Local author Meg Elison writes about being homeless and queer as a young person.
When I was 18, I almost died of thirst in an RV that was parked in my girlfriend’s driveway.
There’s no real mystery to how people end up on the street, but we pretend there is. The story is always the same. I had luck until it ran out, I had help until I didn’t. My story is no different. You could put the needle into any groove in my life and play the song, but let’s say it began there, in that RV. Because that was the first time I understood how much trouble I was in. I thought I would end that day dead or in jail.
I had been living with my girlfriend and her mother about six months; another link in the chain of temporary lodgings after I had been abandoned by my parents at 14. I had slept on couches and hidden in closets and begged guest rooms from the sympathetic (but weirded out) parents of all my friends. The good options ran out fast and left me with alternatives that were less and less safe until finally I was in this hoarder house where I knew I was in danger of being put out at any moment. And then I was.
The worst of times was when we got caught. Her mother walked in on us kissing and I was out of luck and out of the house.
Our desert foothill town had no homeless shelter. It was 110° in the daytime and 30° overnight. By day I could hide from the sun in the air-conditioned public library. At night, I could not find any shelter from the cold or the frosty dew that gathered as dawn approached. I had no money at all, no phone, no coat and no blanket.
When I first got the idea to sleep in the RV, I decided not to tell her. She could never be made to give me up if she didn’t know I was in there. When the temperature dropped overnight to something I was fairly sure could kill me, I walked back to her neighborhood. I tried the fiberglass door and found it unlocked. I slipped in.
When one is deprived of all comforts, even the smallest relief feels like luxury. The RV was mostly for storage, and not in good shape. I had to climb over crates of yellowing TV guides that were absolutely jumping with fleas to reach the attic that sat above the cab and had a narrow mattress in it. There was an old grey wool camp blanket spread across the bed, once I had cleared it of sewing patterns, ketchup packets, and a stray rat trap. I climbed into that bed with a sense of luxury that I’ve never experienced at any other time in my life. I was warm. I was safe. I was close to someone who loved me, even if I could not be with her.
I awoke late in the morning, having gotten the first real night’s sleep in more than a week. I checked the driveway, to see if my girlfriend’s mother’s car was gone.
It was not.
It was blocked in by two police cars.
My thoughts raced. I vaguely remembered something she had yelled at me as I tried to dress myself and run out of the house. She had reminded me in a cracked and shrieking voice that I had turned eighteen that spring. My girl would not reach the age of adulthood until October. We were, for the moment, illegal.
There could be no other reason for them to be there. They had to be looking for me.
I waited. The sun rose and climbed higher in the sky, clearing the house in whose shadow the RV always sat. The light came baffled through the cloudy bubbled ceiling of the thing, and the heat followed. Warm became hot. Hot became unbearable. I threw everything off me and got out of the attic, but the entire space was stifling. I sweated for a long time, rivers of it streaming down from the backs of my knees, from my hairline, and soaking the armpits of my t-shirt. I didn’t really worry until I stopped sweating. My head throbbed and I saw spots. I had no water. I was on my way to a heat stroke. I thought about dogs and babies left in hot cars on warm days, their cooked corpses following the guilty parties the rest of their lives. But this was nobody’s fault but my own. I had trapped myself there without water or another way out.
I filtered bugs through my teeth and drank.
Just when I had decided to make a break for it, I heard the creaky wooden door to the atrium swing open. I listened carefully to the cops’ tone. I didn’t care what they said. I already knew that cops could both lie and operate in angry ignorance of the law. I cared how they sounded. In the tone of their voice, a cop will tell you whether you are in trouble, or whether you can expect help.
Their tone to her was dismissive. It would be impossible to make charges stick. She’s just eighteen. It’s not really sex. They were telling her no, that this was a waste of time. For once, I was glad for the ignorance men have historically shown about lesbians. It meant I was less of a threat. Almost an hour later, they left.
She went fuming and muttering back into her house. Silence fell; nobody goes outside on days like this in the desert. I opened the door and bolted. Shuddering with a full-body chill and knowing I was in deep trouble, I ran. I ran to the end of the block where a vacant house sat, circled to the side yard, and popped the gate open. I knew this place from a thousand illicit night swims; it had a pool. I lay on the burning white cement and lowered my face to the chlorinated blue. I filtered bugs through my teeth and drank. The water made my stomach cramp and I forced myself to stick with it, to slow down, to breathe and keep swallowing.
I crawled into the shade of the house and passed out in the dust. I knew I was still not ok, and that if I got caught there I’d go to jail for trespassing instead of statutory rape. I couldn’t care. I gave up. I could feel every cell in my body swelling with gratitude, coming back to life. I was being reconstituted. Later, I would be hungry and have to solve that problem. Later, I would be cold. Later, I would still have nowhere to go.
It was not the end of my time on the street. But I never slept in the RV again.
Meg Elison is a science fiction and horror author living in Oakland.