In our house, a girl, no matter how old, left her parents' home either wed or dead. Since I was neither, my father created a third category, running away, defined as a daughter's act of shameful rebellion, betrayal, ancestral treason.
My father often referenced "...the time she ran away." Those unfamiliar with the saga would raise their eyebrows in puzzlement; others, accustomed to his histrionics, would sigh.
After college graduation, I lived at home while I taught and saved to fund a dream trip, a summer in Europe. After my travels, I intended to get an apartment, though I had no idea how I'd make my escape. While going out on my own was as much a part of my here I come, world plan as my European tour, I knew the subject would be inflammatory; it took little to ignite conflagration.
With dorm living, a college degree, travel and a good job under my belt, I felt equipped to leave the nest despite my father's opposition.
After way too many dinner table wars, the lines were drawn--it's my life versus over my dead body. The rhetoric was hot, mine trumpeted independence, his loaded with dire predictions. You'll be mixing with strangers, you're putting yourself in harm's way, there are drug addicts out there, you could get mugged and robbed, he prophesied. Men will hit on you, he said. That particular caveat I hoped went from his mouth straight to God's ear, but the other warnings I packed away in the if you cross your eyes, they will stay that way category.
My brother got wind of the escalating hostility, and suggested an unusual strategy.
"Pack your bags and go. He's never going to give you permission, if that's what you're waiting for, so just do it. You're not a hostage."
I could not have been more astonished had he suggested I hook up with a Satanic cult. Perhaps because of his gender, my brother never internalized the fact that females in our house were subject to different rules, some made up on the spot. True, I wasn't physically captive, but just walking out, the notion that I could just do it, was unfathomable. My college girlfriends went out on their own, but that was because, according to my father's script, their families didn't care, didn't value their reputations, were shameless and amoral. After awhile longer under my father's thumb, some of those attributes sounded somewhat appealing, and the seduction of independence trumped fear.
I ran away.
Impervious to the warnings that I was risking my life, asking for trouble and tempting fate, sharing a flat with Beth, a college acquaintance, whose paramour had walked out of her heart and out on their lease, seemed perfect. I needed to bring nothing more to the furnished apartment than my suitcase, two boxes and three garbage bags of earthly possessions. Soon though, I discovered, that part of Beth's emotional healing involved bringing home strangers she met in bars. Mornings, I was afraid to walk out of my bedroom not knowing if she'd run off to work leaving her man of the hour eating breakfast at our table. Facing a potential Mr. Goodbar was terrifying, particularly after I overheard a colleague say that she'd awakened one morning to find that her one-night stand had absconded with all of her jewelry. Accused by Beth of not understanding how one recovers from a shattered romance, I took to locking my bedroom door at all times, and being alert for strangers in our shower. I slept over at a friend's apartment on nights when the prospect of Beth mending her broken heart seemed likely.
Thrilled when the lease expired, I signed on with Carri, a dorm friend, whom I knew to be neither desperate, needy, nor prone to falling in love with strangers after two drinks. The only problematic part of our living together was the fact that we were both very messy, our preferred description--not dirty messy, not disgusting messy, just sloppy spirits who thought housekeeping a waste of time, slackers who used chairs as closets, and figured college diplomas immunized against household drudgery. Reading won hands-down when the alternative was vacuuming, and we didn't own anything worth polishing so we, like Thing One and Thing Two, were comfortable in our little pigpen littered with newspapers, running shoes and lesson plans.
One day I returned from teaching unable to unlock the front door. After ten minutes of fiddling with the key, I called our building janitor, who showed up an hour later with his nine-year old clone, disgruntled that I'd interrupted his happy hour.
I tell you, Helmet, womens stupid, always trouble, I heard him grumbling to his son as they climbed the stairs to find me sitting on the floor outside my apartment.
"Mr. Hormet, my key's not working," I said. "The door won't open."
He jerked my key ring from my hands, and proceeded to lecture me on the art of unlocking a door. He had no luck either.
"Door bar," he barked.
"Can't be, I was the last one out this morning, and I locked the door."
"Door bar, maybe burglar home," he guffawed. "Helmet, go back door!"
Within minutes, Helmet appeared in the doorway crowing, "The back door was wide open! Your house is wrecked!"
"See," Mr. Hormet triumphed, "I tol' you robbed!"
"Oh, God," I shrieked, "What happened? What the hell happened?"
"You been robbed," Helmet screeched, delighted to be a player in the drama. "I discovered the crime. I'm like a detective--you have to tip me!" His father concurred, "Yeah, big tip!" The notion flashed through my mind that Mr. Hormet might be the culprit, but just as quickly I realized that he could never stay on task long enough to cause such destruction.
I surveyed the wreckage. The apartment was a catastrophe--drawers dumped, closet contents strewn about, furniture upended, pictures ripped off walls, potted plants smashed-- ruined, destroyed, trashed. Couldn't someone tell from our thrift-store decor that this was not a Gold Coast apartment, that we had nothing of value?
"How could this be," I lamented to the officer who responded to the 911 call. "Nothing here is worth stealing."
"Even a camera or a radio is a jackpot for a drug addict, Miss. It's $20.--more than he had before he picked your lock."
As I sat in tears, the detectives arrived to dust for fingerprints. Within a four square block area, we have 300 break and enters a day, one of Chicago's finest commented, as he sprinkled white powder over the crime scene. I wasn't sure if that statistic was supposed to make me feel less special, or if he was saying welcome to the big city.
And then, almost worse than the burglary, my detested neighbor walked in the door. She had dropped by on a few occasions ostensibly for the proverbial cup of sugar, but her grilling intrusiveness suggested she was some kind of government informant on a covert operation. Just tell her we're diabetics the next time she comes looking for sugar, I had told Carri, don't let the busybody in. Now Torquemada was standing in the middle of the crime scene, her head swiveling, eyeballs spinning as though she was on an intelligence gathering mission.
"Whoa, this place is a real mess," she announced, as she sauntered around assessing the disaster. "Looks like you girls got wild and crazy in here."
"No, a junkie made a housecall," I said.
"Well, he probably wanted to surprise you with a home-cooked meal. The kitchen sink is filled with dirty pots and pans. Then again, maybe he was starving after his futile search for valuables." Unable to go for her throat due to the presence of the evidence technicians, I replied in my best Eliza Doolittle voice, "Oh, Darling, those dishes are from a dinner party we had last summer. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must ask you to leave so I can inventory our loss."
Carri came up the stairs just as I was hustling the yenta out the door.
"Don't get scared, Carri, everything is okay, but we were robbed. My dad is now three for three." Carri surveyed the living room then dashed to her bedroom.
"Oh, no, the bastard stole my opal ring, my birthstone!" she wailed. "Oh, god, he got my add-a-pearl necklace too."
"Don't feel bad," I said, "he got my Confirmation watch and my grandmother's cameo."
"Well, ladies," the detective interrupted, "we've done about all we can do here. We got a few prints, but they're probably yours," he laughed. "Doesn't really matter though, we never catch anybody anyway. We dust just to make the victims feel better."
"Makes them think we're on top of things," the other Dick Tracy chuckled, as they beat it out the door.
It was getting late, the circus was over, even Helmet and Mr. Hormet had gotten bored and left. Carri and I cleared a space on the sofa to commiserate.
"He cut the cord on my Princess phone," Carri grieved.
"He got my debate medals," I said, "Let's call it a day. We can clean this dump over the weekend."
"How can we live this way for three days?" Carri yawned.
"We've lived this way since we moved in," I said only half-exaggerating, "except for the time your mother visited. By the way, I'm sleeping on the floor in your room. My bedroom door doesn't lock."
"The floor in my room?"
"Yes, I'm sleeping on your floor in case the creep comes back tonight for something he couldn't carry. My father said criminals often return to the scene of the crime."
"Your father's not infallible. He said guys would be hitting on you, and that hasn't happened. Are you thinking the dope fiend will come back for your class ring?"
"I'm worried he might come back for more stuff. Your add-a-pearl necklace only had seven pearls, remember?"
"I know I got it when I was born, but then my sister came along and my mother got too busy to order pearls," she said, turning out the light, as I nested on the floor in my down quilt.
"Carri," I murmured in the dark. "I'm sorry about your necklace."
"Don't worry about it," she said. "Someday we'll have diamonds that will dazzle even that bitch upstairs."
The room fell silent as I visualized my drop-dead engagement ring. Then in a soft voice, as though Miss J. Edgar Hoover might be listening, Thing One asked, "Thing Two, how did you realize that the apartment had been ransacked?"
"Well, my bike was gone," I whispered. "It was chained to the radiator in the living room, and I noticed it was missing."