An Alphabet of Escapes

Jeff Oaks

If not for those abandonments, those plots behind lawns, at edges of railroad tracks, forgotten by farms, unassessed, wild-appled, where strange water ran or welled up or undermined. Hilled, too thick, too rambled, too ivied, too riddled or rocky or aslant, askew, junked with quit appliances, beyond the bounds, buzzing with, burrowed into, existing in spite of, out of sight of taxes, rock-walled, high-grassed, full of spider-lightning, frog-throb, bee-lines, mint growing wild over water-trickle, snake-snap, antwork, cricket-fiddle, shell after shell lived in, burned out, where I invented myself year after year.

Or if all that boredom had been missing, its elixirs stinging my nerves those long summer days and nights in which our needs were satisfied and we were left to wander, sending me out of my room, my house, my skin, toward unquiet or toward quiet that desired unzippering, doorways opening to skeleton keys, erotic basements, educations on swingsets.

Or, listen, if not for, first in the loft of my aunt’s garage, all the comic books with their idealized justice leagues my cousin Paul left boxed up for me to find and read in the awful afternoons my mother left me there to be watched over, and then later, when I began to buy comics myself, coming eventually to understand something of economics in order to purchase them at the local supermarket—Avengers, X-Men, Thor, Doctor Strange, where impossible individuals struggled with questions, responsibilities, power, where I learned the power of the le bon mot, the speed of a borscht belt zinger.

If not Donny Osmond then maybe someone else, but damn it, there was Donny Osmond standing in the center of his older brothers on the cover of Osmonds, their first big album, released November 1970, when I would’ve been six. I fell helplessly in love with him on sight, so much so that I instantly understood I was a lover of men. I couldn’t have been six, though, could I? I knew early but I thought I was eight when I saw that album and felt that jolt of dizzying desire: I would kill myself for him. Which is what I thought love was. One of the few times I was spanked was because I refused to share the album with two girl cousins who were visiting. My father took the record out of my hands, and in response I ran outside with the intent to run away forever. What I was mostly in love with was power. I was a kid. I didn’t get very far. I sat under a bush, I think, trying to be as quiet as possible, waiting for my parents’ wails of grief and pain. Which never came. When it began to rain, I went back in, was hit.

Once I knew elves existed, I could not unthink them. They were the first what ifs I tried to write, to duplicate, to summon, to wake up inside me, to make speak, to find a voice for, to imagine a world in which they might appear again, or just to me. I read all their stories. I wanted to be stolen away. The ones I wrote were on a journey, leaving one world and unsure where the next one would be, walking and constantly imperiled, if I remember those sixty pages I wrote about them as I lay on the bench of our front porch summers, bored with my own queer wizardlessness. It was those pages that made everyone think I was a writer, which made me think about being a writer, which led to me becoming a writer. If that is what I am.

Or if not for Fritz and Dolph, Doberman-Lab mix puppies, arriving in the middle of Christmas Eve, 1974, carried in my drunk father’s arms. Snow swirled behind them as I imagine it now, making unfortunately my father seem more Byronic than he perhaps ought to be. My mother rolls her eyes hard because she knows this gift can’t be refused and in fact I’m already on my knees in gratitude, so she can’t say no without breaking my heart on Christmas. And yet if she says yes, she’s got yet another responsibility on her hands. Because my father will not be responsible. She says this out loud, but I give my heart to them immediately, she also sees. One for my brother, who is frankly almost out of the house, and one for me who has many more years to go. In the years that follow, the dogs become an identity for me—the boy with the two Dobermans—and I feel invulnerable to threats because in fact they do growl at anyone who threatens me, even my parents, who joke about it. We treat the dogs like family, train them. My brother has Dolph’s ears docked. I decide not to do it to Fritz. Dolph, the more nervous, Fritz was more easygoing, his face rounder, a Labrador’s. At night they sleep with me, getting down at some point to pee on table legs and doorjambs in the darkness. When my parents fight, they sit with me at the top of the stairs listening, panting. We are a pack of three waiting to see who can most be trusted. At the right moment, I go downstairs to quiet my father when his rage begins to turn toward the gun in the closet. At some point in the day, I take them both for walks to abandoned places where they can run wild. They always come back when I call them. Usually I run with them and sometimes they treat me like another dog and jostle me and look back smiling. Occasionally they suddenly, for no reason I can see, explode into fights with each other in which they stand on their hind legs like monsters.

If I hadn’t been gay then why would I have needed to escape? Without the grit under the tongue of the oyster, that I loved what I loved didn’t fit. I wouldn’t fit and I knew it. I couldn’t stay quiet. Only so many jokes could bridge the excess of zeroes I was in for. I could have had a girl and disappeared for good. Straight, would I have stayed? If I could have I probably would have.

I had history on my side, it turns out, because I was the late child, the mistake. My mother had wanted to become a nurse but couldn’t go, my father had wanted to get out of his life. There was money at the right moment; he whispered Do What You Want. Its presence made up my mind. I had a history of good grades. The State back then stepped up to support my behavior. Just after my exhausted father sold out his business, my mother squirreled away a small nest egg of money. Before he blew it all on horses and lottery trying to make it big, she said. She knew he had a history of embezzlement, against which she thought to save something in case it all came down, the price of one ticket, a single journey, a small life raft, a space shuttle that might get me elsewhere, beyond any audit, away from Krypton, already a ruin.

If I hadn’t become a writer, I might have studied insects, become an entomologist, a word which I still have to pause before saying in case I say etymologist. Both of them might be seen as being about beginnings. I have always been interested in spiders (and, yes, I know they’re not insects but arachnids) even as I am equally horrified by their touch. I am fascinated by bees, by mantids, by moths and butterflies. I spent hours of childhood staring at carpenter ants. I’ve never been afraid of their walking on me. I’ve always thought they were beautiful, that there were questions, intelligence in their compound eyes, that living inside a shell might be preferable to having a skeleton. I was glad to hear that matriarchy was so deep down in things. What did I know about the difference between escape and imagining? I believed a full life would be possible if I could be left alone to study mounds, hives, webs, and cocoons. I felt, I confess, more than a little like God when I watched them work, bringing in leaves, dead bodies, legs full of pollen. All of them had been imagined as movie monsters, radiated into giants, turned into superheroes, become metaphors for industry, business, automation, terror, transformation. Every so often, I imagined, I’d get up from my place beside them in some green woods or swamp or field and write a kind of admiration of them to my fellow citizens in the civilized world, a thing I already suspected by then was forgetting about them.

Conceived on the ninth day of the ninth month in 1963 (my parents’ 13th wedding anniversary), I was born in June, the month of strawberries, and indeed I have a strawberry birthmark on my ass. My birthday came twenty years after D-day. At 5 am, to the sound of my mother’s yelling (I imagine), I slid out of her and into me. I share the date with Alexander Pushkin and Thomas Mann, neither of which I’ve read much by. June is a fantastic month to have a birthday in—it’s warm enough to play outside. You can eat ice cream cake. It’s a month in which one feels a love that seems celestial for the whole of creation. Zephyrs tickle everything. It also marked the end of the school year. In the exacting and complicated ranking system of school, I was almost always the youngest classmate, the last birthday before school was over, so my growing up coincided with a sense of ease, of impending pleasure. You could feel the fetters of polite behavior falling away. You could feel the pressures of being whatever you were in school—nerd, stoner, queer, weirdo, whatever—dissipate. In June, the recovery began. June restored you to yourself, to the world of just your friends, to games all day long, to explorations of abandoned places at the edge of town, to books whose depths, because uninterrupted, could be transformative. You could practice or test a self you might want to return to school with. You could, as we did nearly every year, burn one of your stolen textbooks in a ceremony in the woods, then get drunk on cheap wine and fall asleep in pup tents, the whole dark world whispering and destroying itself around your little firelight.

The idea was to make “outdoor adventure easy,” said the CEO of Kampgrounds of America in 2012, but maybe only a couple of times did we go to one to camp. It was mostly to disappear, to hide out and take a breath that we went there. It was the closest thing my mother had to a battered women’s shelter. And we could take the dogs. No one would ask a question beyond the cash she put down for the night, the name on her driver’s license. The person at the desk, usually a middle-aged woman too, gave us a site and receipt and that was it. We’d drive our little car full of panting beasts down the winding trails and park. Everybody else would be asleep. We’d fold down the back seat and make a bed of blankets and sleeping bags, and we slept surrounded by the dogs. Elsewhere we imagined my father raged but we’d escaped. She didn’t want to go to her parents’ house; she didn’t want to involve them in his craziness. She also didn’t want to pay more than was necessary to disappear, so hotels and motels were out. Our breathing quickly fogged up the windows. How many times did we do this? Enough that I knew it was always a way out, if I had to run. Fewer than six maybe. Once we drove a long time away from town. To really just disappear into the dark countryside. She’d broken her right hand punching him. I had to shift when she said now. In the mornings, after he would’ve gotten up for work, we’d leave without a word and go back to our house. I’d go first. We’d sweep up the things he’d shattered. We’d give the dogs back their lives in the basement.

If not for reading itself, which after a few thin books of my own came out of the library, how would I have known how to escape? The new one then was located directly across the street. I knew the children’s section by heart, especially the fiction section where I read every story with a witch or wizard or an animal at its center. I borrowed books on magic, on mythology, on ancient history, field guides and picture books about the natural world. I learned to relieve my boredom reading. I learned to spend time in letters, to expand time, to escape it. I was engrossed by stories, intensified, destroyed, transformed, made “Like nothing else in Tennessee,” as I would one day learn, ajar. One night a week my mother volunteered so of course I hung out there too until I knew enough to volunteer too. I could run and get books for elderly patrons. I could shelve loose books faster than anyone else. I learned the Dewey Decimal System. The older ladies loved me. So much so they trusted me to lock the doors at night. They didn’t know I was also reading in the quieter sections of the adult stacks, books about sex or, worse, the joy of. One night I left the back door unlocked. Nobody double-checked. With a flashlight, I snuck in and stole a book about spells cast by naked witches, pages of adult bodies dedicated to candlelight, moonlight, the turning of the seasons.

If morning hadn’t been the Pax Paterna, the time both my father and I got up and walked downstairs into, in the dazzling darkness just before that quiet watercoloring in of the sky, the first birds’ visionary singing, his first hacking after his first cigarette and black coffee of the day, I would have hated him more.

That there could be nothing has saved me more than once. There could always be an end to suffering, which helped me suffer less. The day I first imagined negatively, that is, imagined an absence, came right after, I suspect, the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny unraveled; there had been nothing to them. I was left with an unsettled matter: why had my parents lied? What other lies had they told me? God, Heaven, Hell collapsed all around me, just stories to cover up a lack. What if nothing were the truth? It was hard to believe any adult after that. I told my parents I didn’t want to go to church anymore. It’s also true that by then I’d seen several guinea pigs and hamsters I loved die. One day I was thinking about my mother dying and I started to cry. She would be lost forever, if there were nothing. I realized that her absence, even just the thought of it, held a power. She was different than Santa, than God. Who would I be without her? A nothing, a zero, only fear. Still, that fear was a gift that jerked me into life and quietly still keeps me going back to work. How could it be possible not to see or hear or feel the constant throb of all this life I walk or ride or drive through daily? I know that some people get stuck in it. It doesn’t save everyone. Once or twice I’ve gotten close enough to speak to nothing. No answer’s come yet. Even just breathing is something.

If my last name didn’t itself have history, by which I mean weight, clout, density, gravity, at least in that small town founded by Oakses, and if I hadn’t been born into that privilege: land owned, two hundred years of relatives preceding me so I fit in, I had allies. I could not be removed or erased. Even young I knew I was in a royal family of sorts, a prince of the land, and even if we weren’t rich, we were not without voice or force or maybe most important, numbers—aunts, uncles, cousins out to three removes. If privilege is usually talked about as a negative, an unconsciousness used to dominate others, it also meant to me that I needed to earn my name, and if not by business or farming then by the quieter power of thinking, which is what I had. If my name itself hadn’t rooted me enough to know I had paradoxical options: I belonged to that place, but if necessary, my name alone could open doors all over town where I might live. If I hadn’t had that currency for that journey, whatever anxieties I had, would escape have been so easy?

We knocked on door after door those days. Anything might speak said the old tales. Even a praying mantis was rumored to point abandoned children the way out of the forest. What might we hear in all those library basements, those Renaissance Faire huts, at those folding tables in convention centers, from those citizens suddenly draped in white or purple, their faces lit by candles flickering nearby. How much easier to dispense with the quackery altogether and simply say “I’m a keen observer of people and I can see you need to be convinced you have power, that you can take your life in your own hands. I can see that you don’t see yourself very well, that you can stop practicing so much in your head.” One psychic told me I had a white-haired man standing behind me, watching out for me. Another said I could move things if I put my mind to it and spoke the right words. Hadn’t my mother and I come to the end of thinking and had to make a leap? How else to make it but by believing the dead might whisper into a stranger’s ear a word of permission? Or that an awful world might insist we stay where we were to repay an old transgression? There would be a cost either way, we knew. We found folding chairs and sat down. We paid our ten dollars and shuffled the cards. I bought a tape that promised to tell me how to leave my body but that only put me to sleep. We were roomfuls of people trying to find ways to go on living, hoping to be revealed as a hidden prince, a sleeping beauty, a dragon’s child. We wanted to be assured it was a curse responsible for our incomprehensible loneliness because what else could have caused it? Our lives balanced on razor edges some mornings. We wanted something to blame when we jumped.

The quiet of certain places. The quiet of thick woods. A zero to inhabit when the voice of excess, my father, began yelling. Just a moment sometimes. Between breaths. Before my father came home that was full. The quiet after him that was empty. The quiet in so many neighbors’ faces the days after.

If not for, Randy, my best friend in middle school and part of high school, who was already adept at so many things a man should know—fixing cars, running electrical lines, building tree houses, drinking, smoking, fighting if necessary. I never learned any of those things, and yet I never felt like I was in his shadow. We both loved being in shadows, sleeping outside, sneaking around, looking in windows, finding out secrets. Connoisseurs of the overheard, the whispered, the fantasized, we were each other’s witnesses. We both hated our fathers’ distances. We read the letters in stolen Penthouses out loud in the woods, quietly taking in what we thought was important information: how to drive a woman crazy, how to jerk off to maximum effect, what mattered to the world beyond our mother’s ambiguities.

Snow when it fell, brought quiet, cushioned the jagged, cooled the wicked, exhausted the restless. It had the effect long schooling has: filling up spaces, evening out the erratic, suppressing the bizarre, giving everyone something to talk about. It distracted from habits of anger and fatigue. We all swiveled to face the same cold enemy. OR: The man finds a shovel and begins to clear his sidewalks. Also does suddenly the old neighbor’s house too, his heart blazing with kindness, glad of his strength. The child makes snow angels in the front yard and rises out of them to stand like a god, admiringly.

Timing is everything. Is the miracle, if I believed in that. Is luck. Was with me. Is in fact responsible for my thought that I might write. A writer came by at the right time and I’d written things and shown them to the right people just before that, so they knew to invite me to the moment the writer appeared. So many things might not have existed if not for that car crash of temporal events where I stood, my life ablaze, a quixosis to be jumped into and ridden like a dragon, slipped inside over time like a self.

UFOs were all the rage, I remember. As were ghosts, witches, and the idea that ancient cultures were about to reappear and jump start a new age. There were powers in the earth we weren’t tapping into, they each said. There were shamanic, ecstatic, artistic, and physical promises of peace, an end to war, a new way of seeing and knowing others and one’s real self. UFOs, however, were different. They were scientific, built of metal and subtle electricities. The aliens would arrive from above, speak in music, be noseless, mouthless, sexless, all one pale color, all eyes and touch, and for all that metal, childlike—as gentle as curious children or as ravenous as cruel children. If they were like the movie versions from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which my mother and I loved, we prayed to be taken away. We dawdled in abandoned areas. We longed for the adventure which would at last equal our sense of entitlement; if we were going to have consciousness, it had better be able to connect to other consciousnesses, deeper, more sophisticated consciousness. The size of what we knew to be true about the universe demanded we were not alone. Surely someone would notice us, how unhappy we were, how anxious. We kept hoping.

What if there’d been no violence? Hard even to think about that. Violence was, after all, the thing to escape from. It was always a failure, always an ending of words, the end of meaning. To be suffered through. If there’d have been no violence would I even thought to run would there have been anything to run from? The question itself does violence to the moment, abstracts it, exhumes our bodies but not the world that produced them, in which for instance we hid under our desks at school at the sound of an alarm since we lived so close to a first strike nuclear zone. I remember studying the Yukon Territory, which seemed the only safe place: one person for every seventy-two square miles. You could tell by some people’s faces, there was sometimes real joy, real transport imagining destruction. I never understood the burning of the Library at Alexandria until much later, when I wanted to write my own books.

I had the sun in the absence of car craft or woodwork or sports, the moon too, woods in which to disappear, a room with a door that locked, dozens of animals to lie down with, to talk to, no fear of words and an ability to listen, imagine, see and make patterns out of beads and string, an inability to keep quiet about the hypocrisies of the local churches, books by Sybil Leek, Starhawk, Margot Adler, and Llewellyn, reruns of Bewitched, a cache of white candles that smelled of vanilla and jasmine, the x sound in the scratch of the matches I lit as I recited the spell to seal the space where I was and concentrate my desire. And sometimes things worked out unexpectedly, very strangely.

X-Men were mutants, which frankly we all were, I learned, reading them. Who knew what power might be ready to be released by crisis? Which in a way made crisis, danger, panic, transformative if you thought about it right. Outcasts could suddenly catch fire and save the world. A quiet girl might possess her brutal father and end a beating. That a professor led them, that a man in a wheelchair might stop a whole town merely by thinking it, was important. Not everything was on the surface. Or rather: under some apparently clean surfaces lurked the bizarre, the powerful, the wild, the invulnerable. You might breathe water. You might be able to hear a cat walking in the shadows. You might have the ability to tell happiness from terror from excitement from grief. The fact that you lived in a nuclear age might have good consequences as well as anxiety. What your parents did might quietly unfurl wings within your otherwise utterly ordinary teenage cells. You could jump tall buildings. You could become a Phoenix.

If I didn’t say Yes when my drunk father asked if I would go away with him and leave my mother alone with all her anger, I don’t know what would’ve happened. So I said Yes, even as I looked at her out of the corner of my eyes so she’d know I didn’t really mean it. There was no escape otherwise that I could see. Otherwise in his despair he might go for the gun he kept in the closet. It was a yes that meant I had forgotten all the questions I ever had, that meant I ceased to exist, that meant in the absence of any other liquor for him to drink, I would be the last thing to drain. There was nothing else I could have done but I felt guilty about my giving in, playing the role he wanted me to play. Still, he calmed down when he heard it, even though he had to know it was a lie. What was lizard in me lit up in my blood, knowing what he wanted in his heart. If I had to go further and say I loved him, I did. It was like being sheared in two. It was like surviving inside zero. My mother understood. Was she grateful for my sacrifice, my defusing his explosion with my transparent betrayal? I don’t know. She thought it was important that I didn’t completely hate him. She stayed.

Zoos were where we went when we weren’t going anywhere else. There was the yearly class trip at school, where we were packed into busses and chaperoned around the ape house, the big cat cages, the reptiles, the hamburger and Coke pavilion. In those days, before I’d read Rilke’s “The Panther,” before I knew anything about the complexities of animal intelligence, I loved going to the zoo and seeing the animals pacing, swinging from bars, lounging under lights, sometimes staring back. I felt at home there, among their mysterious skins, their restlessness, the containment of their dangerous and exotic natures. I begged quarters to buy pellets or peanuts to give them. Deer and goats ate out of my hands. I spoke to the jaguar when no one else was around. Because we both had J’s in our names. I had read books that promised such communication was possible. If the right devil had been there, I would have gladly traded my soul for the keys to the doors.

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