Preparing to Leave

Sunset in Santa Cruz

Don’t focus on what you have, focus on who you are. -Sean Guinan

In preparation for the trip, I am sorting through all of my possessions, deciding what to bring, what to store, and what to let go of. It’s easy to sell or give away things that I haven’t used in awhile. But one exception is a plastic box full of photos that I keep on a high shelf, hidden above surfboards, bikes, and backpacking equipment, covered with a thick layer of dust.

I pick through my plastic box once in awhile when I’m looking for something. It’s always hard to find. The snapshots are stuck together in a haphazard jumble – sharp memories poking through the rubble of my high school years.

I switched high schools seven times. Math and English were the only threads that I could follow through the maze of my education. Spanish was one of the casualties. So was friendship.

I lived with my grandparents, my aunt. I got caught sneaking out at night, got in trouble. During sophomore year, I got sent to a wilderness boot camp and then a boarding school in rural Arizona. Contact with friends was cut off. My new acquaintances were girls who did drugs, had promiscuous sex, cut themselves with razor blades, got arrested for drunk driving. There were therapists and round the clock staff. The managers were conservative Mormons. They administered a level system which no one had succeeded in ascending at the time of my arrival.

Desperate to salvage the remaining years of my adolescence, I formulated a plan to run away with another girl. We pried the screen off of the window one night, bushwhacked through cactus and barbed wire fences for several miles, reached the freeway and hitch hiked to Phoenix, where we were taken in by some good samaritans who promptly turned us in.

Eventually, I ended up at a different boarding school in Utah. My best friend was Kesty, who had been diagnosed with clinical depression. She was silly and fun loving. We played practical jokes on each other and entered a talent show on the fourth of July. We dressed up in top hats and fake mustaches, and sang the Star Spangled Banner in perfect whacky harmony. On my sixteenth birthday, I was supposed to visit my aunt but a therapist vetoed the trip. To cheer me up, Kesty planned a surprise party complete with streamers and a paper crown.

Sometimes, she would hunker down in whatever hovel she could find – a cabinet, a bed, a particular character of small space that could accommodate her head and her hands. No matter what I or anyone else did, she would spiral farther and farther down the rabbit hole, catatonic for hours. Later, when I asked her about it, she would say that she didn’t know why she did it, she just felt sad. We saw each other for who we were, and honed our friendship because of, not in spite of it.

During junior year, I moved back in with my aunt and re-enrolled in the public school I had attended before I was sent away. Kesty and I kept in touch. She sent me pictures from her high school prom. She told me she had slept with her boyfriend for the first time. She said it made her feel sad. I understood.

One day Kesty showed up with her friend Bridget at my high school and surprised me on my way to Sociology class. I ditched and we drove to Half Moon Bay. We rented a wetsuit and a softop and met up with my friend Jason, who agreed to teach us how to surf. We took turns catching waves and cheering each other on from the beach. I got in trouble for skipping school but I didn’t care. Kesty agreed it was a great day.

A few months later, I got a call from Bridget. I hadn’t given her my number; somehow I already knew why she was calling. I sat down, took a deep breath and held it, suffered through the formalities about how we both had been while she got around to it. Kesty had been staying at a group home. She had been up and down, but seemed to be doing pretty well. Then one night she decided to jump off a bridge. She was gone.

Sometimes I come across her prom pictures in the box of photos where I’ve hidden the evidence of my hijacked adolescence. I haven’t kept in touch with any of the friends from the programs I was sent to. Perhaps we prefer to pretend that we went to dances and parties, kissed boys, played sports, and signed yearbooks with heartfelt messages like we imagined everyone else doing in gilded light.

I could throw the box away and pretend. But I decide to hold on to these pictures, these relics of my life. I will put them in storage so that I can pick through them once and awhile when I’m looking for something, in the hope that they will remind me of something real.

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