When I was in the second grade, my oldest brother dropped out of high school and ran away. Some years later, my second oldest brother followed suit. But there’s nothing like the first time, right?
Immediately afterward, the family had a meeting to discuss the fresh absence of Michael. In the wake of the seismic shift in our reality, our parents suggested that we not spread the news quiet yet. This was, undoubtedly, an attempt at desperate face-saving as much as a bid for propriety, but I was young enough not to see any ulterior motives in the official party lines. My brother’s sudden disappearance (perhaps only sudden to me) was my first realization that some people don’t follow the rules, and it would be years before it occurred to me that I could be such a person.
I have a distinct memory of the day after the family meeting. I was at school, standing in the back of Miss Lippy’s first and second grade classroom by the paint easels. As an excuse to be back there, my freshly minted best friend, Aaron, and I were cleaning the paintbrushes. In my first act of premeditated parental defiance, I told Aaron about my brother leaving home. Such a momentous occasion was struck anticlimactic by the fact that he already knew: His dad was the youth pastor of our church and was in the loop of our secret familial strife.
Like most distinct memories, this one probably isn’t true. Some version of it certainly happened in real life, but the specifics are likely a marriage of other, forgotten memories and utterly false remembrances. This unreliability of memory is the constant bane of my attempts to describe my life in a coherent narrative. Additionally, my place as the youngest child sheltered me from our family’s harsher realities, making an accurate memoir of my childhood a lost cause.
What I can report on are the imagined details of my youth. For instance, as a scrawny 7-year-old with a global perspective limited to the barn-esque walls of my ramshackle Christian school and the Saturday morning cartoons I watched religiously, the term ‘runaway’ elicited images both grand and enviable. I pictured hitchhiking, numerous distant cities, the spirit of exploration. Essentially, I envisioned my brother as a Kerouacian figure, years before I’d ever even heard of Kerouac.
As with all childish fantasies, the truth is simultaneously less romantic and more depressing. I will leave it to my brother to tell his own story, someday, as I would be markedly un-omnipotent as a narrator. What I can tell you is that my notion of my brother’s exodus from our home was laughably naïve. My 7-year-old mind didn’t grasp that a 17-year-old high school dropout might not have the means or the inclination to travel the nation as an itinerant artisté.
Well, perhaps the inclination, but certainly not the means.
Much could be made of the effect these young delusions had on me. The parallels between my silly misconceptions and my current, foolish endeavor would be obvious to even the dimmest of dime store psychoanalysts. The darker parallels are there, too: Feelings of abandonment, loss of faith in family, pathological self-reliance.
The mind that could commit itself to 10 Cities in 10 Years is clearly ripe for vigorous therapy.
But we’re all fuck ups. I come from a family of them, and I say that warmly. I’ve always taken pride in it.
I have another distinct memory from my youth: I’m on the playground at school, on the blacktop with Aaron, playing basketball. Another kid, Warren, was annoying us and we were giving him a hard time in return. Now, Warren wasn’t a bad kid, but he wasn’t popular (and in a class of only 20 people, if you’re not popular, you are really not popular) and he was easy pickings. He was shunned and generally rejected, and even pantsed at one point if I remember correctly, though I probably don’t.
Frustrated and bitter, Warren lashed out at me: “What makes you so special?”
“Because my brother ran away.”
Yes, I said that. Or, you know, something like that (memory ain’t too reliable). My claim to superiority was my laminated Dysfunctional Family Membership card. For those of you who come from boring, happy families, you may never understand just how much self-identity we fuck ups take from being just that: Fuck ups.
The trick for those of us who are more interesting than happy is to take all of that dysfunction, mold it like clay and make something compelling out of the muck.
So, 10 Cities/10 Years: A catastrophic trainwreck. An avoidable mistake. A product of unhealthy neuroses.