Why I suddenly went missing

Each of us finds our own way out. I had to bolt. My mother, on the other hand, smoked a few cigarettes a week when the family thought she'd stopped. When I asked her why, she said: It was the only thing I did for me.

Tuesday, May 13, 2003 - Page A20

It had been a rough month. It had been a rough couple of years, actually. My aunt had a heart attack. My tumultuous relationship came to a tumultuous end. So did my job. I had a strange feeling of lightness, as though there was no ballast left to keep me from drifting away, nothing to anchor me to the ground. A friend had gone to Europe to teach, and I thought I might look into that, too.

Then my dad had a stroke, a reminder that I can't think about moving to Europe, or anywhere else that's more than a day's drive from my parents' place. They're getting on in years, their health isn't great, and I visit once or twice a month, at least, to help take care of them.

Taking care is what I do. I take care of my parents, my boyfriends. It's a reflex. If something needs doing, I offer to do it, whether or not I have the time and energy. Much of my life is spent tending to the needs of others, worrying about their health, worrying about their relationships, working late and stressing out; taking care of everyone but myself. I was on my way to an ulcer, my stomach was telling me. My stomach was the only part of me that rebelled against all of this responsibility. I was literally nauseated by stress.

I guess something just clicked. Just turned on, or off, or over. I was another rung on the madonna/whore scale of female stereotypes: the goody-two-shoes who wants to be bad. It was right after the second big blizzard of the season. During the first one -- 24 hours of solid snow -- I paced around my apartment like an animal. I felt claustrophobic. The second blizzard was just ending, and I decided I needed warmth. I wanted to stand on a beach and feel the warmth of the hot sand soak up through my bare feet and fill my body with the heat of the sun.

So I got in my car and drove to the Gulf of Mexico. It was 1 o'clock in the morning when I left home.

They look at you funny when you cross the border in the middle of the night. I claimed I was trying to avoid traffic, trying to avoid the line-ups on the bridge. It was 1 o'clock the next morning when I crashed at a motel in Georgia. And it was after sundown the following night when I found myself on a road that wound down through Florida swampland, a road which got narrower and narrower, until there was no stripe down the middle anymore; eventually it was nothing more than dirt. I stopped the car, face to face with an armadillo.

That was the only moment when I had second thoughts, when I imagined headlines a few weeks in the future, when my body was pulled from a swamp, when I imagined people shaking their heads at the tale, thinking: What was she doing? Driving down a dirt road with no map, not telling anyone where she was going?

I pulled a U-turn then. But the rest of the trip was filled with a delicious calm excitement. No one knows where I am! No one can say, "Will you do this for me?" No one can say, "I have a job for you!" No one can say, "Don't forget to . . ."

I don't think I've ever done anything so self-indulgent in my life. I loved it.

People often think they're doing you a favour when they try to cadge a ride. But I love driving alone. Going where I want, when I want. Stopping to look at silly things, or not stopping for six hours if I don't want to. And being alone with my thoughts, finally. Able to unwind; to think, without interruption, about whatever I care to. Sometimes it feels like time spent driving is the only time I really have to myself. A few minutes grabbed on the way to work. A few hours of quietude on the way to visit my parents. A few thousand miles of uncharted territory, a drive with no destination: this is the ultimate luxury. If I felt like talking, I could talk to strangers. I met a lot of people on my little trip, people who looked at me like I was crazy, but also looked at me with admiration. Like they wished they could run away, too.

And despite a road diet rich in black coffee and indeterminate fried objects, my stomach felt fine. I hadn't felt so relaxed in years.

I remember discussing smoking with my mother (we're both quitters) a few years ago. In high school, I had been shocked to discover that my mother still smoked when the family thought she'd stopped years before. Why did she keep smoking, just a few cigarettes a week?

"It was the only thing I did for me," she said. Everything else she did for someone else. Not only was smoking hers, it was something that pissed off other people (or would if they knew); so much the better.

I'm planning another road trip for this summer. This time I'll head west. But planning it takes some of the fun out of it. People will know where I am. They'll expect postcards, rather than being shocked to receive them. No one will worry or wonder where I am. It's much less selfish this way.

But still, everybody needs to be selfish now and then.

Jennifer Amey lives in Toronto.

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