The very first time I snuck out, I met this 15-year-old Polish boy, Stan, who lived just a few blocks away and, actually, only had a bike. He washed his hair with dog shampoo, wore dreads down to his shoulders, and lived for moments when people physically recoiled from the sight of him.
He told me he liked to bike all around town in the middle of the night and that he once took a brick and smashed in the driver’s-side window of the most expensive car he saw parked along the side of the road. “You can come with me sometime,” he said.
I didn’t know if what I wanted was to go with him specifically, or if I just wanted to go somewhere with someone, anyone. I wanted to meet these boys that my parents warned me against, boys that they claimed would drag me down the dark and swift road to teenage pregnancy and straight on into Junkie City, because that was the sheer power of bad influences.
Stan waited for me that first night. I jumped on his handlebars and put my hands over his hands while he pedaled us all across town.
“Fuck your parents,” he said. “Don’t fucking give them the time of day.” I wanted to say, “Wait, I actually kind of understand where they’re coming from.”
Later, lying on the grass with him, I knew that in an hour I would get up and ask him to take me home. I would sprint across the field to get to my house and I would shakily let myself in through the deck doors and sleep for an hour or two before waking up to go to school, and I would walk into my first-period class feeling just a tiny bit less angry and sad.
Other than Stan, most of the boys who were willing to wait until midnight to see me, who were willing to drive their cars at that hour to pick me up, who didn’t try to get my parents’ permission to see me, were not boys at all, but older men.
I knew these two college dropouts in their early 20s who were friends of friends of friends. They shared a two-bedroom apartment in town and got into fistfights over which one of them was the “true fucking king of Tony Hawk.” One of them constantly reassured me that he wasn’t dumb, just sick of the jerks and scumbags he met at community college, and that he was planning to apply to a couple of very competitive universities next year. The other was a self-taught “Buddhist” who was very interested in my “culture.”
“Do you want to watch me attempt some calligraphy?” he asked me. “I have a sick collection of bootlegged kung-fu movies, although you’ve probably seen a bunch of them. By the way, have you read the I Ching?”
I hadn’t read the I Ching, and I liked watching kung-fu movies about as much as I liked to pull pubic hairs out of the drain, but I never said anything. I wasn’t ready to escape from my escape.
It thrilled me to see two grown men who didn’t have their shit together, who weren’t doing much of anything with their lives. I felt like I was being courted and desired in this way that was both scary and manageable, because deep down I knew that I wasn’t going to live in this town forever. I knew I could return home before morning. As easy as it was to let myself out, I could also let myself back in.
I also knew a 28-year-old English doctoral candidate at Columbia University, and we would send each other long emails about our lives, and sometimes I would call him late at night and he would tell me that I was a genius and that I was the most extraordinary girl he had ever met and that he hated the popular kids who were cruel to me in middle school and that he had fantasized about beating the snot out of them to avenge my honor.
I met up with him once in his car, which he had driven all the way from Manhattan to Long Island. He apologized for being out of shape, and I apologized for being shy. I was afraid he would touch me, and I was also afraid he wouldn’t touch me. In the end, we just sat there, trying to re-create the electric sexual tension that hovered over our late-night telephone conversations. Maybe it was there for him, but for me, as soon as I made the choice to sneak out to see him in the flesh, the fantasy of our romance was shattered, never to be recovered again.
For almost two years, from the start of my junior year until I went away to college, I kept it up. I snuck out to go on long drives with the friends of friends of my friend’s older brother. I snuck out to skinny-dip in the pool of a dude I met at the community center where I volunteered. I snuck out to the hotel room of a band that had traveled all the way from Louisville, Kentucky, to play a show at that same community center. The drummer laid his head on my knee, and the bassist made me a ring out of dead flowers and twine and gave me his handkerchief with a note that said “Alien princess from another world, take me to your land!” Sometimes I snuck out just to be alone, just to lie down on the grassy field behind my house, to listen to Sunny Day Real Estate on my CD player and wonder what it would feel like not to have to hide anything from anyone. The more I snuck out, the more I became convinced that I could get away with everything.
It’s true that I wasn’t ever caught, and it’s true that I never felt unsafe, but in the end, that stuff was just luck. In the end, I felt lonelier than ever, partitioning my life into segments. My parents didn’t know this midnight world, and the dudes I snuck out to see didn’t know what my life was like in the morning. These boys and men meant everything to me for the time they were in my life, but at some point, I needed my life to include other people, other kinds of interaction. I didn’t really want to deny my parents the privilege of knowing me. I wanted the privilege of being understood by others. And I really, really needed to get some sleep.
Was it hard for Feng to come back, because she saw how good it was out there? Or was it hard because she saw how bad it was?
I ran out every night, but I came back every night, too. Maybe my parents knew all along, and let me have my nights away. Maybe I underestimated their beneficence. I don’t know, but I do know this: my parents were not the ones who took away my paradise. I was. I pushed open that door so many times that the thrill of breaking free became the stuff of daily routine.
At some point, I knew I no longer wanted to go back to that parking lot. But I’m not sorry I let myself out. Once I realized that the pleasures of being wild and careless were just as flawed and fleeting as everything else on this earth, I continued on with my life, fearful that I had used up my quota for adventure, that I would be forever hardened by disillusionment. But it was not so. The love and the freedom and the heartbreak that were still in store for me, that are still in store for me, continue to pull me in the direction of all that is unknown. I feel as I’ve always felt—like I want to know everyone, and I want everyone to know me. ♦
* All names have been changed.