My dear friend went through this experience, and more too.
This is a tiny snippet of her life as a teenager in California. Names and places have been changed.
I am seventeen years old, and I am fleeing the country, the United States of America cannot protect me anymore. It is 3 a.m. I am creeping down the wooden stairs and praying the dogs do not hear me and wake my father, who will surely deliver a near-fatal blow if I am discovered. Don’t bark. Don’t bark. Don’t creak. Don’t breathe.
The sliding door to the kitchen is cracked. I left it that way on purpose, last night. Otherwise, the alarms in place to keep me here will sound. God-willing, my foresight will prevent the telling “beep beep beep” of my coming and going. Only going now. With a one-way ticket to Copenhagen. This one door. Only this door.
I am outside. The dogs did not bark. My father did not wake. Lightning did not strike. My heart is still beating. I know this because it is so loud in my chest. I’m alive and my heart will tell you.
When I was little, my father wooed my brother and I from our beautiful, dazzling, wonderful mother. He pried us apart from her with promises of video games and vacations, and no more Instant Ramen Noodles for dinner ever again. We were young, 11 and 14, incapable of resisting such riches. We agreed in court, as we told the judge we would live with our father. And he took custody, and he took everything. He said we would see my mother again but we didn’t. He used his money and lawyers to manipulate our agreements, and revoke her visiting rights. I didn’t see her again until I was 17, getting off a plane in Copenhagen. Because my mother was born in Denmark, her children were eligible for dual citizenship. After a year’s worth of email, letters, and careful planning, my mother and I decided Denmark would be our safe place.
My luggage is already in my friend Meg’s car, all my stuff carefully vacuum-sealed and jam packed to the gills. I’d been carrying bags away from my house for a month, stowing them safely in Meg’s closet. My father and step-mother were oblivious.
“Where are you taking all those clothes??”
“Goodwill,” I say.
I run to the corner and Meg is not there. She is not there. There are no headlights. I am texting her while I hide behind a transformer box with my last bags, trying to make myself as small as I can. It’s 3:05 a.m. and we had agreed upon 3. She is not here and I am certain my father is charging towards me, eyes ablaze and thrilled, for such misbehavior will warrant extreme, unthinkable punishment. At the very least, I am now a candidate for forever-grounding.
Headlights round the corner slowly, and I barely look at the driver as I grab the back door and fling my bags in. Thankfully, it is Meg. She is high as a kite and as friendly as ever. “What up girl?! Ready to run?” Her grin and bloodshot eyes are the most wonderful, familiar sight. My plan is working. But I still have to get to LAX, 2 hours away. She pulls into an all-night diner lot, where my boyfriend is waiting in his car. I needed him to be the one to deliver me from evil, via LAX, to Denmark.
I tell Meg I love her and continue to move with the speed of light. Everything in my peripheral vision is my father, my father’s car, the police, police-car lights. My mind cannot believe that this escape is happening. My processors have not caught up to my actions. Every single second feels like minutes and it’s like the fastest slow motion of all time. Almost psychedelically-adrenaline-charged, I am taking in every frame jerkily with hyper-sensitive vision, hearing, and thinking. This is unlike any possible drug experience, I am sure.
Now my boyfriend is driving. I am staring into the rearview to examine the car-chase that must be unfolding behind us. I see what you would expect to see at 3:30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning…nothing. But my fear will not subside until the airplane is flying. That is my salvation– the moment the wheels leave the earth. The pulsing light at the end of this hell tunnel.
Suddenly my vision is skewed. The car exits the highway but we are barely out of town. My boyfriend pulls into a gas station and I stare at him in agony. The tank is full. That was part of our plan. What is he doing??
“I can’t take you to LAX,” he says.
The jig is up, I am found out. I wait for him to remove his mask and reveal my father’s face, eyes bulging and red veins popping from his neck and head.
“My mom and I talked. I told her everything. She wants you to go. But I can’t drive you to the airport. You’re a minor, running away to another country. Even though I just turned eighteen, it changes everything. It could lead to a felony. I could be in deep shit and so could you. Your dad knows my car, you are still very traceable. The safest way is for you to take a cab. It’s arranged. It will meet us here any moment.”
I cannot bear this. These last hours in the United States were meant to be spent with him, saying goodbye, telling him how much I love him. This is not how we are meant to separate. I am seventeen and in love and I’m running for my life.
I move myself into the cab as quickly as I’d left Meg, so consumed with fear that I can’t even cry. I must make myself believe my boyfriend is right. He is looking out for me, and his mother too. They want me to make it. That means they love me, and I try to push this love into all my cells. I need power and strength and momentum. This is a safer bet. The driver is an elderly black gentleman. I tell him I’m going to LAX and he responds with a look of surprise and disbelief–then begrudged understanding, the face cab drivers are famous for. Not to mention, my own face is a frozen sheet of terror few would question. He drives and I lay down on the back seat, straining to focus on the music in my earbuds. “Nice Dream” by Radiohead is playing. I don’t want the song to change. I put it on a loop and close my eyes, teeth clenched in prayer to God or Satan or the Sun or whatever deity is reserved for a poor wretch like me.
Two hours later, we should have already arrived at LAX, but we haven’t. We are lost in the ghetto. The driver apologies again and again, turning off the meter. I don’t even care. This is the last place anyone would look for me. I gaze out at the streets, the poverty, the horrors, and I have never felt so safe.
I say “Don’t worry. Just don’t forget to take me to a bank before the airport. Not here.”
“I don’t stop at the bank in Compton.”
If my father is awake, he may have noticed I am gone, because I am not allowed to have a door on my bedroom. If this is so, he is raging and anxiously awaiting my return. He thinks I’ve snuck out. But if he first goes in his office, if he gets a wild hair to open his file cabinet…No. Don’t let the mind go there.
I have in my possession $4500 in checks, stolen, but not forged. It’s all the money I’ve made in the last few months, working for my father’s company. But because I am perpetually “grounded,” I have not been eligible for a paycheck. Luckily, my father is a step ahead of himself to cover his ass, and it serves my cause, almost too well. The checks were written and the amounts “deducted” via payroll. But they are never endorsed by anyone. They bear my name. They were stowed in a file I discovered months ago. And I have waited all this time to take them, moments before I crept down the stairs. It is my livelihood, I earned it. But more importantly, it is my right.
This is what I say in my head, over and over, as the bank teller eyes me up and down, takes in my contorted, teenaged face, notices the waiting cab. She calls for the manager. They speak in private while glancing up at me every few seconds. When she returns, I feel I’m about to be handcuffed. She slides the cash under the window. It’s the most surreal sight of my life. With an explosive surge of confidence I race back to the taxi, my feet don’t even touch the ground. The driver looks happy for me.
In the airport, I have several hours to kill. I planned it this way, to account for any lost time, unexpected traffic, detours, or car-chases while en route. I hide in the bathroom happily snacking on Toblerone and fancy popcorn, waiting for my name to be called over the PA system,
“Amy Jansen, Please come to Security to collect left items.” (clearly a trap)
“Amy Jansen, the police are scouring the airport with dogs and heat sensors. Your father is here to take you home. We will find you.”
“Amy Jansen, you have successfully escaped your legal guardians, as a minor, and will now fly across the earth to reunite with your loving, caring Mother, after 6 years of separation! Congratulations! What will you do next?”
I board the plane, I take my seat. In true, gregarious Amy fashion, I introduce myself to my seat-mate, a cool Danish dude with a thick accent. Since we have 10 hours to spend side-by-side, we might as well be acquainted! I unwrap another Toblerone as we make small talk. I tell him how I’ve never flown before, but I’m not feeling too nervous. Still, he recommends music, in case I need help relaxing.
“Do you know Radiohead?” he says, “I just saw them. Fucking incredible.”
I asked my friend if I could write/submit her story to Harness. During my request for permission, we had this quick, unexpectedly powerful text exchange:
Me: Your story is so amazing and brave and powerful and awesome and real and relatable. I would be honored if I can make it work. I will try. Thank you again.
Me: Also just want to say I only meant “relatable” in that you are relatable. Your story is extraordinary.
Her: Even if it’s not relatable in the specific sense, it’s at least so on a smaller scale or metaphysical level. We have all wanted to escape 😉
Author: Lisa Iacono
Bio: Lisa is a painter in New Orleans. She donates 10% of her proceeds to NAMI. For more info/commissions, see insta @dreamcarrrz or email email@example.com.