I pulled myself into the passenger seat of the Beastie. The children were sitting in their seats in the back of the 26 foot behemoth of a camper, feet up in childish luxury. One sat by the table, the other in a travelling armchair. How wonderful to be a child and not be squashed up next to siblings on long journeys, to have your own space to stretch out and listen to music, or do crosswords or sketch. I envied them a little. What an adventure to take with me! I put my hand on the back of my chair, and felt the Girl pat it gently. She needed to touch base occasionally, to know I was there, to touch my hand for a moment, like plugging a plug into an outlet, she drew energy from laying her hand on mine.
I rarely got to choose the music. There were boxes of CDs organized into neat little elastic banded piles. CSNY. Dylan. Nirvana. The Clash. Social Distortion. White Stripes and the Black Crows. Meat Puppets and Pixies. Royal Trux and Def Leppard. Then my little bundle of Velvets, Television, REM, Patti Smith, Jim Carroll, Gun Club, Lou and Iggy. Sometimes it was offered to me, and I would get to put on something I wanted to hear while we put another few hundred miles down. I would extract Sandinista with a huge sigh of relief (I fucking detest the Clash, pop punk shite) and slide in Out of Time. As Losing My Religion chimed in, Michael proclaiming that he ‘said too much’, Billy would sigh loudly. I think he hated REM as much as I couldn’t stand Strummer and the Boys.
Billy was a relentless homophobe. I would pull him on it, and get him to let go of the Bible for a moment, and think compassionately and realistically, think I was getting somewhere on breaking through the conditioning of a childhood in a cult like ‘Christian’ sect which believed in speaking in tongues and other such strangeness, when he would retreat back into a dark world of hatred, judgement, self congratulatory superiority and violent beliefs which involved him forcing his religion onto others. When he declared to me that non Christian children didn’t go to heaven if they died, I finally gave up.
Telling him if and when the Man comes around taking names, I was pretty sure judge no lest ye be judged was a thing, and he was definitely not sinless enough to be casting first stones – quoting his book back at him, but it never seemed to sink in. In these deeply upsetting moods, he stopped being Billy, and became “the righteous one”, fervent in his belief that he was the bastion of all that was holy, and that the likes of me and Michael Stipe, unrepentant sinners as we were, were destined to burn in hell, and he would enjoy watching the destruction of the wicked. The fact that the reality was that Billy himself was a meth shootin’, dope dealing, hard drinking, hard fighting piece of gutter trash seemed to escape him, in one of the most alarming displays of lack of self awareness I have ever experienced.
I wasn’t used to riding around in the Beastie and damn near knocked myself out on the side mirrors every time I got out of her, stumbling around in the sun and the dust and the bleach of southern California summer days. I always loved listening to Out of Time while driving round America. There was something about this album which was uniquely of the place that birthed it. Something in the jangle of the guitars, in the hint of southern drawl in Stipe’s vocals, in the wild abandon of the music throwing itself down the blacktop on the off beat, straight outta Appalachia, right down the white lines, past the strip malls and the corn fields, past the tiny dying main streets and the vast swathes of urban centers with their bridges and fly-overs, car sales lots with the jumping baloon men that bop and wave in the wind, streamers flying, torn and grimy. “What about me!” sings Michael.
What about me? There is a fly in the honey, there is a crack in the dawn that lets the light in, there is a path through the smoke and the heat, ‘half a world away’ where I was a woman that tried herself to outrun a tide of violence, that tried to outrun destruction. Now here I was the other half of the ‘half a world away’. ‘I had sworn to go it alone, and hold it alone,’ but who can run so far, so very far, all alone? How can you when your shoes are rotting off your feet, you have no highway boots, no treasure left to loot, nothing, nothing nothing and no-one, yet responsible for everybody that you care for. Ultimately eyes open.
“The storm it came up strong” like American storms seem to want to. They appear from nowhere and nature tries to kill you in this most beautiful country of them all. American storms throw dry lightning, throw rain so heavy the sides of the river burst, throws heat beyond heat, and then cold so furious in the depths of Minnesota or that cruel dry cold of New York, that you do not know how the pioneers every survived any of it.
Southern California has an unworldly air to it, with the desert dunes, the sand rock and the sun that never stops or ceases to burn. Driving north, pulling out of Anaheim, the red and orange and tan palette, vast horizons and endless road, I started to feel overwhelmed. I had spent years locked in a Tokyo apartment, with a view of the wall of the next door apartment as my view. I shook and cowered at the vastness of what I had done, of the lengths I had run to, at the hugeness of the act of leaving. Not just leaving to go down the road, to go back to where ever that could never be safe, but actually disappearing with the children. The alien landscape, the children laughing, REM shouting “if you believe they put a man on the moon, if you believe there’s nothing out there to see and nothing is cool”, pulling my phone out of my pocket and throwing it out the window screaming in a battle cry to the wind and the heat, that I was not going down that way, that I was not going to die, that I was not going to be beaten, that I was not going to submit, that I was going to make this grand play for ultimate happiness and redemption, Billy doing a solid 70, with the Beastie shake rattle and rolling his hand reaching out for mine, I felt untethered, lost, adrift.
What had I done? This act of running. These years that stretched ahead, with not enough of anything to escape comfortably, with the law on my tail, my husband chasing me, not legal, not anything except free, weighed heavily upon me. To choose life. To choose survival. To choose to run. To decide illegal is better than dead. To not expect anyone to back me up, or want me to survive, or understand why, to do all of this and besides try to protect the children. To do this was to ask of myself the impossible. I had no idea if I was going to rise to the challenge, or disappear. I just knew this was the best chance the children had of being safe and sound. I knew it was my only chance of being safe. I knew it was our only chance to be anything at all. This was how I was going to stop him from killing me, and annihilating the children once he had murdered me.
I couldn’t stay in Tokyo. I couldn’t safely go anywhere else, because they would return me and the children there, or demand a court case that women are set up not to win. I had no choice but to criminalize myself. The sad thing was had I been born American, I would have been born free. American women have a much better chance of fighting Hague charges and escaping foreign countries.
America was my only chance to survive. America and the freedom of the road, the right to pursue happiness. The right to pursue a dream of survival for me and my children. The right to thrive. These last 7 months have been the first in years that I have had enough to eat. I would have to go without to feed others. I never had three meals a day as an adult, I could not afford to do so. Some days I didn’t get to eat at all. It was usual to maybe be able to afford food 3 or 4 days a week. Now I get to eat. I get to sleep in a bed. I get to get clean when I need and want to. The luxury of a shower!
I love America. Michael sings Shiny Happy People, and there is no irony to it. Life is not all apple pie and Memorial Day parades in this great country, but at least there is the possibility of it. At least we are free to pursue the dream.
And the road goes on and on in memoriam.