emily zimmer
emily zimmer I grew up like this

I Grew Up Like This

“So what did you do during the summer?” my friend asked when I told her I had never been to summer camp. 

“Ummm. I’m not so sure,” I answered. 

“I guess we usually just stayed home.”

“The whole summer?” she asked. “Like, all of it?”

“Well,” I thought for a moment. “Sometimes we would go to the pool… but mostly we stayed home.”

I’m sitting on the floor with my legs curled to the side. My sister and I pick through a clear plastic box of dolls, making sure that each one is sitting with their respective friend group. We comb the tangles out of their hair. Some of the dolls have bright pink streaks. Some of them have nose rings, or belly button rings, or even tattoos. My sister and I were creative children. I remember how exciting it was to free each one from their place of rest, like reviving a person who has spent too much time alone, like opening the window for a runaway to sneak back in. 

There is music blasting from the computer speakers. Our old Dell desktop computer sits with pride on the table. We don’t yet have the internet, but we do have CDs: Aly & AJ, Hilary Duff, Avril Lavigne. My sister and I choreograph dances and pretend to be cheerleaders. We watch High School Musical and Camp Rock. We watch them again when there’s nothing else good on the Disney Channel. We put ourselves in the stories and pretend our voices are better than they are as we sing at the top of our lungs. We escape into the television and let it transport us to other worlds. We worship its bright screen and the gummy buttons on the remote control.  

I am riding my bike wearing my bright pink helmet. I feel silly wearing the helmet but I like that it makes me feel authentic, like I’m a real person riding a real bike. I am biking in circles around our long gravel driveway like a hamster on a wheel. It feels like a fine race track. When I’m older, I’m allowed to ride my bike to the first telephone pole, then the second, then the third, but only if my mother is able to see me. She walks behind me carrying a large walking stick. She thinks she’s Moses. She acts like him too. I nervously look over my shoulder as I inch toward the fourth telephone pole. I hear her yelling with a small stutter, “come back, come back,” and she waves her stick like she means it. 

I am homeschooled until the third grade. Homeschooling is the term we used for what we were doing. Sometimes we look at math problems, but mostly we don’t. Mostly I read a lot by myself. Sometimes I pack myself lunches and take them to the living room and designate time for recess. Sometimes I pretend to hear the bell ring, signaling that it’s time to transition. There are no other kids to play with. Just my sister and the friends we make up. No one cares if I don’t do the problems in my math textbook. No one cares to check if the answers are right or wrong.

Our house is big and white with a red, rusted roof. My mother wanted us to have a house, because she never had one growing up. She grew up in a stuffy apartment in a smoggy city. She wanted green trees and a backyard. We had plenty of trees and big rocks to climb. We had a high ceiling and a wooden balcony. We could stand on it and see the lake that sat at the edge of the woods. We could see the forest and the trails that take us through it. But I don’t want to walk in the woods. I don’t know about the fresh air or how one day it’ll be the thing I crave. I know that the open space makes me feel trapped, as if the trees hogged all the air for themselves and there was none left for me. Wandering in the forest with my mother makes me feel lost, as if I was expelled against my will from my comfortable place in front of the television. I feel like the Jews wandering in Egypt, forced to trust that one day they’d see an exodus, one day they’d be able to see clearly. One day they’ll be able to breathe.

I’m sitting on the bed in the spare room downstairs holding my first guitar. The window is open and I smell the warm spring air flooding the room. The guitar feels foreign and heavy in my arms. I don’t know where to put my fingers. The strings hurt. I want to be like Miriam, singing myself to freedom, the people following behind me in song. I want it to come easily, like fingers tapping on a tambourine, and all I have to do is keep the beat. My mother brings down her old classical guitar with it’s nylon strings. She hasn’t touched it in years. She threatens to play, to teach me. But then she changes her mind and leaves me with a foot stool and a book of folk songs. She walks away and says nothing. She still hasn’t said anything. 

My sister and I step off the school bus and walk down the driveway toward our house. The lawn is overgrown and littered with little yellow dandelions. Our mother walks toward us with her mouth open, waving her arms. She’s excited to see us, and for a moment, I feel excited too. We are a normal little family and my mother is happy we’re home. She collects us into her arms and sees us inside the house. We don’t leave until the next morning.

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“I want to go to school,” I scream before 7am on a warm Friday morning in late spring. The school year is wrapping up and I don’t want to miss a second of it. 

“I want you to stay home with your mother,” enforces my mother.

“You never spend any time at home, you need to spend some time at home, let’s have a long weekend,” she goes on.

“I’m going to school,” I say blankly, the way adults do when they declare things definitively. I march toward the front door as the school bus honks its yellow honk outside. I’m ready to declare my freedom as I reach for the doorknob. But I’m too afraid to flick the lock and take down the chain. I withdraw my hand, and find it empty. I stay home.

It’s Saturday and my mother doesn’t want to leave the house. It’s raining. She still doesn’t have her drivers license after almost 10 years of it being suspended. She says she doesn’t feel like calling a taxi. She isn’t out of cigarettes yet. And we still have milk and orange juice. Maybe we’ll go out tomorrow. Today is Shabbat. But we don’t keep Shabbat. I guess today we do. I go downstairs and flick on the television in spite of myself. I want to leave the house. I’ll go anywhere. Walmart, McDonald’s, the grocery store. I’ll go pick up the mail. I wish I had a cell phone, and with it, autonomy. I don’t know what my friends are doing, I won’t see them until Monday, I won’t know about them until Monday. I go into my sisters room and start changing my clothes. I want to go out. I want others to see me and know me. I want to be somebody other than some girl stuck at home. 

It’s the last day of school and my sister and I ride the bus home. Everyone is excited for summer vacation, but we’re full of dread. We don’t anticipate day trips or summer jobs. No late nights out with friends sitting around bonfires with sugary marshmallows sticking to our gums. I lean against the window next to me and let my head rattle against the bumpy road. We turn onto my street and I start to gather my things. Once again my sister and I tumble off the bus. We say goodbye and look back. We watch it drive away noisily. We start our trek down the driveway. I sling my backpack over my shoulder and listen to the keychains jingle. I walk to their rhythm, letting them carry me home. 

But our mother isn’t here. She isn’t walking towards us with her walking stick and big grin. We make our way right up to the front door and still she isn’t there. We knock on the door lifting the steel knocker again and again. But she doesn’t come to the door. We knock and knock, we sit down. We stand up. The first few moments of summer vacation pass by and I feel no relief, no excitement, and no worry. I know my mother is inside, as that’s the only place she ever is. Inside, sitting, smoking, inside, sitting, smoking. Sometimes pacing, sometimes watching television, sometimes looking closely at her face in the mirror. She must be asleep, we presume. I have no concept of how long we’ve been knocking.

A sense of freedom grips me, but here I am, standing outside her door like a dog waiting to be fed. We start to get hungry. Suddenly, I hear her moving inside. I hear the shuffling of the chain and the turning of the locks. She’s looking at us half confused, half apologetically.

“I was taking a nap,” she said. “Have you been standing there a while?” as if she was suddenly unaware of what time we arrived home every day.

We stumble into the house and act like nothing happened. We put our backpacks down next to the washing machine and take off our socks and shoes. We remove our lunch bags and take them up to the kitchen. Standing outside of the house suddenly made me realize that I didn’t even have a key.