By Nicole C. Kear
When I was around 8 years old, I decided to run away from home. I had a plan:
Step 1: Arrange to sleep over my grandmother’s house in Bensonhurst,
Step 2: Tie the bedclothes together to make a rope to be tossed out the second story window.
Step 3: Shimmy down the sheet rope (I’d never so much as jumped off a high set of monkey bars but hell, how hard could it be?)
Step 4: Find my way to Mary’s house.
I’d never walked to Mary’s by myself – had never, in fact, walked anywhere alone, not even to the corner for milk – but it was only a few blocks away and I was not an idiot. After all, would an idiot mastermind such a sound runaway plan?
Mary would be waiting for me- I’d call her before I hatched my escape- and she’d let me in without her parents seeing, sneak me into her bedroom closet and there I would live, happily, if not ever after, at least for the foreseeable future. Mary would bring me leftovers from her family’s meals and I could use the bathroom when no one was looking. It was a grand plan. Rock solid. Mary agreed.
There was only one problem, and Mary informed me of it on the night of my escape, when I called her to tell her it was go-time.
“You can’t run away to my house.” She sounded genuinely apologetic. Regretful.
“What?” I gasped. “Why not?”
“I told my mom about our plan,” she went on.
“Oh no,“ I moaned, realizing that there was no slim possibility of rescuing the mission now. “Mary! What HAPPENED?”
Mary was talking quickly now: “She said you can sleep over any time you want, but you can’t come here to live forever because your parents would be upset.”
“I don’t want to SLEEP OVER!” I shrieked. “I WANT to run AWAY.”
Let me be clear: I had absolutely no good reason to run away. Mine was not a broken home or an abusive one, or even an unhappy one. I was a cheerful, healthy, privileged kid with doting parents whose worst crime was being a tad overprotective, the kind that would be called helicopter parents today.
That my running away was wholly unjustifiable did not bother me whatsoever. I was a passionate child, prone to histrionics, with an unquenchable thirst for attention. I’d read a ton of books and wanted desperately to experience the kind of adventure I glimpsed in those pages.
Plus, it would be awesome to live with Mary, even secretly, in her closet.
Mary was my first best friend. I don’t remember what precisely brought us together- a shared passion for Strawberry Shortcake dolls or an aversion to hopscotch- or when our friendship first took root. I just remember being a kid and knowing that I had a best friend, the kind to which you award the second half of a heart-shaped pendant. She was a quiet girl with a tinny little voice and pale blonde hair that hung in a straight, thin sheet from her head. She was born and bred in Brooklyn, just like me, but she had an inarguably Mid-Western feel to her- not that I’d have described it that way at the time, since I wasn’t even vaguely aware that there was a world beyond New York. She was wholesome, and kind. Honest, rule-abiding. Moderate. She never got carried away, never raised her voice, never gasped for breath from laughing too hard. She was nothing like me, which is why our friendship worked. I was the tempest and she was the ever-fixed rock.
I don’t remember her parents in detail, but what I do recall is their home was a calm, quiet, organized place where reason reigned. Everything had a place and resided in it, physically and metaphorically. It was very appealing.
At sleepovers, her mother used to give us warm milk before bed.
This blew my mind. It was so . . . perfect.
Mary and I drank from matching cups at the immaculate kitchen table while her sweet mother asked quiet questions about our day at school and even at the time I remember thinking I felt like a character acting out a scene.
This is what a perfect family looks like having a perfect friend come over for a perfect sleepover.
My family was not tragically flawed or anything as dramatic as that, but they were not perfect. We yelled and interrupted and made messes. My mother used the phrase “Jesus Christ” frequently, and never in prayer. Our cups didn’t match and we never, ever drank warm milk before bed.
“Mary,” I sighed on the phone after I found out my mission had to be aborted. “WHY would you tell your mother that I was running away?”
“Well, I had to,” she squeaked.
I knew what she meant. It wasn’t that her mother had cornered her into admitting it. It was that telling her mother was the right thing to do and Mary always did the right thing. And though at that precise moment, I found her unfailing moral compass super annoying, it was really why I liked her. And also why I’d never have been able to become a part of her family, even if my rock-solid plan had worked. I could play at being perfect but it just didn’t come naturally.
“But you can still come over for a sleepover this weekend,” she offered, “and we can make friendship bracelets.”
“And your mom will make warm milk, right?”
“Of course!” she chirped.
“OK,” I conceded. “Sure.”
Then I told her I had to go. It was late and before I could go to bed, I had to untie the sheets that were hanging out the window.
Nicole is author of the memoir Now I See You, to be published by St. Martin’s Press in June. She regularly contributes essays and articles to Parents, American Baby, Babble and Salon, among others, and lives in Brooklyn with her husband, three children and a morbidly obese goldfish. You can find her at her website and blog.