Essay, E.E. Connolly
The first time I left my hometown was early in the morning of my eighteenth birthday. I was coming down from a tumultuous adolescence, a decade-long road of botched runaway attempts, botched suicide attempts, desperate screaming matches in CVS. On the day I left, I said goodbye to no one, packed my newly purchased beater car full of plastic storage trunks, and moved 3,000 miles away.
I traversed empty highways, living through middle America one truck stop at a time. I ate waffles at one of three plastic tables at an isolated diner in Springer, Indiana and listened to the owner greet every takeout customer by name.
In my new city, I adopted a different persona. I told people that I was from a nearby suburb and tried to hide my outlandish excitement during the first snow of the year, which also happened to be the first of my life. I learned the seemingly innate societal practices of wearing a coat and the best ways to shoplift into its pockets. I rode the bus to the end of the line and back again to fill the time that stretched between unsuccessful job interviews and clearance-shelf frozen dinners. Perhaps most importantly, I became obsessed with the idea of faking my own death. I felt halfway there already, disembodied and unattached in a lively city. I shoved my way through crowds with ease. No one bothered to look in my direction. Even the frequent catcalls I’d been subject to since puberty dried up. I was reminded of my elementary school days, when I had been obsessed with ghost stories and taken to skipping class and wandering the empty hallways, picturing myself as a murdered girl fated to stay inside those walls. Late into the night, I scrolled through internet forums on the topic, watching the voices inside my laptop plan out every little detail for their escapes.
I followed their lead. One day my walks led me to a busy freeway bridge over a river and I decided that that was my way out. I could leave my craigslist roommate a note, she’d call the police, they’d find out my history of suicide attempts, but no body, and I’d be off the hook. I could pack a backpack, dye my hair, take a Greyhound under a fake name, live out the rest of my days without the weight of a personal history.
This plan was complicated, for no discernible reason. The profiles in the forums discussed criminal records, loveless marriages, crushing debt. I had none of that, I’d just barely dipped a toe into adulthood. My old friends were thinking about trying shrooms for the first time, but I was already trying to erase myself.
So I let the plan lapse, unable to justify the effort. Winter blew in and swallowed me whole.
A number of years later, I saw the first ghost of myself.
It was a sunny January morning, I was groggy from a two-day drive. I’d spent the night in a Motel 6, ten minutes from my childhood home. The mattress was lumpy and the inside of the microwave was blackened. Unable to sleep, I just stared at the ceiling. It felt like there were ants inside my skin. When I saw the first sliver of light in the room, I dressed in a sweater and leggings and drove to the trail.
I had never gone by car before. I used to live a block away, so any time I had spent here had been exclusively on foot. Back then, I knew the mountain better than my own backyard. I knew every trail marker, every sun-bleached shrine to a dead biker, every secluded forest area and cave. When I stepped onto it now, I felt tall and awkward. I kept walking, coating my sneakers with dust they had never felt before. Halfway to the base of the mountain, I spotted the shady area my neighbor and I would sit in to have picnics and shelter from the heat. I had to duck to get in. When I sat down, a small tree branch dug into my scalp.
I kept walking, the sun rising behind me. I was alone on the trail, maybe even on the mountain. The birds had just started chirping. The trail forked off at the base, one leading to a flat loop, the other going upwards. I began to climb, my knees creaking with every step.
After a considerable effort, I reached the first peak. It wasn’t too far up, but I could see my old subdivision, laid out in front of me in all its beige glory.
The cold and morning light softened it, this place I spent so long hating so violently, doing anything I could think of to never have to return. I had hauled it around in the deepest corners of my mind, basing my next move on how much I could separate myself from it. Now, as I looked out at it, silent and golden, I couldn’t bring myself to see it as intolerable.
The sun began to warm my face. It was almost daytime. I walked to the edge of the peak, to a familiar flat rock, and sat down. My legs dangled over the edge of the mountain. If I kept my eyes straight ahead, it felt like I was floating.
This rock was where my best friend and I used to come to see our neighborhood and talk. We had clocked hours upon hours sitting side by side, gazing out, swimming in disgust for everything that surrounded us. We devised a plan to buy fake ids so we could run away without getting caught, talked in a naive, romantic way about what it would be like to have freedom, to sleep by a riverbank, dumpster dive, train hop. We saw ourselves as pariahs, thought that the only way we could ever fit in was by living our lives in the margins, constantly straddling the line between existence and obliteration.
Now, I felt that sad, desperate, trapped girl who grew up on this mountain all around me. She was so full of hate, unable to picture a normal, bearable, let alone happy future. I was heartbroken for her, she was so small. She had overdosed one night, only a mile from this rock, sliding handfuls of pills past her braces. I saw her a week after that night, fresh off her first 5150, on this rock, knees against her skinny chest, feeling for the first time that she could remember that life might be worth living.
I saw her on her sixteenth birthday, sitting here at dusk with a sleeve of crackers, face caked with dust and sweat. She was thinking about the 730 endless days that stretched ahead before she could leave. Those turned out to pass quickly, but not easily, and she learned that being at the end of the countdown didn’t automatically fix things.
The ghosts gathered around me, flickering in and out. I began to sob, shallow and desperate, choking on the morning air. They gathered around me, stroking my back, my hair. A seven-year-old with choppy bangs wiped tears from my face. I wanted to bathe in their memories, see the world from their eyes. I wanted to let the little girl lead me down the mountain to her house and take a nap in her twin-sized bed.
They were too far away from me, but I was still grateful for their comfort.
I drove back to the motel alone, showered until my skin was red, and walked over to the grocery store next door for breakfast. In the bakery aisle, a teenage employee waited for me with a tray of blueberry muffins.
E.E. Connolly is a writer of fiction and prose. Check out their work on https://eeconnolly.substack.com/