“You take Jupiter, and I’ll take Saturn.”

We were studying the solar system in our fourth-grade class, and Linda thought we ought to create the different planets in our houses. We wouldn’t do all the planets. I mean, who wanted to recreate Uranus anyway? We planned to each build a secret fort in our house and name it after one of the planets.

“Why do you get to take Saturn?” I argued. Linda was my best friend. But she was bossy. Sometimes her dictatorial tendencies made me want to fight back.

“Because I claimed it first.”

In truth, the planet forts had been Linda’s idea. I couldn’t argue with her there. But I didn’t want the big old bloated Jupiter with its gassy atmosphere. I told her I’d name my fort after Mars.

Linda lived a few blocks from me in a big wooden house on North Main Street in Wake Forest, NC. She shared the house with two younger brothers, an older sister, parents (both of whom worked), and a set of grandparents. Like me, she had her own room. And like me, her room was airy and large with a deep closet tucked into one of the corners. It didn’t take me long to ride my bike from my house on South Main Street to hers.

After we concocted the idea of building our secret forts, I slipped off to her house any number of times to assess her progress on Saturn. I discovered that she selected the planet for its rings. She strung up rings on ribbons in her closet fort, creating a pretty, glittery effect. But the rings tinkled every time we climbed up past them. Wouldn’t the noise give us away?

Surely our forts weren’t really “secret.” But I convinced myself they were. I put a “do not enter” sign on my bedroom door. And then I pulled all the sweaters and blankets off the shelves in my closet and stuffed them under my bed. It was easy to climb to the top closet shelf, even though it was over six feet from the floor. I papered the walls of the shelf in red construction paper—seeing as how Mars was the Red Planet—and little by little dragged pillows up there, a flash light, and my favorite Nancy Drew books.

When Linda would come to my house, we’d crawl up into the closet and hunker down among the pillows. The top shelf was far enough from the ceiling to allow two ten-year-old girls to sit comfortably. We wrote each other notes while we were up there (not wanting anyone to hear our chatter) and giggled. Before long one of us would have to go the bathroom and down we’d go, returning to planet Earth and our earthly needs.

Linda’s Saturn was bigger than my Mars. She always carried cookies and Kool-Aid along on the journey. We’d swing our legs over the edge of the top shelf and kick off into space, watching the glitter of the ribbon rings as we sipped our Kool-Aid.

And then one day her grandmother caught us mid-space and that was the end of our galaxy travel.

It wasn’t that we knocked to the floor the clothes she’d washed and folded. Nor was it that we risked life and limb clamoring like monkeys to the top shelf. It was the cookies. Her grandmother said we would attract mice and insects with our untidy ways. Something as paltry as a crumb foiled our space exploration.

Linda was forced to return her closet to its earlier humdrum existence.

My mother had not yet discovered my secret space station. I continued my travels to Mars, but it was boring without Linda. Still, I didn’t want to invite her back to my closet hideaway, since she had dismantled hers. It made her too jealous.

I started exploring my sisters’ closets. They each had even bigger closets than I had, and they were full of secrets: diaries and notebooks, broken lockets and tangled necklaces. Judy kept a box of mukhwas that she had brought back from India—over three years earlier!—candied fennel seeds, cardamom pods, and sugar crystals. I liked to open the box and pinch a taste, the flavor returning me to India. I was in second-grade when we lived there. It seemed so long ago.

Beth had an old cast in her closet, from when she broke her arm. It was white and chalky and split down the side, so I could slip it onto my arm as well when I stole into her closet. I imagined myself a wounded space explorer.

Eventually, Judy caught me filching her precious mukhwas. Beth caught me, too, parading in her cast. And Joy discovered that I would open her retainer box and stare at it every now and then. Mother scolded me for sticking my nose where it didn’t belong. I needed to respect other peoples’ privacy. I had no choice but to return to Mars, alone.

Linda and I had a falling out a year later. I said something to hurt her feelings, and she never forgave me. I might have tried harder to win her back, but my family moved about that time to a tiny box of a house in Raleigh. Even though a mere twenty miles separated me from my magical childhood home in Wake Forest, it seemed as far away as Mars itself.


Photo by Planet Volumes on Unsplash