When You Leave

“Look at you, all grown up,” she said. She reached out a hand to touch your face but you took an involuntary step backwards. You couldn’t read the expression on her face, but you knew it wasn’t surprise. She didn’t feel real to you, standing there in your new home in your new state. She was back in your life, suddenly, without asking – the same way she had left it.

You noticed she hadn’t said why she left, or why she was back. Her words felt planned, and a little rehearsed. A question kept ringing in your ears, Why now? There was an answer, too, but you tried not to think it.

You were too confused to make any decisions then. You told her she could stay in your spare room, but you had to run an errand. Really you just had to get out, to think, to breathe.

You called your dad. It went to voicemail, and you left a long silence on his machine before hanging up. You hadn’t spoken to him in months; calling about his wife who skipped town felt like a shitty way to catch up. On the streets you passed tourists and people in a hurry to be places. Families crowded in front of monuments and on the beachfront. You tried not to pick out every happy looking little boy holding his mother’s hand. But that only led you to focus on the sons laughing with their fathers. You walked a long way before circling back towards your house.

She was standing on the street in front of the lawn, puffing on a cigarette and talking to a group of men with recorders thrust towards her. She looked like she was enjoying their attention, and as you neared, you heard her saying, “Oh yes, Noah has always been very driven. When he was a boy, he used to make money any way he could, you know? Always counting, always saving it up, always making more.”

The cameras were creating a storm of light as you separated her from them. Your face was a twist of anger, betrayal, panic. You’re sure it made for great photos.

“Well, you just left, dear, and I wanted to talk to someone,” she said as way of explanation.

“What if I don’t want them knowing everything about me?”

She tilted her head and gave you a condescending smile. “Oh, but why not? There are only good things to tell!”

It was then you realized her arrival wasn’t from shame, or guilt, or even a desire to make up for anything. You had never touched that place in your heart that she had broken, but a part of you knew, nestled next to the hurt, was a sliver of desperate hope. Hope that there was still a chance, a way to fix what had been – you knew now – irreparably damaged the day she left. She didn’t stay with you that night. You told her you didn’t care where she went, she just had to leave. She cursed you all the way down the street.

The story came out the next day: Noah Clarke, Musician in it for the Money. They linked your hasty contract at the label to your rising success. Every publication skewed it a different way, but they all spun the same tale. Just another artist who cared more about the results than the product. And wasn’t his first album proof? Temple told you not to worry, tabloids were all talk. No one paid attention anyways.

The next story was a full feature told from your “supportive but concerned” mother. She laid out how your small town’s occupants got by day-to-day, teasing out the illegality of it all. She misquoted your reasons for turning her away – she was clean now, and that just wasn’t meshing with your style. Very hurtful, honestly. And then she cited your non-existent dating life, and hinted heavily at the unusual relationship you’d shared with Johnny since you were young. Anyone could’ve read between the lines – that the magazine would pay her to say anything at all – but your blood cooled every time you thought about the next batch of fan mail you would read. Those that would feed on the wealth of new information, and those that would tear you apart for the revelation of facts that tainted their picture of you.


You realized they didn’t really know you. Not the fans, not your label, not even your mother. Your songs had been too much compromise with what Johnny wanted – songs about dangerous acts, stemming from your life-long avoidance of getting caught. Songs that highlighted your youth, your future, your new California life. Songs that felt hollow now. You didn’t have thick enough skin for the articles and the secret pictures, not yet. Thinking about the album as a whole made you feel trapped. At the next meeting at Temple’s house, you brought it up to them.

“Let’s write about home next, Johnny,” you said.

“Noah, come on,” he said. “We got away from that place, let’s leave it there.”

That place, as if it had been a dark hole of shame and struggle, and not where you came from, the place that made you.

But you hadn’t left it there – it had come with you that first day, and you knew going back was inevitable. You didn’t make a plan, you just left. You stood at the bus station, watching the digital clock read out the times of the next trips home.


You got on the bus and turned off your phone because Temple and Johnny kept calling you. There was nothing to say yet, anyway.