Here’s more 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 Two: Lovin’ you was easy ’cause you had a mohawk and I was a sucker for a mohawk
I met Shadow on a footbridge over the canal in Georgetown. Why, yes, that was the most romantic place I could think of. I was 16 and way melodramatic. But why the hell not; it was fun. I spent the day all fluttery and telling my friends at school about this meeting, and it would have been shocking if, by the end of the day, I hadn’t decided I was in love. I would have been horribly disappointed if he hadn’t turned out to be cute and cool. But he was all I could have wanted. Not as tall as Shadow Cat, and maybe not as handsome. But his mohawk was just as big. We held hands and talked for hours and he walked me home, which I always thought was an impossibly long walk but I just looked it up and it was only about three miles.
The next day — it must have been a Saturday? Or maybe this was after school — we hung out in Georgetown, my favorite place on earth at the time. We went to the squat he was living in; we had to climb through the boards over the door and walk around the glass and parts of the floor that were caved in, and, honestly, I’m absolutely horrified now. But at that time it just seemed super cool.
There were other people there — an old punk guy and a couple hippies — and we talked for a while. One of the hippies had a sticker on his guitar that said “homophobia is a social disease” and Shadow had never heard the term. (I think it was only just entering common parlance at the time.) He objected that hating gays wasn’t the same as being scared of them, and I — daughter of an activist, beloved of many gay (actual) aunts and (not actual) uncles, friends of many gay people, roughly six months from realizing I was bi — explained firmly that, in fact, the only reason anyone hated gays was because deep down they were afraid of them. A bit later, when we were alone, he told me I’d convinced him and that because of his love for me, he wasn’t going to go “f*g bashing” with his friends ever again.
Thing is, I didn’t really believe he ever had. Fighting was fairly common for the punks I knew, but claiming to have been in fights was a lot more common. This sounded like that, to me. Of course now I’m appalled that I was with someone who would even have claimed to have done that. At the time… I figured if he said he wouldn’t anymore it was okay. Plus, if it was true, how touching! How flattering! I was making him a better man with my love!
My other big memory of that day was at a bookstore. Probably a Waldenbooks or Crown Books; we didn’t have gigantic places like Barnes & Noble yet. Shadow was into science fiction and fantasy like me, mostly fantasy, and we were looking at paperbacks telling each other which ones we’d read. (I don’t know why but almost all the punks I knew back then were big readers. It was a long time before I learned that to a lot of people, that wasn’t a major part of being punk.)
At some point, while we were browsing, I made a comment that made him think I was mad about something — I wasn’t, he just misunderstood — and he got up and started to walk away, so I had to run after him and try to catch his arm and beg him to stay and listen to me. And then he forgave me.
It was a thing he did a lot; walking away angry so that I’d have to beg him to forgive me and not leave forever. Also he’d do this thing where he’d cry and tell me it was a huge deal because he never cried (you’d think I would have caught on after the third or fourth time), or apologize and point out that I should be extremely honored because he didn’t generally believe in apologizing.
“Don’t date anyone who brags that they don’t believe in apologizing” is a good rule of thumb for everyone to remember.
I assume I slept with him that day. Yes, I was a fairly promiscuous teen (if by “fairly” you mean “very”). I liked sex, and I was safe, and I’m finding I feel sort of uncomfortable discussing the sexual habits of a teenager, which is weird because it was me, but that’s how it is. I’ll just say that I had a few bad experiences but a lot more good experiences, and, because I didn’t drink, I was never in a situation where someone took advantage of my being too drunk to say “no.”
(Oh, right, the not drinking thing. Those friends of Shadow Cat’s, one of them was named Eddie. Eddie was the oldest and seemed to me, at that time, to be the leader [probably the others wouldn’t have loved that]. We — me and my few high school friends who also hung out there — would refer to the people who lived in or hung out at that house as “Eddie and them.” [Eddie is a whole story, but not for right now.] After the first time I went to one of their parties and got drunk, Eddie took me out for a drive and talked to me about what it meant to be an alcoholic, like he was, and how some people could drink and were fine, but some people just couldn’t; they liked drinking too much, and he was pretty sure I was one of those people, and probably I should never drink again. I would have agreed to almost anything Eddie suggested — I’m so lucky he wasn’t a cult leader — and so I never drank. It was easy not to; Straight Edge [a sort of punk subculture of people who stayed sober] started in D.C., and if you refused a drink by saying you were straight edge it was almost always accepted without question. I’ve tried alcohol six or seven times in my life since then and I think he was absolutely right. It’s a road I’m thankful I never went down.)
The next couple weeks were impossibly romantic. Being newly smitten gives everything a sort of glow, and everything I did was in the context of Shadow. We met up every day; sometimes he’d come by my school or my house, or we’d meet in Georgetown or Dupont Circle. I’m trying to remember how these things worked before cell phones, but it baffles me. I did have my own phone line at home, probably because my folks didn’t feel like getting woken up after midnight by the phone ringing. I was sort of popular. It feels funny to say that, because when I think back to my teenage years my first memories are of being horribly lonely and sad. But by the time I was 16, my phone rang off the hook. I was still sad, or maybe traumatized is a better word, and my parents were a serious problem, but I also had a lot of good things in my life by then: a fair number of friends, and a lot of real happiness.
On November 11, 1987 it snowed (I didn’t remember the date; I looked it up in the Washington Post archives). It almost never snows that early in D.C. It snowed a lot; we were snowed in at a tiny hamburger place in Georgetown for hours before the trucks could come by and clear the roads enough for the buses to run. The counter guy called my dad for me to tell him I was okay, and gave us free cocoa. It felt like my life was a romance novel.
My best memory of Shadow is the two of us walking hand in hand through the snowstorm, singing “Winter Wonderland.” That song still makes me feel happy. It helps me understand why I was with him — aside from the fact that he was very cute and as over-the-top melodramatic as me (I mean, I would have said romantic and passionate at the time, but looking back it’s honestly embarrassing) and liking books, he also sang a lot. Like, just wherever, he’d take my hand and start singing.
I was living with my dad and stepmom in a somewhat-fancy part of D.C. near the zoo; they had a three-story townhouse and had allowed me to take the bedroom in the basement, which had its own door to the street.
I’m not sure why they thought this was a good idea. I think my dad just really wanted me to move in with them. I didn’t sneak out all that often; I was too scared what might happen to me while I was out — D.C. was a city, after all. What’s funny to me now is that I used to berate myself for being scared to walk around D.C. at night alone. I was ashamed of being such a chicken, like perfectly reasonable self-preservation instincts were something to get over. But even more than the serial killers that might be lurking in the shadows, I was scared of how much trouble I’d get in if I was caught sneaking out. (Same reason I never once shoplifted! It wasn’t ethics, it was fear of consequences.)
What I did do was sneak people in. All the time. Friends would come over late, or come over to spend the night. Runaways would crash there sometimes. It was great. My folks slept on the top floor, and the house was old and creaky. I always knew if someone was in the living room above me or coming down the stairs. If necessary, if my dad or stepmom came downstairs, people could hide in the closet.
That happened fairly often.There was one time when my on-again-off-again boyfriend Andrew came over super early, because his mom dropped him off on her way to work. It was around 8 a.m., and when I heard people coming downstairs, I panicked. He hadn’t spent the night, but it was definitely going to look like he had, especially since I was still in my pajamas. So I shoved Andrew into the closet. It turned out my dad was with a guy there to read some meter. They weren’t sure where it was, so they needed to look in my room (I thought those were usually outside? Who knows, I wasn’t paying that much attention). We looked around and didn’t see it (me playing it super cool as if there was no guy hiding in my closet at all), and then my dad said “maybe it’s in the closet.”
I was standing behind my dad, and the meter guy was facing both of us. Throwing caution to the wind, in a last-ditch effort to save my life, I waved my arms, shook my head, mouthed “NO!!!!” The man looked at me for a moment with a perfectly straight face, then said to my dad “No, it definitely wouldn’t be in the closet. Let’s look in the laundry room again.” They left, and I got Andrew out of the closet and out the door onto the sidewalk, fast. Just as my dad was coming back into the room, Andrew knocked loudly and I said, “Oh I bet that’s Andrew! He’s coming by early; his mom dropped him off on her way to work.”
I never saw that meter-reader guy again, but I never forgot him.
Even though I could have done so without being worried about the dangers of the city, I didn’t sneak out with Shadow much, and my memory is that he didn’t stay over much either. Not sure why; at that point I hadn’t been living there that long and so maybe I was still nervous about being found out. And my folks were probably being extra vigilant, too, with me having this new boyfriend with whom I was in loooooove.
The second weekend I was with Shadow we decided to go to the midnight Rocky Horror Picture Show in Fairfax, a suburb of D.C. I think it also played in D.C., in Georgetown, and I suppose that was probably a cooler crowd. But when I started going to Rocky Horror I lived closer to the Fairfax showing, so that’s where I went. Georgetown couldn’t possibly have been any cooler, as far as I was concerned.
Here’s a bunch of stuff about the Rocky Horror Picture Show most of you already probably know: It’s a very campy, ridiculous musical that plays in movie theaters at midnight and people wear costumes and act out the movie under the screen and there are lots and lots of things for people to yell in response to things happening in the movie, and when there’s a toast everyone throws toast, things like that. A lot of theaters have it all very regimented, with only the people acting out the movie at the front. It was sort of chaotic at my theater; people dressed up, and all the lines were yelled, and the toast was thrown, but no one really acted out the movie. The guy who’d played the star, Frankie, had died about six months before I started going, and so it kind of fell apart for a while. But we all danced under the screen and yelled the lines and sang the songs, and it was, to me, complete perfection.
I started going to Rocky (we just called it “Rocky,” even though there’s already a movie called that) a month or two after I met Shadow Cat (not Shadow). I don’t really know if I can put into words how much I liked it there. I had some friends at school, but I was also bullied horribly. It was genuinely awful. The bullying mostly ended when I started hanging out with the older punks, but not entirely. I was sort of in the group made up of punks and hippies and metalheads, the ones who smoked by the “Tunnel,” but I wasn’t considered cool. A lot of them were very mean to me, for reasons I still don’t completely understand. This was my sophomore year; as a freshman I’d gone to boarding school. I’ll have to talk more about that in another installment because it’s such a big part of my running away two years later, but for now I’ll just say the experience messed me up for a long time after. I imagine I was probably annoying sometimes, and definitely an easy target. I had been so excited about finally going to this school, and then… It’s hard.
I was going to write out some of the nicknames they had for me and I literally can not bring myself to do so. Suffice to say I was not popular.
But I was at Rocky! At Rocky there were kids — my age up through college age — from lots of different schools and being Shadow Cat’s friend gave me an in. Being in a crowd of cool people, singing and yelling and laughing, felt indescribably good. And sitting in the lobby, talking to people about all sorts of things and no one sneering at me or acting like I didn’t belong. Because I did; I belonged. It was a relief and a joy, and it was like a horrible, two-year-long, chapter of my life was ending. (I am so lucky there didn’t happen to be any cults recruiting teenage girls around D.C. in the mid-’80s. I bet I would have signed up so fast.)
So of course my mom (who I was living with that spring) hated me going there. Not because it made me happy — of course not. She hated it because these were “bad” kids, and a lot of them were older, and she was sure there was lots of smoking (yes, but no more than at school) and alcohol/drugs (sure but I didn’t do them) and promiscuity (correct). She didn’t think it was safe for me to be out so late, which in theory was probably true but I was always with a ton of people and most of us were dressed in leather and chains and weren’t likely to be a target for muggers and psychos. Also I’m the single luckiest person alive (as you will learn when we get to the hitchhiking part. Because this is a hitchhiking story).
I was never pushed to do drugs (Straight Edge!) and while I think I probably felt pressured into sexy stuff once or twice, most of the time I was giving buckets of enthusiastic consent. I was never beaten up, raped, or robbed. It was 99% positive, the entire time.
Because my mom hated it, it was always a crazy challenge to get to the theater. I was mostly way too scared to sneak out of her house, so I’d get permission to stay the night at a friend’s house, and go from there. Getting a ride was always a challenge (I wasn’t allowed to ride in cars with friends driving until I was sixteen, which was a huge inconvenience. I suppose constantly having to come up with a lie about how a parent was driving has made me a better writer, or something) and in a way that made it even more fun. Just arriving at Rocky was a triumph.
Staying at my friend Windy’s place was always my best bet for getting to Rocky. Windy and I were close friends at school (one of the few I had), and she began hanging out with Eddie’s crowd around the same time I did. Here’s Windy: One time I was on a metro bus, coming back to the suburbs after seeing my dad in the city, and I said something snarky to some girls (they were the kind of cheerleader-type girls that girls like me considered The Enemy) without thinking about how there were three of them and only one of me. They followed me off the bus and kind of beat me up. Pushed me a bunch, tore my shirt, hit me a couple times, finally shoved me down a hill. I was near Windy’s house so I went there. She brought me inside, cleaned me up, got me a glass of water, grabbed a baseball bat, and went out to look for the girls. I don’t think she found them, but it was awfully sweet of her to try.
Her dad was a very nice guy who mostly minded his own business and usually stayed at his girlfriends’ house. Windy had remarkable amounts of freedom, and therefore so did I.
Once I moved into D.C., I didn’t have to sneak around because my dad didn’t have such a problem with Rocky itself (though he thought my need to go every single Friday and Saturday was a bit much) but it was harder to get rides there because it was farther away. I still managed most weeks. I don’t know who drove me and Shadow. He’d been there already, a few nights when I’d been stuck at home.
As we got ready to go, he got upset. It was normal for the girls to dress in skimpy lingerie and whatnot; both because we were dressing as characters and because that was how punk girls dressed in the mid-late ’80s. I loved feeling pretty and cool! I didn’t even think about him having a problem with it; he knew we were going to Rocky and this was how you dressed to go to Rocky. But he absolutely hated what I put on — probably a very short mini skirt, fishnets, heels, and some sort of net shirt over a bra. He said it made me look like a slut and people wouldn’t respect him.
This eventually became one of my major rules: Don’t date a guy who wants a say in how you dress. (There was an even worse guy a few years later, Matt. He got me to move to San Diego with him and basically had to okay everything I wore.)
But I looooved Shadow and thought maybe he was right, maybe girlfriends should dress differently. So I wore jeans and one of his Harley-Davidson t-shirts. It was boring but fine.
My friends at Rocky mostly liked Shadow. He already knew a lot of them; the scene wasn’t all that big. And he had a very nice mohawk. I don’t remember anyone pointing out that he was an idiot and a jerk. I definitely wouldn’t have listened to most of them if they had, but if he hadn’t fit in at all that might have done it.
The thing is, he was funny and nice. It wasn’t like he hit me or yelled at me. He made me happy, and he was cool, and there was no reason for people to disapprove. It took me AGES after we broke up to realize he hadn’t been a good boyfriend choice.
I wasn’t a complete idiot, thank goodness. One day when we were at the zoo (my folks’ house was near the National Zoo, which is free and a fun place to hang out) he actually proposed to me. Got on one knee. Honestly wanted to get married right then. I think. It now occurs to me he might have been bluffing. I was tempted to say yes, but thought about how sorry I’d feel for someone who got married at sixteen and refused. We compromised by agreeing we could be engaged but wait and marry when I was eighteen. Thank fucking god.
Okay, that’s it for now. Learn more about me hitchhiking — or probably more about the things in my life that led to my decision to run away — next time!
Oh and I decided to share with you one of the truly horrible poems (songs, kind of, except they never had music put to them so they were just poems) I wrote back then. But I don’t have it in me to transcribe, so I’m just taking a picture of the notebook and you can try to read it as best you can and if you can’t read it maybe that’s just as well. It’s dreadful. Oh, and it hints at me being suicidal, which I wasn’t when I wrote it, I just thought that was what made a poem deep.