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Poppy and Sequoia are already sitting at the kitchen table when I walk in. Books out. Pencils sharpened. Writing pads open. There are three essay prompts on the chalkboard my dad sets up on school days. One for a second grader, one for a sixth grader, and one for me. All the questions are designed to get at what we did this summer and what we learned and how we’re now better people because of it.
I ignore the assignment and pull a plate from the cupboard. I pile the last two oatmeal-blueberry pancakes onto it and top them with a dollop of freshly whipped cream. The cream is unsweetened because my parents are my parents.
“A tardy on the first day isn’t a good way to start off the school year, Juniper,” my dad says.
“It’s two minutes.”
“Late is late. You should’ve already eaten and been in your chair, ready to work, at eight o’clock on the dot, like your brother and sister.”
Still, my dad scoots his own chair away from the table to fill his coffee cup, so I guess the rules don’t apply to him. I grab a mug for myself from the rack by the sink and hold it out. His eyebrows rise. He replaces the steaming pot on the warmer. “You’re sixteen. No.”
“It’s for adults.”
“People my age practically live at Starbucks. It’s their starter home.”
“They’re drinking Frappuccinos, not shooting up heroin.”
“Either way, it’s a travesty.”
“Then why are you drinking coffee?”
“I drink my coffee black. Only one cup a day.” He holds his drink up proudly, takes a sip, and makes a smug ahh sound. “Black coffee is full of antioxidants and reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Kids fill their coffee with cream and sugar and syrups and all the things that negate the benefits.”
I add another dollop of whipped cream to my pancakes.
“Have orange juice,” Poppy says, smiling, and all I notice is how her four front teeth look too big for her eleven-year-old face. “I made it this morning for extra credit.”
“Of course you did.” Only Poppy would be looking for extra credit on the first day of the Jade Family Homeschool. Kiss-up sisters are the worst. “Where’s Mom?”
“Backyard,” Sequoia says as he balances a pencil in the space between his upper lip and the bottom of his freckled nose.
“Farmers market day, remember?” Poppy says.
“I’d rather not.”
I can’t exactly wax nostalgic about the way my mom spends every Monday morning tying up just-plucked sprigs of rosemary and thyme and whatever else with twine so she can sell them in bunches along with essential oils on the parking lot by the beach. I had to stand in that parking lot every Monday afternoon this past summer, baking on the asphalt as sweat slid down my spine. The cool ocean waves would wink at me from a few feet away. Come here, they’d whisper as I eyed groups of people my age with more exciting lives than mine. They had surfboards and board shorts and bikinis and beach bags and would arrange their towels in a circle, like a sunburst, so they could all have their heads in the center to talk and laugh and be sixteen.
Sure, I could’ve gone to the beach if I wanted—my parents insist we learn more outdoors than indoors—but I couldn’t exactly plop my towel down in the middle of a bunch of strangers on a California beach. We weren’t friends. They didn’t know me. I was new here, and the friends I would’ve set up towels with lived six hours away.
When we lived in NorCal, my mom and dad hung out with other parents who also taught their kids at home, and we’d do field trips together every once in a while. Museums. Aquariums. The theater. Through it all, I had Sasha. And it was a relief to be able to ditch the freak show that was a dozen homeschool kids watching Shakespeare in the Park while our parents swapped turmeric recipes. Having the same eleven p.m. curfew meant Sasha and I could hang out on weekends, too. In the daytime, we’d kayak and hike or swim at the local pool. At night, we’d go to the bookstore in town or skateboard in an empty parking lot by the beach. Our friendship was easy. Convenient. She was there. I was there. But Sasha never understood me the way I’d hoped a best friend would. For one, she actually liked being homeschooled. She didn’t constantly beg to go to public school like I did. She never felt like she was missing out on something.
Since cell phones were forbidden to me for reasons ranging from cancer to tendonitis, Sasha and I resorted to snail mail to communicate after I moved away. All of April and all of May, I stalked our mailbox like the anxious wife of a World War II soldier as I awaited a letter handwritten in glitter gel pen. Unfortunately, teenagers aren’t very good at keeping in touch without a cell phone, so by summer my letters from Sasha dwindled from once a week to never. I don’t fault her for it. She has to live her life. But I miss knowing someone who would be brave enough to walk up to that group of strangers sprawled out on their beach towels and ask them some random question that would make us look normal and cool enough to befriend.
Now that the new school year has started and my parents have reached out to other local homeschoolers to plan field trips, I’m hoping I’ll make some new friends.
Until then, I’ll remain on the outside looking in.
Like this morning, in my room, where I spent from seven forty-five to eight a.m. watching through the window as bright yellow buses pulled up to the curb in front of Playa Bonita High School. The bus doors opened and students spilled onto the sidewalk. Others rode up on bikes and skateboards. The older ones, the juniors and seniors, arrived in cars crammed with passengers, two in the front seat and three in the back. Everyone wore shorts or sundresses, because it’s still the last week of August and the heat of summer hasn’t let go of this town yet.
I could feel that heat in my armpits and the sweat marks collecting along the edges of my tank top when I woke up. I slathered on deodorant from the half-empty mason jar on my dresser like I do every morning. It’s sticky and lumpy and leaves behind a white, oily residue that stains my shirts. I’ve asked my mom for real deodorant. Or at least something from the natural health section at Whole Foods.
“Tapioca starch and coconut oil take care of things fine,” she says. I’m sure that’s not true, because if I notice the stink of my mom’s BO, then surely I have it, too.
The girls at PBHS probably smell like strawberries and freedom. I bet they spent all morning soaking themselves in those scented body washes from that store at the mall that always smells like a fruit stand. I also bet my mom can recite the exact paraben levels in each bottle. Because that store, like the mall itself, is not a place my parents would ever let me spend money.
That’s why those girls across the street are there and I’m here. The chemicals and the toxins and the mercury levels and the melting ozone layer made my parents take a big step back from the real world. Everything from our deodorant to our food to our cleaning products to our furniture is organic. Important things, I know. But there’s such a thing as too much. My parents are rabid in their beliefs.
“Organic isn’t what’s new. It’s what’s old,” my mom says proudly. “We’re original.”
She operates in a rose-colored version of history, which is also why my sister, my brother, and I don’t get vaccinated. This makes us ineligible to enroll in schools in California. Not that I haven’t tried. When we moved, I thought maybe this was finally it. The public high school was right across the street. I’d practically still be at home. I begged to go. But couple the strict California vaccination requirements with the fact that my parents think homeschooling creates lifelong learners as opposed to kids who simply regurgitate multiple-choice information for state tests, and it was easy for them to say no. “We decide what goes into our children’s bodies and minds,” they said. So here I sit at the kitchen table, digging into my putrid pancakes, trying to figure out if selling baled herbs and essential oils this summer made me a better person.
My guess is no.
To be fair, I did other things, too. There was the hike through Yosemite with a backpack that weighed as much as Poppy.
And the eight-hour train ride I took alone to visit Mimi and Bumpa—the nickname that stuck when I first tried to say the word grandpa as a toddler—for three whole weeks in Sacramento earlier this month. It was the first time I’d made the trip by myself, and it was so glorious that I’d do it again tomorrow if I could. But that would mean Mimi having hip surgery again, which I wouldn’t want.
Mostly, I spent the summer dreaming about a boy finally kissing me, and I don’t exactly want to write about that for my dad to critique and grade. So instead I eye the clock and count down the minutes from now until noon, during which time we’ll cram in a full day of studies of multiple subjects in our kitchen. But once those four hours are up, the day is mine again. That’s when my dad will say something corny like, “Fly away, my young birds!” and we’ll all scatter, because my parents are very into the idea of free-range parenting as long as it’s about where we travel in our bodies as opposed to what we put into them. This schedule also gives my dad the afternoons to finish up his freelance work from home.
Poppy rarely goes anywhere other than into the world of whatever book she’s reading. And Sequoia retreats to the backyard to slay imaginary dragons, because he’s seven.
I can’t leave fast enough. To go wherever I want.
I ride my skateboard to the library to gorge on celebrity magazines and read Teen Vogue online, which is how I keep track of what’s going on in the world. Or I skate to the beach and jump into the ocean.
The first bell rings across the street at eight fifteen a.m. It echoes through our too-warm kitchen, bouncing off the countertops and the rickety chalkboard of our makeshift classroom, reminding me how different here is from over there.
The classrooms across the street are probably air-conditioned.
And the students don’t have their little sister and brother for classmates.
And their first-period teacher isn’t their dad. With his man bun and his beard and his second-wave Woodstock agenda.
There were two Woodstocks: the real one and the one my parents went to. The big festival, the one the whole world pictures when they think of Woodstock, was in 1969. It was the Summer of Love and Jimi Hendrix riffing on “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the warning not to eat the brown acid. But then there was the other Woodstock. In 1994. Where there was rain and mud and Green Day and an impromptu Slip ’N Slide. My parents went to that. My parents went to the Wannabe Woodstock. And now they insist on telling their children the best music is their music, so we know pretty much all of it.
They got married a few years after, because they were in love and had decided that as two only children they understood each other in a way nobody else ever had before. Instead of my mom taking my dad’s last name and giving in to social norms, they picked out a whole new last name to share. Jade. Based on the simple fact that my dad proposed with a jade stone instead of a diamond.
I appreciate my mom and dad and all their quirks. I do. But sometimes I want to be like everyone else. I wish I could write about that, but my dad would get annoyed. He says I need to learn to not only appreciate what I have, but what I don’t have.
Poppy and Sequoia keep their heads down, hard at work writing about their summers, when my mom comes in. Her dirty hands hold a ratty cardboard box full of herbs. She slides it onto the counter so she can pull up the bottom of her flowy flowered shirt to dab at the sweat on her face.
“Happy first day of school,” she says when we can see her mouth again.
My dad gives her a look. One that says he’s in teacher mode and she’s interrupting. I shrug and give my mom a different look. One that says this might not seem like real school but it supposedly is.
“How’s the herbage?” I ask, and my dad gives me the same frustrated stare he gave my mom.
“Be quiet,” Poppy says. “I’m concentrating.”
My mom grabs the box and flicks her head of wavy dark hair streaked with gray—because she read somewhere that hair dye causes cancer—toward the living room to let me know I should join her.
My dad sighs. He is very serious about our schedule because he needs to work, too. “She has school, Melinda.”
“Oh, hush,” my mom says, giving him a playful pinch on the arm.
“Seriously,” Poppy says. “Hush, everyone.”
I slide the final bite of my pancakes through the last peak of whipped cream, get up chewing, and follow my mom into the living room. My gaze catches on the open window, where the dingy curtains blow blissfully in the breeze. When my other grandma—my mom’s mom—died and we inherited the house my mom had grown up in, my dad was able to swap his full-time copyediting job for freelance and split homeschooling duties with my mom. The corners of our house could use a more thorough cleaning, and the shelves could stand to be cleared of the outdated knickknacks, but my parents are thankful to trade in renting for a place they own outright, so they can grow food and sell herbs and teach math to their kids in the kitchen.
Through the window, across the street, the school buses have pulled away from the curb. All the students have gone inside to sit in rows and rows of desks to talk about their summers in ways that I can’t. They’ll scroll through their phones and make plans for Labor Day weekend, even though it’s five whole days away.
“You’re helping me today, right? At the market?” my mom says.
I pull my gaze away from the school to look at her. I’d helped her out in June and July. But then I went to Sacramento. And today school started. “I thought that was only a summer thing.”
“No. It’s a job thing.”
“It’s not a real job.”
“It’s a perfectly fine job.”
She delicately untangles bunches of herbs from her cardboard box and separates them into bundles across the top of the newspaper-covered coffee table.
“It’s not the kind of job I want.” Ever since becoming old enough to work, I’ve wanted a job that teenagers do with other teenagers. Like ringing up cups of frozen yogurt covered in fructose-heavy toppings at Yogurtorium downtown. Or handing out fluffy striped towels at the pool of the fancy hotel where famous people sometimes stay. Or renting bikes and surfboards to sunburned families of tourists by the beach. “It’s bad enough I can’t go to real school, but can’t I at least go to real work?”
“Honestly, June. Why are you always complaining?”
“Wanting a normal job with people my age isn’t exactly complaining. It’s having a life. Lots of teenagers work. I might actually meet people if I had a job.”
“Slow down. And sit. I need you to help me bundle.”
I plop onto the worn green velour cushions of the couch, grab the twine and scissors from the box, and start cutting.
Text copyright © 2021 by Marisa Reichardt