So there I was.
Sweet seventeen, sneaking out the basement window. Technically, I was capital-G-Grounded. But I had places to be.
Growing up was rough. It was the 90s and I was young, white and gifted. Literally in the Gifted Program. An outsider. That read The Outsiders. Fleetwood Mac records and mac-n-cheese with cut up hot dogs at home. Two-hand touch football games on the smooth cul-de-sac pavement. Middle seats in the Astrovan carpool to soccer practice.
I looked gorgeous that night, scaling the back fence. Bleach-streaked hair. Thrift store t-shirt. Army surplus pants. Cargo pockets stuffed with ill intent. I drifted my Volvo in neutral halfway down the block before turning on the engine. Signaled my turn onto Brookfield. Turned on the CD player. Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.”
I forget why I was grounded. Probably for skipping school, but potentially for my grades. Maybe for stealing something. I was grounded a lot. A product of fucking society, man. The baddest boy in West Topeka.
The night was gonna be epic. We’d been planning it for weeks. My brother was back from college. So was Brendan. Dylan’s mom was working the night shift.
Shit was on.
I was going to go play Dungeons and Dragons, and no parents were gonna stop me.
Not even loving ones.
It was a mistake.
I knew I’d stayed too late. Four in the morning. Cheeto-stained clothes, smelling like death. Crouching at the bottom of the basement stairs. My mother’s voice, echoing through the house. Yelling my name.
I’d never been caught-caught before. Usually, it took days for my troubles to come back and haunt me. I was an expert at intercepting mail and phone calls. Giving myself time to make up excuses, set traps, deploy distractions. When punishment inevitably came, I was ready. No car. No phone. No computer. No friends. No soccer. Baby stuff. This was different. This was real.
The light in my parents’ room came on as soon as I parked the car. My heart was already racing, keyed up on caffeine to survive the ride home. Fuck fuck fuck, I thought. Not quite ready to admit defeat. See what happens. Parkour flip the fence. Sideroll through the still-open window. Creep up the stairs. Sneak past them and up to your room. Some smoke-bomb-psy-ops-ninja-shit.
It was hopeless. By the time I’d struggled over the fence, they were on the main floor. I could see my father’s head through the curtains in the living room, bobbing as he walked, a heron midhunt. I wriggled my way back through the basement window, landing in a three-point crouch on the unfinished concrete floor, smooth against my palm.
I was Daredevil in this darkness. Pictures clear as day through sound. Their footsteps circling above my head, before finally approaching the basement door. The the knob turning and the door pushing stubborn against the jamb before pulling back, the mistake my mother made every time. An open palm sweeping the drywall in search of the switch. The plastic click and the spark. I closed my eyes before the light hit.
ZACHARY. WHAT. ARE YOU DOING. IN THE BASEMENT.
Deep breath. Deeper breath. There was no escape.
Lying in bed. Lauryn Hill on my headphones. Staring at the popcorn ceiling constellations through the silvery dark. Thinking about her at the top of the stairs. The look on her face. For a moment, I almost didn’t do it.
But seventeen is still seventeen.
I yelled it louder than I needed to. Like the lead in a middle school production of The Crucible. Committed. Hitting the back rows. It was the greatest lie I ever told. Would ever tell. Will ever tell. Thought up on the spot. Perfect in execution.
She was silent, first. Then the audible whizclunklurch of her anger machine breaking down. Then sputtering. Then more silence. And my father, maybe, breathing heavily, out of view.
just… go to bed.
She turned. Deflated. I started up the stairs. Followed them through the foyer. Up the second set. Split to our rooms. They didn’t look back.
Later. Dawn coming. Safe. Lauryn Hill over. I turned off my CD player and melted into the comforter. I tried not to think about her face.
Everything laid plain. Still puffy from sleep. Deep lines carved and smoothed and carved again by years of loving me. Etched. Disappointment and worry. Frustration and rage. And the growing realization that maybe loving me wasn’t enough. That I might be able to screw this all up on my own. That she may one day only love me, despite.
I guess I was too young for remorse. Though that would come, compounded by time and lies to be told. In that moment, there was only the euphoria that came from knowing. Knowing I’d gotten away with it.
That, and the silence. Which stretched out for years.