I've always been a runaway
. When things go wrong, I run. When things are going great, I run. I started running away from home when I was ten. I'd stay away for days at a time. Nobody cared. Mom was too busy chasing down her next fix to worry about me. When I was fourteen, my stepdad got drunk and beat the shit out of me one too many times so I took off. I was on the streets for three months before the police picked me up.
I got by. I turned tricks a few times. Sometimes the johns would give me something to eat and a place to stay for the night. Most of them were nice to me. Even the bad ones were better than going home. Even the bad ones didn't treat me the same way my stepdad did.
But you can only work the streets so long without attracting attention. The police picked me up. I got sent to foster homes. The first one was a good family. Nice people. They went to church on Sunday, paid their taxes on time. That sort of thing. But they had too many rules. So, I ran away. The next family they placed me with wasn't so nice. The man of the family had a thing against faggots and was always going on about how the goddamn queers were ruining the country. I was only fifteen, but I already knew I liked boys, so I ran away. Eventually they put me in a locked RTC and I couldn't run anymore. So I went to school and studied. And I passed the GED early and put in for emancipation. I took art classes at the community college and got jobs as a graphic designer. I was on my own without anyone to run from, but that didn't stop the urge. Needless to say all my relationships ended badly. When things went wrong, I wouldn't answer my phone or the door. When things were too good, I'd do the same, or if I could I'd move away. Every few years I'd find a job somewhere else. I never used a change-of-address form. I never bothered to keep in touch. Sometimes people would go to the effort to track me down, but I wouldn't return calls and eventually they'd give up. I moved through life without much of a past besides my job record, and I liked it that way. I'd changed cities four times before I was twenty-four.
Shortly after my twenty-fourth birthday I moved to Los Angeles. I got a second-floor apartment in Leimert Park. It was an older place with scarred hardwood floors and plaster moulding up near the ceiling that looked like little toes painted white. There wasn't any air conditioning, but there were big french doors that overlooked the street. On hot nights I'd look out and watch the palm trees bend with the Santa Ana winds. I liked L.A., it was an easy city to get lost in.
I was working as a graphic designer/desktop publisher for this small Travel Agency on Crenshaw. They liked my work. They said the brochures I'd come up with really sold the idea of escape. It was a good job, decent benefits and great discounts on vacations. I'd started to feel settled in when I met Etienne. He was a client. He unsettled me. He was gorgeous. He had this beautiful, curly black hair that made me want to bury my fingers in it. His skin was the color of grocery-store caramels, the kind that come in bulk and are almost irresistable; even people who'd never think of stealing can't help popping one or two into their mouths. His eyes were hazel and flecked with gold. I didn't know whether to stare into them or to look away. People use the words magnetic and hypnotic to describe eyes like that, but that doesn't fit; it was more like they had their own gravity. When his gaze was on you, it felt like it had weight.
Etienne had come in the office to purchase tickets for a group trip to New Orleans. Although I was never involved in those sort of transactions, everything in the agency was in one room. He kept smiling at me. I think I blushed. He asked me out for dinner and maybe I should have said no, but I found myself saying yes over and over.
We started seeing each other. Things got serious pretty fast. The sex was incredible. He was charming and sweet and intelligent. If I had written down a list of things I wanted a man to be, Etienne would have been that list with several improvements. We went to art films and galleries, we drove along the coast for hours just talking and watching the ocean. He would tell me stories and sing me songs. He had a wonderful voice. After about six weeks, I gave him a key to my apartment. I'd never given anyone a key to my apartment.
One night, I came home from work to find Etienne in my kitchen cooking dinner. He was making gumbo and the smell of spices made my mouth water. When he saw me he smiled and filled a bowl full of hot rice and ladled out the gumbo over it. He got a couple of beers from the fridge and a small jar of filé. He said, "You just sprinkle a little filé over it, it thickens it a little and improves the flavor."
I did, and he was right. The spicy andouille sausage made my mouth tingle a little and I probably drank more beer than I was used to. I felt dizzy and clumsy. I watched him pop a plump, tender pink shrimp between his plump, tender pink lips and blurted out, "I love you."
I had never said that to anyone before. He smiled and put his hand on top of mine. He said, "I love you too."
We went to bed not long after that. He was gentle as he unbuttoned my shirt and slipped his hands down my pants. I kissed him sloppily and feverishly. I was greedy. I tried to cover every inch of him with kisses. He was slow and deliberate as if he were undressing me for the first time. As if I were a virgin bride.
Afterwards, he turned to me, slipped an arm around my waist and nibbled at my ear. He nuzzled me and said, "You'll always be mine."
The next morning I used my employee discount and bought a one-way ticket to a Caribbean island whose brochure description was "charmingly primitive". I didn't give two weeks at work. I didn't leave a forwarding address. I had savings and the cost of living on the island was low enough that I'd be able to live comfortably for years before returning to the States.
I rented a little colonial house. There were no screens in the windows, only shutters to close against storms, but the bed came with mosquito netting and the landlady left me several orange candles to keep away bugs. The beautiful, brown island boys would all pretend to be macho in the day, but some of them would come calling in the night for secretive love-making. They mostly liked to do it outside, in the mango groves.
My life wasn't bad, but I began having bad dreams. In these dreams Etienne would appear to me and beg me to come back to him. His eyes always looked so sad. I'd try to apologize and tell him I couldn't, but each time I tried to speak I'd wake up, covered in sweat. One night, the dream was different. Etienne didn't say anything to me. He just looked at me with those hazel-gold eyes and blew me a kiss.
When I woke up the next morning, my face was covered in a gritty white powder. I got up and took a shower and washed it away. My joints felt stiffer than usual and I was tired. There was a little red nick on my cheek, but I chalked it up to an insect bite and ignored it.
I decided to go the bar in town that night. It's got a wooden sign above the door that says it's Callisto's Cantina, but everyone local just calls it Ed's. Ed is the bartender. He's a Vietnam vet who moved here in the eighties after a disability settlement. He's got one arm. He always tries to get me to go with him to the whorehouse in town, says he can get us a discount on the prettiest girls, but I just laugh and change the subject. I figure it's better not to mention my disinterest in the ladies. Ed might start charging me more for booze. I didn't feel very well that night and I think Ed noticed. When I came in he said, "You're looking real pale, Kiddo. Maybe you need to get your pickle wet? Good-looking kid like you will go blind if you keep it all for Rosie Palms and her five sisters."
I laughed wanly and asked for a bourbon tonic. A half hour after that, I fell off my barstool and onto the hardpacked dirt floor. I couldn't move. Ed asked if I was okay, and when I didn't answer he sent one of the kids who works for him to get the Doctor. I tried to figure out some way to communicate, but I couldn't even blink. A fly landed near my eyeball. I could feel it. Twenty minutes later Doctor Rosie showed up, out of breath. Doctor Rosie was from Detroit, had come here fifteen years ago with the Peace Corps and liked it so much that she'd set up shop.
Rosie knelt down next to me. She felt my wrist for a pulse. She took out a stethoscope from her bag and listened to my chest. She looked up at Ed and asked, "How long's he been like this?"
"A little more'n twenty minutes."
Rosie said, "His heart's not beating. I could give him CPR, but I don't think it'll help. I don't have life support equipment and he's across the island from the nearest hospital.He already feels cold. Poor kid. He died so young."
I tried to scream that I wasn't dead, but I couldn't even whimper. Ed said, "He was a good kid. What do I do with the body?"
"Well, people around here are suspicious. I'd suggest you have it cremated so they don't think he'll spread the plague."
I imagined being shut in the oven, able to feel the flames as well as could feel the floor beneath me now. I would roast alive unless I could manage to move or scream or something. But even still my body betrayed me and didn't even twitch.
Ed said, "I think he was a Jew. Those people don't like being burnt."
"Suit yourself. Look, I've got a birth to attend to. Are you okay here? Want me to see if I can find a Rabbi?"
"I'm fine. Don't worry, Rosie, I'll try'n take care of this mess. I'll make some calls."
I wasn't Jewish. But I was thankful to Ed for not giving my body over to be burnt. The fly walked over my eyeball. It tickled. I couldn't laugh. Ed made some calls from the rotary phone in the back of the bar. I couldn't hear what they were saying. Ed came over to me, clucked his tongue and went through my pockets. He took my wallet.
A little while later four young men showed up with a greying, tattered sheet. I recognized one of them from a tryst in the mango groves. They picked me up and wrapped me in the sheet. I couldn't see anything and sound was muffled. One of them said, "You want this boy to have a marker on his grave?"
"I didn't even know his name," Ed said.
They carried me out. One of them hummed a low, sad song. After a while, they put me into a box, roughly. My tailbone hurt where it hit the bottom. I think the box was pine. I could smell the resin. I heard a lid being moved over the top. I tried again to scream, to twitch, to do anything. But there was only the sound of a hammer hitting nails.
They lowered me into the ground. I could smell the loam. I could hear the sound of the shovels in the earth and the feel the casket rock a little each time the dirt hit the lid. After a while, there were no more sounds. There was only darkness. Unless you have been in caves without a guiding light, you have never been anywhere where the dark is so complete. Even in the darkest places your eyes adjust to make out shapes and forms and the hint of color. Under the earth there are no shapes, no forms and no colors.
I don't know how long I spent down there with the darkness and the quiet, but eventually I could hear sounds again. They came from far off but grew louder and louder. It was the sound of digging. There was a loud whack and I felt my casket shake as finally the shovel hit its lid. The shovel sounds and the scraping sounds grew louder as the digger began to move away the earth covering me. I heard the sound of splintering wood and felt cool night air rush into the small space that had been my world. The shroud covering me was ripped off my eyes. The moon was full and huge and seemed bright as the sun. Backlit, staring down into my grave stood Etienne. He was beautiful, of course. Around him were the four men who had buried me, each one had a shovel in his hand. They stared at him with awe, but he only looked at me.
"Rise," he said. And my body began to twitch at his command. He said once more, "Rise." And I scrabbled up the sides of the grave and lurched towards him with shambling, unsteady steps. He brushed his hand across my cheek. His touch was gentle. His skin was warm. I saw no malice in his eyes. He shook his head at me and said, "I told you that you would always be mine. Always. Come with me now."
And I followed him. There is no such place as away for me anymore.