When You Leave No Trace
On Saturday, I stood beside my best friend and watched his tall three-year-old jump around on playground equipment with a fearlessness I never had. My best friend lives in Collegetown. He’s worried about me being back in Speedtrap and said so.
He told me I ought to have a plan to get out. “A backstop.” A time limit to my return.
His child yelled, “Look at me, Dad!” and we watched as he leapt around, wobbly but determined.
I am amazed by the child. I was terribly nervous about playgrounds when I was small. Tall slides. Monkey bars. Jumping from equipment. I was never brave enough to climb high or to let go. I preferred hiding games, when others would play with me at all. Being still in cramped spaces—always praying I wasn’t found.
The conversation faded into long-running inside jokes and new stories about his parenting, punctuated by more demands for Dad-attention, until it was naptime, and we returned to his house.
Once the excited child finally fell asleep, the conversation returned to me and my choices. My best friend said something that wounded, though I don’t know if he intended it to or not.
He told me that the seventeen-year-old me that worked so hard to “get out” would be disappointed in me for coming back, if I stayed. I nod.
He has my best interests at heart, as always, and he’s loved me through some of the worst decisions of my life. I waited a moment, let his concern for me sink in.
I am more fearful than I was when I was seventeen.
I was able to let go then. I got on a plane and flew away with two suitcases and a trunk to land in Los Angeles for college where I knew not a soul. And I didn’t stay there. College. Move. Job. College. Move. Job. College. Move. And so on. A few years here. A few years there. Still playing hide-and-go-seek with my past.
My best friend moved me across the country on three different occasions—my Uhaul Wheel-Man. Showing up with more sense and less spinal integrity each time. I knew his skepticism was warranted. I knew he had watched and loved me through low points. I knew he was protective, if prickly at times. Loving, if not always gentle. He’s been a brother to me—accepted as family by my parents for years.
At seventeen, I knew I wanted to be two things: the hell away from Speedtrap and world-shakingly important. I was all tight springs and potential energy, hope and senseless optimism.
But the thing I never told my best friend—the truth that I held next to my heart—was that my leaving had always been my furlough, not my escape. Because back in Speedtrap then was my sister, and her special needs and disabilities, and parents whom logic told me would be taken by age and then time. Whatever fast and wild times I lived were my reprieve, so live it up.
At nine, I realized that my sister was mine for the rest of her natural life. I gave up on the idea of marriage (who would want to commit to that?) and children (changing her diapers was enough) by the time I was in junior high.
So when she died when she was fifteen, and I was a college freshman, my future was ruined and freed all at once in a moment I never prepared for.
I was all tight springs and potential with a burial plot ready beside her in nearby Smalltown.
Without knowing that, I’m certain he was surprised and disappointed in me that I have returned. He didn’t know the part of Speedtrap that followed persistently like a quiet black dog. It knew all the hiding places. It could hear me crying when everyone else had stopped searching for me.
My friend wasn’t trying to be bossy; he was worried for me.
With an open heart, and some surprise at myself, I explained how I felt about the things I am doing.
I talked about pairing up with a brave and gentle person to start a group for queer and allied folks to find support in the area. I talked about finding meaning in my new church community. I talked about the ways that some of my gifts and talents and skills are finding purpose in a place that might need them.
He looked at me skeptically and reminded me that this place doesn’t need it from me and encouraged me to build something I can leave. He was right. I don’t want to build something that needs me forever. But then I said something true and hard.
“I didn’t leave the place any better by going.”
It was the first thing that made him pause.
Having lived in places large and small, I have seen poverty and beauty, love and desperation, need and joy in all of them. I just grew familiar with what was ugliest here, when I no longer felt safe, when I was seventeen and frightened and confused.
My best friend reminded me of what happened—of what he saw happen to me—when my queerness became apparent as a teenager in Speedtrap—when the town had become too small to hide in. Nothing he said was wrong or lost on me, and I chewed on it on the hour-long drive back from Collegetown, alongside lots of other ruminations. I chew on it, and I come back to a town that's still small.
I am more fearless than I was when I was seventeen.
Today, while browsing an end cap at a store, I complimented a woman on her abstract rainbow-design mask and heard a life’s story of loss come tumbling out. It intertwined tightly with my work and skills and experience. Her glasses fogged up briefly as she shared. She talked about God. She was vulnerable. I steadied myself on my feet and wagered to look her in the eyes and trusted her with my project of starting an organization for LGBTQ youth, adults, and allies right here in Real Town.
She nodded, eyebrows raised in firm agreement. She talked about how youth need the space to understand themselves, to find out who they really are. Her glasses fogged again, just at the corners. Without that space, they aren’t safe, we agreed. They use drugs. They self-harm. They die.
They leave, I realize.
But sometimes they come back.
If you are a teen or youth who is LGBTQ+ or questioning who is thinking about harming themself — get immediate support. Connect to a crisis counselor through The Trevor Project 24/7, 365 days a year. Call 1-866-488-7386 or text ‘START’ to 678-678.
If you are looking to find substance use treatment resources near you, SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), (also known as the Treatment Referral Routing Service) or TTY: 1-800-487-4889 is a confidential, free, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year, information service, in English and Spanish, for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders. This service provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations.