February 1, 2019 § 3 Comments
By Debbie Hagan
It was my last year in high school when my father and I had the granddaddy of all fights. He referred to my boyfriend by a racial slur, then the room exploded. Fists flew, clothes ripped, hair pulled. Once exhausted, we stumbled to our feet, wiped blood off our lips, and stared at one another. I stormed out of the kitchen, unable to fathom living in a house with such hatred. So, I stuffed clothes into a paper sack, figuring I’d move in with my boyfriend—a kid who worked all day in a factory trying to make enough money to pay his rent.
Reading Tonya Marquardt’s Stray: Memoir of a Runaway prompted me to recall this time. I identified with her—a smart, rebellious, poetic, yet dangerously naïve teen. Her reasons for leaving weren’t based on anything as dramatic as a fist fight or a nasty exchange of words. Rather, it was a slow gnawing pain—a feeling of being alone and misunderstood. She shoved all her clothes and precious writing journals into garbage bags and made her escape…by cab.
“I was blind to everything but hatred,” she reflects. “I hated Mom and decided I would erase myself from her life, punishing her for moving us to Port Alberni, a small town in the middle of nowhere, where we lived with her boyfriend, Don, and his four children.” In this new family with all of its own problems and complications, Marquardt feels kicked to the curb.
On her sixteenth birthday, she begins a journey to find herself. No one stops her, confirming her belief no one cares. For two years, she lives on the lam, evading her parents, school officials, and anyone with a notion of rescuing her. She’s drawn to outcasts like herself, couch-surfing, chain smoking, and experimenting with sex and alcohol. She attends high school, takes modeling gigs, and dives deep into Vancouver’s underground music scene—a dreamlike goth world, where she and her friends become fantasy characters sporting stiletto heels, facemasks, chain-mail, and fanciful costumes made of PVC. They follow up-and-coming bands, such as Skinny Puppy, Frontline Assembly, and Delerium.
“When I was with Lana, Garret, and Adam…I was living in a microcosm, a world hidden within a world hidden within a world…. We were a bunch of kids playing at being Lost Boys, looking for our version of Neverland,” she writes.
As a reader, worries escalate, turning the pages, seeing this young woman dancing closer and closer to the edge, unable to see the cliff ahead. Her story could have been just another cautionary tale about the girl with talents and dreams who loses her way. But that’s a different story. Instead, Marquardt takes us on this dark, hard-knock journey, giving us taut, fast-paced scenes where we watch a young, spunky, determined kid experiment and learn from life.
As to my own runaway attempt, when I slid into my 1961 Volkswagen Beetle, I was terrified out of my mind. I had no clue what I was doing. Like Marquardt, I was headstrong. I had a job, a boyfriend, and clothes in a brown grocery bag. I knew I would survive…though I didn’t know exactly how.
When I turned the key to the ignition, the car wouldn’t start. I cranked and cranked. Then, I lifted the engine’s cover, as if I thought merely looking at this black, oily mess of car parts might help. Then I realized, Dad had sent me a message: If you’re so damn smart, then fix this. He had me. I couldn’t even get out of the driveway on my own.
“Now I try to be tender with my younger self. I see her…full of uncertainty, raw and vulnerable but masking it, wanting to be grown-up. I wanted to be my own person, and I thought that I was having an adventure, and I was,” Marquardt writes. “But I was also a kid standing in a closet without any clothes, and I had no idea what was going on.”
Marquardt defies the odds. Not only does she survive her escape, but uses it to grow and craft this compelling story.
Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and author of Against the Tide (Hamilton Books, 2004). Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Pleiades, Superstition Review, Brain, Child, and elsewhere. She’s a visiting lecturer at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.