“Me-lis. Can’t I just tell you Cinderella or read you a G.D. book?” ~My Mom

My poor, exasperated mother would extend my name and sigh it out, fed up with my demands for bedtime stories…about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In her defense, she was dealing with a lot—my newborn baby brother and living in Turkey with her in-laws while her husband completed his conscription—she probably didn’t need her bratty three-year-old daughter begging for OG fan fiction about Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, Michelangelo and—longing sigh—April.

Despite her protests, my mom did indulge me my requests. To say I was obsessed with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would be an understatement; during those bizarre few months, I made my grandparents buy me actual, live turtles—I even painted those poor things’ shells with TMNT color-appropriate nail polisha swatch of blue for Leonardo, purple for Donatello, red for Raphael and of course, orange for Michelangelo.

These days I don’t remember much about those months in Turkey other than the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and a faint echo of homesickness. Nor do I remember much about the actual show—other than its general 80s aesthetic.

I do remember the fab four were outcasts, outsiders who weren’t exactly turtle or human, which, honestly? Some days, I could relate. But they still kicked ass; or rather, because of their outsider status, they kicked ass—therein lay that first seed of hope, that space where I could breathe—I’m sure part of my fondness for the franchise was due to the fact that it was so American and I needed that reminder of home since I felt out of place in Turkey.

I couldn’t process at that age why I related so strongly to the supernatural, but I loved those little radioactive reptiles. There are those that think of monsters as ugly, evil. But there’s another definition for monsters —“a thing of extraordinary or daunting size.” Dealing with any kind of pain or adversity certainly fits that meaning, too.

My mom was in and out of the hospital most of my life, beginning in my preadolescence. I lost her a few years ago. In addition to this pain, for most of my adolescence, I was overweight, wore glasses, braces and had cystic acne. And I was an ethnic minority and queer to boot. I couldn’t fix my mom. I couldn’t fix the fact that I was different. Suffice it to say I spent a lot of time lost in my head. It was the best place to be, for me.

I suffered from mood swings. I still do. I cried a lot. I still do that too. I’m not good with loss. I tend to keep that pain inside. The specifics of my mom’s Teenage Mutant Ninja stories are lost, a wisp of a memory. But since she died, the fact that she told them at all has haunted me.

We didn’t have a great relationship at the time of her death, but any mom willing to participate in that nonsense clearly loved her child. I can replay the warmth of those memories like a grainy home video from the 1980s until I can just feel her with me. Then I don’t remember that the last time we “spoke” was a fight over Facebook Messenger.  Instead, a childlike calm washes over me, like a hug. We had love.

I eventually grew out of my Ninja Turtle onesie—although I looked super cute in it— but fantasy and sci-fi have continued to define my life. I’ve been escaping into other worlds since I was a toddler, determined to find (lose?) myself in that endless landscape of make believe where I feel stronger, more whole, surrounded by the other weirdos, the loners.

Whether creating elaborate stories with my polyamorous, Wiccan Barbies or playing Zelda with my brother, I was never completely alone. And I’ve never stopped surrounding myself with superheroes who can fix the world every time it falls apart; I can shut myself in my room for hours, hiding from my less pleasant reality. I know that when I’m ready to emerge, back into the blinding light of the IRL, my time escaped will have equipped me for battle, giving me all the weapons I need to save myself. I’m lucky that way.

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Melis Amber
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