My first GF and I ran away when we were 14. 8th grade, Unionville-Chadds Ford, PA, November 1993. We jogged in our Doc Martens and distressed HOT TOPIC flannels through the parking lot, over the football and track fields, and entered the woods. There were crackling leaves of all colors and shapes on the ground. Through the stripped branches, like the ones outside the conference room window I’m in now, we watched our classmates jog on the dewy fields.
We had brought: peanut butter, Camel Lights, her retarded brother’s Ritalin, two hoodies, $57 dollars, and my yellow Walkman with a mixtape I had made for her. Mudhoney, Fugazi, Nirvana. In my back pocket, a two-pack of Trojans I’d bought from the Pakistani at CITGO.
We made pillows with our Jansport Bags and laid intertwined listening, sharing earphones. Nirvana’s “Polly” played. She smelled like peaches. We started making out, removing clothes, changing positions, etc. etc. When she smiled it was like she had too many teeth, and that’s the image I carry with her to this day.
I retrieved a condom from my pocket. Her eyes glinted and she smirked, whispering: “Great minds, right?” I leaned down again to kiss her etc. etc. and was preparing to lose my virginity when she squeaked, “My back hurts,” pushing her palm against my chest.
I remembered the lyrics to “Polly.” When I look back from this age, this is where I see my life fork, the light seeping out, as it were. Cobain had written: “Polly says her back hurts/but she’s just as bored as me.” I worried that she was bored, that it was an excuse to not be intimate with me. Without meeting eyes, we put our clothes back on, shared a Camel Light, and then she said something like, “Let’s go back for lunch.”
I was remanded to Friends Psychiatric Hospital through the holidays, playing Scrabble with Sarah Thornton, who introduced me to Dostoevsky and hung herself upon her release. When I got out, I learned my GF was dating my best friend. I stopped leaving my bedroom. I curled up all day with my dog and in school began a streak of ~100 straight days in detention, reading Crime and Punishment and translating Nietzsche from the German. I was the only one in my high school class who didn’t graduate, while my GF attended Harvard and later obtained a Ph.D. in Child and Adolescent Mental Health. It would take years, but I would catch up to her, at least in some ways.
I’m 39 now, the only person I know with both a GED and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature. I have never been married, never lived with a woman, haven’t given a Valentine’s Card since I was in Mrs. Hendrick’s 4th-grade class. Nowadays I still feel 14, empty or deprived of something I should have learned those teenage years, smoking in school bathrooms, at keg parties and dances. I don’t share these confessions, as I see them, with friends or colleagues at the university. We meet to evaluate the incoming applicants’ essays in response to the prompt, “Describe an experience that has had the most impact on your identity,” and I gaze through the windows into the dappled woods, thinking of Dante and Beatrice.
I’ve already made up my mind. The rest of the professors and staff glow over the medical student who mentions her sister’s illness, or the engineer who plans on creating sustainable grids; but for me, as for Kerouac, it’s always been the mad ones, the lost, broken before they were formed: essays about practicing mindfulness in detention, learning from mentors in rehab, breaking up fights between foster parents. The rest of the room votes 5-1 against me, as I bring up the girl with the 880 SAT, the boy with the dense permanent record—for I see failure as a sort of gift, the earlier it happens the better (like chicken pox), because we learn to lessen expectations, resign ourselves to rejection. Inoculated against disappointment, we love without hope, which is the most noble form of love—or at least that’s what you tell yourself, I can hear you thinking. But can you blame me?
James McAdams has published fiction in Amazon/Day One, Ghost Parachute, Burning House Press, and X-Ray Lit Mag, among others, while shopping a collection of shorts and working on a novel about the opioid epidemic. He is an English Instructor at the University of South Florida and the Flash Fiction Editor at Barren Magazine. His work can be viewed at jamesmcadams.org and he can be followed @jamestmcadams.