Where the Heart Is

Home is where the heart is, but my heart was never happy. It hurt and wanted healing.

I first ran away from home when I was twelve or so. I had quite the active imagination, thanks largely in part to my mother’s insistence that I read books. Once I got over the fact that I was doing something my mother wanted me to do, I discovered that books opened up a whole new world to me with possibilities that I had never dreamed of before. I heard the call of the wild, and I answered. If the Swiss Family Robinson’s and Robinson Crusoe could do it, why not me?

I grab my backpack one rainy summer day and pack it full of all the provisions I think I’ll need on my extended journey into the great unknown that is the world outside my doorstep. Then I walk. I walk, and walk, and… walk. I walk until the skies open up, dampen my skin, and mat my hair.

*

And so it is that I find myself about twenty minutes later and only a mile or so from what I call home, but no longer feels like a home, sitting under a parked trailer on an empty milk crate. Seeing as how I have nothing better to do, I decide to eat. Seeing as how I’d forgotten to pack a can opener, all I can eat is a can of spam. Seeing as how bad cold spam from a can tastes with that ectoplasmic slime dripping from its pressed meat corpse, I return home. I have to. I have no man Friday to help me and no books to tell me what to do. Besides, it is Friday. Knight Rider is on tonight.

A few years later, I run away again.

After my four-year stint in the non-denominational church school of holy rolling and Bible banging, my parents decide that my brother and I would be better served if we were home schooled. Mom asks us if we mind. Wanting to please her and sold on her sales pitch of half days with a lot of freedom and free time, we agree.

It initially starts out with Dad teaching biology and Mom teaching, well, everything else. I do not remember too much about Dad’s classes at the dining room table except that we had only four, maybe five, lessons before he’d had enough and gave up.

I desperately wanted to please my father, but it was hard with all bullshit going on at home. Specifically, the knockdown, drag out fights where my parents ripped the clothing from each other’s bodies and culminated into our mother packing us all in the car and driving. Just driving, weeping, and moaning. I was, to put it lightly, distracted. To be more blunt, I just didn’t give a shit about biology.

I do not remember much detail from this period, perhaps because my mind has engaged some sort of self-preservation defense mechanism, but there is one picture that is branded into my brain that is a summary of all these events crammed into a single horrific painting. We are all in the station wagon. It is dark. My mother is so hysterical she cannot see straight. My little brothers and sister are crying in the back, jumbled up in the third row seat. My brother, Dave, is catatonic and I am leaning over the driver’s bench seat and trying to sooth our Mother so we do not all die by way of running into a telephone pole hidden by tears and hysteria.

In a lucid moment, I look back. My father stands in the window. His flannel shirt is literally shredded to ribbons. I can see the bloody claw marks that mark the first two feet of my mother’s wrath against his chest, and I can see them weeping no less copiously than my mother is now. My father, he is not angry any more. His hand is raised and pressed into the glass. He is a scared, scarred, and sad little boy. We both are.

It is a very sad affair, a word I hear bandied about but as of yet, do not understand the meaning of. I will hear it again. And yet again. And still, again.

It hurts. It hurts real bad to see the two people I love most in my little word treat each other this way, but I am the man when my father is not. I owe this to my mother. She makes me understand this indirectly through her sobs, comments, and tears. I fear for us all if she does not get it together. I empathize. I sympathize. I cry. I have to. I don’t want to die. Not yet anyway.

Eventually, Mom does all the teaching. She is a good teacher. She figures out rather quickly what makes me tick, how my miss-wired brain works, and turns me into a decent math machine. I owe her for that. But not enough to stay. I run away. Again. I have to. I’m choking. I can’t breathe.

One of Mom’s selling points for home schooling is that I can get a job if I want to. I want to, so at the age of fourteen, I enter the job market. My father gets me a job with the company he is working for. I home school for half a day and then catch the Transit Authority bus to work.

I learn a lot on this job—like a love for explosives and electronics, the care of fighting chickens, how to smoke weed—and how to sabotage a career.

My father ends up getting fired from work. It is not his fault. Not really. His Parkinson’s is to blame. I was an angry teenager before. Now I am something else. Now I am a nightmare. I am in a nightmare. I am falling, forever. Now every day I wake up screaming. I do not stop screaming until I fall asleep. Some days I never fall asleep.

I eventually get fired myself.

It was stupid. It was a prank. No one else thought it was funny though. I learn a new word today. Termination. I learn another new compound word. Exit interview. I can’t stop crying. I call my mother and ask her to come pick me up. She asks what’s wrong. I tell her I was fired but I don’t want to talk about it. She doesn’t press. I love her for that.

Not long after, I run away. This time, it’s different. Something new.

I have a plan. It is money and a place to stay I need, not a backpack full of canned goods. Thanks to the job, I have money. Thanks to the church we attend, I have a place to stay. I am not stupid. I know that if I call him and ask him if I can come live with him he will say no. So I don’t ask.

I walk into the bank embedded within the shopping mall that is along the bus route I used to take to work. It is familiar and easy. The teller argues with me. You must have an account here to cash a check, she says. I stand my ground. I need money to carry out my plan. After a while, she consults with a manager and acquiesces, handing me 180 dollars and some change. I walk next door to the Radio Shack and buy a portable television. My parents never let me watch TV. Now I can watch it whenever I want.

For the first time in my life, I hitchhike. For the first time in my life, I feel really scared. A man picks me up. As he drives me toward the theater, I show him my new TV. Cool, he says, give it to me, for the ride. I tell him no. He looks though the windshield and mutters. If he asks again, I decide I will just give it to him and jump out of the car while it’s moving. He doesn’t ask again.

I walk a half-mile or so to the local theater. I have a lot of distance to cover. I figure that I will cover it under the cover of darkness just in case my parents actually give a shit and come looking. I can waste the daylight hours watching a movie they would never allow me to see. I can walk when it’s dark. There’s a new Jackie Chan movie showing. There’s nudity and graphic violence in it. Rated R. I checked before I left home. It is everything I’d hoped for and more. Lots of boobs and lots of blood and kick-ass karate. I leave the theater at eleven pm or so feeling full and satisfied. For the first time in my short life, I feel like I am in control. It feels good. I decide where I go and I decide what I do. It’s a high unlike any other.

I pop a new Metal Church tape into my cassette player and walk. All night. I try to hitch a ride, but there are only a few people about and none stop. Eventually I give up and just walk, 80 miles from here to there. As I do, Metal Church screams I’m a Highway Star. Over and over and… over. I flipped the tape and run it again. Over and over again. I flipped it over until dawn steals away the darkness. Until yesterday is gone and today is… today. A new day. I catch a ride with someone in the morning who takes me the rest of the way and drops me off at the edge of town.

I do not ask. I tell him I am coming without asking.

Dawn highlights a phone booth. I find it amusing that this one only requires ten cents to operate. I slide a dime in and perform the rotary finger dance.

“Hello?”

“Terry, it’s Dan. I’m coming to see you. I need directions to your house.”

Terry (not his real name) is a good guy. He is, or was, the youth pastor of the church my parents forced me to attend. I trust him. There is some hullabaloo about him being a homosexual, but I don’t buy it. He is straight or I don’t know what straight is. He has a wife and three kids now, but it doesn’t matter to me anyway. Also, the church threw him out. That makes him okay by my reckoning.

Terry asks where I am. I don’t know. I give him enough landmarks until he figures it out. He tells me to stay put. Forty-five minutes later, he pulls up to the phone booth. Thirty minutes later, I’m home. I know it. My heart tells me so. It no longer hurts.

Eventually, I move back home. My parents, perhaps itchy because school is starting soon, begin a campaign to get me back. To their credit, and perhaps Terry’s, they play it right and do not push me, but they do, however, play very, very dirty.

Terry approaches me and tells me my parents had called. They would like to come see me, if it’s okay with me. I discuss this with him at great length. I don’t really want to see them, and I worry about be made to return home against my will. Terry reassures me, tells me I will not be made to do anything I don’t want to do. I believe him. I also see that he very much wants me to agree to this, so I do. For his sake, not mine. I’m happy where I am at.

I greet my parents with stony silence. I remember nothing of that meeting as I stand in the driveway, hemming my parents in between me and the family station wagon. They had brought my brothers and sister too. Perhaps I remember none of the conversation because there wasn’t one or perhaps none of it mattered to me because my mother said only one thing.

“We bought a dog.”

And they had. The one card they knew would have any chance of winning me back had been played and played well. They’d gone all in and packed a little black puppy in a cardboard box and driven him up to meet me. My brothers excitedly told me all about him as I follow them around to the other side of the car to look. Jammed behind the drives seat on the floor was the box and in the box was what I needed more than anything to heal the hurt in my heart. I had wanted a dog since I was ten and here I now had one. A stubby little jet black beagle and black Labrador mix that loved to have his little pink pot-belly scratched.

Terry had something to do with this; I know he did. He had a scruffy white cocker spaniel named Muffy that I had fallen in love with and had spent a lot of time playing with since I’d arrived. I thought about what I was going to do. The playing field was now level. I was wearing out my welcome at Terry’s house. It was causing a strain on his marriage and in his relationship with his kids. I know. I recognized the signs. I didn’t want that for him or his family. I owed them that.

I leave with my parents.

I enroll in public school that fall. I make new friends, get my driver’s license, a car, and a new job. My senior year of high school, I enlist in the Army. My heart, never healed, is beginning to ache again. A friend from the restaurant where I worked offers to let me stay with her and her boyfriend. So, I move into their trailer with them.

They are both really good people. After I move some of my belongings in, the boyfriend tells me he has only one rule, keep your hands off my girlfriend. She adds pitching in for food and picking up after myself. I laugh and agree. I am home.

I leave for basic training that fall. My parents fly to Atlanta to watch my graduation and celebrate with me. After graduation, I receive a hefty signing bonus. I cash the check and give my parents 800 dollars to cover most of the cost of their trip which I’m sure they could not afford. I also give them 500 dollars and ask them to give it to my friend and her boyfriend for a set of red seats pulled from a ’65 Mustang that he had been trying to sell. I didn’t want the seats. I never told them how much I appreciated them sharing their home. I hope they know it.

*

While at times it hurt less, that wound in my heart never fully healed. The last time I returned to that place I called home for so many years but never was, my heart was torn to pieces.

My wife looks on as I sob into my father’s shoulder out in the driveway, clutching him. He clutches me back. Then he gets into a car and leaves. He has to. He had ground the big broken pieces of our home into a fine dust that failed to keep any of us together any longer. We all stand in that place and scream at each other. I scream at my brothers, they scream at me, I scream at my mother. She cries. We all do. Some of us are not speaking to each other now since this night. It is not because we hate each other, blame each other, or are holding a grudge. It is because we cannot look at each other without seeing the faces of our parents. It just hurts too much. It is not home. Never was. I’ll never call it home again. None of us will.

Terry called me about fifteen years ago. He had looked me up and was wondering how I was doing. I didn’t want to talk to him, but I did anyway. It was awkward. His presence, even over the phone, was a reminder of everything I had been working so hard to forget. I feel bad about it. I owe him a huge debt, one I’ll never be able to repay, but I cannot face him or even talk to him again. The wound in my heart has not healed. It never will. I can’t allow anyone to touch it.

If by some chance you happen to read this Terry, I want you to know that I am grateful for what you did for me. You shared your home which is more than a building with a mailbox in front. A home is people who love you and whom you love in return. A home is a place where you can go to sleep without being afraid. A home is where no one hurts you because they can.

*

A home is where your heart feels safe and whole.

*

You understood that.

*

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