I am listening to this freezing rain as it falls. Chunks of snow are crashing from the roof. The squirrels in the crawl space above my head are playing soccer. The radiator hisses. The new mayor says he went to the gym before he shoveled the heavy, wet snow from the sidewalk in front of his Park Slope home; he advises City residents not to do this. His Spanish is better than the old mayor’s, but not much. I am wondering whether I will hold my community class tonight. It doesn’t look very bad from my window, and there are cars whizzing past the house every few minutes. I can hear the tires slice through the water and connect to the asphalt below. I have just finished reading “The Girl Who Flew,” by Camellia Phillips. I told myself I should read more literary journals, so I subscribed to Calyx. I’ll treat myself to Callaloo when I come back from Costa Rica. Maybe I should read The House on Mango Street again. I bought it on Friday and read it on Saturday; it’s the first assignment on the syllabus of the experimental fiction class I’m taking at The New School, taught by Sharon Mesmer. Last week was our first session. She asked what I was reading, so I told her. I told her that I sleep with books in my bed. How I can’t stop thinking about words. She told me that just means I’m a writer. I have to pack, but I don’t want to stop reading. Maybe I will just pack my books for now. I bought a bright orange backpack for this trip; it matches my cashmere travel scarf. I am going to fill it with books and snacks. And panties, just in case our luggage gets lost. I am still listening to this freezing rain as it falls. It sounds like sweet music. It sounds like a promise. It sounds like now.
I sleep with books in my bed, at least ten of them. During law school, I picked up the bad habit of reading three or four books at a time. I would read fifty pages of one, seventy pages of another, then flit back and forth in between until I finished them all. And I’d start all over with a new set of books, never paying close attention, sometimes setting aside a book and forgetting about it, coming back to it months later. Because I was always reading a bunch of books, I kept them as close to me as possible– in my bed, so when I grew tired of one, my next option was within reach. I spent a lot of time in law school reading books that had absolutely nothing to do with the law. I broke myself of the multiple-book habit during the last six months of 2013; I began reading one book a week in June. But I still like to have my books near to me. I like to have choices.
So I have these ten books in my bed. And two stacks of books on the floor next to my bed; those are the books I’m planning to read next. I have a heavy wooden chest at the foot of my bed. When I was a child, it was full of toys. Now it is stuffed with books. But I can’t get to them easily because there are two boxes of books on top of the chest. There is no more room on my shelves. I have four more boxes of books in the basement. There are books everywhere.
Still, I buy more. I blame my father for this habit. When I was in third grade, he bought me one book every weekend for the entire year. My teacher, Mrs. Zullo, had gifted me a few of her vintage Nancy Drew books (I still have them) and when I devoured those and asked for more, he took me to B. Dalton Bookseller and bought me a few of the updated versions. We fell into a pattern; he’d pick us up from school on Fridays, and take us to the mall. I’d get a new book. My sister would get a small toy. He would treat us to McDonald’s and I’d open up my new book and eat my cheeseburger (with extra pickles!) without even looking at it. Eventually, my mother realized how much money my father was spending on books for me, and she encouraged him to take me to the library instead. But it was too late; the damage was already done. I still prefer my books untouched by others. I like them fresh and new, no dog-eared pages or stains or cracked spines. I keep my books because, if I like them, I’ll always read them again. My copy of Waiting in Vain is yellow and worn and I’ve read it every year for the last twelve years.
I’ll buy dozens of books at a time. Last year, I bought three of Danzy Senna’s books (You Are Free, Symptomatic, and Where Did You Sleep Last Night?) in one night. I have everything written by Junot Diaz, Chris Abani, M. Evelina Galang (all VONA instructors), as well as Colin Channer, Elizabeth Nunez, and Oonya Kempeadoo. I went through a phase where I read only the fiction of Caribbean writers, so I’ve got a large collection of that as well. I am surrounded by books.
I’ve been sorting through them, searching for collections of short stories. That’s what I feel like reading. Short stories fascinate me. They are so very brief, and illuminating. And when they’re good, they stay with you. I want something that stays with me.
I’m currently reading Her Wild American Self, Evelina’s debut story collection. The first time I read it was on the five hour plane ride from SFO to JFK after VONA in 2010. I cried the whole way, partially because of Evelina’s writing, which is gorgeous, but also because I didn’t want to return to my life as it was.
Sometimes I think that loving books the way I do doesn’t mean I need to write them. When I was at VONA, I believed that I could write them. Nearly four years later, with barely any new fiction under my belt, maybe I can’t? Maybe my love is just for the experience of reading. Maybe I don’t have to create.
Usually, when I start to feel like this I remind myself of an e-mail that I received, nearly a year ago:
You are too beautiful a writer not to share it with other people.
(thank you, my soul sister. you inspire me more than you know.)
I started a new project. I’m having a hard time with it. I have four books in my cart on Amazon. I think I’m trying to distract myself. If I cloak myself in the words of others, I have no room for my own.
I love when I find these random, abandoned scraps of stories or failed writing exercises and I actually like them:
My first boyfriend had skin the color of parchment paper, with large reddish freckles painted across his nose and cheeks. His eyes were round and grey, his eyelashes brown and short and stubby. He blinked slowly when he lied. My friends did not understand what I saw in him. We were sophomores in college, and he had already been arrested twice that year, once for drugs possession and the other, for public intoxication. He’d left a party in Norfolk high on ecstasy and with a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit. He took off his shirt and pissed on the sidewalk before he ever made it to his car.
He had another girlfriend at the university across the bay. I saw her car parked across the street from my apartment complex for five nights in a row before she finally knocked on my door. I knew it was her because the green and yellow plates were her school colors. When I opened the door, I expected her to throw acid on my face. I shut my eyes and awaited the pain. Instead, I heard her sob. “You’re so pretty,” she said.
When I opened my eyes, she was just standing there, crying. She wore several heavy layers of mascara and the tears dripping over her nose led trails of soot down her face. She wasn’t ugly. We were about the same height, just over five feet. Orville was only five six; he liked smaller girls. She had rough coppery skin and wore a waist-length weave the same red-brown color as our boyfriend’s freckles. Weaves weren’t as popular or as realistic back then, and I could see the lump of tracks around her crown. Her hands were tiny. There was a slim gold band on her left ring finger. She saw me look at it, and twisted it around and around. Her hot pink nail polish was chipped.
“He promised,” she said. “He promised we would get married after graduation.”
I said nothing. She stopped crying at my silence. It seemed to make her angry, that I had not reacted to this news.
“You’re wasting your time,” she said.
“Maybe,” I replied. “Maybe we both are.”
Her eyes narrowed.
“You think just because you live in this fancy apartment and go to this bougie school and your dad is a judge and your mom is an AKA—you think he’ll choose you?”
The fact that she knew these things about my parents made me flinch. I knew nothing about her, except that my boyfriend was her boyfriend, too, and that she was standing outside my apartment yelling at me, with her makeup smeared all over her face and a fistful of tissues that she hadn’t used.
I held the door between us. Maybe the acid was in her purse and she just hadn’t reached for it yet.