The Essence of Escape
by Lara Dunning
The beads in my corn rows clinked as I made my way across the sand. Out here, next to the ocean, the air was thicker, saltier. Behind me, the white sands of a curvy Mexican beach showed off bodies of sun worshipers slathered in suntan oil and drinking Coronas. I am half naked like they are, but I am not one of them.
One day, I’d found myself lying on the living room floor watching television in a ranch style house in Corona, California. The house belonged to my boyfriend’s parents. I’d been invited to stay with him for a few weeks to soak up some sunshine before we headed back to our jobs in Alaska. I was alone that day. Vic, my boyfriend, had gone out on his motorcycle and hadn’t returned. He’d most likely gone to the bar. Something I’d soon realize he did a lot.
On any other day I would have been lying next to the pool soaking up the California sun, but today, I was transfixed by the police chasing O.J. Simpson in his friend’s white Ford Bronco. They wanted to question him about the murder of his ex-wife and her friend. He decided to run. Maybe it meant he killed them. Maybe it didn’t. If I’m being completely honest, that’s not really what drew me to the story. What interested me was his desire to flee and the fact that he said he wasn’t running.
In high school, our family car was a white Ford Bronco, and it ushered me into my driving life. Inside it, I explored Indiana backcountry farm roads and reservoirs. On warm summer nights, I rolled all the windows down, and my hair flew wild around me. I had sex for the second time in the back, and with my steady boyfriend, we had many more steamy nights. On Sundays in the summer, we’d piled inside for five dollar carload night at the Drive-In, and then we’d put the back door down and sit side-by-side.
I also got in my first accident in that car, which put me in the dentist’s chair to fix a broken tooth. The accident had been my fault, and the only real ding the Bronco suffered was from my incisor. It sliced into the steering wheel like a bullet. I can still picture my stepdad filing away at it with a ruler-sized metal file. No matter how much muscle he put into it, part of that scar remained.
I walked until the sunbathers and Vic became specks on the Mexican beach. In front of me, the sand ended into a mass of dark, angular boulders. The rocks continued for a couple of hundred feet and at the end, waves crashed into them in foamy bursts. I teetered between soft sand and hard rock.
In Corona, I was alone in the house on the Fourth of July. Vic had gone to the dunes to party with friends. I stayed behind; I wanted to. They planned to spend all day racing motorbikes up and down the sandy slopes. It would be loud and rowdy, not a quiet beach experience. At night, they’d crank heavy metal and drink until they passed out. I wasn’t drinking in the sand dunes with a bunch of motor heads kind of girl. It wasn’t my scene, and would never be.
All day there was a restlessness I couldn’t shake. I hung out at the pool. I wandered through the silent rooms. I flipped through the phone book to the taxi page, and then stared at the phone.
The voice inside my head said, You need to catch a cab to the airport and leave this place.
I cradled the phone next to my ear and poised my fingers over the buttons.
Through the dial tone, another voice battled back. Isn’t leaving what you always do?
I set the phone back down, and the restlessness inside me blurred and twisted.
As I scrambled over the rocks, I came upon a flat area where the tides smoothed the stones and left small pockets of water behind. Dozens of hermit crabs speckled this little oasis and seconds later I’m bent over a cluster, admiring their creamy brown and white shells that reminded me of Guylian Belgian chocolates. Some were the size of 50 centavos coin and others a 10 cent pesos. As I looked closer at one, my shadow triggered the hermit crab to tuck its body inside its shell. But, it didn’t fit all the way inside. Its exoskeleton was too big, and its curled legs appeared like bands of sandstone.
Curious, I picked it up and held it in my palm. Seconds later, the creature shot out of its shell, skydived from my hand and scampered into a rocky crevice.
In the second year of my relationship with Vic, I fell in love with another man. He was dark-haired, dark-eyed and the first night we spent together we talked all night long, and the most intimate thing we did was kiss. He invited me to his house for my twenty-second birthday. His mother made me a cake and kept telling me she’d never seen her son so happy. For the first time in a long time, I was happy too. By the end of the summer he headed to Anchorage, and I stayed behind even though he begged me to join him. When Vic returned nothing changed between us and I wished I’d left with the dark-haired man.
In that flash of movement I clearly saw the hermit crab’s soft slipper-like abdomen and my chest tightened. It didn’t occur to me that my inquisitiveness would force it to abandon its shell and expose the most vulnerable part of its body. I set the empty shell next to the crevice I’d seen it disappear and prayed it found its way back.
For the rest of the trip, and for months afterward, the event distressed me. I pictured the hermit crab alone and scared still tucked into that same rock, defending himself with one large claw.
Growing up, I liked hermit crabs because I loved the word hermit. I spent hours daydreaming of living alone in a cabin in the woods, or a secluded mountain monastery where everyone had taken a vow of silence. Years later, I discovered hermit crabs are aren’t solitary creatures as their name suggests. They live in colonies of one hundred or more, and often sleep in piles, one on top of the other.
I’d also learn that hermit crabs are good at finding new homes. In fact, their senses are so keen they can smell a dying or dead snail. If a group of hermit crabs are due for an upgrade, it could mean a fierce battle. Or in close-knit colonies they might help each other out and when a new shell presents itself, they’ll line up according to size and exchange shells.
One time I came home from Alaska to find a smaller car sitting in the white Ford Bronco’s parking spot. It was sad to see it gone, but the switch made sense because my parents had become empty nesters. I did end up liking that car. I liked that you didn’t have to hike yourself up into the seat; you opened the door and slid right in. In the Bronco, everyone who drove it, even my stepdad, looked like a miniature version of themselves. But, in this car all dimensions were in proportion, which made it much easier to maneuver. I did miss the airiness of the white Ford Bronco, which invited winds from every direction to follow you along the road.
Two and a half years into our relationship Vic and I vacationed in Bora Bora, Tahiti. One afternoon, a day or two before we left, I sat on our cottage’s overwater balcony and watched bright tropical fish swim beneath my dangling feet. Behind me, Vic took pictures. He might have thought I was staring into the endless blue water, but I was holding back all the things I knew I should be saying. I didn’t tell him that the trip had solidified all the reasons we shouldn’t be together. I didn’t tell him I knew I didn’t love him. And, I also didn’t tell him I knew he didn’t love me. Maybe at one point we thought we had been fighting for the other. Or maybe our inability to acknowledge the death of our relationship made us battle each other.
It’s strange to me that I don’t remember the moment Vic and I broke up. I do remember the days after and how he tried to convince me to come back to him. He said he’d go to the doctor to get pills to stop him from drinking. He’d said he’d be a better man. Maybe he could. Maybe he couldn’t.
On June 17, 1994, 95 million viewers watched the white Ford Bronco as it drove across 50 miles of Southern California freeway, and I was one of them. That day, record amounts of Domino’s Pizza were ordered, Robert Kardashian read Simpson’s letter, which sounded like a suicide note, and at Simpson’s mansion fans gathered to declare his innocence. By the time Simpson turned himself in he’d spent almost ten hours as a fugitive, most of that with a gun to his head.
When we returned from Bora Bora I developed the pictures and discovered the one Vic took of me on the balcony the day, probably the exact moment I decided to leave him. My bare back is to the camera and in front of me is an azure sea.
I framed this picture, set it on my dresser, and looked at it every day, with the hope it would force me to always be honest with myself, even when it was the last thing I wanted to do. To anyone else it appeared as a girl posing in paradise.
About Lara Dunning
Lara Dunning holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the Northwest Institute of Literary arts. Her work has been published in Soundings Review, Mountain Gazette, and Silver Apples Magazine.