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Throw Away Yourself – A Writing Exercise

I belong to an awesome freewrite group. We meet every few weeks. We sit together and write for an hour, and then we read what we've written, no matter how rough. It's a great way to generate new material. Usually I use the time to craft a scene in my novel, or write part of a column draft, but sometimes I just spend an hour in play.

About a year ago, on some dusty cobweb of the Internet, I found an excerpt from a book called How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found, A Step-By-Step Guide To Leaving Your Old Life Behind. The book is by Doug Richmond, I think, but it might be Chris Bethea – the site wasn't very clear. (Whoever the author is, he apparently also wrote How to Be a Sneaky Bastard, How to Fake Your Own Death, and What Do You Do When Nobody Cares Anymore, Not Even Yourself – and I want him on my titling team.)

Anyway, I fell in love with Step #3 of How To Disappear Completely so one day last year in my freewrite group when I was fed up with my novel, I used that as my prompt. A new character stepped briefly out of the ether to tell me her story:

#3: Throw Away Yourself and Build a New You

I am starting to disappear. I start here, in line at the bank in the middle of the afternoon looking casual yet watching myself on the small TV screen faced towards me. A line of people at Wells Fargo fixated by their own images but pretending not to look.

I have three hours. He's at work, and I'm at work too, he thinks … a "doctor's appointment," I told them, but really it's me taking out all the money I can without suspicion; more than five thousand and you need a manager, but I can do another three hundred from the machine. Cash.

Money gets tight when you can't work legally. If he calls, Suzanne at the front desk will say "in a meeting," because I told her sotto voce that I needed to get my thyroid levels checked but not to tell him about it if he called, he'd worry.

At Longs they have everything I need. I try not to look like I'm in a hurry. Clothes I'd never wear as me – no time to cut or dye my hair now – a white hat, I hate white. A pink sweatshirt with a kitty on it. A warm cheap jacket, new shoes, a funnel, two five-pound sacks of long grain rice, a fishing license. I'll fill in the name later, when I have one.

I drive home, the cloudy sky so complex, the roadside daffodils so yellow. Two hours. I park the Honda behind the Passat – his car; he took BART today. Nobody can see me as I stand in the drive, my back to the street, the windows of the apartment building across the street shuttered, and here's the first irrevocable action (the money can be returned to the accounts, explained away a slap, a belt, a scream, a welt)...

I start with the Passat. I pop and prop the hood, twist the radiator cap. The metal tears at my fingers. Don't spill don't spill don't spill. A goose force-fed fois gras, I choke it with rice. Fluid, florescent green and viscous, rises around the funnel as the rice descends. I set the cap back and turn clockwise until it stops. Close the hood. Now the Honda car, the radiator still too hot – my hands burn – I pull off my sweater for padding and open the cap, the steam erupts but I stand out of the stream because I'm savvy, I won't get burnt again. Rice. More rice, choking and clogging, I stir it in, pressing it down into the dark wet hole.

I've killed the cars, though they don't know it yet. They will die when he turns the engine over. Follow me on foot, then, just try. Still an hour before he calls me from the station, "I'm here, come get me now."

Inside the house, I cut and shred my clothes until there's a pile of threads and scraps, black and red and the old me, and handful by handful I flush them down the toilet, then climb into my new clothes, pink and average, credit cards, driver's license, YMCA card, ATM card, checkbook. Slice, slice.

Pictures! On our mantel so carefully proudly lovingly placed – I pound the glass with a hammer, shatter my face. His gun. I wrap it in a pillowcase and run it down the street – walk! – walk it. I pull it out casually – I don't want it hidden and accidentally discharged, and toss it in.

The neighbors! Apartment buildings and houses, closed and shut, a working class neighborhood and it's work time, all the people out being productive, ruining their joints with repetitive stress, but here I am in my new pink outfit and they might have seen me…

No time. He'll call in 20 minutes. I call our home number from my cell, leave the message: "I'm gone – I'm leaving you. I'll be in Chicago if you need me, staying with Mary." There is no Mary. I won't go anywhere near Chicago.

Then I pee, feed the fish, spill the sugar, open the refrigerator, turn over a chair, leave the water running, walk casually out of the house. I toss the keys into the garden. It's weedy, he won't find them for months. They'll expect me to head south to Mexico, it's what people do. It's what I would do if I were me – but I'm not me. I've thrown away myself.