A few weeks after she left, my father was out and I was in the living room half watching The Mod Squad. The phone rang. It was Lupe. I almost couldn’t believe it.
“Is your father home?” She asked.
“That’s alright,” she said with a pause. “I wanted to talk to you.”
I said nothing.
“I hope you’re not angry with me,” she continued.
“Where are you?”
“I’m with my tía in Santa Fe. You see, Mitchie, there’s a lot of things I wanted to tell you but didn’t know how. I just didn’t want you thinking it had anything to do with you.”
“Then what is it?”
Lupe took a deep breath. “I wish I could bring you down here. Maybe someday.”
“What?!” I could hear the same vitriol in my voice that so often belonged to my father, and it scared me.
“Just because your father…” she trailed off. “He does care about you.”
I still said nothing. I didn’t know what to say.
“Call me, okay?” She gave me her number. I thanked her and then I hung up the phone. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, I was still angry at her. I’d mention it to Kaya later, and she said Lupe probably wouldn’t have been able to take me if she wanted to. Even if I liked her more, my dad was still my dad, and there were custody laws. Even if she really did care, my pride stopped me from calling.
When I think on the three years that followed, I’m not sure how I survived any of it.
The summer I was fifteen, there was Peter.
He was an incoming freshman at the community college in Cheyenne, and my father had hired him as a ranch hand. He was more Monty Clift than Paul McCartney, but I fell for him almost immediately, and soon found I was making excuses to do things around the ranch just to see him. Once he approached me as I was preparing the feed for the horses, and I felt time stop.
We talked for a while, and the whole time I wondered if it was really happening. We made plans to meet that later that night.
Our entire courtship, if you could call it that, consisted of going to his apartment twice and giving him my virginity the second time.. I never told my father a thing about it. While earlier that year he’d sat me down and had what I supposed amounted to his version of the talk, those first two times I was still too afraid to broach it to him. Peter had never told me he loved me or even that he liked me or wanted me to be his girlfriend anyway. But I knew that I wanted him to be my boyfriend. But I wondered if I’d done something, because after that second time he started ignoring me. This lasted a week.
I confronted him one day at the ranch when he was carrying a bucket of water back towards the shed. He took a deep breath, put the bucket down, and buried his face in his hands.
“I’ve been selfish,” he said.
I was about to ask what he started fishing something out of his pocket. Then, he handed me the crumpled piece of paper. A conscription notice.
It took me a moment to process. “You’re not…”
“I have no choice.”
Neither of us said anything. We hugged for a really long time, and he told me he left in a week. My father already knew. “I’ll wait for you,” I said.
“That’s sweet of you, Michelle.” His face tightened, and he excused himself. That was the last time I’d ever saw him. I’d found out later that he’d given my father and I an address in case we wanted to keep in touch, because he’d really enjoyed working with us if only for a short time. I ended up writing him that December, hoping he’d see it in time for Christmas. Three days after new years we found out that he hadn’t made it. I burst into tears when Dad told me, only to end up telling him everything that had happened. I expected him to be angry, but instead, he took me in his arms and let me cry.
It was one of the only times he my father ever held me, and it felt nice.
It wouldn’t last. Soon, he’d treat me the way he treated Lupe.
Over the next year, I spent a lot of time at Kaya’s. She was there for me a lot in those early days. I almost felt guilty for being upset as I was. He wasn’t the only one by far to not make it back. And we’d barely been together at all. I didn’t know him the way his family did. But we could have had something, and the war had taken that away. It had taken him and his chance at life away and something about that was so unfair. I thought of my mother too, sitting at the institution in Boulder, still alive but not really there. I sometimes fantasized about taking a bus to visit her but had to remind myself the sad truth was that she probably wouldn’t recognize me. I wondered privately if part of her had always been ill or if anything my father had done had driven her to madness.
Kaya understood. She let me cry my eyes out so many times. I was so grateful for her friendship. After Lupe had left she’d really been the one good thing in my life.
And yet, the more time had passed, the more directionless I felt. I had no interest in college and I was growing desperately tired of Wyoming. I still kept Lupe’s number hidden in one of my drawers but I was still too proud to call, even if there was a part of me deep down that wanted to. I still didn’t know exactly what happened between the two of them, even if I had a good idea. That seemed to be a theme of my life, never being told anything and still expected to never make any mistakes.
I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be a wife and mother and still I wanted more. I had a hard time believing I’d find anyone while I was still in Wyoming and still with my father. But I didn’t leave in order to meet anyone in particular. By this time I knew there was a world out there, and I wanted to find it. Besides, a lot of people were doing these sorts of things in those days. If it worked for them, it could work for me.
I left a month after my seventeenth birthday.
I supposed I hadn’t really thought it through. I’d packed my backpack and few clothes, a few blankets and pillows, and enough money for a few days of food. It was summer, and I figured I could sleep under the stars.
I’d head towards Boulder, and by the time I got there, there had to be more opportunity. Maybe I could get a job there, get as far as Santa Fe, and reunite with Lupe. Never mind that I hadn’t called her, but maybe she’d understand. I’d been upset at her but I wasn’t anymore.
I felt bad about leaving Kaya, but I wrote her a letter that I’d dropped by her house. For her eyes only. “Kaya, I can’t be here with my father another day. I’m headed south, first to Boulder and then after that, who knows? I’ll try to call you when I can. Love always, Michelle”
I felt bad about leaving Bambi and Dorothy, but I held out hope I’d see them again too, as unlikely as I knew it was deep down.
The further I got from home, I didn’t expect to worry about my father. Wonder if I’d made the right choice, if he was really as bad as I thought or if he really did care about me.
Even as I ran out of food and money, I pressed on. I had no idea how far I was but after a few days the plains became mountains and soon I saw a sign that I’d entered Colorado. I'd hitched most of the day earlier but the driver had made me uncomfortable and I was afraid to do it again. I stopped and sat. My whole socks were bloodied and blistered and there were holes in my shoes. My whole body hurt and I resolved to call Lupe as soon as I got to the nearest phone. Not my father. Lupe. I hoped and prayed she would understand. I’d made my choice. There was no going back now.
More pressingly, I needed new shoes. I needed to eat. That day, I met Alex.