At eighteen years old, with no high school diploma, a growing rap sheet, and a failed relationship with his estranged father, Timothy J. Hillegonds took a one-way flight from Chicago to Colorado in hopes of leaving his mounting rage and frustration behind. His plan was simple: snowboard, hang out, live an uncomplicated life.
The Distance Between chronicles how Hillegonds’s plan went awry after he immediately jumped head first into a turbulent relationship with April, a Denny’s coworker and single mother. At once passionate and volatile, their relationship was fueled by vodka, crystal methamphetamine, and poverty—and it sometimes became violent. Mere months after moving to the mountains, when the stakes felt like they couldn’t be higher, Hillegonds learned April was pregnant with his child.
More than just a harrowing story of addiction and abuse or a simple mea culpa, The Distance Between is a finely wrought exploration of, and reckoning with, absent fathers, fatherhood, violence, adolescent rage, white male privilege, and Hillegonds’s own toxic masculinity. With nuance and urgency, The Distance Between takes readers through the grit of life on the margins while grappling with the problematic nature of one man’s existence.
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The sky above Navy Pier was a thick stripe of blue sidewalk chalk, clouds brushed white against the horizon. Around me, Lake Michigan billowed lazily, boats rising and falling in waves. I wiped sweat from my forehead with my shirtsleeve, and the breeze picked up, carrying the smell of beer and burgers and churros. I shifted my weight to my left skate as the August sun all but ignited the pavement beneath my wheels. The temperature was pushing a hundred degrees, and Navy Pier was shoulder to shoulder with people. Like a heartbeat, the crowd pulsed.
Next to me, Dan kicked his skate against the ground so his wheels spun. "You ready?" he said, his grin equal parts adrenaline, focus, joy. "Always," I said, laughing. "See you on the flipside," he said, and then he was gone.
I watched as he cut his skates back and forth, hard, digging into the asphalt, propelling himself toward the plywood ramp as fast as his legs would take him. Three hundred people watched, their eyes following him as he closed the distance. Just on the other side of the ramp, standing single file, was the rest of our skate team, plus two volunteers from the audience. Ten people total.
Right before Dan hit the ramp, he bent his knees, and I knew what he felt in that moment, had felt it a thousand times before — that singularity, that brief instant where time somehow folded in on itself, and there was no future, and no past, and the revisions were endless, an entire life rewritten in an instant.
Dan exploded off the ramp, instantly clearing the skate team and volunteers beneath him. He was momentarily pinned to the horizon, a dark shape outlined in cerulean, before landing perfectly and sliding to a stop. The crowd erupted.
To my right, sunlight sliced the tops off the lake's watery ripples and flung flashes of yellow in all directions. The song changed to The Offspring's "Come Out and Play." I turned to the crowd and drank in their energy, felt the American punk rock and heat and excitement fusing together under a thick slab of humidity. I watched as Dan skated up and took his place at the end of the line of people. He looked at me and lifted his head. It was a question. I held up my hand. Spread all my fingers. Signaled the number five. Dan nodded, and I saw him skate up to the crowd. He said something, and five more people stepped forward. Dan placed them in the middle of the line and retook his spot at the end. I looked down at my skates while my heart fired like a Chevy big block.
I took a deep breath and felt invincible. I glanced at the crowd. A guy holding a beer took a half step forward. "You going to jump all those people?" he said.
"Nope," I said, smiling and shaking my head. "I'm going to flip over them."
I dug in, pushed off the ground with my left skate as hard as I could. Every muscle in my body worked to get me to the ramp with as much speed as possible. The crowd faded. The music faded. The world faded.
I hit the launch ramp and entered the atmosphere of my life, flying horizontal, superman position, and felt that I was attached to nothing, not to the earth or the sky or the thick residue my father's absence had left on me, the silt I was just beginning to know. Below me, fifteen people stood erect, their heads tilted skyward. I began to flip forward just as I cleared Dan, the last person in line, and the world disappeared, but I could still feel it, the world, could still feel where I was in relation to it, and then my eyes found the blue they'd been searching for, the horizon, and my body slowly unfolded.
Ten feet past Dan, I landed with such force that my molded plastic wheels exploded, pieces sailing in all directions, bouncing atop the concrete. I slid onto my kneepads. Stopped quickly from the friction. Stood up. Dan looked at me and shook his head. Laughed. And then I was laughing, too, the crowd a frenzy of clapping hands and screaming voices and pumping fists. Dan and I continued to laugh, couldn't stop laughing, because this is what we did, and this thing we did was ours — and because today the world was limitless, and there was nothing, absolutely nothing, we could not do.
* * *
Inline skating, for most people, was nothing more than a blip on the cultural radar of the late '80s and early '90s. It was a passing fad, a temporary movement, a trend that swelled for a brief period of time while skateboarding momentarily faded from public consciousness. But skating never felt temporary or trendy or contrived to me. It felt natural — almost biological — like the expected athletic progression from Neanderthal to Homo sapiens, or from boyhood to adolescence.
From the moment I first tried on inline skates, they seemed an extension of me, a plastic and rubber upgrade to the fleshy hardware I was born with. When I laced them up and ratcheted the buckles tight around my ankles, instantly taller, an entire world opened up, an ecosphere that I could now move through with fluidity and perspective.
And I wasn't alone. A number of my friends — Rich and Joel and Dan — had also put away their childhood skateboards and strapped on their inline skates. But of all of us, it was Dan and I who took to it the fastest, who excelled the quickest, building launch ramps and grind rails, waxing curbs, skating eight miles from my house to his, from his house to mine, from Oak Lawn to Blue Island and back again, almost never tired, fueled by youth and friendship and the knowledge that we were good at this new thing, better than almost anyone else we came across.
In 1992, my friend Joel turned sixteen and got his driver's license, and Dan and I began catching rides to the skate park with him as often as we could. He had a Ford Mustang GT, white with a black ragtop, and he drove it like he had just stolen it wherever we went, slamming the manual transmission into gear, its five-liter v-8 thundering below the hood. It took just over an hour to drive from my parents' house in the southwest Chicago suburb of Oak Lawn to the skate park in Hoffman Estates, and we'd blast the music the entire time, singing and laughing and bragging about every trick we would try once we got there.
During one of our sessions at the skate park, Dan and I were approached by a skater a few years older than us. He had the same enormous kneepads that we did, the same long hair pulled back into a ponytail, the same baggy shorts and beat-up skates, and he told us he'd been watching us the last few times we were there. "I'm putting together a stunt team," he said, taking off his helmet and wiping the sweat off his forehead with the front of his T-shirt. "You guys interested?" Dan and I tried to play it cool, tried to stop the huge grins from appearing on our faces, but we couldn't. "Hell yeah," I said. "Definitely," Dan said. Our smiles were big and toothy.
From that moment forward, we were professionals, and it felt so good to say that to each other, so meaningful, so liberating. On skates, I was able to reimagine the world, see everything differently. I could reframe myself within the Chicago cityscape, within my own life, and at the same time draw myself nearer to the borders, closer to the outer edges of everything we came across. We no longer walked or ran. We glided. Floated. Drifted. Everything I felt — all the anger I was starting to feel for my father leaving, all the trouble I was getting in at school — was packed into the way I skated. I could grind down a handrail in downtown Chicago or latch onto the back of a CTA bus or front flip over a car, and everything else I felt would disappear. At the literal edge of control, one small move away from serious injury, everything felt manageable. In the margin that existed between safety and danger, between assurance and risk, I felt at home.
* * *
Just beginning to climb over the hormonal fence between childhood and adolescence, I found inline skating to be a sort of street therapy, a way to work out the echoes constantly knocking around inside. It was a pressure valve, a release, a way to transform what I didn't yet understand about my emotions into actual, physical movement. My mother and father divorced when I was two, and even though my father had full visitation rights, he never used them — regardless of the fact that we never lived farther than four miles apart. I was the only child of their marriage, and I stayed with my mother after the divorce, my father fading from our lives almost immediately.
For three years my mother and I lived alone in a small apartment in Crestwood, off a tree-lined street near the Cal-Sag Channel, where the mossy smell of water would drift in through my bedroom window during the summer months. She worked as a teller in a bank off Pulaski Road, her blonde hair permed in tight curls, a hint of blue eye shadow, and I remember the love I felt from her in those days with a pristine clarity.
When I was five years old, my mother remarried, my half-sister Heidi arriving shortly thereafter. Two years after that, Aaron was born, followed eventually by Jillian in 1991, when I was thirteen.
My stepfather, also recently divorced when he married my mother, was kind and patient and loved me — it seemed to me even back then — like I was his own child. He did his level best to fill the role of father for me, to nudge me in a positive direction if he sensed me veering off course, but my biological father's absence became impossible for me to ignore as I grew older. I had begun to wonder why he left; or more specifically, why he never came back, why he never tried to establish a relationship with me.
As a teenager, I started asking about him more frequently.
"What was he like?" I asked my mother once, after a day spent riding my bike through the neighborhood with my friends. "What do you mean?" she said, walking into the living room with a dustrag in her hand.
"I don't know," I said, following her. "I mean, what did he do for a living?"
She stopped near the windows that looked onto our front yard and Central Avenue. Just past the street, oak trees towered above the power lines, and just past that, just past where we could see, was Oak Lawn Lake, the manmade reservoir where I caught catfish and crawdads as a child.
My mother began to dust an end table, looked at me and smiled, her shoulder-length hair swaying as her arm moved across the furniture. "I told you this already, didn't I?"
It was true that she'd told me on other occasions, but I wanted to hear it again. Because when the words came out of her mouth they were affirmations of a life I didn't know but was somehow still part of. They made me feel like I came from somewhere, that I wasn't just a kid with a mother. There was a father out there, too, a man just as responsible for me as the woman I was now talking with.
She lifted a lamp off the table and dusted beneath it, particles floating into the air, momentarily suspended in the afternoon sunlight. "He was in construction, concrete mostly," she said. "He was a foreman and drove this raggedy pickup truck that was always dirty."
It had been years since I'd seen him, but I felt like I knew what he looked like. In my mind, he wore muddy work boots and Levi's jeans that were speckled with gray concrete. He had brown hair, dark stubble on the sharp point of a chin shaped like mine. I saw him standing on a construction site wearing a flannel shirt and smoking a cigarette with a brown filter.
My mother stopped dusting and looked at me, perhaps sensing that I was thinking about him. "Is everything okay, honey? Where's this coming from?"
Outside the window, a pickup truck rattled down busy Central Avenue, slowing for the train tracks up ahead. I watched its brake lights glow and wondered whether the truck was anything like my father's. My mother studied me. The image of my father on the construction site abruptly shifted to a memory of him watching television from a big fabric chair like the one my mother was standing next to, in the second-floor apartment we had all lived in together. My father had a can of Old Style beer in his hand. I was small and standing near his knee, looking up at him, wishing he would acknowledge me.
"Yeah, Ma, everything's fine," I said, shaking my head to clear the memory. "I was just wondering."
* * *
I also began to question everything I'd been told — about school, about family, about religion. I began to push against all the guard-rails that had been set up around me, primarily by acting out in school. My junior high school pranks and disruptive behavior were harmless at first — setting the clocks ahead to shorten class time, making muriatic acid bombs explode during recess — but a few of us had recently upped the ante by unlocking the bathroom window before leaving school one Friday. The junior high I attended wasn't far from my house — just a few blocks south on Central Avenue — and the next day, my friends and I showed up at the school, shimmied through the window, and spent the afternoon running and yelling and high-fiving through the empty hallways, turning on the stereo system in the music room as loud as it would go, jumping from the gym's balcony — arms flailing — onto a forest green crash mat fifteen feet below.
It was fun at first, nothing more than harmless juvenile mischief, but it was thrilling and addicting and we kept at it week after week, eventually emboldened to the point where we were rummaging through teachers' desks and funding our candy habits by stealing the Pop Day money.
Eventually, though, we were caught red-handed by the Oak Lawn Police — a neighbor had noticed us running around the roof — and I felt handcuffs sting my wrists for the first time. My stepfather was so angry when the police called him that he let me sit in the small jail cell for hours before finally picking me up, driving me home in a silence that felt an awful lot like fury.
My mother and stepfather were summoned to the principal's office on numerous occasions — because of the arrest, yes, but also for the endless pranks and commotions that came before — and were forced to beg for the school's forgiveness. "He's just going through a rough time right now," my mother said to the principal during one of her meetings. "I know he's disruptive sometimes, but he's a good kid. We're working with him at home to figure out what's going on."
And to my mother's credit, she was. She walked up to me when I was in the backyard kicking a soccer ball against the fence and practicing footwork drills in the long grass, her blonde hair shining in the afternoon sun, and asked me why I was making the choices I was making. "What's happening with you lately, Tim?" she said while watching me, her voice soft and loving. "You've got to tell me so I can help you." I looked at the soccer ball, rolled it backwards with my foot so that it rode up my laces, and balanced the ball there. "There's nothing to tell, Ma," I said, hopping on one foot to keep the soccer ball from falling. "I just think all the rules are ridiculous. I'm just having fun. It's really not that big of a deal."
She wouldn't let me off the hook that easily, though. She shifted her weight and punctuated the air with her right hand as she spoke. "But it is a big deal, Tim. You can't just do whatever you want whenever you feel like it. The world doesn't work like that." She sighed, watched me drop the ball back to the ground and guide it with my foot over the grass, the blades bending under its weight. "You're so good at so many things, Tim," she said. "And you're smart too. So why all the detentions? Why do I keep getting calls from your principal?"
I didn't know how to say it, but I was simply acting the way I felt — rebellious. The Christian faith I was raised in seemed restrictive and limiting and hypocritical. I went to Sunday school and youth group for the majority of my childhood because I had to, but I began to resent it, began to rebel against it, both in a literal and ideological sense. I became deeply distrustful of church and faith and the belief that there was a God out there who loved me unconditionally.
When I was thirteen, I had stood up in front of the congregation in a white button-down shirt and clip-on tie, professing to know Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior while my parents watched proudly from metal folding chairs in the front row, but I now wondered if I knew what the words I'd professed even meant. I was told to believe in a heavenly father I couldn't see, which seemed difficult to grasp for anyone, let alone a kid who was still searching for the answers of what happened to his earthly one.
Such ideas were not fully formed yet, though, and it would be decades before they would be. So instead of saying anything, I shrugged my shoulders and struck the ball with the top of my right foot, and sent it crashing against the fence.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Distance Between"
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