I was fourteen. My mom had moved us to New Mexico the previous year, and I had come back to Houston to spend the summer with my dad.

It was awful, being in Houston. I was lonely, I had just come out to myself, shedding the hypocrisy that was my involvement in religion, a panacea I used to run from myself. My dad and stepmother were alien to me, full of snide comments about society, yuppie toys to play with (my favorite being the Atari 2600 hooked up to the big screen TV), and the days were filled working for dad washing stupid camping trailers and parking rental trucks for customers.

I'd taken to riding my bike for an hour or so after dinner each night. Ostensibly exercise, but really an excuse to smoke a Marlboro or six or the occasional odd joint I'd buy at the corner store from kids older than me.

I'd always stop at this wooden footbridge that crossed a little bayou, smoke, and stare reflectively at the setting sun. Then afterward, I'd go over and stare at the house where a boy I had a crush on lived, a boy I'd gone to summer camp with for three years before moving to New Mexico.

It was a pathetic time, as full of teenage angst as anybody else's adolescence, I guess.

Then I met Joe. Joe changed my life. My experiences with him so radically altered the path I was walking that I often wonder how I would have turned out had I not met him, and I simply cannot do it. I can't imagine the life I would have led. Here's why:

About three weeks after my arrival in Houston, I was smoking a cigarette at the bridge, when this boy, a little older than I was, comes walking up to me. He's not alone, he's walking a Saint Bernard. In Houston! I'd never seen one of these hulking creatures before, and I was going to ask if I could pet him. Before I was able, the boy made a beeline toward me, and asked if he could bum a smoke.

We made idle chitchat for about 10 minutes, and I fell in love with him during that short span of time. This wasn't a crush, like the summer camp boy, no teenage hormone induced physical attraction. This was more. I knew, somehow, I intuitively knew that this boy mattered. That he would have an impact on my life.

Right before he left, a couple taking a stroll approached us. He whispered, "Just follow my lead" and grabbed me by the collar and begin yelling at me. I don't remember what he said, nor what I yelled in return. What I do remember is the abrupt change in course the couple took, making off for the next bridge down the bayou. They obviously wanted nothing to do with the two smoking, swearing juvenile delinquents (with a huge dog along for the ride), and had decided to take a detour. After they were out of earshot, we collapsed in helpless mirth and we knew then we were friends.

We smoked another smoke, and exchanged personal info ... his name was Joe, he was fifteen, both his parents were dead and he lived with his stepmother and her husband. He had a sister with multiple sclerosis, and overall, well, he wasn't the happiest of people. He told me that the laugh we'd shared was the first he'd had in a long time.

I went home, feeling as if my bike was floating ten feet above the pavement.

We met each night after that, and gradually introduced the other into our respective lives. We spent our weekends together, most often at his house (or at the top of a 150-foot tall electrical tower, god I was stupid!), as my dad was rather strict about letting "strangers" into his house.

One of those weekends, we got really high on Jack Daniels and pot ... and had sex. It was the first experience for both of us, and rather prosaic in the details, so I'll spare you them, other than to tell you that seeing him swimming, naked and free, in the subdivision's swimming pool at 3 o'clock in the morning is one of my most treasured memories, and I think it's the last time I ever saw Joe truly happy to be alive.

Y'see, Joe was always looking for something, and he could never find it. He always said he wanted to be free of a family that was no longer his, but I think he was searching for happiness. And I, in my youthful ignorance, wanted to give him that happiness, and would have done just about anything to see him smile like he smiled that night at the pool.

He was planning to run away from home, and he invited me into his plans. We were going to steal a car from a neighbor (we both lived in the same "planned" subdivision, though the neighbor was closer to me than to him) who always left his cars unlocked, with keys in the ignition and cash in the glove compartment. Joe was going to steal a bunch of his stepmom's husband's (I've never found out what one calls a relation like that) gold jewelry and guns to pawn, and I was going to clean out the Coke and candy machines from my Dad's office. Our plan was to get to Los Angeles and find jobs, lose ourselves in a big city.

Miserable as I was, and as in love as I was, I of course was willing to run anywhere with him.

And it was remarkably easy to do, though I had a scare the night we ran away that nearly ended my life. I had no trouble crawling out the window, but my suitcase wouldn't fit ... so I had to go out the front door of my dad's house. Trying to do this, quietly and in the dark, was difficult. I had to get my suitcase outside, then lock the door from the inside, then get myself out via the window in my bedroom. However, I had problems re-locking the door after I had placed the suitcase outside. The damn thing just wouldn't lock, and I fumbled with it in the dark for about ten minutes.

Suddenly, the lights snapped on, and there was my dad, nude, pointing a pistol at me. And there I was, fully dressed at 2 in the morning, sure I was busted, and certain that I'd miss Joe, that he'd leave without me, and filled with enormous relief that my dad (a former cop) had decided to ask questions before shooting. I somehow managed to stammer out to my dad that I had snuck out of the house, I was sorry for waking him up, and that I'd never do it again. He, in turn, told me that we'd talk about it in the morning, saw me to my room, and locked me in.

Hah! Since I used the door, he must not have thought I could sneak out via the window. I waited for about half an hour, then snuck out, grabbed my suitcase and raced down the street to meet Joe, who I was sure had left without me.

He hadn't. The car Joe wanted to take, a Trans Am or something, was parked in the (closed) garage that night, so we ended up stealing a Jeep Cherokee. Imagine, if you will, the sight of two teenage boys, trying to quietly push a BIG car out of a driveway in the middle of the night. We managed it, though, and got the car a couple of blocks away before we jumped in and hit the road, stopping to swap license plates with another car from an apartment complex about ten miles away.

I didn't leave a note ... only my bible. I didn't give any thought as to what my family might have thought because I didn't think they cared about me. At that time, all I knew was I was in love with Joe, and loved him more than I would ever love my family. Sigh.

We made it to San Antonio by sunrise, and slept in back of the car at a rest stop on I-10. We were scared of being caught, and we were always looking over our shoulders. But nothing bad ever happened, other than getting run off the road by a crazed semi-truck driver and several of his friends (also driving semis) one day. Once we crossed into New Mexico, we knew that no one had any clue as to where we were, and relaxed a little. We took our time, hiking and visiting Indian reservations, and thanks to the cash we'd managed to steal (or received from pawning stolen goods) from our respective families, we lived pretty well. We made love every night (usually to the sounds of Styx's "Cornerstone" album), falling asleep cradled in each others arms, telling each other "Sleep tight, dude" before closing our eyes. Joe seemed happy, and that's all that mattered to me.

Then we hit the Grand Canyon, and everything changed. We had decided to hike the canyon and were planning to spend at least a week there. We'd eat at McDonald's every day, and there Joe met a girl, and began spending some time with her. And he fell for her. That's when we began to drift apart. I realized that being gay was what I was, but for Joe it was truly "just a phase". And I hated that fact, and him. By the time we'd hiked back up the Canyon (an adventure in itself, but that's another node) I knew that we'd never make it to LA. The following morning, I read that a huge hurricane (Hurricane Allen, if you care) was about to slam into Texas, and I used that as a pretext to call our families.

Our families, of course, managed to talk us into turning ourselves in. And we did, calling the Grand Canyon Park Rangers as soon as we hung up with our families. We told them that we had stolen a car, and wanted to turn ourselves in. Next thing I know, I'm on my stomach on the ground, and a shotgun's pushing at the back of my head. I was being arrested. And back then, I felt as if I was being arrested for being in love ... that I had to run away because the world just wouldn't accept that love. Heh, I know better now. In their eyes, I was a car thief. Nothing else mattered to them.

We were separated for the next few weeks as we wended our way through the Arizona juvenile justice system, and we managed to be reunited on a bus ride from Flagstaff to Albuquerque, where I met my mom. Joe continued on back to Houston. We held hands the entire trip together.

Fortunately, my family had money and hired good lawyers, and I got off with six months probation and one thousand dollars restitution. Joe wasn't so lucky, and spent some time in a juvenile hall. It hardened him, and killed whatever compassion was left in him. He became somewhat of a sociopath and recluse, and though I managed to spend a lot of time with him the following summer (again, another adventure for another node) we were never really close again, more like good drinking buddies, both trying to drown the sorrows our adventures had caused us in our lives, as well as the feelings we once had for each other.

For me, I ran away for Joe. I'd never been in love before and I thought being in love meant doing anything as long as you were with the one you loved. It seems silly now, twenty years later, but I'll never forget the things Joe taught me: to take risks, to live life, to have adventures, to not care about other people's opinions of me. I'll carry those lessons with me to my grave; the bitterness of how the relationship ended has long since vanished.

My only regret is that I ultimately ended up in California, the dreamland we wanted and tried so hard to reach together, and Joe will never know that. He vanished from my life fifteen years ago. If he's out there, and happens to be reading this (unlikely as it may seem, stranger things have happened to me), I guess he'll finally know.

And know this, Joe: I still love you. I wouldn't be the person I am today if it weren't for you.

That makes all the bad things that happened because of our stupid decision to become felons all worthwhile.

Sleep tight, dude.