Updated: Mar 4, 2021
Pick a direction. Any direction.
Travel 40 miles in that direction. Any 40 miles.
Pick a starting point. Any point.
66th Broadway, New York, New York, in the middle of the street where there’s a market on nice days, vendors selling food and various other things, but mostly food. Bread, strawberries, an assortment.
A small backpack. Filled with just enough to carry you the 40 miles in any direction. But it hangs heavy on your shoulders. It drags against the pavement like the pit in your stomach. The doubt that comes with the unknown, the fear that comes with wonderment, the excitement that comes with curiosity.
Don’t forget where you start.
The skyscrapers grow taller around me, as my silhouette becomes smaller against the dark, deserted sidewalks of the city.
The pencils rattle around my bag, clicking against the notebook tied shut with a piece of blue string. The words within it sealed shut, and safe. Puzzle pieces from a past that never fit together. Reassurance of the world you’re looking for. Pages of pages filled with sentences and words and letters and spaces. Each gap between words an endless possibility of sentences.
At some point, you’ll have to stop walking, because it gets too far and your legs give out and the soles of your shoes wander off into the steps behind you.
The book at the bottom adds more weight, an anchor dragging along the ground. A reason to stop and let rational thought take you back to the starting point. But all that means is that you’ll have to start again, so you keep going.
On the bus ride after my feet have forgotten how to move forward I pull it out and open it, and reread the page I have been reading for the past three years. The page is so well read that it has been worn down and torn, and the words have begun to fade as the ink abandons meaning.
There are only two more things in my bag, and I rifle through them on the bus ride. An old Walkman that I took from my basement. It was my mother’s. It barely works, the music pauses and jumps between notes and syllables, the voices break between words. But it’s still music, and it’s better than silence. It’s better than being left alone with my thoughts.
I put my earbuds in and turn on the Walkman, letting the gentle rattle of the bus and the hum of conversation dissipate into The Ramones and Fleetwood Mac. I twist the ring on my right hand unconsciously, feeling the engravings in the silver. I still remember when I got it.
The bus hits a speed bump and I jump, tearing my eyes away from the page in my lap. I close the book after a minute, and watch the world outside the window roll by. I return the book to the bottom of my bag, and my fingers brush the edge of the one polaroid, the one picture I took with me.
I almost take it out and look at it, my fingers trace the edge, but then they move past it and soon the bag is closed and tucked between me and the window as more miles go by.
* * *
I look down at the ground beneath my feet, the pavement cracked and faded, bits of the yellow line marking the divide remaining. I turn around, watching the world unfold in front of me, the world I came from unrecognizable, ashes and smoke rising from the remains of the world I used to know.
Then the ashes and smoke clear, and it’s just the same world I knew, the same one I grew up in, it hasn’t changed. The only thing that’s changed is me.
The only reason it’s changed is because I’m not there anymore.
I adjust the backpack on my shoulders. It’s heavy, even though there’s hardly anything inside it. I sit down on the curb on the side of the road, and pull the cigarettes out of my bag. The lighter takes a bit to come to life, but eventually it does and I light the cigarette. I inhale the bitter smoke, and let out a deep breath. The sky above me is growing dark, and I look up at the stars blotted out by the city behind me. I’ve never been so trapped, beneath this sky, the darkness encasing me in a world I never knew before, and in that world, I’ve never been more free.
My life wasn’t bad. It was fine, I had a roof over my head, I had food, a decent family.
But my life was suffocating. Everywhere I turned the same things were there, the same faces, the same paths, the same everything. After a while it gets to be too much. After a while you look around and realize that there’s nothing in it that makes you happy anymore, nothing that makes you feel like yourself, nothing that even reminds you of who you are, so really you wouldn’t recognize yourself if you saw you.
I couldn’t take it anymore. I’d always felt it, but I’d ignored it, waiting for college to finally be free, to start my life, to live. But one day I realized that it was never going to change.
I let the cigarette hang between my lips and wrapped my hands around my knees, looking around me. I’m completely alone. The only life living in this section of the world, the only sign of life in this otherwise dead and deserted universe.
So about a week ago, I packed a bag and left. No note. Only idiots leave notes. If you want to be found, you leave a note. If you want to be stopped, you leave a note. You only leave a note if you want people to notice, to care, to come after you.
I didn’t leave a note.
There were so many times I’d thought of it, just leaving. Sitting doing homework at three in the morning and looking out the window, thinking how easy it would be to just leave. I could be miles away by the time they woke up, they’d never find me. I’d figure things out as I went, I’m pretty smart. I’d make a new life, my own life, I was so restless in the one I had just finished living. Every day was the same. The same stupid school, the same stupid streets, the same stupid town. That small town. No one ever went anywhere or did anything. Your typical small town, typical innocent small town.
I was so trapped. Trapped in a place I was always free to leave but never allowed to get out.
So, I left.
I really did mean to stick it out. One more year until college, that’s all there was. One more year. Just over 365 days. And I’d be gone. I’d never have to go back, and I’d still be a part of society. I’d still fit in.
Because now, I’ll never fit in.
It’s not like temporarily putting down a book and coming back to pick up where you left off, continuing the story as if nothing changed, as if you didn’t walk away for god knows how long.
It’s like chipping a piece off a vase. You can tape it, glue it, make it look like it fits together, but there will always be that one little part where the pieces don’t quite fit together right, and you can see where it was broken. You can see that it doesn’t exactly belong.
Like surgically removing yourself from society. That’s what it is. That’s what I did.
I’m fully aware of the fact that there will never be any going back.
That’s a choice I made.
But it was the right choice.
I would walk to school and look down all the side streets, at the horizon in the distance, at freedom, and think how easy it would be to just duck down a side street and keep walking, and never go to school, and never go back. To keep walking forever until the world forgot me entirely.
I’ve never done anything spontaneous. The only spontaneous thing I've ever done was dye part of my hair pink at two a.m. I’m not a spontaneous person. I overthink everything, rethink everything I overthink, and then overthink what I just rethought. It’s an endless cycle of doubt and planning and doubting the planning and re-planning because of the doubt and then putting it down and never coming back to it because it was just a bad plan in the first place.
This was spontaneous though.
It only took me ten minutes.
Ten minutes to make the choice. To look up the train schedule. To pack a backpack. To grab a handful of cash. To turn my back on the little world I lived in.
All in a span of ten minutes.
And then I was gone.
I left at 4:10 in the morning. Moving quietly and cautiously so my parents wouldn’t wake up. The stairs creaked on my way downstairs, but no one woke up. Every noise was magnified by a hundred fifty-seven decibels. I stood in the kitchen, backpack on my shoulders, and my phone in my right hand, staring at the screen. The pictures of me and my friends.
I thought about leaving a note.
But there are only so many seconds where an irrational decision will remain rational.
There aren’t enough seconds to leave a note.
I sent one text. That’s it. Three words. To one person.
And then I shut off my phone, all the way. I left it on the counter.
Then I left. For good.
There is a bus to Hartford that stops at my house early in the morning. I hear it every morning. Usually one person gets on it, if any. I waited on my front steps for it to show up, and when it did I got on. It was mostly empty, and I kept to myself, as far away from everyone else as I could get.
I didn’t look back at the house. I didn’t look back at the house and I didn’t look back at the street.
I didn’t look back.
I got on the train at the Hartford station, and switched trains in New Haven. Then it was just a straight ride to New York City. The two hours felt long, dragging by, each stop one step closer to a world that I could get lost in. And each stop one step away from a life I never belonged in anyway.
I sat in the back of the train. The car was mostly empty, with only a few other people in it, and they sat in the front, as far away from me as possible. I watched the world fly by. I like the train. I used to take it into the city on my own when I went in for music or to meet up with friends.
My favorite moments are the ones where it goes silent, and the rattling fades all of the sudden, like the sound cut out off a video, and all that’s left are the images flying past in a blur of frames. It only lasts for a couple seconds, maybe thirty seconds, and then all the noise floods back into the world and the silence is left behind.
I got off at Grand Central and walked around the city for a bit. I spent the afternoon in Central Park, then I found my way to 66th and stopped there, sitting down in Lincoln Center and listening to the sounds of the city surrounding me. The buzz of activity, always noisy but quiet.
A place where no one recognizes you, and you can get lost without needing to be found.
That’s the kind of place I belong.
I didn’t get to spend enough time there, spending too much time in any one place is risky.
But it was that feeling of liberation that brought me back to life. That quiet liberation and rush of adrenaline that made me finally feel connected to the world around me. It made me feel real.
That was a week ago, now. It’s hard to believe it was so long ago, but not that long ago.
I don’t know where I am. I don’t even know how many miles I’ve traveled. The world is a blur as the cities and rolling hills and suburbs all roll by. The bus keeps going. It stops a couple times, but I don’t get off it.
When I do finally get off, it’s at a small, deserted stop in the middle of nowhere. No one gets off with me, and I’m thankful for the quiet that follows me into the unknown. After the bus leaves, I look around, adjusting my backpack on my shoulders. It’s an open space, I can see a couple buildings in the distance, and in the other direction a wall of trees, preceded by a stretch of open grass that stretches on for what looks like miles across the horizon. I turn my back on the signs of civilization, and venture into the open field. The grass comes up to about my knees, and there are wild flowers growing in scattered patches across the field.
I smile without realizing it.
There’s something about the city that reminds you just how alive you are, because everything moves so quickly that there isn’t really time to stop and remember how dead you feel.
But there’s something about being away from humanity that makes you remember who you are. That reminds you that you are not just alive, but present.
I take a deep breath, listening to the rustling of branches from the quiet breeze that dances through the field.
I stop, and open my backpack, feeling around it absentmindedly. My fingers brush the edge of the polaroid, and without thinking, I pull it out. I don’t look at it. I know the picture like the back of my hand. All the memories that come with it, the ghosts, the pieces of a past so broken and scattered that there isn’t much left to remember.
The wind picks up around me for a second, and I close my eyes, letting go of the polaroid. The wind rips it from my fingers before they fully let go, and a part of me is glad, because I don’t know if I could have let go on my own.
I don’t think about home too much anymore. I miss it, mostly the people, but I don’t miss it. Because I was a different person, there. A person I didn’t want to be. I didn’t belong there. I don’t really belong anywhere, I guess. But I’m here, now. And where here is, I don’t know.
But I figure that’s why I fit here. I’m nowhere. I’m somewhere unknown, and by not knowing where I am, somehow I know exactly where I am.
Pick a direction, any direction.
Travel 40 miles in that direction. Any 40 miles.
Pick a starting point. Any point.
Don’t forget where you start.
But it’s not about the miles. It’s not about the starting point.
It’s about where you end up.
And I ended up here.
And, I think, that’s enough.