I ran away for the first time when I was fourteen, because I wanted to go somewhere. I chose a man as my mode of transportation, and the wrong man, too. (Well, it could have been worse). I rode him like a wave across the border and almost all the way to California before shattering to shore. If I learned anything that time, it was only that if I wanted to go somewhere, I’d better get there myself.
My oldest son turns seven today. He lost his fourth tooth last night and I can’t get used to his weird gap-toothed grin. He’s reading me Harry Potter with a lisp: Thalathar Thlytherin, for god’s sakes. We’re at the beach on Vancouver island where my parents used to take my brothers and me when we were little. Now it’s my parents, my husband, G in her floppy hat, her kids and mine, all of us digging an enormous castle to face the tide. When we were kids, my brothers desperately wanted a way to defeat the tide, but for me the glory of it was always the tide’s inevitable triumph, the castle we’d labored over swept away like nothing at all.
I’ve left places I loved and men who made me happy, as well as some terrible men and some real shithole places, because leaving has always been something I was good at: starting over, clean slate, everything new again! The train pulls away from the station and my heart soars. How could any guy compare with the thrill of leaving him in my dust? When you’re young it feels like running towards the future, like there might be some brilliant remade version of yourself over the hill of the next adventure, every new horizon full of promise, but as you get older you might pause to ask yourself what the hurry is. I mean where exactly, after all, do you think you’re going?
I had a boyfriend who used to take me fishing. I hated fishing. I didn’t like pulling the poor flopping creatures out of the water and I didn’t like standing still. I’ve never liked standing still. But there have been these moments, most of them while traveling, that filled me right up and I experienced a real, deep stillness. Like stillness within motion. I started chasing those moments – finding a box full of kittens at the ferry dock in Kota Baru at dawn, everything glowing, the tiny noise the kittens made and the boat coming over the pink waves to take us out to the island; swimming in a clear bright oasis in the Sahara desert, near Siwa, with enormous golden dunes all around us; walking out to the end of Rose Spit on Haida Gwaii while storm-clouds rushed in over the water with a speed that seemed unreal, impossible.
Almost eight years ago, inside an ice-slicked tent on the way to Machu Picchu, I told the man I’d recently married that I wanted to have a baby. I couldn’t have said why. I tried to talk myself out of it. It was discouraging to feel so mammalian about the whole thing. I made pro and con lists and I had nothing to put in the pro column, just a long list of cons. All I could think about was what I’d be giving up, but this longing outweighed all of my reasons in the end. I had a baby, and then I had to stop pretending I was Katherine Mansfield and start planning on longevity, which is not to say that I was any good at it.
This summer I got off the bus in Vancouver and there was G waiting for me, red lipstick, earbuds in her ears, singing along to the Hamilton soundtrack – this summer almost everything I say garners a Hamilton-quote rejoinder – and two decades roll away, because seeing her there lights me up the same way it did when we were eighteen. I used to take this bus-line downtown to the café I worked at, feet up on my seat, her phone number written across the toes of my shoes, before we lived together, before we went running off in different directions, before we had husbands and children and a maze of dead ends in our wakes, before we’d really reckoned with defeat. We’re both chronic leavers but somehow I thought for sure we’d land in the same place. We wanted everything back then and we went racing after it, whatever it was, without a whole lot of thought, but now I think all I want is not to say goodbye to her every year.
I’ve been a mother for seven years, which is long enough to come to terms with the fact that no skin will ever feel quite right but I can’t keep shucking them off either. It’s long enough to get comfortable with my discomfort. But I still don’t have an answer to the who am I now question, or the question of what to do with all this love, how to live with all this fear, or what to hope for now that I can’t just pack up my life and run away.
It’s the evening of his seventh birthday and I think that if anything could ever still me or fill me now, it’s watching him run. He wants to be out of my sight, to go adventuring in the wide world, and nowhere is the world wider than here, where the tide pulls out for nearly a mile. I watch him and his little brother, their silhouettes against the dimming sky and the water rippling out beyond them. The two of them go farther and farther until they are just two black specks way out there and then my heart tugs with panic and I start to run as well. I used to run away, but now I’m always running after.
He can’t hear me calling, but still, he turns around, he comes back, his brother splashing along behind him. They are barefoot and shouting, their voices lost on the wind, but as they get closer I can hear them: Look, Mom, look! Holding something out before them in their cupped hands.
The tide is pulling out now and there’s just a lump of slightly smoother sand where our afternoon castle was. That’s what happens to everything we build, and soon the tide will turn and roar back in but from here it looks peaceful and slow. I’ll tuck them in bed and pretend I can keep them safe. I’ve bet my heart on it, my life, which counts for nothing at all, but look how happy and free they are right now, running towards me.
I go to see what they’ve found out there.