super cool]
- It’s a trendy thing to do [Was it? I guess so?]
The cons won; I did not get a mohawk. I wish I had. I would have felt like a superstar and the confidence boost would have been amazing. Also it turned out, when I finally got one a few years later, to not look goofy at all.
Next time: I meet Shadow. We can count the red flags together!