A girl named Holly invited me to a sleepover. She had come over my house a few times before. It was a household dinner table joke that she’d once asked my mom if she could use the bathroom. As a joke, because the question was so silly, my mom had said no.
At Holly’s there was a punching bag in her big living room. I beat the shit out of it. All of the girls stayed in Holly’s room. We did girl things like tell the boys we liked. Matt Peer, I confessed. He was quiet, mysterious, and seemed nice. A few of the girls were doing some complex algorithms with names. “You guys are a 107!” One of them shrieked. “Oh my god, you guys are like true love!” I was so excited I couldn’t sleep.
So this is an excerpt from a chapter from a project I’m working on called Eclipses of Jupiter. It’s in its infancy still, but it’s about growing up with albinism and being legally blind in my crazy family, and all the school and social implications. It’ll also focus on blind camp and related programs when I get into teenage years. This chapter, which will be broken up into installments and posted over the next few weeks, is all about fourth grade, which was a bit of an epic school year.
On my birthday, I was reading a book at the lunch table. I think it was The Long Secret, the sequel to Harriet The Spy. I was sitting by myself. My mom had let me buy lunch in the cafeteria for my birthday. I ate some chicken nuggets and tater tots and a pack of saltines that were supposed to be for people who got soup but the lunch lady gave them to anyone. I unwrapped them and started nibbling while I turned the page, devouring the words faster than my food. When lunch was over, I was almost at the end of a chapter and I kept reading, finally closing the book and running to catch up to my class.
“Emilia,” Mrs. Domaracki’s voice. I stopped and turned around. “Were you just going to leave this here?”
I couldn’t see what she meant from this far away so I went back to the table. It was the clear plastic wrapper for the soup Saltines. “I’m sorry,” I said, closing the plastic in my fist. “I didn’t see it.”
Mom was going to counseling a lot, or some type of meetings. It was all hush-hush and grown-up talk but I had surmised that much. And that it had something to do with her parents. One day she took me with her.
The therapist was named Diana and she was really friendly. They always were. This was not my first therapy rodeo. I knew all the tricks, how to charm them the way I charmed Mom sometimes by pretending to agree with her, or maybe temporarily really agreeing with her on the way home from that visit to Mrs. Domaracki the day before school.
I knew how to pretend to be good. Talk about bad things other kids do, even if you’re really the one who does them more than anyone else. Use logic. Be interesting. Maybe mention quirky things like the flagrant love you had for the blood red octagons of stop signs as a three-year-old. If they can tell you’re smart, that you read a lot, that you think and feel deeply, they’re less likely to blame you. If you can infuse some Dad into your voice, speak with his bland cheerful optimism about topics like the weather, then maybe they’ll think you’re normal, let you draw pictures or play games. You have to not show all your smarts though, so then you can beat them in Battleship.
As winter deepened, Mom’s bad moods got worse. I didn’t want to come home from school. Every time I walked inside the front door on days that Randy and I didn’t have Centerstream, there was something in the way the low winter sun fell through the big wide living-room window and onto the wall across the room, across from the front door. Something about the way the light fell on that off-white wall that I saw as soon as I opened the door made me feel sick to my stomach, like it reminded me of something bad I couldn’t quite remember. It made me feel haunted.
I felt so unsettled as I ate my afternoon snack each day, then went upstairs to play Barbies murder mysteries and write my little “books.” I was amassing a collection by then, a handful of stories that were about twenty pages each handwritten. I wasn’t really happy with any of them; I always felt they couldn’t quite capture the darkness of my soul. So I kept writing more.
Early that winter, I went on my first overnight Girl Scout camping trip. My mom was working more at the newspaper, so for once, she wasn’t one of the troop leaders. We arrived at a big cabin called Hammond House. The walls were the color of wood and little cots lined the walls. The cabin was a long rectangle. One of the girls had recently learned the “Light as a Feather” game and we played it incessantly. One girl would lie in the middle and we would all surround her, purring two fingers from each hand under her. The person at the head gave a fake eulogy and then we all intoned, “Dead as a doornail, stiff as a board, light as a feather” over and over slowly lifting the scout in the middle up off the floor and up, up, over our heads. There were a lot of us, girls and girls and girls lifting, and it felt magic. We even did it on our troop leaders. I only got to be in the middle once.
I started asking to go to the bathroom way too often in Mrs. Domaracki’s class, especially when she was about to check homework and I hadn’t done it. It wasn’t a good plan—she always checked mine when I got back—but it delayed things a bit. I got a good sense of when she was as about to check, raised my had and then wandered slowly to the girls bathroom with its pale green walls and three stalls with low walls. I sat on the toilet and read a chapter in a book or thought up what I wanted to write in my next “book “ about secret passages and baby-sitters. Or I did math problems or recited in my mind facts about the Solar System until I couldn’t anymore because it had been more than five minutes and I had to scurry back to class.