I can’t remember exactly what he said over the sound of truckers showering in enclosures I’m sure you needed shoes for. But I know it was something along the lines of “get your ass home,” from the Travel Center of America I had found myself in somewhere just west of the New Mexico line.
I quickly decided it was not the brightest idea I ever had as I peered into the screen of my cell phone that felt like a brick in my tired hands. A cold morning was on my breath and a sleepless night that I had driven straight through tugged at every corner of my 19-year-old face. My heart dropped with the first ring when I finally brought the phone to my ear and I nearly hung up when I heard my father’s sleeping voice on the other end.
The past six months or so I had spent in the hills of Fayetteville, Arkansas, drinking my underage body into oblivion and doing everything but pursuing the education my parents thought they were financing, and now it seemed that everything I had been up to was suddenly about to spill out onto the dirty rest stop floor.
What led me to the trucker’s lounge was a sudden realization that I was failing two classes deep into my second semester and a whim to pursue runaway to California. Just a few weeks before I had sold the Land Rover given to me for high school graduation and bought a beat up BMW now holding the remnants of my freshman dorm. I drove that 5 Series with its sagging headliner and leather seats that smelled like crayons from Fayetteville, through a blizzard in my native Oklahoma, under the gray skies of Amarillo to a place in New Mexico that was only grayer and uglier than west Texas, which I didn’t know was possible.
My trek along Interstate 40 would quickly reroute itself backward after a screaming tantrum with my dad. Soon I found myself back in the perils of suburban northwest Oklahoma City, the place I had regretfully called home all my life. The following weeks after my darling breakdown would be spent pacing the halls and peering out the windows of my grandparents’ house. By day, when my grandparents were busy at work, I kept the lights off and cried in the dark about a situation I had put myself in but didn’t entirely understand. By night, my grandparents home and the lights on, I hid upstairs, tight-lipped and tiptoeing as if in hiding.
No one in my family asked me much and I offered them fewer chances to. The only thing I really knew about myself at 19 was I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror and I did things that scared even me. On the surface I was like anyone else in the privileged world of one of the most average cities in America. I always had nice clothes, nice cars, great parties and friends who came to them, but in most pictures that a younger me, smiles are greatly absent. In truth, I was a bitter child of divorce who never felt he was offered the correct, dramatic grieving time to process the turmoil of my parents’ chaotic marriage. All I felt like was the result of two beautiful individuals’ biggest mistake.
I spent my high school career kiting by academically, pining for anyone to notice me socially. In junior high, I had been overweight, awkward and so lonely that my only friends were the ones I created in stories I wrote. After a toothbrush helped me vomit a couple pounds into a toilet and I decided meat was what made you fat, my underweight body was suddenly something I could tolerate being seen in. With my new, yet shallow confidence I was quick to drink more than anyone, and ended most nights being carried out of whatever house party my dad had found me unconscious. As I got older, my friends and I moved from raiding our parents liquor cabinets to scouring their bathrooms for any magic that might spur from any pill we could find. Most of us had no worries when it came to anything substantive, instead we bonded over the brokenness in us and fueled further turbulence.
It was by the grace of God that I skated across my high school stage with a 3.75 GPA and a ticket to the school of my dreams far away in Tennessee. I spent the summer crying about how much I would miss everyone, and I waited for them to tell me how much they would miss me. At the end of that summer, I would have to explain to everyone that I wouldn’t be going that far away after all, because my dad was getting remarried and he would no longer pay my out-of-state tuition. In a panic, I applied to the University of Arkansas and rode on a scholarship for students of neighboring states. When I washed up in Fayetteville, I quickly decided it wasn’t what I wanted and liquor and all that it brings would rediscover me in the Ozarks.
My friends up there were not people who particularly cared about my well-being so long as I was down to party, and since I had spent the past four years around people like that, I was in all the way. Drinking, pill-popping, it all works the same no matter if you’re in the hills of Arkansas or on the plains of Oklahoma. No matter which way I turned, the version of myself I was trying so hard to escape had not disappeared, instead it only left me more alone, and that terrified me.
By the time I withdrew from school, my GPA was well below a 2.0 and any answer I might have for my family as to why I couldn’t return to school in the fall was far from sounding logical. So I loaded my car and told myself I’d go all the way to California, stick my feet in the Pacific, and as the tide rolled back maybe it’d drag my problems away too. But my feet never got past New Mexico and I still felt scared of myself when I stared my box-dyed, bleach blonde hair in the mirror of that truck stop.
It would take months of crying on my grandmother’s kitchen floor and dodging familiar faces in the grocery store before I’d stop throwing stones at everyone else in my life and step outside of my glass house. I wanted so badly for everything that was wrong with me to be someone else’s fault, I wanted so badly for someone to chase me, to Tennessee, to Arkansas or to the trucker’s lounge of the Santa Rosa Travel Center of America. I wanted to hear someone apologize, take me by the hand and tell me everything would be all right. It wasn’t until I was enrolling in a college back home that I realized I am going to be in the same body for the rest of my life, and while I may not always be a brat, I at least always will have the same eyes, skin and heart, so long as it keeps beating. So finally, instead of waiting for someone that was never going to come, I decided to save myself.
I worked hard for the next year and transferred to my state’s flagship university. I upped my GPA immensely and traded in box dye and diet pills for real exercise and healthier habits. While my friend in the clear bottle still visits once in a while, my drinking is no longer off the scale. Now, I’m set to graduate in a few short months, a point I never thought I’d reach or earn. At this point I can’t say life becomes any easier, sometimes I still think about abandoning my life, but I’m able to look myself in the mirror now, and that stops me from running.