Fortitude

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Childhood taken by Gianna Goldfarb for Fortitude by Scarlett London

After a taxing day at school, I collapse through my front door, stop, take a deep breath, and begin a quest to find my bedroom. This takes 10 minutes. The hallways are 18 inches wide and today, they’re made entirely of sheets—castoffs of ochre and green from the 1970s, splashy Pac-Man icons of the ’80s, ruffly Laura Ashley florals, and more—all pinned together into a labyrinth of winding corridors. I climb on top of our dining room table, then down again, tunnel through a tangle of couch cushions, and turn a corner to find my father and two of his friends installing a full-sized cardboard gondola into a fake river running through my living room. I lift a Spiderman sheet, wriggle out of the hallway and retreat into my bedroom to get started on homework.

Each year from October through December, my entire house becomes a sheet fort, in preparation for a one-night-only get-together we call Fortress Party. This is no highfalutin soiree; it’s built for friends and pajamas. Our fortress is reminiscent of a blanket fort you build when you’re five, only taller, more structurally sound, and filled with outlandish props. But it may also be a sign that my family’s periodic regressive silliness has gotten completely out of hand.

October begins with a trip to the thrift store in search of used flat sheets. After drawing up initial floor plans, we run miles of clothesline through eye hooks in the ceiling and spend days atop chairs and ladders, pinning the sheets in place. As the winding fortress walls go up, all vestiges of our house’s original contours disappear. The result is, to put it mildly, disorienting. Finally, we give each room an immersive theme. You might find yourself in a tent on top of Mount Everest, inside Area 51, or at the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. Performance art is key: we spend days recording scripts for posed mannequins or even donning costumes to play the parts ourselves.

Over the years, my participation in Fortress Party has taken many forms, often depending on my energy level, artistic bent, and relative angst. In 2017, I wrote notes to the deceased at a Viking funeral (“Dear Magnus, Missed you at pillaging class this week! Love, Hildegard.”) At 14, I portrayed dastardly Russian spy Olga Stroganoff, unmasked as a Scooby-Doo villainess amidst a plot to move the Metropolitan Museum of Art two inches to the left. And this past year, I spent weekends creating 100 celebrity puns for a bumblebee-themed room. (BEE-yonce! STING! BUZZ Aldrin! POLLEN Oats!)

Sometimes I hate it. Fortress Party is exhausting. I dread swimming through a sea of dust, plaid, and floral just to get a snack or use the bathroom. I tire of explaining this bizarre family tradition to my friends. I wish we could cook normal family dinners without risking a house fire. And while I try to focus on pliés and tendus in Saturday-morning ballet class, my thoughts careen wildly from bee-pun to bee-pun, and I wish our lives were more conventional.

But more often than not, I can’t help but smile at the maze of linens surrounding me. At my most insecure, when all I wanted was to fit in, Fortress Party forced my shell to crack. Crawling through a tunnel of cushions while listening to a song I wrote about camels, I came to appreciate that silliness has integral and societal value; there is both freedom and authenticity in being unapologetically silly. It also provides a respite from the grind. Growing up doesn’t mean that has to change. And no matter how many ballet performances I sweat through and articles I write, I’ll always count Olga Stroganoff and “The Jackson HIVE” among my best work.

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Scarlett London is a member of the class of 2023 Community High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. When she’s not playing with her very small dog or listening to music, she loves watching Marvel movies and eating popsicles. She is passionate about journalism, and is a web editor-in-chief for her school’s magazine, The Communicator. She also loves to dance and spends time every day at the studio or in her basement practicing.
Accompanying photo: “Childhood” by Gianna Goldfarb