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The inside of the police car didn’t look that different from the three taxi cabs I had taken on my way to California. I sat in the back of this car too, on the same kind of undivided, greenish-black vinyl bench. Again, a sturdy piece of plexiglass separated me from, and obscured my view of, the driver. But it was not the same.

I could have been anyone in those taxis. I had been anonymous on the bus, the airplane, and even in the hotel that first night. I had chosen to travel from Baltimore to Long Beach on my own, and I had reached my intended destination without help from anyone. Now I was being taken away, escorted by three strangers who knew my name, knew where I was from, and knew that I was a 14 year-old girl. They didn’t know me, though, and they didn’t have a clue about why I had fled more than 2,500 miles from home.

The police officers up front were chatting (I think trying to engage me in a discussion) while the 17-year-old guy I had ostensibly come to California to see was reaching out across the seat to offer me his hand. Just 24 hours earlier, I had stood outside the Los Angeles airport gazing at the boldness of the mountains. The combination of their jagged and rounded edges highlighted against the bright, beautiful blue sky had somehow felt reassuring. I remember the lightness that washed over me then, and I think I felt free.

Now that I was pressed up against the door of this bleak and stuffy police car, with a well-intended but oblivious guy grasping at me, I longed for that sparkly feeling, but the glow of confidence had vanished. I knew these men and my parents would make me return home, and when I got back there would be no mountains, or calm, or lightness, or certainty. The sight of the boy’s unfamiliar and unwanted hand stretching closer to me reminded me of all the false relationships that I did not want and all the connections that I would never have. I needed to retreat. I turned away from him and said nothing, twisting my shoulders and neck to look out the window instead.

I didn’t know where we were exactly, and wherever we were going, I wouldn’t recognize that place, either. I needed to look back, though. That was the only part of all of this that was still mine. I wanted to know what I had missed—even if I had fucked it up and would not get to experience it again for a very long time. Except there was nothing to see. None of the streets, houses, or buildings looked special, and the people walking and driving by were just as ordinary. I was the only one who knew what I was leaving behind, but at that moment even I couldn’t see it.

(Part II here)