I Read So That I Don’t Die
…One of my bookshelves sags. Another bookshelf teeters. The books that don’t fit on the shelves are in my closet, where normal people might keep sweaters. Buying (and reading) books for me is more than a habit; it’s an almost financially ruinous compulsion. But I like to think that it keeps me sane; at least, I don’t want to know what my life would be without books.
If you meet me, you might think I’m anxious and slow to focus (you’d be correct). You might notice how I chew my fingernails when I’m nervous and how I continuously turn over any object near at hand when I’m bored. You might think I don’t have the attention span for books. Look, a tiny child running through the library! Outside the window is a park and spring’s greenest grass and this spaniel mutt with a little brown on the ears and, ho! overhead the rotors of a helicopter cut the air as the sound of its motor splinters the manufactured stillness of a library.
But books, my dears, books are a soundproof room and half a Xanax and a chair, a comfortable chair that’s not too soft. To someone who doesn’t understand books like we do, books are a fine story, maybe an afternoon escape, a nice place to visit but nowhere that they’d want to live (I stole this image from a book, but I don’t remember which). But you and I know differently. I’ve seen you on the Halsted bus, the UP-North Metra, on a blanket in Humboldt Park indifferent to the smells of barbeque and the hum of families, you the book sniffers, the book gropers, you are reading and you look so heartbreakingly perfect that for a moment I’m in love with you…
On Reading Old Letters
It’s funny how sentiments can change. In just a few short months, you can go from loving someone with the burning fire of a thousand suns to seeing them at a party and thinking, “Yeesh, I don’t remember having a long-term relationship with a toothless carnie.” It’s unsettling, and can make us feel as though the time that we did spend lying in bed holding hands or swigging whiskey out of the bottle on a rooftop was, if not wasted, severely misguided. Time passes and can turn even the most beautiful memories sour.
And sure, it works the other way, too. But nostalgia is easy to indulge. We look at photos of ourselves from times that our chest hurts from wanting to go back to, we linger over text messages that we’ve saved for as long as we’ve had our phone. The times that were good, the times that only get warmer in our memory–those we keep around us. In shoe boxes under our beds and in secret folders on our computer, we keep the parts of us that only look better the farther behind us they get.
But those moments that turn bitter, whether from a breakup that leaves us with an aching stomach or a friendship that petered out pathetically, we tend to scoot under the rug as quickly as we can. There is a desire, perhaps even a need, to get rid of all evidence that we were ever stupid enough to indulge the kind of emotions that would leave us bitter and depressed. We may have played the fool once, but never again. Our precious space will be taken up with photos of summer camp and summer flings that ended too soon.
Reading the old letters, the old texts, the old emails–even looking at the old pictures and video clips–seems an exercise in torture. There is a turning of the stomach and a clenching of the heart, looking at words you once meant so much your whole body seemed to shake.
“I love you so much; I don’t know what I did before I met you–but it couldn’t have been very interesting.”
“I’m so lucky to have such a good best friend. I hope you’re having so much fun out there, CALL ME I MISS YOU”
I meant those things when I wrote them, but I don’t talk to either of those people anymore. And whether our reasons for not speaking were explosive or quietly cancerous, it doesn’t matter anymore. We are no longer a part of each others’ lives, and the exchanges we were savvy enough to hold in writing are all that either of us have left of the things we really felt, word for word.
And to be honest, reading words like these was hard–especially in letters where the jokes and the warm exchanges were as fast and free as they can only come between two people who really love each other. It was something of an archaeological dig into a part of my life I’ve tried to bury for a long time now. Here it is–you cannot deny it, you were happy. I actually found it physically hard to keep reading some of the passages, it was unnerving to have to acknowledge how much my sentiments have truly changed. Wanting to think you’re right extends to every part of your life, even wanting to be right over your former self. But just because we’ve learned better doesn’t mean that we weren’t once foolish.
And that’s okay. In fact, perhaps the most essential of all letters to read are the ones with those whom we no longer feel good about. Aside from being glaring, necessary examples of our own fallibility, they are reminders that no matter how sure we feel about something in the moment–it could all be gone tomorrow. The me that wrote those letters had no clue who would cheat or who would move away and stop calling, but the me now can learn to appreciate what I have all the more for its fleeting nature. And beyond that, I want to be able to look at anyone–regardless of history–at a party and think, “Wasn’t that good while it lasted?”