Book Shelf

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Summer reading is upon my children.

The Odyssey

Animal Farm

Of Mice and Men

I knew I had copies of these books, but I didn’t know where, so this morning I went looking.

I’ve gotten rid of my vinyl and my CDs (which I regret now, even though at the time, I had no idea I’d even be able to play them again). But not my books. Or my mother’s books, or even her great aunt’s Shakespeare collection, with her name and the date, 1894, handwritten on custom labels on the inside of each hard-bound play. My book collection keeps growing. After my grandparents died, I asked for my grandfather’s Joseph Conrad set, and the Robert Lewis Stevenson’s with their rough cut, time-yellowed pages, and beautiful hand drawn maps. No one else wanted them. But I remembered gazing at them in awe when I was little and visiting their wonderful house in Carlisle, PA. The books were on shelves on the second floor in the large space between the bedrooms, an extra room really, the perfect place to sit and read.

When I was old enough to ride the subway in NYC – twelve – I would grab random books off my mother’s shelf to read on my hour-long commute to ballet and later high school. In 7th grade, I swiped The Painted Bird, by Jerzy Kosinski. It was engrossing and wildly inappropriate. That paperback is still with me. It has lived in North Carolina and three different houses in Los Angeles. Now it’s on shelves that are 104-years-old, in a room called an inglenook. It’s like all those books needed the right place to land and here they are, alongside books I read in college and books I read last week. My husband complains whenever we move about the weight and volume of these books. Do I really need them? Will I ever read them again?

The answer is yes. In the past few years I’ve re-read The Handmaids Tale, another one I swiped from my mother when I was sixteen; The Secret History, which was mine, Less than Zero, also mine. Often when I’m writing, I have an urge to read a passage I recall. I’m only 5’4” so I keep an antique child’s school chair nearby as a stepping stool. I climb up in search of whatever it is I’m looking for only to get completely lost remembering reading all of the other books on the shelf. It makes sense that Alice falls down a hole lined with books – it’s the ultimate rabbit’s hole.

Now, my children get to read from the same copies, with my 8th grade handwriting (much neater than now, by the way) and tidy underlines. It doesn’t always work out. My treasured Narnia collection fell apart when my son read it and even more tragic, my mother’s hardback copy of To Kill a Mockingbird split in two. Also, the print was tiny in paperbacks published in the 80s, the pages were small, the paper so weak that pages crack when turned. Sometimes I have to invest in a new copy, even though I’ve gone to the trouble of transporting the old one so many times.

This morning, I started with my son’s bookshelf, looking for The Odyssey, which he has to read. And just like always, I was instantly swept up in memories. There were all the books I’d read to him as a child, the words of which instantly filled my head as soon as I saw the titles on their spines, like Stranger in the Woods: “Come see! Come See!” All the Harry Potter books were there. I read them aloud to him starting in kindergarten. Now he’s almost 17. I found my copy of Animal Farm, but another student’s name is written inside, an older kid who’d passed it down. The teacher was the same though and his name was written inside, too. I was instantly transported back to that very 8th grade classroom in downtown Brooklyn. I could see Mr. Norregaard lecturing. We made masks of our favorite characters out of foam. Mine was Napoleon the pig. I’d spray-painted it pink and when I wore it over my head, the fumes made me high.

I found Of Mice and Men – a new copy I’d purchased for my son in 8th grade and decided to read it this summer too, since I never have. I will finally fill that gap. (There are many!)

On the next shelf down, I found the ashes of our first dog, whom we all desperately loved. They’re in a velvet box. I remembered how my son begged to keep them in his room. There’s a picture of her in her prime taped to the top and a picture of my husband and me in our 20s, holding Marley when we’d first rescued her in North Carolina. We’re on the beach and look impossibly young. We’re smiling, in love with our puppy. We look so happy in that photo that’s held in place with a rubber band. I know we fought then too. I touched my smiling face in the picture, trying to connect it to myself now.

I found Beowulf, another gap in my English degree, but not The Odyssey and remembered that I never did buy a new copy of Homer’s epic poem. It was Beowulf I’d bought, because of the movie. I wanted to read it aloud to my son, but never did.

My copy of The Odyssey was on the top shelf in the inglenook. I bought when I was in college and mistakenly chose to write my thesis on Ulysses. The price tag is still on it. $5.95 at Shakespeare&Co. The back cover look likes it was gnawed on by a rat, which is possible, since the books spent many months trapped in boxes when we moved into this house thirteen years ago. We did major construction and yes, rats got in and chewed the edges of our books. I don’t remember going in to Manhattan to buy it, but I can picture the inside of the store and myself tracking it down, likely wearing opaque black tights.

This is why I will never part with these books. I need them. Even the ones with rat bites. A few years ago I culled the collection to make room for new ones. One of the books I parted with was Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, on which the musical Cabaret was based. I got rid of it because it stymied me my senior year of college when my seminar professor gave us the trickiest essay question ever for our final exam: Write an essay on a book we read for a class you missed. That’s right, the book from a class you cut. We read one book a week in that seminar and met one time a week. I was a “try hard,” as my daughter would say, and read every book, except one. And attended every class, except one. The book was Berlin Stories and my bullshit essay dropped me from an A to A- for the semester. I got rid of it because seeing it made me mad. Every other student had 2 to 4 books to choose from. I wasn’t the intended victim of his essay question – I was a casualty. But then last year my son’s Jesuit high school put on the most surprisingly excellent production of Cabaret, and sure enough, once again, I regretted not reading that book. I looked for it for a few hours one day then I remembered dropping it off at Out of The Closet with What to Expect When You’re Expecting.

My books – even the ones that are missing – tell the story of who I am. There are books from boyfriends and best friends, some written by family members, some signed. Some pristine, some tattered, some chewed on by rats.

My daughter is only 2 ½ years younger than my son, but when it comes to books, it’s like she’s from another generation. She doesn’t even have a bookshelf in her room. Her school has everything on an iPad now, so except for the picture books she did love as a toddler which are on the bottom shelf in the Inglenook, she will never stare at a row of books and relive moments from her past. She won’t get to time travel — everything she reads is stored in a cloud. Which is tidier and lighter, but not the same. This summer she will read my tattered copy of Animal Farm and the brand new Of Mice and Men. I’m not buying them for Kindle this summer. It’s only two short books. I’m not buying the Audible. I want her to hold the book and wonder why I underlined whatever sentence I underlined in Animal Farm and maybe even underline her own favorite passages in Of Mice and Men. Then forever, when she sees these books, she’ll remember this summer before high school, the boyfriend, the boredom, me screaming at her for stringing a bra up the flagpole in front of our house. In twenty or thirty or fifty years, she will see these books — even someone else’s copies, maybe her children’s? And time travel like I did today.

 

Our Subway Fire

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A few nights ago I made the mistake of looking at Facebook right before bed. The first thing I saw was an article my brother shared about the New York City subways, which are currently plagued by delays and breakdowns. He was mentioned and quoted. This is what I read:

[my brother] likes to recall his childhood experiences riding the subway in the 1970s, such as the time he, his mother and his sister had to escape a smoke-filled, burning 6 train and walk along the tracks until they were able to emerge at 77th Street. (“We took some oxygen from the ambulance, which was very exciting,” [my brother] recalled. “Then we just walked over and took another line home.”)

My blood pressure skyrocketed. I was already under the covers, but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to sleep, not after reading that. My brother is an editor at that paper and his Facebook feed is read by his co-workers and employees as well as my family and many mutual friends, but I couldn’t stop myself, I had to reply. (I can’t get the exact words because it’s all been deleted, but I’ll try)

I wrote: That fire was terrifying. The passengers crushed through the cars, which were so packed, we had to walk on the benches. There was a man yelling: move faster! I was sure the car behind us was already on fire.

I was six and my brother was nine. We crept down the bench alongside my mother who was packed in with the rest of the adults, shuffling too slowly through the cars as they filled with smoke. It was rush hour. We had been to the pediatrician on the Upper East Side and were headed home to Park Slope, Brooklyn, an hour ride away. My adrenaline surged as I typed another reply on my brother’s page.

We had to walk a long way to the station on the tracks in the dark. I fell and almost touched the third rail and a man grabbed me and yelled at mom like it was her fault. The station was filled with smoke and everyone was screaming as we escaped up to the street. There were fire-trucks everywhere. We were coughing so they gave us oxygen. There was a reason we had to take another train. I’ll message you! There was a reason we couldn’t get a ride.

Then, with my heart pounding and my hands sweating, I opened the message app and wrote:

Mom couldn’t call Dad because he was with [his girlfriend]. He wouldn’t give her the number. I can’t believe your memory of that fire is so benign. WTF?

I was thankful I have a sleeping pill scrip. Because I needed one. My whole body buzzed as I lay awake outraged that my mother survived that with two young children and that when we were finally safe and out of the station, there was no way for her to call our dad. They weren’t even separated yet, but my father was taking a night with his girlfriend and my mother wasn’t allowed to call.

I have lots of memories of my parents fighting – horrible fighting – of their announcement of the separation and him leaving, then the divorce, then the marriage to that same girlfriend he was with the night our subway caught fire. I never know when one of these will surface and upset me or what my reaction will be. My brother’s gloss-over undid me.

The next morning, I thought: did I post something crazy on my brother’s page? I didn’t out my dad – all I did was describe the fire correctly – it felt like we were going to die. I can still clearly see the track I almost touched and the live 3rd rail, because everything else was black. I fell and my hands hit that surface between the tracks where rats scurry, but it was more alarming when the stranger grabbed me around my waist. I dangled in his one arm as he berated my mom. He carried me several more yards.

I turned on my phone and there was a message from my brother. He lives in New York, so he’d already been awake for at least three more hours. This was our exchange:

Brother: Should I have told the interviewer that? The story was about the subway, not mom and dad. I told her tons more stuff than she used. Sheesh. I deleted it.

Me: I know. Sorry, I was about to go to bed and read that. I’ll delete my replies. But it was a terrifying fire.

Brother: I deleted the whole post, and the comments that followed.

Me: You can post it. I won’t comment.

Brother: It’s gone! Mommy started attacking daddy. It was insane.

Me: Really??

Brother: YES

 Me: To you or daddy?

Brother: To all the readers on Facebook.

Me: OMG

There was something about this that thrilled me – my mother having the same response and going off on Facebook. I wish I could have read what she’d written, seen if my father had replied too, but the whole drama was erased. Also my brother and I share this history and something about our exchange made it seem like we were close. As kids, we were bystanders, conspirators even. Maybe that’s why I was so roiled? My brother’s quote was a cover up that spared my father who should have fucking been there to get us, or at least not with his girlfriend in an apartment my mother wasn’t allowed to call.

I called my mother. “I’m so glad it wasn’t just me that got upset. What did you write?”

“That your father couldn’t be reached to help us. It was horrible. And we didn’t just get on another train, we had to walk twenty blocks to the IND.”

I thought about what that must have been like. I have two kids and a husband who works out of town. I’ve been in that place where you realize there’s no use calling because the emergency is happening and there’s nothing he can do. My mother was only 35 years old. Twenty blocks in the dark with two kids who just escaped a fire – that must have been hell. And then getting back on a Subway and riding all the way home to Brooklyn. I don’t even remember that part. I guess my brother doesn’t either. The memory ends for me at the fire trucks, with the firemen who gave us oxygen as we sat on the curb thankful to be outside and alive. That was when my mother couldn’t call my dad for help. We were on our own, the three of us, from that moment on.

“What set you off?” I asked, thinking it wasn’t like her to go after my father about shit that went down in the 70’s. She knows it’s my brother’s feed, that my father will read it along with the newspaper staff. I didn’t even cross that line.

“I saw what you wrote,” she said and then paused. “Your brother made me promise not to tell you this.”

“What? Now you have to tell me.”

“Your father replied to your post.”

I raced through the words I’d typed – only stuff about the fire. Except for: There was a reason we had to take another train. I’ll message you! There was a reason we couldn’t get a ride. But would my father even remember why he wasn’t there?

“What did he say? I won’t tell him you told me. I swear.”

“Your father wrote: ‘Glad I missed that.’”

My brother deleted my mother’s tirade before my father could see it. “Why does he always protect him?” my mother complained.

“Dad doesn’t even remember,” I said, laughing almost, because it’s so absurd. Here’s this event — a big event — a subway fire — that my mother, my brother, and I still vividly recall. The details of our memories vary — maybe brother did think the ambulances were exciting — he was a boy who loved trucks and trains. Maybe he doesn’t remember my fall on the tracks because that was between my mother, my brusque burly savior, and me. My father, who’d taken the night off from parenting, doesn’t even know any of it occurred. Because he wasn’t there.