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I was fourteen. My mom had moved us to New Mexico the previous year, and I had come back to Houston to spend the summer with my dad.

It was awful, being in Houston. I was lonely, I had just come out to myself, shedding the hypocrisy that was my involvement in religion, a panacea I used to run from myself. My dad and stepmother were alien to me, full of snide comments about society, yuppie toys to play with (my favorite being the Atari 2600 hooked up to the big screen TV), and the days were filled working for dad washing stupid camping trailers and parking rental trucks for customers.

I'd taken to riding my bike for an hour or so after dinner each night. Ostensibly exercise, but really an excuse to smoke a Marlboro or six or the occasional odd joint I'd buy at the corner store from kids older than me.

I'd always stop at this wooden footbridge that crossed a little bayou, smoke, and stare reflectively at the setting sun. Then afterward, I'd go over and stare at the house where a boy I had a crush on lived, a boy I'd gone to summer camp with for three years before moving to New Mexico.

It was a pathetic time, as full of teenage angst as anybody else's adolescence, I guess.

Then I met Joe. Joe changed my life. My experiences with him so radically altered the path I was walking that I often wonder how I would have turned out had I not met him, and I simply cannot do it. I can't imagine the life I would have led. Here's why:

About three weeks after my arrival in Houston, I was smoking a cigarette at the bridge, when this boy, a little older than I was, comes walking up to me. He's not alone, he's walking a Saint Bernard. In Houston! I'd never seen one of these hulking creatures before, and I was going to ask if I could pet him. Before I was able, the boy made a beeline toward me, and asked if he could bum a smoke.

We made idle chitchat for about 10 minutes, and I fell in love with him during that short span of time. This wasn't a crush, like the summer camp boy, no teenage hormone induced physical attraction. This was more. I knew, somehow, I intuitively knew that this boy mattered. That he would have an impact on my life.

Right before he left, a couple taking a stroll approached us. He whispered, "Just follow my lead" and grabbed me by the collar and begin yelling at me. I don't remember what he said, nor what I yelled in return. What I do remember is the abrupt change in course the couple took, making off for the next bridge down the bayou. They obviously wanted nothing to do with the two smoking, swearing juvenile delinquents (with a huge dog along for the ride), and had decided to take a detour. After they were out of earshot, we collapsed in helpless mirth and we knew then we were friends.

We smoked another smoke, and exchanged personal info ... his name was Joe, he was fifteen, both his parents were dead and he lived with his stepmother and her husband. He had a sister with multiple sclerosis, and overall, well, he wasn't the happiest of people. He told me that the laugh we'd shared was the first he'd had in a long time.

I went home, feeling as if my bike was floating ten feet above the pavement.

We met each night after that, and gradually introduced the other into our respective lives. We spent our weekends together, most often at his house (or at the top of a 150-foot tall electrical tower, god I was stupid!), as my dad was rather strict about letting "strangers" into his house.

One of those weekends, we got really high on Jack Daniels and pot ... and had sex. It was the first experience for both of us, and rather prosaic in the details, so I'll spare you them, other than to tell you that seeing him swimming, naked and free, in the subdivision's swimming pool at 3 o'clock in the morning is one of my most treasured memories, and I think it's the last time I ever saw Joe truly happy to be alive.

Y'see, Joe was always looking for something, and he could never find it. He always said he wanted to be free of a family that was no longer his, but I think he was searching for happiness. And I, in my youthful ignorance, wanted to give him that happiness, and would have done just about anything to see him smile like he smiled that night at the pool.

He was planning to run away from home, and he invited me into his plans. We were going to steal a car from a neighbor (we both lived in the same "planned" subdivision, though the neighbor was closer to me than to him) who always left his cars unlocked, with keys in the ignition and cash in the glove compartment. Joe was going to steal a bunch of his stepmom's husband's (I've never found out what one calls a relation like that) gold jewelry and guns to pawn, and I was going to clean out the Coke and candy machines from my Dad's office. Our plan was to get to Los Angeles and find jobs, lose ourselves in a big city.

Miserable as I was, and as in love as I was, I of course was willing to run anywhere with him.

And it was remarkably easy to do, though I had a scare the night we ran away that nearly ended my life. I had no trouble crawling out the window, but my suitcase wouldn't fit ... so I had to go out the front door of my dad's house. Trying to do this, quietly and in the dark, was difficult. I had to get my suitcase outside, then lock the door from the inside, then get myself out via the window in my bedroom. However, I had problems re-locking the door after I had placed the suitcase outside. The damn thing just wouldn't lock, and I fumbled with it in the dark for about ten minutes.

Suddenly, the lights snapped on, and there was my dad, nude, pointing a pistol at me. And there I was, fully dressed at 2 in the morning, sure I was busted, and certain that I'd miss Joe, that he'd leave without me, and filled with enormous relief that my dad (a former cop) had decided to ask questions before shooting. I somehow managed to stammer out to my dad that I had snuck out of the house, I was sorry for waking him up, and that I'd never do it again. He, in turn, told me that we'd talk about it in the morning, saw me to my room, and locked me in.

Hah! Since I used the door, he must not have thought I could sneak out via the window. I waited for about half an hour, then snuck out, grabbed my suitcase and raced down the street to meet Joe, who I was sure had left without me.

He hadn't. The car Joe wanted to take, a Trans Am or something, was parked in the (closed) garage that night, so we ended up stealing a Jeep Cherokee. Imagine, if you will, the sight of two teenage boys, trying to quietly push a BIG car out of a driveway in the middle of the night. We managed it, though, and got the car a couple of blocks away before we jumped in and hit the road, stopping to swap license plates with another car from an apartment complex about ten miles away.

I didn't leave a note ... only my bible. I didn't give any thought as to what my family might have thought because I didn't think they cared about me. At that time, all I knew was I was in love with Joe, and loved him more than I would ever love my family. Sigh.

We made it to San Antonio by sunrise, and slept in back of the car at a rest stop on I-10. We were scared of being caught, and we were always looking over our shoulders. But nothing bad ever happened, other than getting run off the road by a crazed semi-truck driver and several of his friends (also driving semis) one day. Once we crossed into New Mexico, we knew that no one had any clue as to where we were, and relaxed a little. We took our time, hiking and visiting Indian reservations, and thanks to the cash we'd managed to steal (or received from pawning stolen goods) from our respective families, we lived pretty well. We made love every night (usually to the sounds of Styx's "Cornerstone" album), falling asleep cradled in each others arms, telling each other "Sleep tight, dude" before closing our eyes. Joe seemed happy, and that's all that mattered to me.

Then we hit the Grand Canyon, and everything changed. We had decided to hike the canyon and were planning to spend at least a week there. We'd eat at McDonald's every day, and there Joe met a girl, and began spending some time with her. And he fell for her. That's when we began to drift apart. I realized that being gay was what I was, but for Joe it was truly "just a phase". And I hated that fact, and him. By the time we'd hiked back up the Canyon (an adventure in itself, but that's another node) I knew that we'd never make it to LA. The following morning, I read that a huge hurricane (Hurricane Allen, if you care) was about to slam into Texas, and I used that as a pretext to call our families.

Our families, of course, managed to talk us into turning ourselves in. And we did, calling the Grand Canyon Park Rangers as soon as we hung up with our families. We told them that we had stolen a car, and wanted to turn ourselves in. Next thing I know, I'm on my stomach on the ground, and a shotgun's pushing at the back of my head. I was being arrested. And back then, I felt as if I was being arrested for being in love ... that I had to run away because the world just wouldn't accept that love. Heh, I know better now. In their eyes, I was a car thief. Nothing else mattered to them.

We were separated for the next few weeks as we wended our way through the Arizona juvenile justice system, and we managed to be reunited on a bus ride from Flagstaff to Albuquerque, where I met my mom. Joe continued on back to Houston. We held hands the entire trip together.

Fortunately, my family had money and hired good lawyers, and I got off with six months probation and one thousand dollars restitution. Joe wasn't so lucky, and spent some time in a juvenile hall. It hardened him, and killed whatever compassion was left in him. He became somewhat of a sociopath and recluse, and though I managed to spend a lot of time with him the following summer (again, another adventure for another node) we were never really close again, more like good drinking buddies, both trying to drown the sorrows our adventures had caused us in our lives, as well as the feelings we once had for each other.

For me, I ran away for Joe. I'd never been in love before and I thought being in love meant doing anything as long as you were with the one you loved. It seems silly now, twenty years later, but I'll never forget the things Joe taught me: to take risks, to live life, to have adventures, to not care about other people's opinions of me. I'll carry those lessons with me to my grave; the bitterness of how the relationship ended has long since vanished.

My only regret is that I ultimately ended up in California, the dreamland we wanted and tried so hard to reach together, and Joe will never know that. He vanished from my life fifteen years ago. If he's out there, and happens to be reading this (unlikely as it may seem, stranger things have happened to me), I guess he'll finally know.

And know this, Joe: I still love you. I wouldn't be the person I am today if it weren't for you.

That makes all the bad things that happened because of our stupid decision to become felons all worthwhile.

Sleep tight, dude.

I told them that I would run away from home, but they didn’t believe me. Every time my brothers would tease, I would bring it up. Every time my dad punished me for no reason, I would bring it up. Every time I did, they would roll their eyes and laugh. That showed me how much they cared.

I never fit in with my family. My two older brothers were loud and annoying. I never got along with them, and it seemed like they were always picking on me because I was the youngest. I’m the baby of the family and am constantly reminded of it too.

I would always imagine being somewhere far from home. Laying out in the woods with no one but the birds and the trees. There would be no one to bother me and I would get to experience the beauty of nature.

Ever since I can remember, I have lived in the city. I never really liked it. There were too many tall buildings, too many people, and not enough silence. Silence is definitely something special when you’re living in the city.

Every summer we went on family camping trips. It is on these trips that I realize how much of life we’re missing by living in the city. We’re missing the beautiful lakes to swim and fish in, the tall grasses to run through, and especially the silence.

One day, as my brothers were giving me a hard time, I decided I’ve had enough. I was not going to take this torture any longer. I told my brothers one last time that I was going to run away, and they rolled their eyes one last time in doubt.

That night I headed for the wilderness. All I had with me was a backpack with some tools and forty dollars in cash. I took a cab to the countryside and started walking from there.

It felt like I had been walking for hours and I began to feel very cold, hungry, and tired. I decided to take a break by a small pond and rest for the night. My first task would be to find some food.

I always used to go fishing with my dad, but this was different. I didn’t have a fishing pole, and this time I’d be fishing for my survival. I decided my only choice was to fish with my bare hands. I found a sharp stick by the edge of the pond. I sharpened it with a small rock. This stick would be perfect to catch fish with.

I waded into the water. The water felt cold on my skin and made me shiver. It definitely didn’t help my current situation. After what felt like forever, I finally managed to catch a fish.

My next task would be to start a fire. This would definitely be a necessity if I was going to survive in the wilderness. I’ve seen people start fires with sticks before in movies, so I decided to give it a try. I really didn’t feel like eating raw fish.

I started rubbing the sticks together, faster and faster, but not a single thing happened. I started to get very discouraged. Was I not fit to live in the wild? It seemed doubtful that I would learn how to survive.

Then a flash of my brothers' and father’s faces came flooding into my mind.

It was then that I decided, I would survive, that I would make sure I would survive. I became so determined and finally started to make my very first fire. I was so relieved and extremely happy. That night, I ate my fish and then fell asleep by the nice warm fire.

After that night, I learned two very important things. The first one is that if you try hard enough you can survive in any situation. I was so close to giving up, but because I didn’t, I finally found a way to survive. The second is that things are not always what they seem to be. I always thought that when you were out in nature nothing bad could ever happen, but I guess I was extremely wrong.

Eighth grade was a low point in my life but like most of the things I’ve been through it seemed worse than it actually was. My family moved around when I was growing up. Halfway through my first semester of eighth grade my parents moved us again. I should mention that we were moving because my father was going to go back to school. It was a life altering decision for him but it affected the rest of my family as well. Growing up money was every other word I heard. Since my dad no longer had a job my mom was going to go back to work. I can’t say that my father doesn’t respect women in general but I remember him bitching about the food she made and criticizing her for the way she ran our household. Everything was her fault according to him. Growing up I believed that. Our situation was bad and that was my mother’s fault.

School was relatively easy for me that semester as far as the actual work went. The school I transferred to was small so instead of sitting on the bench I was able to play volleyball and basketball. Cross country wasn’t my idea but I didn’t dare tell my dad I wasn’t going running with him first thing every morning. I hated running but it paid off that spring when I hit my first homerun. I am a powerful hitter but fielding errors were responsible for my homerun. The pitcher should have stopped my line drive. The ball went past her and the girl at second. By the time the centerfielder got to the ball I was almost to third and I beat the ball home but just barely. Playing softball was something I was good at. I could hit. I could field and I took all of my pent up aggressions out on that ball. My dad played with me whenever he could. School took up a lot of his time but it was important to him that his girls were given the same athletic opportunities his son had.

Growing up I didn’t want to be a girl. Girls were weak. They cried and they couldn’t do anything right. I hung around with the guys in my class during recess. It didn't matter that I was a girl when we played football. I had a good arm and as long as the ball was small enough for me to get my hand around I could get it where I needed it to go. I hardly ever got to be the quarterback but when I did it was a position I took seriously. When you play football you have to have a head for strategy. You have to know how to get around guys who are bigger, stronger and faster than you are. Traps are all around you. Getting down the field is fraught with danger and even more so when your playground is covered with ice and snow. My dad taught me what he knew about getting around others. Your escape route was critical. You needed to plan in advance. It meant keeping an eye on other people and it meant trying to outthink them if you couldn’t outrun them.

Christmas has always been a turbulent time in my family. The money problem manifests itself in various ways. When you can’t afford necessities luxury items are out of the question. I knew that so I didn’t ask for anything. Whatever money I earned I saved because I was never going to end up like my parents: always at the mercy of a paycheck that couldn’t be stretched thin enough to cover our basic living expenses. Before Christmas my dad suprised me with a new dress to wear to the Christmas Eve service. I took one look at the tiny flowers and I told my dad that I wasn’t going to wear a dress he had bought for me. I had dress pants and if I had to take those in my bag and change in the bathroom at church that’s what I was going to do. At some point my mom entered the argument which was originally between me and my dad. Both of us looked at her with contempt. Neither of us could stand her.

My dad was the only parent who mattered to me at that point in my life. Fighting with him was tough because he expected me to be just as tough as he was. When the argument escalated we moved from my room to the living room. The house that we lived in was small. My sisters and brother were listening to me argue with my parents but they weren’t going to say anything. In my family you fight your own battles. My back was to the bookcase when inspiration struck. I told my parents that I would kill myself if they made me wear a dress. A couple months earlier I had cut my wrist just to see what would happen. It wasn’t a deep cut. I never would have died from it but it sparked a curious reaction from some of the teachers at school.

Both of my parents have bad tempers. I get that from them. Murderous rage boils up inside of you. Control snaps and you say and do things that no sane person should. After my announcement that I would rather die than wear a flowered dress my dad shoved me into the bookcase. The boom box sitting on top of the bookcase fell. My dad has superb reflexes. He reached out to catch the falling radio. My dad stepped back. He threw the radio at me. I ducked to dodge it and that’s when I saw the gap between my parents. I ran to the left side of my mom because I knew my dad would try to reach out and stop me if I ran between them. I took the long way around the table in the kitchen. I held onto the railing and jumped down the stairs that led to our back door. It was below zero outside but my jacket stayed on my hook because every second counts when someone is pursuing you.

Wide open spaces mean that people can see you. I turned right and cut across our next door neighbor’s lawn. He was a bastard to all of us kids who occasionally trampled his flower beds. Fortunately he didn’t see me but now I had a new problem. It was late at night. I was freezing and I didn’t have any money. There was a restaurant not far from where we lived. The library was just down the street and the people who worked there knew me as the girl who took home books in a brown paper bag. If I could get into the library I could spend the night there. It would be warm and I would be safe. That’s the only thing I was thinking about when I opened the door that cold December night. I wanted to be safe. I wanted to be warm and I wanted a way out of the life that I had.

My heart was pounding and I was still breathing heavily when I opened the door to the library. A blast of warm air hit me in the face. I walked past the front desk. In the bathroom I dabbed at my eyes to see if I could clean up my face. Being a regular patron meant the librarian was willing to overlook my tear stained face and the absence of my library card. I picked my books up. I tried to smile at the girl behind the desk and as soon as she walked away from her post I ran back to hide in the bathroom. An overnight stay in the library probably doesn’t sound like much to you but that night was a victory for me. I had won a race I hadn’t even planned on running. I had found an escape route and utilized it. I didn’t starve or freeze to death and I had some good books to help pass the time. There were no windows in the library bathroom which is where I spent the night.

I stayed up reading some of my favorite books and I was darn lucky that I lived in a small town where the library was housed in an old Victorian home with no formal security system other than a stout lock on a good door. I foraged for food but didn’t find much. The hours passed with me sitting up against the cold hard tile of the bathroom wall. For the time being I was safe. I wasn’t exactly warm but I wasn’t as cold as I would have been had I spent the night outside. I didn’t go to sleep that night. Adrenaline and the fear of being discovered kept me going. The next morning I went back home. No one apologized to me but nothing was said about me having to wear a dress ever again.

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