I met our neighbor Isaac in Atlanta, a week after my family moved across the country from Olympia, where Mom and Dad would both take jobs at the University of Georgia. It rained much less, they said, and they talked non-stop about raising their biracial children in a more diverse city than Olympia, but until I met Isaac, I thought Atlanta was a dump.
I was eight and he was 30, but he had me hooked when he told showed us his library, a vast collection of tomes from the dead-white-men classics to Harry Potter. He was already losing his soft, sandy hair then and his skin was cracked and red from the sun, but he also smelled like peppermint and to me he couldn’t have been more perfect.
“He seemed nice,” Mom said at dinner later. The five of us–Mom, Dad, older sister Brianna, younger brother Miles, and me–always ate together. Mom and Dad insisted.
Miles was five then and picked at his sprouts. “I guess,” he said.
Bri, then ten, rolled her eyes and swung her braided hair out of her eyes the same way Mom did. “I wouldn’t know. He spent the whole time talking to Lydia.”
I looked up from my sprouts. “You could have talked to him too,” I said.
“I’m sorry I haven’t read the entire history of every book ever,” she said.
“Bri, be nice,” Dad said. I shrugged and took another bite of sprout.
Even though he said he didn’t mind at all, Mom and Dad apologized endlessly for asking Isaac to watch us kids on their anniversary night a month later. They would pay him, they said, and they would drop us off at his place. He insisted on coming to us, much to my disappointment. Two professor parents and our book collection wasn’t nearly as vast.
My parents left mere minutes after Isaac arrived, much to Miles’ dismay. Bri had already shut herself up in her room, practicing for her teenage years.
“What do you like to do Miles?” he asked. I was taken aback when he asked that. Would we not spend the rest of the night talking about the new book series I had started in class?
Miles stopped pouting almost immediately. “I like to play with my animals. Want to see?” He took Isaac’s hand and led him to his bedroom upstairs, leaving the scent of peppermint behind. I spent that night stuck on the same page of my math homework, insisting to myself that I needed to get it done anyway, and listening to my brother laugh.
I took to stopping by Isaac’s after school. Mom taught statistics and Dad taught biology, but Isaac could help me with my English homework the way my left-brained parents couldn’t. I never told Mom and Dad when I would be home late. Just that I was getting extra help after school some days. They told me they were proud to have such a studious daughter.
Mostly, Isaac and I talked about what I was reading, whether it be The Magic Treehouse series or, years later, books like Beloved and The Handmaid’s Tale.
Every once in a while, Miles would tag along, but Brianna never did, even though she was the one who told him where I was off to after school in the first place. I couldn’t tell him not to come, because then he would tell my parents, and he had promised not to as long as he could come with me. Back then, I wasn’t quite sure why I didn’t want them to know.
“Maybe you can help me with this, Miles,” he said one day after I had stopped by with an essay and Miles in tow two years after the move.