I loved driving. I’d always known I would. As a child, I collected Hot Wheels cars until they numbered in the hundreds. When I was twelve, my mother decided to teach me to drive in case my father’s rage spilled over completely and I needed to escape. It was both terrifying and exhilarating. The car felt huge and seemed to move so much faster when my hands were on the wheel. I crowed with pride as I successfully navigated the winding roads of our rural neighborhood, passing a UPS truck with wide eyes and short breath.
As I grew older, I periodically stowed away money for a car. At my bakery job, I thought I might finally have a chance when I amassed $1,000 – a year’s savings. Anxious to get wheels, I researched motorcycles and mopeds, which were both cheaper and had a younger age restriction, but was repeatedly told that young ladies shouldn’t ride motorcycles – how could I, in a skirt? I was prepared to make it work until winter convinced me of the foolishness of that plan. I focused my energies again on hunting for cheap cars.
Time and again my savings evaporated: my father took the thousand; rent and food took the rest. I was a contributing member of the household; that meant petty savings for a teenager’s car was low on the priority list. Each time my mother’s outdated and under-maintained car ran itself into the ground and she was forced to buy or lease another, she promised that next time, I’d get to keep the old one. It never happened.
When I was sixteen, my mother and I moved to a farmhouse apartment in a rural area with only one general store within twenty miles. I applied for a summer job there, but was last in the queue of several farm kids and was never called back. My mother commuted to the bakery, an hour’s drive, and I was left to fend for myself in the house. My halfhearted attempts to master Algebra II soon dissolved, and I began to spend my days online, as I had done three years earlier. This time, I was playing a video game: Dark Age of Camelot, an online roleplaying game. All pretense of homeschooling was silently dropped. Our house was not in order; public school was not an option. And so I vanished into a game.
Sven and I played the game first together, igniting no small controversy in the church. The fantasy genre was already suspect: everyone knew that good Christian kids didn’t read Harry Potter, much less play any game resembling (God forbid) Dungeons and Dragons, where kids practiced actual incantations and learned to command the legions of the devil. (Oh, how many high schools would mysteriously burn to the ground if that were true!)
Sven and I defended our pastime vociferously: we knew no occult spells. Sure, there was “magic” in the game, but we were only pressing buttons to launch imaginary fireballs at opponents. There was no devil here. Our loudest opponent, a 26 year old, insisted that the only way to avoid witchcraft was to avoid the appearance of magic.
He was holier than we were; he only played Grand Theft Auto.
As my life dwindled to Sunday church services and fellowship, occasional trips to northern New Jersey to work at the bakery, and the closed Algebra book on my nightstand, I investigated more areas of Dark Age of Camelot, playing in zones where Sven didn’t play, and interacting with other people. Eventually, I made friends. I joined a group called “Lema en Estela,” where I found I could live in another world: one where I didn’t have to demonstrate my piety. I could be imaginative here. I could compete and win without being told that I was violating God’s order. I could make jokes without being told to be sober and serious, for the hour was late. More important, I could have long, friendly conversations with people who accepted me for who I was.
Soon I’d abandoned Sven’s realm to spend all my time with Lema en Estela. I was hiding, but I was safe there. Safe from the impending failure that was my high school education. Safe from my father’s intrusions back into my life. Safe from the judgment of the adults at my church. Safe from the false girl friends who used me to get to Sven. Lema en Estela, as ephemeral as it was, was a beautiful refuge from what otherwise was an empty time.