Here’s the end of the true story of when I was sixteen and ran away from home and hitchhiked over a thousand miles and all sorts of things happened.
Chapter 14: Love Will Keep Us Together, but, also, Love Will Tear Us Apart
(The Last Chapter)
It’s hard to describe what it was like when we got back. It’s going to be hard to tell it in a linear sort of way, because the memories are muddled and mixed together.
My mom, dad, and stepmom were all very upset with me, of course, but I never really got punished. Because what’s a big enough punishment for what I did? And I wasn’t scared of them the way I had been, so that changed our relationship too. And — they might argue with this — I think in some ways they believed more in my ability to take care of myself, and no longer treated me like an idiot child who would die if I walked to the store without telling them first. (Months later, I actually overheard my mom say this. She was planning on going away overnight and leaving me home, alone. I heard her say on the phone to my sister, “She hitchhiked halfway across the country. I think she can handle one night in a house by herself!”) I’m sure they were worried I might leave again, and for a little while they were a bit nicer to me.
Of course I still had to wait until I was around 30 for them to become really good parents. (I’m remembering things they did later and getting mad again.) They still basically sucked. And things got back to normal pretty fast. I was different, though, and that helped some.
I talked on the phone a lot, with all the friends my parents had called and called, trying to find me. I learned that my Dad had found an old address book from when I was in eighth grade, and called a bunch of kids who’d gone off to other schools and hadn’t seen me in years and didn’t remember who the hell I was — any more than I remembered them; I didn’t recognize most of the names in the book. I decided not to call those people and explain.
I went back to school the next Monday. I was dreading it but also looking forward to telling my everyone about everything I’d done. As I got off the bus across from the school, a group of my classmates on the porch (weird alternative school, remember? It was in a house with a huge front porch) yelled “Welcome back, Sarah,” in unison. It was partly sweet but also partly making fun of me. I smiled and was mad at myself for smiling.
Once I was on the porch there was sort of a crowd, but after a moment I was face-to-face with Molly, my closest friend at the school and the girl who’d told the student advisor I was planning to run away. I realize now that that was the right thing to do, but I was pretty mad at the time. But seeing her, I realized that 1, she thought she was doing what was best for me even if I disagreed, and 2, if I acted angry it would become a huge thing with students and teachers all trying to intervene and we’d have to have special meetings and all sorts of stuff and it would be exhausting and it just wasn’t worth it. So I smiled and said, “Are you going to hug me or are you going to snub me?” and we hugged and all was well. Most mature I’ve ever been, before or since.
I immediately started telling my story as a great adventure. All the bad parts faded away, and even things like standing in the snow for six hours on a mountain was reframed as horrible but somehow also super cool because look how tough I am. I said “Hitchhiking is the only way to travel!” a lot.
It was weird, though. I hadn’t been gone all that long, really. To me it had felt like months (and I always remembered it as being much, much longer than it was), but to them it had been a blip, and not nothing had changed with them at all.
It was hard to get back into things. I was sort of numb, what with missing Shadow and worried he wasn’t coming back (even though I also absolutely considered us engaged to be married and talked about it all the time) and I wished I was still hitchhiking, and would go to sleep imagining I was safe and warm in the sleeping compartment of an eighteen-wheeler.
Here is the last entry in the diary, I guess a week or two after I got home:
It is a few weeks after my last entry. I’m not sure I’m ready to write this but I want to.
I am home in bed, in Wash., D.C.
The cops knew it was a fake I.D.
Captain Watson was wonderful. Shadow is in Wash. State visiting his family. My dad flew down and got us, but Shadow really wanted to see his family so my dad paid for his bus ticket up there. I miss him so much!
We’re hoping he can get back her by Christmas. I keep hoping this is just a dream and I’ll wake up back on the road. I don’t know. I’m sorry for all the worrys I caused everyone, but I’m not sorry I did it. It was wonderful. It was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. I feel like a caged bird who was set free and then caught again.
And here, also from the diary, is my first attempt at writing up the story. I barely got to the part where we decided to go. I think my writing style comes close to showing you how over-the-top melodramatic I was, though it doesn’t really reach the true heights. I can not believe I am showing you this.
I hunch up in the backseat and stare at my book, but I can not read. My mother and sister chat about somthing or other in the front and the hatred I feel for them wells up inside of me. How can everything be the same as before? Then we drive past the little diner, over the bridge and along the road going out of Front Royal, Va. and this time It’s tears that well up inside me. I blink them away but I cant blink away the memories that come rushing into my head. I remember. I remember. I remember…
Shadow and i sit in the McDonalds near my house in D.C. I was fuming, ‘cause my stepbitch forbid me to go out that night after I lied to her about something that was none of her business. I had gone out anyway. I knew that I was going catch shit for it when I got home, but I was sick of it and sick of them, sick of people who had control over me because I’d only lived sixteen years. I was sick of the whole goddamn system. I looked across the table at Shadow. An Idea was forming in my mind. “Honey,” I said quietly. “Do you want to go to Washington State to visit your family?” He looked at me, staring into my eyes to see if I meant it. Then he nodded slowly and said “yes” very solemnly.
Transcribing that made me I cringe so hard my face hurts, and at the same time I just kind of love her. Me, I mean. You know what I mean. She was so sincere and passionate! Good lord though. Let’s move on.
Shadow did come back. We were only apart for a few weeks. I met him at the bus station and it was wonderful to be back with him. He came back to my house but didn’t stay. I don’t remember why not — I remember we really wanted to have sex but for some reason couldn’t. Maybe I knew my folks were planning on coming downstairs to check he was gone? That’s probably it. I didn’t have a lock on my door, and would have been horrified at the thought of being walked in on.
So he left for the squat he’d been living in before, and I got up early the next morning to go see him. But when I got to Georgetown and turned onto the street where the squat had been, I saw a big yellow bulldozer right in the middle of the building. There had always been rumors that it was eventually going to get torn down, and it finally had.
Shadow and I found each other, eventually — I don’t remember how, but I assume I just walked up and down the main streets of Georgetown, counting on him to do the same.
This was a few days before Christmas. I was going to my mom’s. Shadow was with us when she came to pick up me and my sister on Christmas Eve. We said goodbye and I got in the car, and watched him walk away, with no place to go for Christmas. My mom was watching him too. She sighed and told me to go get him and invite him to her house.
I think she did this partly because she was scared I might run away again, and partly because it was Christmas and she’s a nice person.
And, as I’ve said before, Shadow must have been a seriously charming guy. I don’t remember him that way — I found him cool and awesome but not in a way I would expect adults to be impressed by. But when I think of all the people who went out of their way for him it’s really just amazing. Or maybe he just came off as super pathetic. I don’t know.
So Christmas was weird.
My Grandmom Ginna came for dinner, and didn’t know that I’d run away. So we couldn’t mention it, and that made for some awkward silences and funny looks. She liked Shadow, though. My Grandmom Ginna, who I loved and who I miss, was one of the meanest people I’ve ever known. Smart, and funny, but mean as spit. So it’s pretty surprising that she liked him. You just never knew with her. My other memory of her that night is her berating me at the dinner table for the ugly sweater I was wearing. It was a sweater I’d worn specially because she’d given it to me. She told me a number of times over the years that she’d liked Shadow, even though he had a mohawk.
A few days after Christmas was Evecon.
I’m not sure I’ve talked about science fiction/fantasy conventions here? That Evecon, Evecon 5, was my first, but I’d been hearing about them for the past year and desperately wanted to go to one. All my older punk friends went and it sounded like the most fun thing imaginable. (For whatever reason, all the punk rockers I knew back then were big readers, mostly of science fiction and fantasy. That wasn’t the case with punk rockers everywhere, I learned later.)
Tons of people would stay in a hotel for a weekend and there were lots of panels and discussions about books and famous authors would come, and, more importantly, there were tons and tons of parties. It would be a building full of people who liked the same books as me, including most of the people I liked best in the world.
I’d been begging and begging to go to cons (as we called them) since the February before — there was one every couple months or so — but my parents sneered at the very idea of me spending a weekend in a hotel without them. But they’d finally come around. Our family therapist encouraged it (I haven’t really talked about her; she was a nightmare and I’m pretty sure this was the only good thing she did for me) and they couldn’t really claim it was too dangerous, after everything that I’d done. I wasn’t even going to be leaving the hotel, after all. So I got permission. My friend Windy and I were sharing a room; the money for the admission and the room were the only things I’d asked for for Christmas. And of course Shadow was coming with me.
I still remember, vividly, the moment I got out of my mom’s car in front of the hotel and saw someone walk by in a wizard’s cloak. It’s hard to describe how thrilling this was for me. I loved fantasy books as much as I loved anything in the world. Also science fiction, but fantasy more. I’m trying to think about how to talk about going to that first convention without using cheesy cliches like “it was like coming home.” I’m not sure I can. My feelings about it are so genuinely cheesy and cliched. Let’s just say it was wonderful.
I already knew a fair number of people there, and being friends with Eddie and and the other punks I’d met through Shadow Cat meant I had a sort of introduction with the people I didn’t know. I was not shy. I was not awkward. I was not nervous about people liking me. I was happy and I was, finally, in my element.
And Shadow… Shadow didn’t fit.
I don’t remember what happened the first evening; I remember he got mad at me and that I didn’t see him too much for the weekend. And I remember not particularly noticing. I mean, I was still in love with him and engaged to him and all, but I was also very busy meeting lots of people and having just the most amazing time.
It wasn’t a gigantic con like they all seem to be nowadays. (Actually, it just occurred to me that that might be totally incorrect; there might still be tons of those tiny cons, and I only hear about the big ones like Comicon because those are the ones that get press. No idea.) It was only about a thousand people, and all in the one hotel. It was exactly right for me. I met people that weekend who are still some of the most important people in my life. It was a good weekend.
Anyway, Evecon ended and Shadow and I were still together, but it wasn’t the same. He was mad at me for being so well-liked, I think. He wanted me to need him, and I most definitely didn’t need him there. And I knew that too. It changed the dynamic between us in a really fundamental way. He had this habit of constantly putting me down, in a joking-but-not-joking way, and now I was suddenly aware that he was wrong. I was pretty and smart and likable; all those people had said so. (Okay, maybe not in so many words. But you know what I mean.) And his controlling, physically rough behavior wasn’t nearly as forgivable when I wasn’t terrified of what would happen if he left me.
I don’t know how long we dragged it out. He was couch surfing in the suburbs because the squat was gone, so it was harder to see him. We kind of took a break for a while; I don’t remember the circumstances but know we did because I remember going on some dates with other guys, guys who were a lot nicer to me than he’d been. It turned out he hadn’t meant for it to be a break where we actually saw other people, and was furious at me. (I realize now that obviously he’d meant for me to sit at home crying and waiting for forgiveness. Ha ha.)
Then he and some friends started sneaking into empty apartments to sleep, and it wasn’t long before he got caught and arrested. So he was in jail for a month, and I was a dutiful loving girlfriend again; very into the idea of being strong for my man or something. We’d talk on the phone every night, and he’d put friends on the phone, guys who were sad and didn’t have a girlfriend to call, and I’d talk to them and try to cheer them up.
When his court date came, Windy and I went to show support. No one expected him to be let go; he’d been ready to plead guilty when the judge said it was dismissed on some sort of technicality. I don’t think I understood why then; I definitely don’t remember now.
He stayed at Windy’s after that, and with other friends. We were not getting along at all. And finally one day I was crying and said to him, “Are you doing that thing where you’re being mean to me so I’ll break up with you, because you don’t want to be the one to do it?” and I guess maybe he wasn’t because boy did he get mad.
I feel I should remember more about the actual end. But we just sort of petered off. I had so many cute guys who liked me, now; I can’t imagine I cared much. It was a really happy point in my life, in spite of my still-awful parents, and as I said, he just didn’t fit in it.
And then he joined the army, and I didn’t see him again. He wrote me a couple times, I think because he just wanted someone to write to, and I wrote him back, and then that stopped too.
I hope he’s happy now, but I don’t feel any real need to know the details.
I still hitchhiked sometimes, but not on highways, just around the suburbs to see friends or whatever. Remained the luckiest person on earth and never once got picked up by anyone who wanted to hurt me — mostly just people who wanted to lecture me about how dangerous hitchhiking was.
I never ran away again. Three days after I turned 18 I moved to San Diego with my new — and unfortunately also dreadful — boyfriend. We were only there for about three months (but Shadow Cat — remember Shadow Cat? — was our housemate!) and then I moved back to DC. Not to live with my folks though; I spent the next couple years living in a house in the suburbs with thirteen other punks, where I ate ramen every day and hardly ever slept.
And when I was 23 and freshly single, I moved to Los Angeles, and have lived here ever since.
I never got arrested again, either.
After a lot of years, a lot of distance, and a lot of difficult conversations, I became very close with my parents. They’re great now. I wish I could have had the people they are now as parents when I was a teen.
My family doesn’t talk much about when I ran away, but when they do it’s always about the time I “ran away to Arkansas,” which is kind of annoying but also hilarious, to imagine me grabbing my backpack and saying, “That’s it! I’m going to Arkansas!”
I’ve loved telling this story and I don’t really want it to be over. I might tell some of my other stories. But none of them have car chases.
I leave you with a picture of me at another con, Castlecon, taken about six months after I got home from hitchhiking.
I was incredibly happy when this picture was taken. And truly thankful that my big plan to hitchhike to Seattle had failed.