She was an Indian-American growing up on a block in Bayside, Queens that resembled Sesame Street. Only instead of muppets, she had imaginary friends that kept her company while she played in the dark, cavernous basement of her family home. To the left of her house were the Ongs, who gifted her family a box of fortune cookies every Chinese New Year. The Ongs had four children who were all older than her. Cynthia, the youngest, was her friend, neighbor, and occasional bully. She was fascinated by Cynthia’s older teenage brothers, who’d do karate in slow motion in the backyard (later she’d learn it wasn’t karate but tai chi).
A few doors down on the right stood the Synagogue where she attended nursery school. She remembers a few things about the Synagogue Nursery School. First, they used to wash dishes with pretend dishwashing detergent in pretend sinks and they took their afternoon naps on towels laid out on the floor. Second, if a kid hit another kid, the teachers would line up the students and have them each take a swing at the offender. Last but certainly not least, the teachers would gather them up to go use the bathroom but they had to do headstands against the wall until it was their turn. She always wondered whether this was meant to teach them gymnastics, for distraction, or because they genuinely believed it was impossible for children to pee their pants while upside down.
Further down on the left were the Rabins, who served as local grandparents. They were Jewish and had the fanciest car in the neighborhood – a Cadillac. They were very sweet and bought her the most beautiful dresses, which she would only wear on visits into Manhattan. Every Saturday, she’d catch up with the Rabins on their way to the synagogue and fill them in on what she’d been up to.
Directly in front her house was Queens Community College. She was unsure what to think of it because her parents told her it was dangerous to take a shortcut through the college when walking home from school because some of the college students did bad things, like drink and smoke and have sex. Yet every weekend, for years, was spent attending swimming and violin lessons within its confines.
Most days, she took the shortcut through the college but didn’t tell her parents about it because she walked home with Mindy Park, a Korean-American girl in her grade who lived between the college and her house. Mindy refused to walk home with her if she didn’t go through the college. Mindy was also the first person to teach her a pop song, “Shadows of the Night” by Pat Benatar. They would sing it together as they walked home and she would continue to sing it on her own as she made her way alone from Mindy’s place to her home, trying to stave off the fear latchkey kids carry with them in their pockets alongside their house keys. Years later, she ran into Mindy during Freshman orientation at a small liberal arts college and Mindy was a bitch. She wasn’t surprised by this. Instead, it was somehow both sad and comforting.
The lots in her neighborhood could have been called “cookie cutter” yet each had a charm all its own. Their own small front yard was sloped and for a long time she thought it was the highest hill she’d ever climb, ideal for sledding or tumbling down into a pile of dried leaves. Their backyard was bordered on each side by trees and they had a simple swing set, which they swung on until Cynthia’s teenage brothers broke it by trying to use it for pull ups.
She learned to roller skate and ride a bike on that block, which meant she scraped her knees and elbows on that block. She played hide and seek and tag in adjacent yards. Her first Halloween trick-or-treaters were neighbors, as were the customers for her first (and last) lemonade stand.
She didn’t know then how many cities, states and countries she would later visit and live in. But years later, when she hears the word “home,” these memories keep her company, now that she has outgrown her imaginary friends.