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We met in January of 1994 on an Amtrak train from Sacramento to Bakersfield.
You were older than me, had dark hair, kind eyes, and a sweet smile that you flashed at me when I glanced in your direction.
You sat with another guy and a girl, the three of you having an animated conversation and so happy, excited, and full of life.
I sat alone, with a second-hand army duffle bag and JanSport backpack; the two bags holding all my important worldly possessions.
Headphones on, listening to a Violent Femmes CD on my Discman, I tried to block out everything around me. I didn’t want to see or talk to anyone. I felt hopeless, miserable, completely alone, and like everyone that I knew and loved had completely abandoned me.
I was 15 and had just been let out of juvenile hall after running away with my 19-year-old boyfriend.
We were on our way to Minnesota when we were caught in Phoenix. He was arrested and despite having broken multiple laws, my father decided not to press charges and “ruin the poor kids’ life”.
He was released a few hours later and after dropping off my belongings, was back on the road to Minnesota. Without me. The girl whom he said he loved more than anything in the world, couldn’t live without, and wanted to spend the rest of his life with.
I, however, was taken into custody and placed in juvenile hall.
No laws were broken on my part and no charges pressed against me, but I was told they had no place else to put me. I later learned that it was actually at my family’s request, to teach me a lesson in fact.
They left me there for a week.
At the end of the week, two female officers escorted me to the airport and onto the plane. I was flown to my father and second stepmother’s house near Sacramento.
I was there for another week before being put on a train to my mother’s house in Southern California.
That’s how we wound up on the same train at the same time.
My attempts at hiding away in my oversized flannel shirt and shrinking into my seat to not be noticed were fruitless. You kept making eye contact.
At some point, the girl looked in my direction, saw me hunched in the corner, and came over. She introduced herself as Stormy and immediately started talking a mile a minute.
She told me where she was from, where she was going, and everything in between. She was clearly on a great adventure that she was thrilled to be partaking in. Even in my withdrawn and dispirited state, her exuberance was hard not to absorb.
At some point in the conversation, you and the other guy joined us and introduced yourselves as well. I wish I could remember your name.
The train ride seemed to last forever and we talked for hours.
With a considerable amount of pent-up emotion, I shared my story with you. All of it. And after sitting in quiet contemplation for a moment, you said that you were going to New Orleans and asked me to go with you.
I’m sure that I looked at you like you were crazy when I said quite simply, “I can’t do that.”
You reached out, held my hands, looked me right in the eyes, and said, “Why not? What do you have to go back to? What do you have to lose? You can start all over. Start a new life where no one knows you and you can be whoever you want to be and do whatever you want to do. No restrictions, no limitations.”
I sat back and thought about it.
Is that a real thing?
Could I actually do something so crazy?
Run off with a stranger? A man I’d only just met?
Start a new completely new life somewhere else?
He was right, I didn’t really have anything to go back to. It seemed that the only things that my family ever expressed about me were the ways that I was burdening them and letting them down. It didn’t seem like anyone actually wanted me around. In fact, there were few people in my life who seemed genuinely happy to have me in theirs.
So after a few minutes with you sitting patiently by my side, I said yes.
I was rewarded with another sweet smile, but this one had much more excitement in it.
The very prospect of running away with a complete stranger was ludicrous, but inside I was giddy and exploding with excitement.
Despite having just met and knowing so little about each other, there was something about you that felt familiar and safe. It was like we’d always known each other.
For the first time, I felt a kind of hope and peaceful content that was utterly unfamiliar to me. I felt like it was going to be okay. I was going to be okay. Everything would be okay.
Despite my desire for something more though, I got off the train at my scheduled stop in Bakersfield anyways.
My parents had found me really quickly the first time and I was terrified of what they would do to me if they found me again. Juvenile hall for good? Something worse?
You weren’t angry though, just sad. You listened with compassion and understanding and told me that I needed to do what was best for me.
You took my duffle bag to the connecting bus and handed it to the driver who stowed it safely in the undercarriage luggage compartment. Then the two of us sat together on a bench sharing a cigarette until the bus was ready to leave.
When the departure was announced, I handed the cigarette back to you. You stood, inhaled one last time, blew it out slowly, then dropped the cigarette to the ground and snuffed it out with your shoe. Then you reached for my hand and pulled me up toward you.
You held my hand as we walked back to the bus together.
We watched as a few stragglers boarded.
Then I looked down, staring intently at my faux Doc Martens, not sure how to say goodbye to a stranger who had already worked his way into my heart in mere hours.
You, however, knew exactly how to say goodbye. You turned toward me and tipped my chin up. My heart was beating out of my chest as you looked so longingly into my eyes that I felt as if I was standing naked before you.
Then you kissed me.
You pulled me into your body and gave me the longest, slowest, deepest, most yearning kiss that I’d ever felt in my young life. Your lips were soft. You tasted of cigarettes, but it didn’t matter. Your hands held me so that I felt like I was melting into you and was absolutely dizzy with desire.
Much too quickly though, the bus driver shattered our beautiful, surreal moment with his last call.
We hesitantly pulled away and looked into each other’s eyes for the last time.
You touched a finger to my lips and said, “Make yourself a good life.”
The driver hollered that he was leaving, I paused for a moment and thought about letting him leave without me; then thought better of it and turned to walk up the stairs.
The driver began to pull away as I sat in my seat. I looked quickly out the window and saw with relief that you were still standing in the same spot where I had left you. Our eyes stayed locked on each other until you disappeared in the dark.
I sat in heavyhearted apprehension at having to leave you behind when we had only just met.
I knew we would never see each other again.
Despite the brevity of our time together though, you gave me something that I’ve carried with me for the rest of my life: the gifts of hope and endless possibility.
Before meeting you, I was unaware that being anyone that I wanted was a possibility.
I didn’t have to be who anyone else wanted me to be or decided I was. I could be the me I already was inside. The me I had never been allowed to be.
I could go anywhere and completely reinvent myself over and over again, as many times as I wanted. I’d never felt that way before.
As an adult, I struggle often to find the same feelings of hope and peaceful content that I felt then.
But when I do see a glimmer of them, I realize anew that no matter what has happened or how bad it is or may seem, it’s still my life and I have the power to change it and make it whatever I want it to be.
I still possess the hope and endless possibility that you opened my eyes to. Sometimes it’s just in a different place and I have to look a little harder to find it again.