On this cold December evening, as a group of citizens in this Anchorage community gather in a little downtown park, I remember a March night in 1983. Three teenagers, Samantha, Kris and I were somewhere in the Tennessee hills, on a Trailways bus, leaving behind chaos and confusion, bad parents, bad friends, bad lives, heading for something, anything better.
I was a little envious of Samantha. She was actually a real runaway. She had family in Wisconsin searching for her. Occasionally she’d look at her watch and wonder where they were in the process.
“Now she’s calling the cops, I bet,” she’d say and smile a little.
There was no one chasing after me. My mother made me three tuna fish sandwiches and drove me to the station in Iowa City. She gave me a kiss on the cheek before I got on the bus. Her boyfriend stole one of my sandwiches.
Kris got on the bus in Chicago, but I never got the full story from her; what she was running from, why she was running, whose arms she was running into. She was tall and blonde, wore tight designer jeans and thick black eye liner. Samantha and I were a little scared of her. So were the men who tried to talk to us at the truck stops. With a look, she would send them away, flustered and embarrassed.
Earlier that day, I had pulled out a picture of the man who was waiting for me in Georgia. Kris looked at it, shook her head, and said, “Be careful.”
On that night the three of us had already been together for seventeen hours. We played “I spy.” We sang Journey and Toto songs. We read to the children of a weary mother not too much older than us. We sat up front and lightly flirted with the bus driver who said, “Girls, you’ve got some lives ahead of ya’ll.” He looked a little sad.
Then we went back to our seats, near the back of the bus. Each of us had a row to ourselves, and we stretched out and let our feet dangle over the sides of the seats.
There’s a lot I didn’t know as I was about to doze off in that bus. I didn’t know that in two years, I would leave the man in Georgia wiser and tougher. I didn’t know that I would go to college, and I would meet kind men and I would meet men who knew how to wound without raising a fist. I didn’t know that I would live in big cities and eat at fancy restaurants and tell myself, always, that everything was for the best.
And on that long night another lifetime ago, I don’t know yet that there will be long periods where I won’t think at all about that bus trip or about that time in my life. But that there will also be times, like on this cold Friday night in a downtown park in Anchorage Alaska, at a candlelight vigil for the Covenant House, a place for teenagers to go when they don’t have any other place, that it will come leaping back to me. I couldn’t even begin to imagine that at times like these, when a group of citizens get together and light candles for the young and the homeless, for girls like Samantha and Kris and me, I will be thrown back to a time right before I became an adult.
All I knew on that night in March, is that under a huge Tennessee moon, three teenage girls were being hurled into the rest of their lives. And before I drifted off to sleep to the low, steady hum of that Trailways bus, I also knew that our legs were tangled together, and that we were snuggling.