Live Through This

Sneaking Around

Sometimes you can just push open a door and let yourself out.

Illustration by Beth

I knew a girl, Feng,* who ran away from home for a few weeks. She was a year older than me and took her piano lessons right after mine. When I emerged, she was always there, sitting on my piano teacher’s couch, stone-faced and unreadable, waiting her turn.

“She plays magnificently because she practices three hours a day,” my piano teacher told me when I screwed up “Für Elise” for the fourth week in a row.

My mom told me Feng’s father, who was a famous piano player in China but completely unknown in America, stood over her when she practiced and slapped her fingers with a ruler when she made a mistake. My parents reminded me how hard her father was on her whenever I complained about how hard they were on me.

My parents thought they were offering me the world that was never offered to them—the privilege of learning an instrument. I was supposed to be thankful that they didn’t stand over me with a ruler, that my knuckles were soft and loved instead of cracked and bleeding. But after I banged on my piano with tears in my eyes, because it wasn’t my choice to play the piano in the first place, I couldn’t help volleying the missile I had been aiming at my parents ever since I realized exactly what they were doing: “I can’t live out your dreams. You can’t make me.”

“Oh, but we can,” were their exact words.

One afternoon, when I was in middle school, Feng came over to my house for a few hours. She wouldn’t accept anything I offered her. Soda? Chips? Candy? “No, thank you,” she said.

“Fine,” I replied. Be perfect, I thought. Do what your parents tell you to and never question it.

But I was wrong about Feng. She ran away from her parents when she was 14 and came back with an inked-up boyfriend and piercings that her father threatened to rip out. Where did she go, I wondered, and what did she see while she was out there?

Once, when I was seven, I went to school with a low-grade fever. I tried calling my neighbor’s nanny to pick me up from school, but she told me she didn’t know how to get there. The secretary in the main office said I had to return to the classroom if no one was coming to retrieve me.

I walked out, my forehead burning. When I rounded the corner, instead of turning right to go back to my classroom, I turned left, and ran in the direction of the closed double doors that I had believed to be a formidable barrier keeping me away from the outside world during the weekday hours between 7:30 AM and 2:30 PM. I heaved myself against them, and realized something so extraordinary that I still remind myself of it every day—sometimes you can just push open a door and let yourself out.

***

The next time I made a break for it didn’t happen until almost nine years later. I was 16 and fucking miserable. My life was ruled by rules. Don’t go outside. Don’t talk to boys. Don’t think you’re different from everyone else. Don’t think you can grow up and be a writer. Don’t bother with extracurricular activities. Don’t try to get out of weekend SAT prep classes. Don’t ask if you can go to the movies. Don’t, don’t, don’t.

My house in high school was at the dead end of a street, and the symbolism was not lost on me. Behind it was the elementary-school field. In order to get there you had to trespass on a short, fenced-off path. Someone had ripped a giant hole in the fence, making it possible to slip through to the other side. I knew that dark path and grassy field behind my house extremely well, because they constituted my primary escape route.

The summer after my sophomore year, I was rifling through the kitchen cabinets when I found a key that was marked DECK. I kept it in my desk drawer, hidden under a stack of envelopes, for months, plotting and seething in my head.

“Stop dreaming and start acting,” my parents told me all the time. In a sense, they were right. At the start of junior year, I begged them to let me go to a local hardcore show at a music venue a few towns over. They said no way, and I stayed up all night writing them a letter about all the ways in which they were hurting me, all the ways in which I tried so hard to please them, but how, if they were going to force me into a box that was too small for me, pretty soon they wouldn’t have a daughter to boss around anymore.

I put the letter on my father’s pillow. The next day they told me I could go to the show, but had to be back by 9:30—and also not to ask again, because this was the one and only time they would ever say yes. I didn’t want to go if this was my only chance.

“Then don’t,” my mother said.

“You might wake up one day and I’ll just be gone,” I shouted, embarrassed that I had spilled my guts out in the letter. “I might run away like Feng, and then you’ll be so sorry for everything you made me do.”

“Try to fend for yourself out there,” my parents said. “We’ll see how long you last.”

That was the last time I tried to reason with them. That was the last time I included them in my plans for adventure, the last time I ever asked them if it was OK for me to go out into the world and hitch a ride to a punk show or sit on the hood of someone’s car in a parking lot late at night. I wanted the chance to do these things before I became an adult and had to do adult things. I had a key to our deck doors. I was going to use it.

In order to sneak out, I had to wait until I heard my father snoring, which usually happened around 10:30. Then I would put my stuffed animals and dolls underneath my sheets to make it look like there was a sleeping body in there, in case my mom came in to check on me (did she?) and make my way down the first flight of stairs to the kitchen, down the second flight to the landing, and then tiptoe across to the back door that led to the deck. Like a cat burglar, I’d press my body against the side of my house, terrified that any moment my parents’ bedroom lights might suddenly turn on, and I would see my mother’s face at the window, looking down at me, needing no more reason to destroy me than all the ones I had already given her. I would slowly inch my way around the side of my house, careful not to knock over the trash or trip over the garden hose, and then, when I finally reached the driveway, I would make a run for it. I would sprint across the six or so feet between my driveway and the fence that was my portal to the beyond.

I would stumble up the dark path, press my lips together to avoid spider webs, brush bugs and branches out of the way, and look for the parked car that, in just a few moments, would take me away. I would make my way across the field, adjusting my skirt and pulling up my tights. For a hot second, I would allow myself to imagine that where I was going tonight was going to change me forever. Then I would open the door, climb in, and say, “Thanks for getting me,” like it was nothing at all.

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25 Comments

  • katrinaexplainsitall July 11th, 2012 11:20 PM

    God, I really like this a lot, and I am bookmarking this so I can read this whenever I feel like running away from everything.

    http://www.katrinaspice.blogspot.com

  • Tay July 11th, 2012 11:21 PM

    Great article, as always

    • sophiethewitch October 3rd, 2012 3:04 AM

      Ditto. This article was just amazing.

      I always feel like I need to rebel in some way to break away from my parents and grow up, but they’re so reasonable there’s not much for me to rebel against. Except they don’t want me to get piercings yet, and I do. But is that really worth losing my parents’ trust?

  • Izra July 11th, 2012 11:22 PM

    This is my favorite post on Rookie. Thank you Jenny

  • jenaimarley July 11th, 2012 11:23 PM

    Thank you thank you thank you!
    This is so inspiring and relevant to me at the moment! I’m struggling with my parents (who I’ve always been open and honest with and who have seemed pretty open and cool about stuff too until I came to an age where I actually might “do things”). It’s really hard for me and sometimes I feel like their restrictions on me are just really ironic. But anyway, I am growing up and part of that is becoming someone who makes her own decisions and lives with the consequences.
    Thank you again.
    Love!

  • old hands July 11th, 2012 11:45 PM

    I learned how to run away from school really late. It was senior year in high school and there was this horrible goodbye pep-rally thing where all the seniors had to run out onto the gym floor and jump around and I really didn’t want to do it, at all. So when we were being herded to the gym, I edged to the back and kind of melted away. I could hear the cheers and drums from the gym and it was so loud, and then I opened the door and walked outside and it was so quiet. I think that was the best moment of my whole life. I really liked this article. It’s important to know you don’t have to do what they tell you to do. To have your own life, to have these experiences.

    • spatergator July 12th, 2012 4:11 PM

      that was a beautiful thing to read

  • ivoire July 11th, 2012 11:45 PM

    I would be terrified to sneak out and do all these things. In a way this minimizes my freedom. I DON’T HAVE AN INNER REBEL. Is that a good thing?

    • all-art-is-quite-useless July 13th, 2012 12:25 PM

      I’m the same… I would be terrified to be out at night with a strange boy.

  • Adrienne July 12th, 2012 12:01 AM

    Jenny, you are definitely one of my favorite authors on Rookie! My parents, also Chinese, insisted I learn the piano at an early age. They’re also drilling me on SAT practice… oh what fun. I don’t know why, but you’re article is inspiring to me to be bolder and maybe ask my parents for the night off.

    http://theaverageasiangirl.blogspot.com

  • La Fille July 12th, 2012 12:47 AM

    Jenny, what you said at the end about you (not your parents) taking away your paradise reminds me of a quote from Sylvia Plath: “It isn’t your room that’s a prison, it’s yourself.”

    But anyway, I identify with this. I normally live far away from my school and my friends, but when it’s 10:00 at night and my dad and step-mother are watching TV or sleeping, I tend to sneak out and look at the stars by myself: not because I want to upset them, but because I’m away from the material, the concrete, the artificial for once. You don’t have to worry about day-to-day life when it’s just you, the wet ground, and the black sky.

    I’ve enjoyed the company of people who are incredibly different from straight-laced, academic me, but I end up with a boundary of some kind that gets me to come back home: maybe I don’t want to do drugs so young, maybe I don’t want to be driven home by someone drunk.

    I’m still testing out my morals and my ethics, and given freedom, maybe that’s not really a bad thing.

    • Shanman July 12th, 2012 4:24 AM

      I just read The Bell Jar which is all about being your own prison. I love sylvia plath.

  • Ben July 12th, 2012 1:18 AM

    I really hated piano too. My parents made me do it for a while and I would have tantrums and throw stuff and I was like 12! But then they finally let me quit and I’m so happy I did!
    It snowed one night last winter and it hadn’t been snowing much at all so I went outside and walked around at night in the snow! It had like transformed my yard into a wonderland and I took some really cool flash photos! Then the next morning when I woke up it was melted away :( good thing I enjoyed it while I could! And eing out at night is so cool! It’s ver different and exiting!

  • Sea goddess July 12th, 2012 1:27 AM

    Ahh rookie i love how you somehow post something im relating to rightnow….i have on mind sneaking out to this party, where there’s gonna be lots of ppl and drinks…it’s the FIRST “wild” party id be going to…but im still unsure :/ Thankyou for posting this and making my thoughts clearer <3

  • LeatherStuddedFae July 12th, 2012 2:20 AM

    Jenny, your articles just never cease to amaze me. I could totally relate to this article. I’d probably print this and carry it around forever.

    My parents are just like yours and I wish I could be more like you. I wish I could have the courage to sneak out at night. What even makes it hard to do is that I live in an apartment with three bedrooms and my room is being shared with my two sisters. I have lived though my parents’ expectations for so long. And I hate it. No boyfriend until you finish college for puppy love is a waste of time. No going to concerts unless it’s the Jonas Brothers(I don’t even really like them =[ ) or if you have someone to go with you. Don’t be friends with the guy who tries to court you. Don’t take a cab. I’m not even allowed to cross the pedestrian! The list of stupid rules and restriction goes on.
    They do allow me to come late at night when I’m with my friends as long as I have nothing to do the next day but that seems to be just about it.

    And I very well damn know that my parents are doing the wrong thing. Controlling me with every power they have. It drives me crazy. But I also know that there are some things they do right.

    I learned to do the complete opposite of these rules and I regret nothing. All this time, I was dependent of their rules. With the help of a good best friend and breaking the rules, I became independent and I would feel free. It was one of the happiest days of my life.

    I’m not trying to rebel, I’m trying to find myself beyond the walls and doors that has locked me away.

    http://stylestuddedfairy.blogspot.com/

  • diny July 12th, 2012 9:02 AM

    i have dad who is so protective. i should be home before 7pm (i’m 20, and yes it is true). i always think that maybe it is so wonderful to have o rules. i can be out every time. but i do feel unsafe when i’m out of home. and somehow, i really like being on my room (i think my brain is start being in its ‘safest mode’ ever).

  • Lucille July 12th, 2012 10:57 AM

    You know how much I love that article, damn!
    http://fashion-babel.blogspot.com

  • piecesofserendipity July 12th, 2012 11:49 AM

    This article is unbelievably relevant to my life at the moment. I’m 16, and a few months ago I started sneaking out at night.
    My mum has always been really lenient. She lets me go to parties, and stay out, and generally trust me. But that doesn’t extend to letting me leave at 1:00am. So at like 12/1 I will sneak out as the house is quiet and meet up with people. There’s a group of us who meet up and hang around the skate parks, and public spaces until 6/7am.
    The night is so utterly peaceful it feels like I’m in my own desolate world. The streets that are busy in light are barren, and we can do whatever the hell we want. It’s freedom.
    The main difference between my experiences and yours is that these people were also my friends in the day time. It wasn’t as secretive (only my family didn’t know) but it meant I trusted them a lot more. Even as I was getting drunk/high on the skate parks in a rough estate, the guys could handle all the crap. We didn’t fear strangers in the night – the strangers in the night feared us.
    I guess what I saying is that I love my midnight escapades. You never know where you’ll end up. The stars are beautiful. My friends are brilliant and we are all so screw up and we love it. We are infinite, if only for a few hidden hours.

  • darksideoftherainbow July 12th, 2012 3:20 PM

    this was really excellent. it’s also so relevant to me right now. it’s true…you push and push so that you’re not bored with your life and soon all the pushing becomes routine and suddenly you’re bored again.

  • maddzwx July 12th, 2012 5:44 PM

    This is such a great article, one of the best I’ve read on Rookie (which is obviously saying a lot). Just wondering, though, on the first page, second to last paragraph, is that a typo? Is garden house supposed to be hose?

    • Rose July 12th, 2012 5:50 PM

      Fixed, thanks for the catch!

  • missmadness July 12th, 2012 9:08 PM

    This is so beautiful. A lot of my friends have similar experiences, which I find fascinating. When I turned 15 (old enough for trouble, in my parent’s opinion) they gave me four rules by which to govern my life:

    1. Don’t go to jail
    2. Don’t get pregnant
    3. Keep your grades up
    4. If you’re not going to be home when your dad gets up (usually 5am) call and leave a message.

    No curfews, no extraneous rules, just these. They kept me out of trouble for the most part, and made me think about long term consequences of short term actions (drinking in public=jail, staying out til 6am everynight=bad grades, etc.) It was pretty great.

  • manny July 13th, 2012 1:24 AM

    Man, this was an awesome article :)

    I’ve actually been reading Rookie for a couple of months now, but believe it or not – its pretty much this article that’s gotten me to ‘register and comment’.

    I’m 25 years old – Indian, and boy do I understand what you’ve had to go through. Honestly, I don’t think I even completely understood the extent to which I was just not being myself until I got to law school – which incidentally, is a pretty shady place to start that process of self realization.

    I love my folks – but increasingly, ever since I was 18 – I realized there were tons of things I just couldn’t see eye to eye with them. I think it takes a bunch of courage (and chocolate) to actually make a stand for yourself and re-claim your life. I agree that sometimes – you can choose to push that damn door and make things different. I also understand, that pushing that door can be such a pain – its a pretty damn heavy door.

    Maybe I’m a bit old to be reading Rookie, but hey – what the hell :) Loved the article

  • tobtob July 23rd, 2012 1:16 AM

    Thanks for this article! It’s really great. I snuck out for the first time last week, and it was so.. exhilarating!

  • Nishat August 9th, 2012 9:53 AM

    This was so, so beautifully written. I don’t think I can relate to it at all but I read through it all as if I could. I hope you’re doing something you love now, and you should tell your parents I said hi!