Wait for Me, I’m Coming
Everything starts in the attic room, up on the third floor with the family somewhere underneath but silent. I don’t think about them, reading their books in their various corners. I have this third floor, this attic, to myself, and I use every inch of it.
The ceiling consists of two sharply slanting planes that meet along a seam in the center under which I can stand and walk upright in a straight line. To move to the side of the room I must begin to stoop, then stoop further. That’s where I have to go to get at my stereo, the best thing here.
I am not supposed to have such a fine possession, but I got lucky. My father moved back in with us, giving up that bachelor pad in D.C. and bringing with him this stereo, not as high quality as the Fisher downstairs, so I got it. It sits on the beige carpet of the attic floor, flanked by two small, free-standing speakers. It is a Panasonic with a radio dial that glows lime-green when I push the on switch with my big toe.
The other best part of this room is that the sofa cushions are on the floor. I didn’t want the frame of the old sofa, just its cushions. I don’t sit on them much, but they would be perfect to sit on with a friend or two, smoking pot, laughing, listening to music. But I am here alone and that scene is just imaginary.
I don’t know why there aren’t any friends. It is a horrible truth. There used to be many of them, back when I was little. But something snapped when I was twelve and now I can’t talk to people anymore. I can only stand back and watch as they laugh and chatter in the hallways at school. Words stick in my throat. I feel too different from all these kids in the American high school I have just returned to. It is impossible to blend myself in.
I am alone except for the warm, deep voices of the male DJs who talk to me every night and the songs they play for me—men singing with guitars, singing poems about being on the road, weaving pictures I know to be true about another world, another way of living, one that I mean to enter when I am no longer trapped in this place where I hope I don’t belong—catching a ridiculous school bus to eleventh grade every morning.
I have my ways of trying to enter the other world ahead of time. On warm afternoons I carry my guitar down a nearby dirt road and sit near a stone wall and play Blowin’ in the Wind, the one song I can get through without stopping. I wait for a perfect boy to appear from the woods and find me—he will have a ponytail and jeans and he will fall in love with me, a girl in the woods, playing the guitar. He will think me beautiful the way Leonard Cohen thinks Suzanne is beautiful, the way Bob Dylan thinks that girl who’s an artist who don’t look back is beautiful.
The boy does not appear. Neither does anyone else. On weekends I hitchhike through local roads, presenting myself: look, here I am, a free spirit, ready for you. And suburban moms pick me up and drop me off though one boy one Sunday links up with me and we make out in the rain at an abandoned bus stop, but he is not a Merry Prankster. He can’t take me into the world I want to find.
My plans have to get bigger. I have to get far, far away. I have to hitchhike not just on these pathetic local roads. I have to hit the highways, the real cross-country stuff like the people I see standing on the entrance ramps to the Merritt Parkway holding cardboard signs that say Albany! Chicago! They are the real travelers I want to catch up with.
Up in the attic room, I devise a plan. My grandmother lives on a ranch in British Columbia, about 3,000 miles from me here in the suburbs of New York. I tell my parents that I’d like to visit her, that I could go by bus. A one-month Greyhound bus pass costs $150. For good measure, I throw in the need to visit a couple college campuses. That’s what the guidance counselors are advising this year—you need to go look at campuses before you decide. I have never asked for something that costs anything close to $150 before, but my parents say yes.
My father wants to come with me for the college campus part. All my life he has talked about how Yale is the only American school worth thinking about. He went there years ago, fresh off the boat from Hungary, and is proud of the Yale chair he bought for the living room.
But I want to go see Antioch College in Ohio because there were riots there a few years ago and I am hoping there still will be and that my boys in ponytails and girls in long skirts will be there, waiting for me. Luckily, my father doesn’t argue, and we set off in his beige VW bug that he calls “Noisette,” which means hazelnut in French.
The Antioch campus is empty in July. No one is rioting or even there. I meet with a professor, as they tell you to do, but neither of us knows what to say.
My father and I travel on to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. As we pull in off the highway, following signs toward campus, we pass streets of Victorian houses with big porches and stoops full of my people: girls in long dresses, boys with long hair. I wish I knew how to get to them.
Finally, my father is waving good-bye, leaving me at a Greyhound bus station. I will hitchhike cross-country, yes, like in the songs, but this paper bus ticket in my back pocket is a comfort, a backup, until I figure out how to actually do this thing.
I get out of the bus in the first city. It is early morning, somewhere past Detroit. I have the requisite backpack, a small, beige canvas thing left over from childhood that my mother bought for a school trip, but it is better than nothing. I know you can’t hitchhike across the country without a backpack.
I walk into the unknown city with its pale, wide, empty sidewalks and four- and five-story buildings. I have a few hours before the next bus leaves. I wander into a park.
A man begins to talk to me, and I talk back. His English is broken. So are his teeth; some are missing. But he smiles. He says I am pretty. He is gentle, older than me, and I don’t want to hurt his feelings. I can tell from his shabby clothes he is poor, but I like that he is on the outside of things. He is not living an ordinary life. And although he is not the hippie boy I am looking for, I let him kiss me. We lie down on the park grass in the sun’s warmth and we kiss a lot, and making out with a stranger—even this one—is close to the kind of life I want to be having.
“I want to show you the zoo!” he says, jumping up, persisting until I give in and we board a city bus. He buys my ticket, happy and excited. Block after block rolls by, all of them taking me further from my bus station. “Very soon!” he keeps saying, but finally I jump off. The man jumps with me, and we walk back to the bus station.
“Don’t forget me,” he says and ties a string around my finger. I sit back in the bus and look out the window. The man waves and waves, smiling and happy as the bus pulls out.
I shouldn’t really even be on a bus. It’s time to get my hitchhiking going. I hesitate, though, and hate myself for it. What a wimp.
I am in Canada now and in a bus-station coffee shop I overhear a gray-haired man in a navy blue blazer speaking with an English accent. “Hi,” I say. “Are you from England?” I like English people. I used to live in that country.
After a few minutes of talking the man asks if I would like a lift. He’s driving west toward British Columbia. “Sure,” I say. It’s not really hitchhiking, but it’s close.
He pulls up in some kind of station wagon. “This is just a rental,” he says. “My real car is an MG,” but when he stops for gas I look in the glove compartment and read some official piece of paper, stating that he and a woman own the car.
“We’ll have to stop for the night,” the gray-haired man says after a few hours and, we pull up at a large old hotel surrounded by forest, the kind of eighteenth-century place my father would have chosen. “Just wait here,” the man says. “I’ll go in and make sure we can get a room.” He comes back and says, “It’s all set. I’ll go in first and you can come in a bit later. Is that okay?”
“Sure,” I say, as if this backdoor status doesn’t matter, and off he goes. I wait a few minutes in the darkness of the car then enter the carpeted lobby, pretending not to see the clerks behind the lamp-lit front desk and slipping into the elevator up to the third floor.
The man flings open the door with a flourish and a smile when I knock. The room is paneled with old-fashioned wood and there is one large double bed.
The one job I have is to make sure he thinks I’ve done things like this a million times. I go into the bathroom to change into my white cotton nightgown threaded with blue ribbon. I am a virgin, a status I would like to change no matter what. Unfortunately, I have my period, so I don’t want it to be tonight. When I come out of the bathroom the old man has all his clothes off and turns to me with his hands held out in a gesture of hopelessness. “I hope you don’t mind,” he says.
“Oh, no,” I say, my shrug casual. Nothing must surprise me. This man is old, like a grandfather, but none of the boys back in high school know how to get a hotel room like this, none of them know how to do anything except in a back seat. This man, at least, can stand naked in the middle of a room.
I get into bed with him and he kisses me. I explain that I have my period. I will have to keep my underpants on. He touches my breasts. “A breast should always fit under a champagne glass,” he says approvingly. “Are you a virgin?” he adds. I admit that I am and this seems to make him happy. At some point white liquid spurts out of his penis, and I take pride in this. I’m still a virgin, but not quite as much as before.
In the morning he orders room service. We sit in the curved wooden window seat with our tray of coffee and muffins. He’s already been out, he says, and explains that there is suddenly something wrong with his car and he will not be able to take me as far as he had hoped. He can take me to the highway, he says, and drop me off.
I pretend that I believe him as he makes a show of driving slowly because of the disabled car. “I’ll call you next week and we’ll go beachcombing!” he promises. He pulls over and I step out onto Route One, the two-lane ribbon of highway that crosses Canada. And now, as the gray-haired man drives away, I am really on the road, with nothing between me and the traffic.
Within minutes another car pulls up. A boy is driving with a girl next to him. There’s another boy – one with a beard – in the back seat and I slide in next to him. His name is Gerard. They are on their way to see Lake Louise, and I would go anywhere with them. This is how I have wanted it to be—with kids, driving. I want these people to be my friends. I want Gerard to be my boyfriend, but within an hour or two they are on their way in a different direction with things they have to do.
In the next town I wander back to the familiarity of the bus station and try to sleep, propped up against the wall, my head on my pack the way I have seen so many hippies do, but a scary official shoos me out. I scramble, grab my things, move fast, and then it happens. I can’t find my bus pass.
Somewhere in my mind, in a part I never look at, I knew this would happen. I knew it was just a matter of time. This ticket is too important and too flimsy, this little piece of paper that protects me.
I am not far from my grandmother’s ranch, a couple hundred miles. Hitching there will be easy. The roads are small and manageable. But then, in two weeks, I will have to get all the way back to New York with just my thumb. I won’t think about that now.
I cannot tell anyone I have lost this ticket. My parents cannot afford another one. I know this all the time. Every expense is a hardship for my mother, for my father, so I will not let them know that I have lost that ticket. And I will not let any of the relatives know either. It is too much to ask of anyone.
Although the old English man does not call me to go beachcombing, I laugh a lot with cousins and relatives over the next two weeks. I never reveal my secret of the lost bus ticket and do not think of the long trip back waiting for me. I spend my last night in British Columbia in the suburban home of an uncle who will drop me off at the ferry that will take me to Seattle where everyone thinks I will be catching that bus back to New York. “Do you need anything?” he asks gently. “Money? Please tell me if you do. You’re my favorite niece, you know.”
“Oh no,” I say, “I’m fine.”
I have mapped out my route. I will go straight down the West Coast into California and then make a sharp left in Sacramento to start crossing the country.
I don’t know how else to sleep in Seattle except find a motel, which is not at all what a hitchhiker should do, but at least it has a bed with Magic Fingers just like in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. And then it is morning and I have to face that interstate highway. I make myself do it. I walk through Seattle backstreets to the interstate’s entrance ramp. Lanes and lanes of traffic fly by in both directions and I must enter. I must stand as I have watched others stand. I have envied them from the backseat of my mother’s station wagon, but it does not feel the way I thought it would.
I walk up an entrance ramp to the top, turn to face the cars, and stick out my thumb. I am sixteen. My long dark hair is pulled back with a red bandana. I have on my back the knapsack from when I was twelve. Tied to it is a heavy lump of driftwood, so beautiful, that I picked up in British Columbia. It gives my childhood pack some personality, plus it will look so good in the attic room back home with the stereo and the couch cushions on the floor. “Oh yeah,” I’ll say to some hippy boy who is visiting. “I picked that up hitching in BC.”
Quickly, there are rides, all with men. It never takes more than a couple of minutes for someone to stop and I am zipping through Washington, then Oregon. One man picks me up in northern California. He’s just a few years older than me. There are empty soda cans rolling around the floor of his black Camaro. Maybe he will fall in love with me. Maybe he has a life I could join. “What are you doing hitching by yourself?” he asks.
“None of my friends had any guts,” I answer. Quick. Casual. He must not know that there are no friends.
“Well, you got guts, I’ll give you that,” he says and drops me off and I am still in my own life and I turn again, face the traffic and put out my thumb.
This time a dapper man picks me up in a tidy suburban car. He looks like an insurance salesman with short hair, white shirt, and maybe even polyester pants, and together we make that sharp left and start crossing the country.
We drive through the stark salt flats of Utah, pausing to take pictures of the moon-like landscape neither of us expected. I start to like this man a little, not in a boyfriend way, but in a companion kind of way. When night falls he pulls up at a motel. He pays at the front desk and gives me my own room. He is not a man whose world I want to join, but when we part the next morning I give him my home address because he wants to send me the photographs he took of Utah.
When I left New York my mother asked me to call her every day. And I do, letting her know that the bus trip is going fine, that I am safe and sound.
And always it is the men who pick me up, slowing down their huge 18-wheeler trucks so I can climb up into their cabs. I am tired and fall asleep easily in those high-up front seats. “You were smiling,” says one of the men when I wake up.
And they show me, each of them, the sleeping pad behind the seats, a cozy cave, and I get into the habit of slipping back there for sleep as we barrel into the horizon. Sometimes I stop with the men at truck stops, barren places with counters, set down in the middle of nowhere, and always I am the pretty girl among the men who buy me coffee and a sandwich.
“Look,” one of them points from behind his huge steering wheel, up ahead. “See that silver bull dog?” And I look and figure out he’s pointing to the statuette poised on the hood of his truck. “That bull dog tells you you’re in a Mack truck. A real Mack truck.” And now I know to look and check each truck to see if the bulldog is there and to feel better if it is.
And then I am in Lincoln, Nebraska. It is morning and I am walking up the entrance ramp to meet the highway streaming with traffic. I am used now to my reluctance and to overcoming it.
As I walk, I look out to a small park in the distance. I can see a few people with dogs and children. My eyes land on one figure, a man with a dark pony tail and beard, wearing overalls and tossing a Frisbee. He is a small figure out there, but he looks perfect. He is the boyfriend I am looking for, but he is far away, a stranger in the distance, and I must go and meet my traffic.
I continue up to the lanes of cars, roaring in both directions. The pack is heavy with the chunk of driftwood. I reach the top of the slope and begin to walk along the strip of asphalt next to the racing cars and trucks, not quite ready to stick out my thumb and dive in.
I hear footsteps behind me and I turn. It is the boy who was playing Frisbee back there in the park. He is not a boy. He is a man, short, chunky, but with a handsome face, brown eyes, a smile lost in a forest of dark beard. “Where you headed?” he asks.
“New York,” I say.
Up ahead an 18-wheeler pulls over and the man in the overalls and I run to meet it. I reach up and yank open the truck’s passenger door. There are two men up there, peering down. The one behind the wheel leans over and yells, “We got room for the girl.”
“No thanks,” I respond and slam the door.
The man beside me laughs and says his name is Joseph. He too is going to New York.
We walk as the traffic screams by us, and we get rides and in the afternoon Joseph picks up a big roll of corrugated cardboard lying by the side of the road. “This’ll come in handy later,” he says.
Late that afternoon I leave my pack with him to walk across a field to find a tree to pee behind. Halfway across the field I turn around to look back. Is he still there? Yes, he is, and he is watching me. I smile and wave. He waves back. Someone is with me.
I don’t want to tell Joseph that I have to call my mother every day. That would spoil things. “It’s my brother’s birthday,” I say as we pull into a rest stop, the sun starting to set. “I want to give him a call.” I don’t have any brothers, but I tell Joseph I have two. Older ones who are my dearest friends, I say, so that he will picture me with older, male company, a woman of the world.
As I come out of the phone booth and we head back to the highway Joseph says we have to start looking for a bridge. “We want one with a ledge underneath, high up, yeah, like that one,” and he points and we walk to a bridge up ahead. It looks no different from the hundreds I have passed in the last few days. “Follow me,” says Joseph and he clambers up the bank. We reach the ledge, high, above the lanes of rushing headlights. “It’s a great place for sleeping,” says Joseph, “and this cardboard will keep us warm.”
He spreads it out. We lie down side by side. This now is perfect. I have a man with a beard who knows what he’s doing to lie beside, outside and under a bridge, just like Me and Bobby McGhee.
We lie in the dark, Joseph’s back to me. “Come closer,” he says over his shoulder, “the body heat will keep us warm.” And I move closer, wrapping my arms around him the way I want to anyway. He doesn’t turn around and kiss me as I wish he would, but he’s right about the body heat and the cardboard. We are warm.
In the morning we keep going. We have miles and miles to go, which is fine with me. I don’t care if we never get there. We get into trucks and then more trucks, Joseph always chatting with the drivers as I sit still, speaking when I can, but never as much as everyone else.
Joseph is 27, he says, and does this all the time, criss-crossing the country. He has no money with him, and I don’t tell him about the $40 in travelers’ checks in my jeans pocket. I want to live exactly the way he does.
“That driftwood’s gotta go,” he says, “you can’t travel with all that weight,” and I let him persuade me to leave my over-size lump of heavy wood beside the road, keeping just the small piece that fits inside my pack. “And we have to get you better shoes,” he says, eyeing my leather sandals. He directs the next ride to drop us off in city streets where he knows where to find the Salvation Army. It turns out you can pick out what you want there and not pay anything at all. I find a pair of gray men’s lace-ups. “That’s better,” says Joseph. “Now you can walk.” I love my new shoes, my road shoes, procured the way people on the road—people with no money—get things.
Each afternoon I make up a new reason why I need to go to a phone booth. I think up a story, disappear, call my mother, tell her the bus is great, hang up the phone, and go back to Joseph where he waits and we continue, rides upon rides. “Boy, traveling with a girl makes it easy,” grins Joseph. We are covering ground too fast, the country spinning by, bringing me always too close to home. And he still has not kissed me.
“You don’t talk much, do you?” Joseph says with a soft smile after a couple of days, and I am crushed with shame. He has seen and said it out loud.
“I talk when I want to!” I say to ward him off. He must never ever see that I am not really a girl who has friends who lounge on her sofa cushions and listen to her records, not really a girl with older brothers who bring her pot and join the fun.
I like the times when Joseph and I laugh, stealing oranges from a rest stop restaurant. I know he likes me no matter how much he talks with other people and they talk back and I sit on the edge, my words caught as if in a tight fist.
“I have a friend who lives out here somewhere,” Joseph says one afternoon. “Let’s go there for a night.” We are in a field of corn somewhere in Wisconsin and I have just learned that you can take a cob of fresh corn off its stalk and eat it, just like that.
We find our way to the friend’s farm. He lives in a ramshackle farmhouse. I like the look of it. Another real hippy. Joseph’s friend shows us his straggly pot plants growing by the kitchen door. “Here, take a few seeds,” he says, dropping a few into my palm. “It’s good stuff. You can sprout them in wet paper towels and plant them back home.” He picks a handful of leaves, then bakes them on cookie sheets in the oven. Now we can smoke them.
I have only smoked pot one other time, but almost as much as wanting to lose my virginity I have been wanting to try all these wonderful drugs. Doing drugs and having friends seem to go together. I imagine myself high and finally talking, finally being one of the ones who laughs and chats and has a good time when other people are around.
I sit in an upstairs room after some kind of makeshift dinner. Joseph, his friend, and I each sit in a shabby armchair and music plays from a stereo. There is not much else in the room and only a dim lamp.
We pass a pipe and I smoke greedily, waiting for magic. The boys talk and talk— about the music, about Dylan, about things they have done – and still I can’t find an entry point. And although everything is lined up—hippie boys, a pipe being passed, shabby furniture and music—I am still the quiet one, smiling, looking happy, but feeling like I am not being the person I should be. I think of the girl who picked us up yesterday, driving a messy station wagon. “That’s my bible!” she had said gaily when Joseph noticed a purple paperback in the backseat. “Be Here Now!” She seemed so at ease. She had her own bible.
When it’s time for bed, the guy says Joseph and I can have the next room. It’s a bare room with one double mattress on the floor. I like that the friend assumes Joseph and I are boyfriend and girlfriend. It helps me imagine it’s true. Perhaps tonight Joseph will kiss me. Perhaps his hands will slip under my shirt. Why has he taken so long? It doesn’t take this long in the songs.
But Joseph does not kiss me. Instead, in the morning as we walk away from the farmhouse along a dirt road that will lead us to the highway, Joseph says with a bit of a laugh in his voice, “You were all over me last night.”
“I was not,” I say.
“You know,” he goes on, “we can’t have sex. You’re too young. I could get thrown in jail.”
Thrown in jail? What is he talking about? This seems like the flimsiest, easiest-to-ignore anything I have ever heard. “No, you won’t,” I say.
“It could happen,” says Joseph. “Your dad could throw me in jail. There are laws about these things, you know.”
I can’t imagine my father knowing anything about any such laws and I can’t imagine him doing anything about it if he did. But Joseph is adamant. He will not kiss me because of some law I have never heard of, don’t believe in, and don’t think we’d ever get caught at anyway.
We cross the border into New York state much too soon.
“My wife and kids are in Buffalo,” Joseph says. “We can spend a night there.” Within a few hours we knock on a door on a city street and a woman answers it. She has long dark hair and is a little older than me. “Hi,” she says. “Come on in. Perfect. I’ve got a date. You can watch the kids.”
There are three kids, all of them little. And I entertain and play with them like the practiced babysitter I am. And afterwards, when Joseph’s wife is still on her date, and all the kids are in bed, Joseph and I sit in the dark on a couch. We sit for some time, quietly. And finally we are kissing.
In the morning everyone piles into the wife’s VW bug. I sit in the back with the kids. The wife buys long white loaves of Italian bread and salami and lettuce and tomatoes and we come home and sit in the kitchen – the kids giggling and playing, everyone talking at once – while Joseph’s wife stands, slapping bread with mayonnaise, making subs in a way that you know she’s made them a thousand times before. But I have never had a sub, and it’s delicious.
And then everyone gets in the bug again to take Joseph and me to the highway. The wife pulls up near the entrance ramp and stops the car. Joseph turns from the front and reaches for each kid to say good-bye. But the littlest boy hangs back, his face twisted, trying not to cry. “Don’t go!” the words rip from his throat, torn and desperate. I have never seen such child sorrow.
“Come on, hurry up,” says the wife to Joseph. “Let’s get this over with. Kevin, be a big boy.” And Joseph and I get out of the car and it drives away, and I try not to think of the little boy whose heart just broke.
Now it’s just a few hundred miles. We will have found our way to my house by dinner time and that I have to cover up for those stories I’ve been telling about the brothers I don’t actually have. I tell Joseph that my brothers won’t be around tonight and that actually we don’t even talk about them much at home because they’re in such trouble with my parents. Instead, I say, he will meet my two little sisters and my mother. I am glad that, as usual, my father will not be home. At least there’s a bit of obvious brokenness to my family, parents who don’t get along, something to give me a little edge.
The highway signs start naming places I have heard of, everything becoming more and more familiar until finally there is the name of my small town that I don’t think anyone else in the world can have heard of, and we get out of the last car, the last ride. I have told my mother that we will walk home from the highway. It’s about five miles and I want these last minutes of my trip – my last minutes alone with Joseph — to last as long as possible.
Joseph and I go into the town’s little wine store and buy a bottle of Boone’s Farm for my mother. I know she likes it. She buys it often because it only costs $1. It feels odd to know my way around a place, and to notice the tiny things that have changed since I was last here— a new sign, a store that has closed. I have never noticed anything changing here before.
Joseph and I walk along the local highway, and I hope someone from school sees me. And then we turn off onto Creamer Road, lined with stone walls and trees, a road and a name I have known since childhood. We walk, finally, along my road, then up my driveway and into the old white clapboard house my parents bought when I was three. We haven’t lived here all the time, but we have always returned here.
I sit with Joseph, my mother, and my two little sisters in the dining room we use for company, around the fake antique table my father likes so much because it helps him feel rich, and, as always in my house, because there is so little else to do, we prepare for bed early. Joseph will sleep on the pullout couch in the front hall where my father sleeps when he is here. My mother offers to put his overalls through the washing machine and Joseph accepts.
In the morning my mother, Joseph, and I get into the green VW station wagon. Joseph has said that the Merritt Parkway will do. I don’t know where he is going next. He doesn’t either. I wish I could keep going the way he does, but school starts in a couple of weeks. “Bye, kid,” he says with a smile, getting out of the car and slamming shut the backseat door.
“Bye,” I say from the passenger seat. I wave. I drive away with my mother.
The whole dream has not come true. But a bit of it has.
Marta Szabo is the author of two memoirs, The Guru Looked Good and The Imposters. She is the co-director of Authentic Writing and co-founder of the Memoir Festival, which she curates and hosts every other year at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY. Marta lives in Woodstock, New York, with her husband, the writer Fred Poole, and many much loved animals. This non fiction piece was selected by Ashley Ford.
What would you like to see more of in literature?
I would like to see more first-person narrative, memoir, real stories written by people interested in getting at their own truest self through story. To me, there is nothing greater than someone writing their own story in a strikingly original way with no loyalty to anyone else’s version. I look for writers who don’t follow standard “how-to-write” protocols, but simply follow their own natural artistic instincts, which always lead into the unknown.
Image © Ray Laskowitz via Creative Commons.