When I Ran Away: A Novel

When I Ran Away: A Novel

by Ilona Bannister
When I Ran Away: A Novel

When I Ran Away: A Novel

by Ilona Bannister


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A rich, bighearted debut that takes us from working-class Staten Island in the wake of the September 11th attacks to moneyed London a decade later, revealing a story of loss, motherhood, and love.

"A wise, bighearted, triumphant story." —Emily Giffin, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Lies That Bind

As the Twin Towers collapse, Gigi Stanislawski flees her office building and escapes lower Manhattan on the Staten Island Ferry. Among the crying, ash-covered, and shoeless passengers, Gigi, unbelievably, finds someone she recognizes—Harry Harrison, a British man and a regular at her favorite coffee shop. Gigi brings Harry to her parents' house, where they watch the television replay the planes crashing for hours, and she waits for the phone call that will never come: the call from Frankie, her younger brother.

Ten years later, Gigi, now a single mother consumed with bills and unfulfilled ambitions, meets Harry, again by chance, and they fall deeply, headlong in love. But their move to London and their new baby—which Gigi hoped would finally release her from the past—leave her feeling isolated, raw, and alone with her grief. As Gigi comes face-to-face with the anguish of her brother's death and her rage at the unspoken pain of motherhood, she must somehow find the light amid all the darkness. Startlingly honest and shot through with unexpected humor, When I Ran Away is an unforgettable first novel about love—for our partners, our children, our mothers, and ourselves—pushed to its outer limits.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593081761
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/08/2022
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 1,138,431
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

ILONA BANNISTER grew up on Staten Island and lived in New York City until she married a Brit and moved to London. Ilona Bannister, a dual qualified U.S. attorney and UK solicitor, practiced immigration law in the UK before taking a career break to raise her two young sons and unexpectedly found herself writing fiction. When I Ran Away is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt



A Wednesday in August 2016, 7 a.m. London

Harry’s shoes are by the door. Not in the closet, next to the door, but abandoned, right in front of it. Harry leaves them there the way you leave your bed unmade in a hotel room because you know housekeeping will deal with it later. The shoes by the door tell a truth about him. About us.

Back in the beginning, back in New York, when the dimple in his chin and his accent got me every time, there was the day I found him lying on my fire escape, covered in glass with blood on his shirt, wearing his shoes on his hands like two big pot holders. I said, “Harry, what the hell did you do?”

“I heard Johnny screaming and you were gone for bloody ages, I thought he wasn’t safe, so I tried to get in, but . . . it went rather badly,” he said to me, and to the super, and to the guy from downstairs who almost called the cops when he saw Harry break the window to my apartment.

I said, “Safe? He was locked in a bathroom in a locked apartment, that’s like the safest he could ever be in Brooklyn. You didn’t have to climb the fire escape and break the window and knock yourself out—”

“But I wanted you to know you could trust me to do the right thing—”

“Well, you sure fucked that one up, buddy.”

And then we all laughed. Because even though Harry put his sneakers over his hands to punch the window he still got cut up on his arm and he fainted and hit his head and that’s when I learned that Harry can’t handle the sight of blood. And also how much he loved me and Johnny.

What had happened was that the bathroom doorknob fell out of the door, the way it had a thousand times before, and Johnny got locked in. And I was just about to use the screwdriver as a handle to get him out like I always did when Harry walked in with the Chinese food. Except he had dropped a container in the hallway and there was fried rice everywhere. So I went to give him the broom in the hall but then the apartment door shut behind us. Click.

Now Johnny was double-locked in the bathroom and the apartment with me and Harry and the fried rice in the hall with no key. So I said to Harry, “Let me go get the super, he has an extra key, give me five minutes.” But if you’ve ever tried to find a New York super you know that he’s never where you think he’s going to be and I was gone for a little while and then Johnny started screaming. Harry didn’t know, though, that he was just doing that because he liked the sound of his voice bouncing off the bathroom tiles. He didn’t know much about kids yet. So Harry took things into his own hands and decided to break in to save Johnny. Of course, all he did was give himself a concussion and ruin his shoes. And break my window.

Anyway, we got Johnny out of the bathroom and wrapped up Harry’s arm and put ice on his head and the three of us ate cold Chinese while the super boarded up the window. Then we put Harry in a cab and he left in his socks because one sneaker had glass all stuck in the fabric and the other one was covered in blood. But later when Johnny had gone to bed and I was cleaning up I saw that he had lined up his school shoes next to Harry’s messed-up sneakers next to my work shoes in the little closet by the front door. All in a line, like a family. A little family of shoes.

Johnny did that, of course, because he’s always known where to put his shoes. I taught him that shoes go in a certain place and that’s where he puts them. But Harry—despite our years together, and our life with Johnny, and New York and London, and now the baby—he just leaves them by the door, the way you leave your bed unmade in a hotel room because you know housekeep— I’ve already said that. It’s hard to keep track of your thoughts when you’re leaving your husband and you trip over his shoes because he left them by the door again.

We’re so far from heroic gestures on fire escapes now. Our beginning was a long time ago. Now there’s a patch of my heart that’s an open sore, like an ulcer pulsing on the ventricle, or the aorta, or whatever the fuck you call it. And now there’s no heart left for the baby. I thought I could make room but I can’t. Johnny and Harry took all the heart space I had. And now there’s not enough.

The pain is nothing new. The grief and shock and anger, as familiar as my name. But when I became a mother the pain multiplied and grew and stretched my skin and bent my back as far as it would go because the pain a mother feels is not just hers. She feels everyone’s pain; she picks it up for her kids, she carries it for the family, she takes it from her parents when they’re too old to bear it. She cries when she sees the crying mothers on the news; she tears up when she sees a kid in a wheelchair in the supermarket; she sobs when that Save the Children ad comes on; she has to leave the room when the old man’s wife loses the baby in Up and that’s just a fucking cartoon. Because more than the pain of the person who’s hurting she feels the pain of his mother. Of all the mothers. They feel hers too.

But what the fuck do I know?

I know this. This is why it’s hard to love me and hard for me to love. And why I love so hard when I do. Because this is what I carry. And last night Harry left his shoes by the door again and that’s where I found them this morning so I pick them up, I open the door and I hurl them across the street as hard as I can. One lands in the middle of the road and the other one lands on the neighbor’s BMW, setting off the car alarm. And Harry’s yelling at me now, and Johnny’s screaming too and the baby’s crying and all of them plus the car alarm—they’re shattering my skull from the inside and it’s time to go.

So I leave them and I start walking.

Manhattan to Staten Island, September 2001

We want to know more than we want to survive. We want to know what death looks like before we run away from it. But we don’t know that about ourselves until it’s happening. Until we see it we don’t know that we’re the kind of people who run toward death; the kind of people who don’t run away even when it’s coming for us.

The edge of Manhattan vibrates. Hundreds of people, all of us silent. All of our hearts stop at once. A pause, a moment of quiet, a shared understanding, wordless and bone deep. There is a sound—a drone, long and low, not of our world. We hear it, and then we run. Not toward the terminal doors, to the boat, to safety. We turn around and run to the huge windows, built stories high for the view of lower Manhattan at a time that we would never know again, when our city stood untouchable, piercing the sky. We run to the windows to see the sun blotted out and the City vanish under the smoke and horror, ash and tragedy. We run to the wall of glass, put our hands on the windows, hundreds of pairs of hands reaching for the panes, palms outstretched, like we could stop it. The need to know, the need to put out our hands—so much stronger than the instinct to survive.

On the boat I sit down across from a woman covered in white dust, all over her suit and her hair. She doesn’t brush it off. She doesn’t know it’s there. She’s shaking, no shoes, no bag, just wearing a suit and nylon hose. She takes the life jacket from under her seat and puts it on, trembling and silent. Other people do it too because maybe the Staten Island Ferry’s the next thing to blow up.

I get up and go to the back of the boat where the doors are open to see if the City’s still there but there’s nothing except a cloud of gray smoke. It takes a long time to sail out of the cloud. Or maybe it doesn’t but that’s how it feels. When we pass the Statue of Liberty, sunlight glinting off her torch, somebody starts shouting and people panic because maybe she’s the next to blow up. Everyone was relieved to have escaped Manhattan. But now there’s a realization seeping through the decks that maybe we’re just floating in our graves.

I walk to the steps that go to the next deck up. Keep moving, stay close to the exits, in case, in case . . .

I focus on one step at a time, one at a time, and then there’s his shoes on the landing. Black wing tips but all the decorative holes in the leather are gray, filled in by the falling ash. He must have been caught up in the cloud when he was running for the ferry. I look up at him. The shoulders of his suit are white, as if he just came in from a blizzard. His forehead is smudged with dust, like Ash Wednesday, except today is Tuesday. He waits for me to reach the landing.

He says, “Hello. Are you alright?” He puts a hand on my elbow.

“No. Are you?”

“No, I don’t think I am,” he says. A long silence. There’s nothing to say. I don’t know this man. I mean, I do, he works in the building across from mine and he’s British, that’s in the accent, but he’s talking to me like we know each other. Except we don’t.

“Do you need a place to go?” I say, conscious that his hand is still on my elbow, even when we aren’t speaking. Under different circumstances it would have been lingering for too long.

“Where am I going now?” he asks.

“Staten Island. Do you know anybody there?” I ask.

“I don’t believe so, other than you, if that counts?”

“Sure,” I say, but I’m not sure if he answered “yes” or “no.” He uses a lot of words.

“That’s very kind. I’m Harry.”

“I’m Gigi.”

“That’s a nice name.”

I don’t know what else to say so I say, “My real name is Eugenia Stanislawski.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” I get the joke but I don’t laugh. Instead I think this guy’s a fucking inappropriate asshole because this isn’t a time for jokes or flirting but at least I got somebody to talk to so I say, “Is this real?”

He says, “Hold my hand.” So I do.

Harry and I go to the same tiny coffee shop across the alley from the back entrance of my office building. I would run over for a break and he’d be in there sometimes. I thought he was cute but he was always in a pink shirt or a three-piece suit and polka-dot socks or something so I figured he was gay. Then I heard him order coffee and I realized he was British. So then I thought, well, too bad he’s gay ’cause that accent was sexy. Then last Friday he was two people ahead of me on the line and he turned around with two coffees and handed me one and he said, “I believe it’s light and sweet, is that right? Have a lovely day.” He walked off before I could say thank you and I thought to myself, Now that is some classy European shit right there. And that ass ain’t too bad either.

But that was Friday and today is Tuesday and now we’re on the Staten Island Ferry. We’re looking at the water and holding hands, not because of the coffee but because we need to hold on to something. We’re not looking at the City. I feel the tears I haven’t cried yet when I suddenly get a picture in my head of all the paper. Office paper, copier paper, reams of paper swirling around outside my office window this morning. I work on the tenth floor so it was strange to see that much paper up so high. I watched it fly past the window when Sharon called my office to tell me she saw the news and that I had better get out of my building. I watched the towers burning from the corner of Wall Street for a minute before I took off my heels to run down Broadway with the wave of people.

I can see it now, the paper flying by the window, and it was theirs, the people who went to work that day—their reports and accounts and files—it fluttered out of their offices like a flock of doves when the planes hit. And the ash. On Harry’s shoes, covering that woman, that’s not just the tower that fell down, there were people in there. That’s the people too. The ash and the paper, they fell like snow. Landed like sledgehammers.

“Gigi, what do we do now?” Harry asks because the boat’s docking.

“Follow me,” I say. It feels like the decent thing to do, to take him home with me. I take him out through the bottom deck, bypassing the terminal. Staten Islanders know that the bottom level is the fastest way to leave the boat if you don’t mind the piss-and-old-beer-salty-swamp smell of New York Harbor. As we leave the boat to cross the parking lot and I see the chaos surrounding the terminal—people in every direction, crying, yelling, laughing, smoking, making calls on cell phones that don’t work—it doesn’t feel right to leave him there.

The late summer sun is blazing, glorious, oblivious. A girl, early twenties, in her pajamas, twirling around in circles, people leaving a wide berth around her. I tap her on the shoulder and say, “You need help, honey?”

She says, “I moved here last week. I was sleeping. I was sleeping.” Before I can say anything else she runs off into the crowd.

Harry and I walk up the hill off Richmond Terrace to my parents’ house. There’s a clear view of Manhattan from here. But I know the City’s burning behind our backs so I don’t turn around. I don’t want to know what it looks like.

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