(originally appeared as a “Letter in the Mail” for The Rumpus in December 2014)
Do you ever think of how truly astonishing it is that we muddle through somehow? At 46, I think about it a lot. I wonder how we got from there to here, how I did, about the stories you must each have to tell of your own adventures in celestial navigation. Really, that’s the best we ever do, isn’t it? Steer ourselves according to the shiny bits that glimmer in whatever darkness?
Sometimes the stars are faint.
I wonder how you got to today?
Here’s a story I’ve never told:
In 1985 I dropped out of my senior year of high school and ran away from DC to Chesapeake, Virginia, near Norfolk, to be with my boyfriend. He was 20, working as an assistant manager of Foot Locker and had been transferred there from DC where we both lived. David had been my constant the previous couple of years and I felt scared without him. My father wasn’t part of my life — which was a good thing — and my mother, 37 and angry, was never around. She worked full-time, had a part-time night job, dated and went to school, still working to finish the BA she had abandoned pursuit of when she found out she was pregnant with me as a single, 19 year old college sophomore. I was lonely and anxious and made it through just 6 weeks of the school year without David before I finally just drove the 3 hours to Chesapeake and refused, despite my mother’s screaming at me over the phone, to go back home.
Have you ever been lost?
I was lost.
What do you do when your life disintegrates? What gets you through? Whenever my life falls apart, I read more. Since 1975, every ten years there has been a major explosion in my life. In ‘75, my parents divorced. In 1985, I ran away. In 1995, I left my husband and my work and relocated, abruptly, to San Diego. In 2005, both another marriage and my business collapsed. I left town to visit my grandmother for a week and ended up staying for 2.5 years. During all of those big oceans of emptiness after whatever or the other crisis, I read like a fiend and variously and well.
1985 was no exception. That October, as the days were getting shorter and quickly colder, I had, literally, nothing to do. I had left my part-time job working at the grocery store bakery behind, I didn’t have any school, I had no friends there in Chesapeake, and no money. As in, no money. David was clearing about $280 a week but had never found a place to live because he didn’t have the deposit money and first month’s rent. He was living in a shitty hotel. It wasn’t even the Econo Lodge. It was the ‘Cono Lodge. So that’s where I lived, too. After paying the roughly $30 a day it cost for the hotel and my pack of cigarettes there was $70 a week left. (I smoked in those days, Benson & Hedges Deluxe Ultra Lights. When I was in DC, l had smoked Dunhill’s in the Blue pack, but those had gone by the wayside with poverty.) But on payday we were often hungry and so we splurged and ate a big meal at McDonald’s, each getting a burger, a shake, fries. David would get an apple pie, too. So usually $10 went out on payday. And we needed $10 a week in gas – David’s car broke down shortly after I arrived and so I drove him to and from every day so I could keep the car to go out. That left us a combined total of $50 a week, $25 each, $3.50 a day.
I learned to skip breakfast, eat peanut butter crackers and a coke for lunch for $1.50 and save $2 for dinner. A McDonalds cheeseburger and small fries or coke but not both. Sometimes we ate a hot dog at 7-11, sometimes a cup of soup. Soup takes longer to eat so seems like more food. Sometimes we didn’t mange the money perfectly so we’d run out a couple of days before payday. If we could scrounge up $1.85 we would get a dozen biscuits from KFC and eat those for all our meals for a couple of days. We also had to buy toiletries, pay for the Laundromat. Sometimes, shoes David had sold would get returned and he would get docked for the commission credit and he’d bring home less in a given week, so sometimes we had no money, no hotel room for the night and no food. I always had cigarettes.
In the early weeks we got locked out of our hotel room more than once for non-payment. Then we had to pay for the night we’d missed even though we hadn’t been in the room, because all our stuff had. One time the hotel took all of our stuff out and only gave back some. A few days later an elderly woman working as a maid at the hotel was wearing my argyle socks from Benetton. I was so deeply ashamed, though I’m still not sure of what. That I was mad that that maid had my socks? That my things had all been held hostage as collateral, rifled through by staff? Of being so poor?
One time we slept in the car, afraid of getting arrested. David is African-American and I am white and people gave us dirty looks sometimes, which we ignored. But legal troubles were a real worry. Going around with an underage white girl seemed to be a neon sign inviting the police to unfairly harass David for living while black.
Another time we drove around all night, stopping to park every once in a while for a bit, so as not to spend too much gas. Another time we slept in the store – I parked my car on the other side of the mall, slipped in to the store just before closing, ostensibly to wait for David to finish. At some point I slipped into the backroom while he locked the gate at the front of the store, said goodnight to the mall security guard, and acted like we were walking out the back door from the store. In the back of Foot Locker stores are benches just like the ones in the front of the store. We each slept on one, bags of the white tube socks they sold at the register as a pillow. A couple of times we were so poor, David rang in refunds for shoes that were already in the store, stealing $30 each time.
We got the hang of having no money though. Got better at being broke. We negotiated a discount for a weekly rate at another motel that had HBO in the room, too. We paid the week in advance so as not to run short and get locked out. With the discount we now had an extra $35 a week. We had $105 leftover, instead of $70, for the two of us to live on. That $5 a day was a big deal. We had money to eat a little more/a little more often. We could eat a little bigger dinner, have a little more with lunch, and sometimes eat a cheap breakfast. Or instead, as we did some weeks, keep tight on the meals and then splurge and go once to the movies and get popcorn and a soda. I thought about getting a job, but it was a fleeting thought. I kept thinking I’d go home, go back to school…getting a job would have been a way of saying “This is real, permanent” and I couldn’t do that. So I just didn’t think about it.
Instead, I did three things while David worked. I watched TV, I read, and I spent many hours a day in the Indian River Branch of the Chesapeake Library. There was a literal sign at that library: “Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries.” I saw it my first day there, hanging on the side of one of the big shelves of books and it made my eyes sting with tears so fast, like a shock of pepper. I had never heard that before and it felt like it was directly fingering my condition. It also made me feel oddly ok, like so long as I had the library it was going to be all right. I applied for and got my library card, using my DC license and providing a local address, the street address of the motel where I was staying on S. Military Highway. I didn’t say it was a motel, but the librarian would have known from the address that it was one of the strips of cheap motels that lined this military base town. “My fiancé just relocated here for work,” I told the librarian, who didn’t ask. ”I graduated high school in June, and I’m staring college here at Tidewater Community College in January.” She nodded slowly. Smiled.
That day when I left the library I drove around a while. I was driving my about-to-collapse, fading yellow, 1977 Datsun F10 wagon that I had bought, cheap, from a family I babysat for. They had taken pity on me for having to share a car during high school with my always screaming, always late mother whom I know they disliked. They thought it would help me to get to school on time, get to work, take care of myself better. Driving around, I started to think that maybe I really could start college in January…. but it was already November, and I didn’t know a thing about the GED except that I vaguely thought kids who had it were kids who had “messed up with drugs”…. now I realized they were probably just kids like me, messed up on their family and their own sense of inadequacy and fear. Drugs or not was irrelevant.
Things seemed possible, a bit. That library card made me feel like I had purpose. I had always been a big reader, had spent hours and hours in libraries both in and out of school, but now the library was my JOB. And I took it seriously. For eleven weeks as fall snapped into winter and winter settled in to stay, I was there 5 days a week. I’d drop David at work, go straight to the library and begin my work. As a child my mother’s brothers, one of whom could see how bored I was in school, had assigned me research projects and now I created some for myself. I made a list on the back of some scrap paper they had at the front desk with a pen from my orthodontist of topics I was going to research. It went something like:
I can see now, I was a writer then, though I wasn’t yet writing, really. I didn’t yet appreciate how mucking around in ideas and thinking was part of writing, too.
Broke and lost, I read. I read and read and read and added new projects to the list and read some more. One Writer’s Beginnings had come out the year before and though I hadn’t yet read anything by Eudora Welty, I read OWB and then read everything by her. I checked OWB out and then back in and then waited the mandatory 24 hours and checked it out again. I read all of Flannery O’Connor. I read all of Carson McCullers. The books that the librarians didn’t have there at that branch – it was a small branch – they ordered from other libraries on special order. I read and read and read and read. On my first day there I checked out and started reading The Cider House Rules, the first new Irving since I had started reading Irving at 15. It was a book that I had been waiting for. Over the past couple of years I had read and re-read Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire and The 158-Pound Marriage and reading a brand new Irving novel was, well, it was extraordinary. I had never before waited for a book to come out. I had heard about it from the librarian at home, in DC, who had told me it was coming. I felt somehow connected to my old life through the book, too. Connected through the librarians. Isn’t it interesting the way the various selves we contain are linked via common desires?
One day the librarian at the Indian River branch, the one who wore her hair in a big chiffon, full of spray and static, Linda I think her name was, said, “We found this left over from a group that used to meet here when we were cleaning up the office. Maybe you want it for your writing?” She offered me a spiral notebook. I nodded, said thank you, took it to my seat – I had a table that I sat at every day – and copied my notes from the amassed pieces of paper to it. I blushed, though rarely in my life have I blushed. I realize now it was the first time anyone had encouraged my writing – of any kind – outside of school. I was touched and also felt like the librarians thought I was needy and it hurt me that they might think that.
But of course I was needy, horribly so. I needed love and adult supervision and attention and caring and some direction about figuring out my future. I needed parenting and therapy and someone to tell me I mattered, that my father’s abuse and abandonment were not my fault, that my mother’s narcissistic ways and her anger were not my fault. I needed food and a safe place to live. I needed a way to feel OK in the world. What I had, instead, was the library and a boyfriend who cared about me. It was a world.
I’d leave the library around 4 o’clock or so and go back to the crummy motel and watch Places in the Heart which was the featured movie on HBO back in the day when HBO only had a handful of featured movies every month. I think I watched it every day a couple of times a day for about a month. I know it by heart, still. I love it, and even copy Sally Field’s shallow breathing in the bathtub scene with John Malkovich every single time I watch it. It spoke to me, made me feel grateful every day for what I had. Made me feel a sense of hope.
I’d read and smoke and watch the movie and then go pick David up when he got off work. One night there was a mouse in the room, so we moved to another hotel, near the Waffle House. It was a little nicer – at that price point, $2 a night can make all the difference because $14 a week is a huge amount of money to the working poor.
I told David I’d get a job after New Year’s. I still was thinking very far ahead, but even making plans for next month was progress.
At Christmas time, I spent even more time in the library. I missed my friends extra at Christmas, but I, so far outside the orbit of their lives I didn’t even know how to connect. I missed being part of a happy family, not that I ever had been.
There had been a sign up for weeks that the library would close an hour early one day for administrative reasons. On that day, I started to gather my things about 15 minutes before the early closing but the head librarian said, “You can stay, honey.” She gave me a huge smile. I was confused she didn’t talk to me much. The other few did a little bit. She was usually out at meetings, though, or in the back in the office. She turned out the lights and locked the door and we all went in the back and had eggnog and cookies. It was weird, they all talked to one another and I just kind of sat there and said “These are really good cookies”. I had about a dozen and 4 cups of eggnog. They even gave me a plate to take home.
It was a tremendous thing for me, being invited to the back for cookies. It gave me the feeling that I belonged somewhere – that I wasn’t invisible. I somehow knew then that I’d fit in with books and book people for the rest of my life and it reminded me, too, that I always had. Libraries had been curative in grade school when my parents divorced. In junior high when my grandparents who had cared for me moved away, I started going to the public library after school and reading Ann Beattie, which made me start to think about what it meant to write, how writing worked, voice. The school library in high school kept me afloat when I was bored, in trouble, felt out of place. And now, here in Chesapeake, the library was crucial yet again.
After the little party with the librarians, I told David I’d changed my mind, I though we should go home to DC for Christmas. We did, just for the day. We stole the gas, pumped the tank full with the engine running at a grimy gas station near the mall that didn’t make you pay first – in those days there were still places like that. When it was full we sped off. We headed home, terrified of being arrested, of the car dying, of seeing my family.
The day after Christmas, my mother came to Chesapeake, went apartment hunting with me, found a place that a bunch of military couples lived in, wrote a check for the first month’s rent and security deposit. David and I had an extra $400 between us in Christmas money and our rent was paid for a month! I was going to get a bookstore job and look into the GED. Started taking college classes.
I wonder what would have happened had we stayed there. Who I would have become, how life would have been different. Instead, it was all just an interlude. Aren’t those interludes, though, so often what defines us?
David got transferred, back to DC. My mother lost all the deposit money, but she didn’t care too much, she was in love. Her boyfriend had moved into her house, though he had a lease on an apartment. David and I moved into it. The Challenger blew up a week later. I started working as a mother’s helper for a family I had babysat for during my first two years of high school. David slipped $60 back in the drawer, $10 at a time, at his new store, so that Foot Locker got all the money we stole in Chesapeake back. I did get my GED that spring and worked the summer as a camp counselor at a fancy day camp. Taught tennis on the side. And I did start college in the fall, right on time, like nothing had happened.
But of course everything had happened.
If you had told me then I’d be writing about that time…I never would have believed you. I was so ashamed. Too ashamed to write, to tell…which maybe is what keeps so many of us silent. I wish we could just abolish shame, don’t you? Sorrow and regret, yes. Shame, no. It’s terrible.
On the last day in Chesapeake, I went up to the counter at the library and said, “I’m leaving, my fiancé was transferred, we’re going back home to DC, and I have to turn this in.” It was One Writer’s Beginnings that I had checked out, again. The librarian, the one with the chiffon, said, ”Well, we were going to sell it in the book sale in the spring for a dime. I’ll just check it in and mark it to be sold. Do you have a dime?” She winked. I handed a dime to her and she said, “OK, all squared.” I didn’t want to start crying. “Thank you,” I practically whispered, “For everything.” “Good luck to you,” she said, “We’ll miss you.” Once I got outside, I cried for quite some time over the idea that someone would miss me, since neither school nor my mom did.
The next morning David and I left town early. I wanted to drive by the library; I wanted to tell them something. Wanted to say thank you, but more. I don’t know what. That they made me feel not alone, and maybe like a writer a little? But it was Sunday, and they were closed. I never got to say thank you properly, but they gave me everything. They gave me a place I’ve re-imagined thousands of times since then…a place where I belonged, even when I didn’t belong anywhere, and had no home.
David and I broke up a year later and then two years after that for good. We’re still friends. He and his wife and their toddler are all quite happy. He’s a coach. It’s 29 years later and almost nothing about my life is the same. I’ve married and divorced a librarian in that time. I am a writer now, as I was then, I just didn’t know it yet. Everything is different, but I’m still me, too. Still the same girl I was, in that little library, all those years ago.
My husband and I are happy, stable, and solid, in love. We just sold our house, three blocks from the beach on the east coast and are headed west to a life in the easy weather of Santa Barbara. I am a writer now and they even pay me for it. I’m healthy. Happy. Everything I couldn’t imagine happening happened and I’m so much more than just OK. We run two Little Free Libraries here in our tiny town and will in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, too. I still love the library, Eudora Welty, John Irving, still write in a spiral notebook, Maybe the words are how I got from there to here, maybe it’s just luck. Lucky, lucky me.
“Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries.” I’ve gone back to visit and the Indian River Library is fancy now, and beautiful, but the old library was a cathedral. The places that make us the good parts of who we are always are.
I wonder what your cathedrals are?
Love love love love love,
PS – I’d love to hear from you! If you want to write me back, this is my email address: email@example.com
–Art by Petra
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