I remember my friend and I throwing textbooks out of the window of our third floor high school classroom. Our Spanish teacher was senile and never noticed us leaving our desks, leaning out the windows, the stacks of extra books growing smaller and smaller.
She always seemed to have her eyes closed, rolling her r’s. Or telling the class her dreams about becoming a world-famous flamenco dancer. They were well-told stories. Something that could have appeared in a good book. But we didn’t care.
The joy of holding a book in our hands and watching it fall to the ground was too great.
We were always careful to make sure no one was beneath us. Once in awhile we did get so excited that we didn’t scan the ground below before we dropped the books. We could have really hurt someone.
Maybe such carelessness wasn’t always a result of a thoughtless eagerness.
The idea of someone being clobbered with knowledge was an image we wanted to see.
Living most of my childhood in a trailer park, I never owned my own books, always checking out my reading materials from the public library. Because I was smart, my teachers placed me in advanced reading classes with students who had rich parents to buy whatever they wanted.
I never felt like it was fair that I had to depend on an institution to supplement my education.
I wanted what everyone else had. So I stole books from the library. I’d take the book into the bathroom and rip the pages from the spine. That way I could smuggle the book out without the detector going off.
Once my friend said to me, “Why do your books always seem to fall apart so quickly?”
“Because,” I said. “Anything that’s loved too much falls apart.”
For about a year in high school, I was convinced that I had a spiritual responsibility to make contact with as many people in the world as possible. There was only one problem: I was horribly shy. So I came up with a game plan: I would write notes on the inside front cover of as many library books as possible. That way I could reach people I would never meet in real life.
I remember sitting for hours and hours, writing pretentious messages in random books. I wrote things like: “To Whom This May Concern, I want you to know I have absolutely no idea who you are. But I want you to know, because I feel it’s my responsibility, to tell you that you are loved. Don’t turn the page of the book and begin reading, because you’re embarrassed someone is telling you something so obvious. It’s an important thing to know no matter how reluctant you may be to accept it.”
On another book I wrote, “My name is Steve Fellner. I have blond hair and blue eyes. If you’re my father, please look me up in the phone book and give me a call. I miss you and want to know why you ran away from us.”
There was a time I was so depressed in high school that I would take a book into the bathroom with me and deliberately mishandle the pages so that I would have dozens and dozens of paper cuts. They would sting.
Then I would mumble a number of profane words at the book. Once I remember screaming at one of my mother’s Harlequin romances. It looked innocent enough lying there. But I knew better. The cuts on my hands were proof of the book’s guilt. I said, “How dare you cause me so much pain. You bad book. You horribly bad book.”
I knew I had to punish the book. You can’t let someone get away with things like that.
So I would tear off a page, crumble it up, and flush it down the toilet.
I would do that for awhile. Or at least until I got bored which was pretty quick.
A girlfriend of mine in college was a theorist. She’d come over to my apartment and prefer the company of Foucault over me. I couldn’t blame her. In a way. He had a lot of interesting things to say. All I wanted to do was get down her pants. I needed to prove to her that I wasn’t the gay man I knew I was.
When she broke up with me, there was a stack of her library books in the corner of my room. She left me a phone message, asking if I would drop them off at the library.
I threw them all in the garbage. I remember waking up one morning before dawn to watch the garbage men take my trash. At six in the morning they came, an hour before I had begun to drink mimosas. As the truck drove away, I shouted, “To hell with insight. Where does that get you anyway?”
The next time I saw her she said that the library contacted her about overdue books. The ones I had.
“Did you return them?” she asked.
“Of course,” I said. “I’m responsible.”
She invited me over to her house that same week. She made me dinner. Afterwards, we sat on her couch and she started to unbutton my pants. I kissed her.
“I love you,” I said.
“I love you,” she said.
“Can I make love to you?”
“Sure,” she said. “After you answer one question.”
“Did you return my library books?”
“Honestly,” she said. “Tell me the truth. I love you.”
How could I resist her?
“No,” I said, “I threw them out. Don’t worry. I’ll pay the replacement costs.”
She slapped me across the face and then told me to leave.
I remember seeing my father cry for the first time. He was alone in the living room reading a book. When he saw me, he wiped away the tears, pretending nothing was going on. He folded the corner of the page he was reading. How I hated those words. He told me it was time to go bed. So I went. I knew he wanted to cry more.
That same night I snuck out of my bedroom and crept down the stairs. The book was still open to that same page.
I knew I needed to do something.
I was afraid to look at the page. Let alone the cover. If it had the power to make my father cry, it might yield ever lasting psychic scars for me.
So without even as much as glancing at any of the words, I tore the page from the book.
Then I sat at the kitchen table and ripped the page into little pieces.
Every night for a month I swallowed a piece.
I remember one time my brother and I were so bored. Our father had deserted us. We had no idea what to do with our lives. We weren’t old enough to drive so we were forced to sit around our apartment and complain to our mother. She told us to watch a movie.
“We’re sick of movies,” we said.
“Play a game,” she said.
“We’re tired of games,” we said.
“Take a walk,” she said.
“Our feet don’t want to move,” we said.
“Read a book,” she said.
We couldn’t stop laughing. That was our mother for you.
We stole one of dad’s sci-fi novels from her room. We tore out pages and made paper airplanes. It was so much fun. The man-made vehicles darted around the room, colliding into the furniture.
“Where’d you get that paper?” she said.
“It’s dad’s,” we said.
“You mean, you tore up your father’s book?” she said.
She grabbed the book from our hands and made another airplane herself.
“Let’s have a race,” she said.
Once my mother announced to my brother and I that she was determined to make sure that we transcended our trailer park background. “I’m going to see it that you guys are cultured,” she said. We were nervous. Culture had always seemed so boring, especially when people invoked it in such a grand, important way.
She led us into the kitchen where there were several cookbooks lying on the table. There was one for Indian food, one for Mexican, one for Thai. My brother and I took a step backwards. We were scared. We were Midwesterners who lived on a diet of casseroles and meatloaf.
“Tonight’s Thai,” Mother said.
For several hours she barricaded herself in the kitchen, refusing to let us in, telling us to enjoy the odors wafting our way.
The only thing we smelled that had any distinction was smoke.
Mother ran out of the kitchen, screaming for us to fetch the fire extinguisher. My brother followed her order. We put out the fire.
In a large pot, there seemed to be scorched noodles and some crusty vegetables. “Go get a envelope from the hall closet,” Mother said.
My brother came back and held it open for her. Mother dumped the stuff in the pot and then ripped out the recipe from the book inside the envelope. She told me to lick it. I did. Then she wrote the address of the publisher company on the outside. She commanded me to go slide the package into the mailbox.
“They need to know what their recipes are capable of,” she said.
I nodded and ran barefoot all the way to the box.
I never wanted my parents to read me bed time stories.
They weren’t good actors. I could always tell they despised each other. They both spent so much time looking out the window, imagining their get away car. Reading to me gave them an excuse to leave the other downstairs.
Once I said to my mother, “I’ll fall asleep quicker without your words.”
She insisted it was no trouble. She wanted to read to me.
One day I decided to take a magic marker and scribble out all the words to the story. When it was time for our nightly ritual, my father said, “Look what someone did to this book.”
“Guess no story tonight,” I said.
My father looked at me and said, “I don’t want to leave yet. Would you mind just looking at the pictures?”
“I’m tired,” I said.
“Please. Just give me some time. You don’t need to do anything. I’ll turn the pages.”
I’ve always had a hard time finishing a novel. I always lose interest midway through. I wish that this problem only had to do with books. Once my mother noticed this characteristic. “It’s cruel not to finish a book,” she said. “It’s a form of abuse.”
Assuming she was joking, I laughed.
“I’m serious,” she said. “Would you just walk away from someone when they’re talking to you?”
“No,” I said.
“Didn’t think you were like your father,” she said. “You have a responsibility to let the other person say The End. You shouldn’t do it for them.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Don’t apologize to me,” she said. “Ask the book for forgiveness.”
[With the anxiety of school beginning, particularly finalizing my choice of books for my classes, I decided to post this essay which originally appeared in Mid-American Review.]
Voices Carry reading on Oct. 24
1 month ago