I was miserable there. Mrs. Moore, my teacher, ignored me, which was even worse than the negative attention I'd gotten from Mrs. Page the year before. We were, she told us, going to die in a fiery thermonuclear explosion. We would be the lucky ones - we were close to both Ft. Bragg in Fayetteville and Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville. We would not die of radiation poisoning, starvation, and the riots that would come after. Plus, we were Christians, and we should look forward to returning to our Father in Heaven.
The other students did not ignore me. I was poor by comparison to them, a scholarship student who wore clothes from Wal-Mart and Cato's and worse. My father had stopped ignoring me as well, and my mother had returned to work so that we could afford to go to the new school. It was the first time she'd worked since she'd gotten married. She was too tired, after working all day, making dinner, cleaning the house, helping my brothers with their homework, and getting our lunches ready for the next school day.
I had two options: I could avoid the nuclear war and die, or I could run away.
I did what I always did, what I continue to do, as I considered my options. Running away was complicated. It involved figuring out a place to stay, a way to feed myself, a way to earn some money (and I was only 11 - the only option I could think of was even worse than what I was experiencing at home). I imagined living in the hayloft in Granddaddy's stables, the smell of horses, and their soft sighs as I slept. The hay around me keeping me warm and dry. The stable felt safe, but I knew that I'd be found, that I still wouldn't have any food.
So that left death. I knew the proper way to cut my wrists, and it seemed messy and I imagined one of my very young brothers finding my body. I'd have to go somewhere else. Maybe the stables, even. Somewhere where none of those I was meant to protect would find me. I imagined being dead. The pain ending, stopping. I couldn't imagine that what I'd been taught was true - that suicide was an unforgivable sin which would fast-track me to hell. I was living in hell. What God would torment me even more?
But there were things I would miss. Grandmama's Sunday lunches. The walks through the woods with Granddaddy. The beach. My brothers.
And MacGyver. MacGyver was, that year, my very favorite TV show, the best TV show that had ever been made, as far as I was concerned. I wanted to be MacGyver. I had enormous crushes on the women who showed up from time to time. MacGyver could fix anything, and he didn't - unlike, say, The Hardy Boys, need a wealthy father to allow them to solve problems. He just needed his ingenuity, a toilet paper roll, some duct tape, a slice of American cheese, a bit of twine, and a Swiss Army knife and he could thwart thermonuclear war. I'd already asked for a Swiss Army knife for Christmas.
The thought of never again seeing my favorite TV show kept me from using that knife to slice along my arms, opening my veins. It kept me from packing up a few belongings and finding a new place to live. More, even, than the grief I knew my mother would feel when I was gone, more even, than the worry about what would happen to my brothers if I wasn't there to protect them, MacGyver kept me alive.
Give me a break. I was 11.
And, instead, I learned to make myself numb. People around be became blurs of color, not really even there. The bullies who taunted me about my torn jeans or my filthy sneakers or my inability to keep my mouth shut when I knew the answer to a question in class faded.
That's how I escaped from the next 5 or so years, that, and when I got my driver's license, my little tan 1982 Pontiac T1000. It became my home away from home, my escape. I parked in the Wal-Mart parking lot, eating a cheeseburger from the Dairi-O, drinking a Vanilla Pepsi (the real soda fountain kind, not the kind that came in cans a few years later), and reading or doing my homework.
When my father left, when I was nearly 17, the need for escape flooded back in a tsunami of pain and despair. I drove my car down the curvy road toward my mom's house - it never quite felt like my home - and looked at the ancient live oaks, set just too far back from the road to ensure my quick death. I floored the little car, its underpowered engine struggling to accelerate around the curves and my heart pounding with excitement. Maybe this time the cars nearly bald tires would fail to hold the pavement and I'd tumble, thrown about in the passenger compartment, breaking my body. My family would think it was an accident. They would have no reason to feel guilty - they could just mourn my bad judgment at driving too fast, like teenagers who think they'll live forever do.
I did not think I would live forever. I hoped I wouldn't live to see my 18th birthday.
The car didn't cooperate, though. It gamely held onto the pavement and did as I asked it to do. I picked up my Swiss Army knife then and took it into my shower, just a little cubicle. I wore my bathrobe and turned on the water - I didn't want anyone finding me naked. I pushed up the soaking wet sleeves and looked at the blue veins in my arms. And I saw my brothers' faces instead. Who would protect them, once I was gone? Who would make sure that they had someone to come home to after school? Who would protect them from my mom's grimness and her lack of patience? Who, for that matter, would take care of my mom? Who would listen to her when she needed to talk? Who would support her as she decided what to do next? How could I possibly leave them alone?
I closed the knife and dropped the robe to the floor of the shower and washed my hair and tried - and failed - to cry.
I began to see my first therapist - someone assigned to me at the low-cost mental health clinic in my county. A teacher drove me there for my appointments. She opened her home to me, and promised not to tell my mom. I didn't want her to have to worry about me. I could take care of myself.
When things got really bad, I decided, I knew that I could escape. But not right then. Not while so many people depended on me to be there. It wasn't that I would miss them, really, when I was dead. It was that I would know that I'd abandoned them. I'd know that I wasn't strong enough to fulfill my responsibilities to them. I would know that I had failed. I would miss the intangible qualities that made me who I was, or who I wanted to be, who I thought I could be. Those intangibles sustained me, continue to sustain me, until now, when what I would miss when I die is everything: the world, the hope, the possibilities. I would miss knowing how it all turns out, how my nieces and nephews grow, how the little dramas of my friends resolve, who I become.
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