When I was a sixteen-year-old runaway in Port Alberni, a Canadian mill town on Vancouver Island, I watched my friend Garret cry in his living room over the Wonder Years episode where Winnie Cooper breaks her leg at the roller skating rink and Kevin Arnhold drives to her house in the the rain.
As the torrent washes over the windshield of Kevin’s car and Winnie’s bedroom window, Bob Seeger’s We Got Tonight crescendoes and Kevin makes the classic hetero-romantic gesture. Standing in the pouring rain, he mouths up at Winnie, “I love you”, to which Winnie, the teen star soon to be mathematician Danica McKeller, mouths back, “I love you, too.”
I was sitting on Garret’s fraying 70s carpet and he was on the couch, crocodile tears streaming down his cheeks to drip onto his Nine Inch Nails t-shirt and black cut-off shorts. I had never seen Garret cry before and didn’t know how to react, flicking my ash into the empty coke can we had fashioned as makeshift ashtray.
“You tell anyone about this and I’ll kill you,” Garret spoke through muffled sobs.
I get it, I nodded in his direction, I get it.
If you’re a stray, a kid who feels unwanted or ‘othered’ for whatever reason, there are behaviors that become your new normal. Like when I found my girl crush self-harming in the bathtub and had to decide whether to take her to the hospital or stop the bleeding so that we could keep partying. Or all the times I absentmindedly ate popcorn and watched my friends have sex in shared tents, moving cars or abandoned cabins. Or at my sixteenth birthday party, when I got blackout drunk and purposely threw myself out of the swinging doors on the second floor of my stepdad’s barn.
For my group of friends, these behaviors were antidotes. We were a pack of strays - closeted queers making out with their best friends in actual closets, indigenous kids from the Tseshaht First Nation attending a Eurocentric and toxically male high school, teens heavily medicated for ADHD selling Ritalin to make side income, sixteen-year-old mothers on welfare, or latch key kids turned teen runaways like me, who were taught that counselling “wouldn’t help” and that kids who didn’t drink were “pussies” and that books were for “art fags.”
We were taught this by absentee fathers, enabling mothers, abusive uncles, sexually explicit grandfathers. As kids living in dysfunction, we had no choice but to stick together, to be witnesses to each other’s vast abnormalities without judgement, to accept each other’s inconsistencies without demanding any change in behaviour. We understood. Each of us was manoeuvring, surviving. All we could do was stand next to each other, wait for the moment of escape.
And so I would clean the blood from my girlfriend’s wound and hide the razor blade before going back to partying. I began to use sex as a way to gesture towards the pleasurable, tender, and nonverbal power of our bodies. And I drank myself into momentarily believing that I was a bird, hurdling my body through the air from the second storey of a dilapidated barn.
I’m not that sixteen-year-old runaway anymore. Eventually I became a writer, moved to New York and got sober. Now I make my bed in the mornings, balance my check book, and feed my cats. And I know Garret wouldn’t have killed me if I told anyone that he cried to The Wonder Years; he wasn’t used to crying in front of his friends. Garret made me laugh, showed me how to scream and head bang my rage away to Slayer’s Seasons in the Abyss, listened to my rants, fed me, let me sleep on his couch. Where else could a kid like me be on a Saturday afternoon - six feet tall, wearing men’s clothes, never making eye contact, swearing like a sailor, chain smoking?
When Garret graduated, we went with our group to a nearby lake to celebrate, sitting around in the early summer evening, the sun at that time of day when it illuminates everything. We uncorked a bottle of wine and passed it back and forth between us, sitting under the trees, all our lips kissing the bottle and therefore each other. Talking and laughing, some of us would go to college, some overseas, and others would stay and make a life in Port Alberni. We laughed a lot, open-mouthed, showing off our crooked teeth. We were beautiful in the light of that sunset, and I remember them now as I want to remember them, glowing, magical and alive.
Tanya Marquardt is an award-winning performer and writer. Her first book Stray: Memoirs of a Runaway will be published by Little A in September 2018
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