I was sitting in a tree, the day I ran away from home.
The tree was on the front lawn of my high school, and I was sixteen years old. It must have been a week day because I remember thinking, as I walked through the short stretch of woods that divided my neighborhood from the school, that my chorus teacher was probably still there and I might be able to get some advice from him, talk to him about life. I seem to remember a few people still walking around outside so it must have been around five o’clock. I got to the school and went to the chorus room but it was locked, he’d already gone home for the day, so I wandered out to the front area where people waited for cars to pick them up and climbed up into one of the trees there. It wasn’t too difficult to climb because the tree wasn’t very high, and I remember nestling myself in so I could sulk properly.
I’d run away without giving it any thought. I didn’t know where I was going and I didn’t care, of course I’d not planned for where I would sleep, what I would eat, where I would go tomorrow. I was so fueled by emotion that it didn’t matter, the melodrama of doing it made me feel something and that insolent teenage passion and rage was enough. Just feeling it was enough. The future didn’t really matter.
I’d gotten angry at my mother. She’d abused me for years but on this particular day she was acting out of misguided compassion. I guess most of her abuse took the form of misguided concern. She didn’t really hit me, aside from one time when she lost it and pulled my hair, and another when she pushed me onto my bed and walked out of the room, it was all psychological gaslighting and emotional manipulation, a lot of screaming and name-calling and denigration. Today, the thing she’d done was to not believe me when I told her the truth.
I had a best friend, back then. His name was Michael, and we had met a year ago, and I had immediately fallen head-over-heels in love with him. He was my first love, and I met him the day before my fifteenth birthday. Having turned thirty a few months ago I can now say that it’s been the same amount of time from that day up to now as it had been from the moment I was born up until the day I met him, but even though that moment is lost in the dense fog that makes up my memory and perception of time, I still hold on to it, even if I’ve sucked all the feeling out of it like marrow from a bone. I hold on to that husk of a memory that has become so grainy and foggy and distorted and unclear because it makes me who I am, it was the time when I felt most alive. When I met him, I fell almost instantaneously in love with him in a way that only teenagers – not quite children and not quite adults – can. People say that teen love is “puppy love” but they only say that because most of the people doing the talking are heterosexual and have the privilege of growing up in a world when they’re allowed to have pretend girlfriends and pretend crushes as young children before they actually develop romantic and sexual elements of their own personalities – a boy walking to class holding hands with his girlfriend doesn’t have any idea what romance is, they’re playing pretend, they’re imitating what they see adults do.
Teenagers do everything in extremes. They love passionately and hate passionately and they sulk passionately. I once tried reading an Edmund White book called A Boy’s Own Story and honestly I never made it very far, but there was something he said that has stayed with me, and I’ve never been able to exactly pinpoint the quote so I’ll just tell you the version of it I assimilated into my mind: all love is a reflection of the first. The first time we fall in the love the most intense, the more pure, the most distilled and undiluted version of raw love that we can feel. It might not be the most healthy, the most productive, or the most successful, and I’m sure that this quote does not really apply to everyone. In fact, I wish it didn’t apply to me. But it feels to me, despite the love I have felt for other people since, that I’ve never loved someone as fully and unconditionally and unstoppably as I did Michael. Michael was straight (for the most part), and even though we would later on have a sexual experience after the full heat of our friendship had subsided and we’d spent a lot of time apart, right now I was deeply in love with him, and things had seemed to be going as well as I could have hoped for.
My wildest dream had come true: after a year of achingly longing to be with Michael all week and going to his house almost every weekend (the few times I couldn’t be with him I cried and pined after him as only a lovesick teenage boy can), our family had united into one little unit with my mother and his father becoming close friends. They’d actually dated as teenagers but broken up, and that’s how I ended up being introduced to Michael when his dad visited my grandmother. And now our families had actually moved in together, with Michael and I sharing a bedroom, that bedroom being a garage filled with our furniture and beds and video games. And not only were we living together but we were going to the same school.
When I fell in love with Michael I needed to rationalize some way to live with the fact that he did not love me back in the same way that I loved him, so I convinced myself that I loved him as “a brother.” I told myself that we were as close as brothers and that was why we cared about each other so much and so deeply understood each other. That was why I needed to be with him. He was my soul brother. But of course I didn’t understand at the time this was my way of contextualizing a love I couldn’t deal with. There were some bumps in the road, but for the most part I had come to believe this about my relationship with Michael. I had accepted that he wasn’t going to be my boyfriend, but I loved him with a ferocity that could only come from a teenage boy in the heat of pure and unfiltered infatuation, mixed with the gentle open heart of a deeply troubled abused boy who had never had a close friend he could rely on before, and had spent years fantasizing about what it might be like to be held in the arms of another boy or to kiss another boy or to touch someone in the way that I so desperately wanted to be touched. Michael didn’t kiss me, he didn’t touch me, and he only occasionally let me see him naked, but anything was better than nothing, and I worshipped him because as long as he was in my life, my life had meaning.
Michael and I had made a new friend, called Cody. Cody was, like us, a bit of an outcast. He lived in a rough part of town in a dingy trailer in the woods, but he was a kind guy and Michael and I started spending time at his house, spending the night together, the three of us bunched into Cody’s small bed. I was always in the middle. Cody was really more Michael’s friend than he was mine, but he was still just as nice to me, and he and I even spent some time together without Michael, with him “sword fighting” with me using old metal rods he had laying around his back yard. The three of us also wrestled with one another a lot. I remember how much we laughed while we were wrestling and how at home I felt. I remember this moment of looking at Cody’s bookshelf, I have no idea what was on that shelf anymore but I remember contemplating it, it may have been a CD or a video game, and I observed Cody with the same weird alien fascination that I observed everyone with, because I never really understood people and always felt that I was outside and trying to understand them. I used Cody’s bathroom and found a crumpled, crusty shirt next to his toilet, and told him he’d forgotten to wash it, when he awkwardly told me that it was his cum rag and it was there for a reason. If I remember correctly, I went back into the bathroom and did all the disgusting things you’d imagine a horny pent up gay teenage boy might do when presented with someone else’s cum towel.
All this is to say that while spending time with Cody had been fun, and I was beginning to feel like Michael and I were actually starting to form some kind of friend group, I’d come home absolutely covered in bruises from the wrestling and the metal pole sword-fighting. And when she saw how bruised I was, my mom refused to believe my story that it had happened naturally during rough housing. Even though I kept explaining to her that Cody is just really physically rough and I don’t mind because I can handle it, she convinced herself that I was so pitiful and so desperate to have friends that I was willing to let these boys beat me up in order to be their friend. She thought I was allowing myself to be physically abused by these two so that they could hang out with me and show me attention. It’s honestly a really bizarre narrative she invented but I could see how if I had been a parent with a kid covered in bruises I might not believe their story either.
The point is that I kept vehemently protesting when she insisted this version of events she’d invented were true, and you know the funny thing about gaslighting is that now all these years looking back on it, I had to stop for just a split-second and ask myself “Wait… was it true? Were they beating me up?” That’s how easy it is to fuck with someone’s perception, especially someone with mental illness. Of course I was sixteen at the time and panic attacks and anxiety were not yet a part of my life. That particular door had not been opened, and that endless sinking plummeting in my stomach and heat in my chest had not yet begun. So my mother kept insisting I was lying to her, and I kept insisting I was telling the truth, and as she grew more frantic she began to scream that she was going to call the police, that she was going to have Cody locked up or sent to juvenile detention for what he’d done to me.
I was so angry with her over everything, not just Cody I now realize looking back, but everything she’d put me through, that I had enough. And I stomped outside and stomped down the driveway and stomped the short way up the street to the woods and stomped into the path that led to school. And as I furiously stormed through the woods and found the dirt road that led up to the school, passing the few houses of the people who lived back there, I became convinced that I’d had enough and I was done with my mom, and I was never going back. It’s easy, when you’re young, to forget about the reality of a situation. Where you will sleep seven hours from now is not a consideration when you’re SO PASSIONATELY angry that the very act of running away, the defiance itself, is enough to make you feel satisfied. I imagined I would find my chorus teacher still packing up for the day and we’d sit down like this was a sitcom and I’d have a heart-to-heart with him, and he’d tell me something really wise and I would have the strength to persevere and feel that I’d learned something.
But he wasn’t there. The chorus room door was locked and the light within was turned off. So I wandered outside and sat in the tree.
I didn’t have a phone. In my memory of being in the tree I seem to think I was wearing a hoodie and listening to an iPod but that can’t be right. It’s funny how memory fills in the gaps with details that didn’t actually happen. I know that eventually, I got tired of sitting in the tree, so I climbed down and started walking.
I didn’t know where I intended to go. I turned right out of the school and walked up to the intersection and turned left, walking through yards. I was actually headed in the direction of a house I’d previously lived in for a few years but I don’t think that thought had really crossed my mind yet. I’ve gone through Mount Holly plenty of times now that I’m an adult with a car, and I think the distance I walked was somewhere between six to ten miles. It was a lot. I walked past houses and into areas of road with nothing but trees on either side, I walked past several gas stations, I walked past the big park where soccer games were held, past where my friends got off the bus. The sole on one of my shoes had come lose and it actually came completely off while I was walking, so I took it off and walked, alone, holding one shoe in my hand. At some point I decided to stop, I don’t remember what I was thinking exactly but I stopped and knocked on someone’s door and asked if I could use their phone. I tried calling Michael’s dad, who lived with us, but he didn’t answer, and the lady gave me a can of Mountain Dew and I went back to walking.
I kept going, further and further. The whole time, I was singing.
The night before had been a chorus concert. It’s a particular memory that’s been replaying in my brain for years and years. Our concerts were held at this big church with great acoustics; it had a high ceiling and stained glass windows that I remember had some slightly ugly depictions of Jesus and one that had the devil in a corner, or at least I thought it was. I had a Gameboy Advance with me and I was playing Kingdom Hearts Chain of Memories. Michael was around somewhere, or at least he would be later, I don’t exactly remember because in my memory I’m not associating with him. He must have come later. But now I was sitting in a pew because I was here hours earlier than I needed to be and the rest of my class wasn’t there, it was just the Concert Choir who was there rehearsing, and they were eleventh and twelfth graders.
The piano started, and the group began to sing a spiritual, and the arrangement began with a soloist.
When she started singing, I immediately lifted my head from where I was staring down at the Gameboy Advance, and watched her, transfixed.
The song was a spiritual entitled City Called Heaven, and she was singing,
“I am, a poor pilgrim
A poor pilgrim of sorrow
I’m left in, this ol’ wide world
This wide world, alone
I ain’t got no hope
Got no hope for tomorrow
I’m trying to make it
Make Heaven my home.”
I was so moved by her voice and by the song that later on when our concert was ripped onto a CD I would borrow it from my chorus teacher and put it on my computer, and sadly those files, as well as his copy of the concert, is now lost. I’ve never heard a rendition of the song quite like hers. Later on, in eleventh grade, I would convince myself that I had a crush on her because I’d been so moved by her voice, because it felt nice to think I had a crush on a girl, it felt right and normal and like something I should do. I never really did, of course, but I even indulged in lightly fantasizing about her giving me a kiss for my birthday. It’s stupid, the things we fantasize about as teenagers. But our fantasies are blessedly stupid, because a lot of other fantasies from that time remain in my mind.
And so here I was, walking down a dusty road in a small town at dusk as the sun was setting, my long messy hair probably sweaty and tangled and holding one shoe in my hand. And the whole time I sang to myself, slightly misunderstanding part of the verse,
“I am a poor pilgrim
A poor pilgrim of sorrow
I’m left in this ol’ wide world
This ol’ wide world alone
I ain’t got no home
Got no home for tomorrow
I’m trying to make it
Make Heaven my home”
It seemed to me to be a mantra, and the theme music to this particular scene in my life. How fitting to have heard the song just the night before, to have it playing in my mind, to be quietly singing it to myself as I finished my can of Mountain Dew and probably threw it into the woods. The night before at the church I’d been wearing a god-awful necklace made entirely of soda can tabs that Michael had made, and even though I knew it was an incredibly dumb accessory (even for 2006, the height of dumb accessories), I wore it because it was something that made me feel connected with Michael. That night at the church it had broke and all the soda tabs had spilled onto the floor and I don’t remember what I did. I actually now think I may have just left them all there on the floor for someone else to clean up. That’s a memory that I didn’t even know I had, leaving them there. I’ve always thought I collected the tabs and wore them again. I don’t know, who’s to say at this point? That’s the thing with memory, it’s a haze.
So I sang to myself over and over again on repeat, not knowing anything but the first verse of the song, “I ain’t got no home, got no home for tomorrow,” and “I’m left in this wide world, this wide world alone.” It made so much sense. I knew that by now my mom was worried. But she didn’t know where I’d be. I thought maybe she’d have sent the police out to look for me. I didn’t care. I had calmed down a lot but I was still angry with her. Still feeling this righteous indignation deep within me at the fact that SHE had accused my FRIEND, one of my only, blessed, few friends, of abusing me, and had not believed me when I protested. She had no right to threaten Cody, not after I’d finally made another friend. It had taken my fifteen years just to make one, and now she was going to take away my second friend? I didn’t know Cody yet but I’d already had times with him that I cherished: sneaking out in the middle of the night to walk several miles up the road to the gas station, sword fighting in his back yard, playing Yu-Gi-Oh with him, watching cartoon on Saturday morning. It was the kind of friendship that most kids get to have but which I’d had so little of, when I’d been alone and imagining my friends. It wasn’t fair for her to take away someone who meant something to me. To threaten him. She was always taking from me, always making things worse.
She would do far worse things in the years to come, but for now, this indignation kept me walking, with no particular destination in mind. And eventually, I came upon the road I used to live on, which happened to be right across the street from the house where my uncle still lived. I tromped down behind the gas station where my uncle’s house was and found him on the porch, he jovially greeted me. It’s at this point in the story I remember that I was wearing a tee shirt that was way too big for me, and he made some comment about how funny I looked. I think the shirt was Michael’s dads. I’d long since started calling him “dad” and considering him to be my new dad, especially since I considered Michael my brother.
I asked to use his phone and I don’t remember exactly how but I ended up at his neighbor’s house and using THEIR phone to call Michael’s dad, who did answer this time. He didn’t say very much. He didn’t seem to be angry at me. I quietly told him where I was and asked if he’d come pick me up. I might have asked him if he’d bring me some food, I’m not sure. About fifteen minutes later he arrived and we drove silently back to our house. When we got there my mom was on the back porch, sitting quietly, and it was clear she’d been crying. I’d been gone for probably three hours or more. I asked her if she was going to start yelling at me. She sighed and said that no, she was not going to yell at me, but to please promise that I would never scare her like this again. Her sister was sitting beside her and I seem to remember her agreeing with my mom.
I went inside. I don’t remember what happened next. That’s where the chapter ends in my memory. Eventually I drifted away from Cody and then away from Michael. But I never really stopped loving him, just stopped needing him all the time.
Fifteen years later I think I still love him. I definitely still long for the way I felt when he was my entire world. To be so fully and completely devoted to someone, to be so enveloped by a feeling of devotion, it’s something I truly don’t think I’ll ever experience again. But I’d certainly like to. Michael is a hard person to find, and he has very little presence on social media, but I managed to find him under a screen name with no photos some time last year on Twitter and reached out to him. He actually lives very close to where I live now. He lives with two women, one older and one younger than him, and he made a lot of gross misogynist comments about how just one girl isn’t enough for him, and how he works to support them by streaming video games on Twitch. I asked him if he was still bisexual and he told me no, he was straight. I briefly brought up how much I loved him back in high school and he didn’t seem bothered but just kind of shrugged it off.
I think, that in the story of Michael’s life as he sees it when he looks back, I am probably not a very prominent player, not an important character. And it’s a little funny and a little sad that he is quite possibly the most important figure in my history, the one who taught me love and friendship. I don’t even know there was anything particular about him that did it: any boy who showed me attention and who was attractive to me might have gotten the same response. If time was rewound and the situation played out differently I might have fallen in love with any other boy in the world, but it was him. And that moment, so emotionally powerful, when I first got into his dad’s car the weekend after I’d met him for my birthday, and been so excited to see him that I’d left the front door of our apartment wide open, and with horror and panic heard my mom scream at me over the phone later that maybe Michael’s dad should turn around and bring me right back home, those moments are etched into who and what I am. They are a central part of my story, of my memory. They’re a landmark in the fog, a place to stop and sit and wonder and think and feel again.
As an adult, I am right now in a crisis of a kind. An emotional crisis, a mental crisis. I’m not panicking the way I was this time a year or so ago, when I was being ravaged by anxiety attacks every night and didn’t think I’d ever get any better. But I am at some kind of breaking point where I feel something has to change. And my depression has caused my memory to be affected, and my ability to focus and to recall the words I need have been impaired by this fog that swirls around in my mind. And I find myself sifting through these memories, trying to find some meaning in them, to understand what my life is and who I am and to recover enough of myself to move forward.
I haven’t found it yet. I don’t know if I will. Right now my feelings are so numb that the memory of loving Michael is distant, but it’s a light in the sky and I know it’s there because I can see it, even if I can’t touch it.
I’d like to fall in love again so completely, but I don’t know if I will, and I don’t even know if I CAN. It doesn’t seem likely that I’ll experience teenage infatuation in my thirties. But life may surprise me. I hope it does.
Someone told me today that I am a writer. They didn’t say it in a triumphant way, they said it in passing while talking about something else, they acknowledged it as a fact, and it felt so validating that they believed in my writing. They actually said a lot of other kind things right after that touched me, but it was the fact they acknowledged it so completely, “You are a writer, you are a good writer.” They believe in me, and they believe I ALREADY AM a writer.
I guess I am.
I’ve never gone to college. My writing, like my music, is wild and untrained and overwrought with emotion because feeling is really all I’m capable of, which I know is ironic considering how numb I am. I don’t think I’m very good at describing scenery, I can never adequately explain the scene of my imagination to a reader, but I think I can make people understand how it FEELS. How it feels to be sitting in a tree outside my high school, to be wandering the road alone and singing a hymn I only half-remembered, to be young enough that the panic attacks hadn’t started and I could do something like walk for ten miles in a random direction with no thought to what might happen and with no food or water and somehow still feel content to keep walking.
I don’t know where this is going to lead. The world is on lock down and I haven’t gone to work since April. I’ve been delivering food in my car for most of that time, and it’s become harder and harder both to make money doing it and to force myself to get up and go to work. I’ve been emotionally and spiritually pounded by my depression in the past two weeks in a way that I haven’t experienced in a long time. I’m in what I think of as “the deep place,” a dark place in a pool of water that isn’t exactly wet and doesn’t make you drown or suffocate, a place where you sink like a stone to the bottom of the dark lake and sit there with your arms around your knees and you just feel. Feel and feel and feel and feel. Tonight I’m numb, not rocking back and forth in the shower listening to music from my teen years that I didn’t even care about at the time but which now punctures me emotionally and makes the memories and the longing and the disappointment spill out.
Back then I kept walking because I was feeling everything so intesely that I couldn’t stop. Now I’m trudging because I want to feel. I’m on the other end of the road, walking toward him. I wish I could find him, the me that was sixteen, the me that was still healthy and not nearly as overweight as I thought I was, the me that didn’t have type 2 diabetes and sleep apnea and acid reflux and anxiety and panic attacks all compounded by the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder I’ve had since childhood. I want to hold him in my arms. I want to hold his long brown hair in my hands and comfort him and tell him…
…tell him what? That there’s so much to live for? Well, maybe. He doesn’t have a lot to look forward to. It’s been so much pain, so much disappointment, so much regret, and so much continual longing for exactly the time he’s living through, the time that’s coming to an end, the time when he was first in love. But I could tell him that I love him. That he means something to me. That his existence is the only reason for mine, and I don’t mean that in a linear sense, I mean it spiritually. I’m alive because I’m trying to get to him, I’m trying to find him in this dense fog that ties my tongue and locks my memories and keeps me away from myself. I’m trying to find him, somewhere in this dense foggy castle of my mind, sitting behind a locked door and waiting to be found. I’m trying to believe, as he did, that the future held promise. That there were more Michael’s to love, Michael’s who would actually love me back, Michael’s who would enrich me and not just hold me in thrall. I love Michael, still, because of who we WAS, regardless of who he is now, and his part in my life is so precious to me that if I could do it all over again I’d make sure he was still there. He saved me from my silent existence, he gave me a companion who listened and who in some way understood. He gave me a lover whether he touched me or not, whether he kissed me or not. Michael did kiss me, a couple years later, because I asked him to, because we’d done most everything else I’d wanted to do but not that, and he awkwardly pushed me against a wall and kissed me hard with a mouth that tasted like stale marijuana, a kiss as unsatisfying and devoid of passion as I should have expected it to be. It didn’t feel like a book-end to a story, it felt silly. I’m glad he did it but I wish it had been better.
Maybe all this time I’ve been remembering Michael the way I do because it helps me make sense of my life to see him as a blinking light in the sky I can follow to get back home to myself. Maybe I’ve romanticized him, but who doesn’t romanticize their past? We all have to see something, to find some meaning.
I don’t even believe in Heaven anymore. But I’m still out in this wide world alone. And I’m still trying to find home.
Last year I wrote a song about Michael. I’m very proud of it. It’s a bit lengthy but I think it’s a good one. My recording set up is not the best so the quality is very humble, but I hope you’ll feel something if you listen.