Joyriding with the gutter punks (34)

Towards the summer’s close, Ellyn went to the courthouse to get custody of me. She wanted to “keep” me. But could she? Being kept – really being wanted – was a foreign concept for me. Most people, my grandparents included, abandoned me. Was I that unloveable? At the time, this was my reality and my mental frame of mind. 

Alas, my mother had other plans. She returned from her travels and decided she needed me back. I was still unwanted, but at least I was needed. After not hearing from my mother all summer, my mother suddenly appeared and demanded my swift return. I was useful once again— for low-income family housing on the NAU campus. 

The rules were simple enough, and my mother knew them well:

No kid, no discount housing. 

No kid, no child support.

No kid, no government handouts.

No kid, no free college perks. 

No kid, no free food. 

See a pattern? Kids, any kids, would do.

Meanwhile, my Josh sickness grew inside me like a tumor. I started loving him so much it hurt. I knew he couldn’t possibly love me as much. We were at a friend’s house watching movies - all gangster-themed, Italian and otherwise. During New Jack City, I didn’t really pay much attention to the movie, but I did pay attention to Josh. I had this overwhelming feeling of warmth while I had my head in his lap. 

Someone once asked me what my fondest memory of my mother is. I thought for a long time, but a feeling as clear as anything came upon me: it was when we were on a long truck ride, and I needed a place to sleep, so I lay down on her lap while she drove. I remember feeling so very happy. It's also the only memory I have of her touching me. Of course, she wasn’t even doing that. She was allowing me to be there as she drove. 

I’d never been touched with love up until this point, and Josh was petting my hair and being very affectionate. That feeling I once had with my mother, I was having on his lap, except it was profoundly stronger and, therefore, in my mind quite dangerous. 

And so what does a girl do who’s never had love before? She breaks up with the guy as soon as humanly possible. I had attachment issues. 

In movies, they often have plot lines where a couple takes time to kiss and exchange messages of love whilst in imminent danger. Whenever I see this depicted, I often scream because nobody has time for that when trying to save their lives. 

Being in love at this stage of my life was too risky. Josh was indeed special, and I could have spent my life with him and built a family. The tunnel of light to the end was clear for me, but I was only 16. I had more life ahead of me, and I had to live it and figure it out as I always did—alone. 

I summoned my courage for the evening I’d break it off with Josh. We went to a punk show out in a park, and I led him out to some tall grass. I think he thought we were going to make out. Everything up until this point was fine, so he didn’t see this coming at all. He was blindsided by love and by me. 

We sat in the grass, and I put on a tough facade, even though I was coming undone inside. I was about to do the one thing I never wanted to do. I was about to cut out my heart. 

I told him that it just wasn’t working out and didn’t tell him much else. He was bewildered—naturally—and I’ll never forget the scene that unfolded. A few friends were looking for him, and they found us. He stood up and said a few things to them, and they hugged him, and as the sun was setting, it was a cinematic scene of them putting their arms around him and escorting him back to the show. They left me in the tall grass, and I sat there for the next hour and sobbed. 

He belonged and I didn’t. The sobbing didn’t end. I was inconsolable. To describe it as torture would be an understatement. Things are felt intensely by the young. In my mind, strength is forged with fire. I had to be tough. I couldn’t be this soft or vulnerable. It was neither okay nor was it safe. Nobody else around me understood this duality, but then again, they didn’t have the same sort of life as I did. 

I sobbed until my girlfriends begged me to stop. One of these friends decided it was her time to make her move on Josh, and in less than a week after I broke up with him, Josh was with Trish. I loved Trish, so this development was quite the wound. My best friend ran off with the love of my life, and I was really to blame for all of it. At the time, it was easier for me to externalize that pain and blame them, but really, it was all me. My cover story did not hold up.

Seeing them together made me want to vomit. I avoided any place where they hung out, and as such, my social life evaporated. Trish was very proud of her conquest, and we got into a physical altercation that honestly neither of us knew how to handle. It ended quickly with me storming off. I didn’t want to be physical with her. I just wanted to move on with my life. I did the best I could. 

Towards the end of the summer and before my mother brought me back into her home, an unusual band of characters arrived in Flagstaff. They were charismatic vagabonds—street punks. I’d never met homeless punks before, but there they were, six or so of them traveling together in a station wagon that was filled like a clown car and smelled like a circus elephant trailer. 

I was sitting in the back of my favorite coffee shop when they walked in. They were so bizarre that you couldn’t take your eyes off them. Their style of dress and behaviors were unique. You might even say… free? They weren’t held down by life things like jobs, school, or parents. Freedom is, as Janis Joplin reminded us, just another word for nothing left to lose. 

They charted their own path. Together.  

One of them broke off from the group and came over to my table. 

“Hi! I’m Cuddles. I just got into town. Do you know where I can get a shower?”

They definitely needed showers, and I did know where to take them—to Pam’s place. 

Pam was the only person I knew who lived alone. She was excited to take the street punks in, not only for a shower, but she provided all six of them shelter as well. Pam hooked up with Cuddles, and they soon became a thing, which he jokingly or maybe not so jokingly referred to as “paying the rent.” He didn’t want to be with her but, in his mind, took one for the team. I found this development bizarre—and fascinating. Later on in life, I would understand this arrangement is a form of sex work, and people on the streets have what is called “survival sex.” You exchange the only currency you think you have for shelter. 

Cuddles and I became fast friends. We started hanging out every day, and his spirit was contagious. Unlike many of my friends who were bogged down with the realities of life, he was unencumbered by that stuff. He was on an adventure, a quest, really. Life to him was an unending joy ride, and I wanted to be along for it. Cuddles could make the most mundane thing fun, and that’s exactly what I needed at that time more than anything. 

Fun can be just as important as love and just as infectious.