Last month I promised to get back to my writing. The subject matter is usually memoir. Here’s a piece I wrote a few years ago about my younger years. Based on the conversations I’ve had over the last couple of days I thought this might be the one to share.
We rarely know someone’s story.
I’m Not Dead; Only Sleeping
Camping isn’t fun.
If we hadn’t slipped into Canada I would’ve been warm and comfortable. But just how comfortable can you be living in a car with three other people?
We’re at the Banff National Park. It’s known as a tourist destination and famous for providing guests with a taste of wilderness in the Canadian Rockies. I couldn’t have cared less. We were only passing through, a pit-stop of our life on the lam. Probably on the move to dodge the police or debt collectors. It was my childhood norm. Every step we made back then was based on how close the authorities were and how visible we had become. This time, we’d snuck out of Boise and were winding our way back to Vancouver. Crossing state lines was good, but crossing the US/Canadian border was a better way to disappear. Years ago, passports weren’t required and few questions were asked. I was happy to be heading back to my real home. Everything and nothing was better in Vancouver.
I thought of it as a cold safety net.
Winter months and living in a car is best if you’re in California or maybe Texas. You can sleep outside. I remember the joy of stretching out on the car hood. Florida wasn’t ever a good option. Hot, humid and too many bugs. Miami insects feast on sweat. Homelessness in Florida has no redemptive qualities. Everything smells. Food stored in the trunk rots, and ice doesn’t exist. Even parking next to Disneyworld didn’t make Florida better. Goofy and his friends weren’t going to help us.
Our old Cadillac was parked close to the campfire. Tourist season was over and no one cared that we were there. The plan was for me and my little brother to sleep around the fire so my mom and step-dad could be in the car alone. This scheme had worked well in the past. I remember watching the fire burn down, knowing it was too cold. There were no sleeping bags to zip up around us, and only layers of the few clothes we still owned.
Night noises are scary. You have no idea what was lurking out there in the forest. Every sound was a wolf or bear or beast that would pounce if we fell asleep. We were children with imaginations and fears. Why were we expected to sleep outside and fend for ourselves? Why were our parents special and able to stretch out and be warm? Sure, they needed to be on top of their game tomorrow. This life required nerve and compromise.
And maybe just a good night’s sleep.
I made the decision to knock on the car window. Most of me wanted to stay by the fire. Sleeping inside a car with three other people was chaotic and stifling. The noise was bad, my step-father snored, and all the other breathing sounds drove me crazy. It always became too stuffy. People fart. There was no easy answer.
My brother followed my lead. He was small and had no voice. The car and life on the run was his norm. He wasn’t haunted by abuse, but he did know hunger. This was all he knew. I never minded sleeping next to him, and I know he huddled close to me for warmth. We all craved a good night. But most of me just wanted to be away from these people.
I would’ve given anything to be alone.
I don’t make any noise when I sleep; breathing so shallow that I hardly move. An old boyfriend said he often thought I was dead. My stillness scared him. Back then neither of us knew I learned this trick when I was young. It was a way to be invisible and hide.
I wanted to be alone but knew that’s where the real threat was
Sometimes my step-father’s cons went well and jobs panned out. We didn’t always need to live in a car.
That’s when my step-father would sneak into my room at night. He’d crawl into my bed. I wasn’t able to hide. It didn’t matter that I pretended I was dead. He plotted his perversion so well. I would’ve rather faced any forest creature ready to pounce and maim. Against them I had a chance. Against my step-father I was helpless. Alone in a bedroom I had no defense.
The only thing that saved me was my hate.
How can we make someone decide where safety is? And where the dangers hide? Outside, on the edge of a forest, or inside a family home? The answer to a safe haven should never ever be a car or the street. We should be better than this.
There was no easy answer back then. Eating, sleeping, being cold, and surviving. It was our reality. My norm. We have a way of adapting to the worst circumstances. Everything is relative. Listening to my step-father’s snores in the car was much better than hearing him open my bedroom door.
Sleeping outside in Banff would have been so much better. I remember looking out the car window at the dying fire and thinking a normal family would be having fun singing campfire songs and cooking hotdogs and s’mores. A normal family would be happy.
I didn’t sleep that night but I wasn’t cold.
The next day the sun was shining and we carried on our way. During the light of day I could pretend the next night would be in a hotel and include a warm meal. We even laughed during the day and my brother and I played road trip games. I spy with my little eye. I fantasized about buying a Winnebago where I could seemingly have the best of both worlds; a way to flee the police and never be touched.
A childhood dream. A childhood fantasy. All make-believe.
Now I’m old and have survived. I love Disneyland and even Disneyworld. I love going for long drives. I love the sound and smell of campfires. I hate people that snore. I’m often cold, but know I can put on a warm sweater and turn up the heat.
Today I’m happy to sleep alone, with the door locked, and my demons dead.
I barely breathe at night, and if you lay next to me, you might think I’m dead.
I’m only sleeping.