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The Summer Reading List That Saved My Life
By Rosie Campos
Beads of sweat collected on my forehead as my slippery, chubby fingers flipped through the pages. A picture caught my eye, and I stopped to rub my fingers across it, as if, at the age of eleven, I had somehow obtained the power to transport myself simply by touching an image. A cross-section of a stream, the mouth of a volcano, a desolate tundra. I was there.
Reality rushed back as I heard my stepmother’s heavy footsteps approaching my bedroom. I quickly arranged my books in a neat pile, with The Joy of Nature on top. Janice’s face peered in my room through the doorless doorway, her black hair hastily pulled into a banana clip, her large, always-angry eyes giving me a sharp warning to hurry up. I pulled my backpack on, and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I wanted to cry.
My birth mother had taught me that sometimes it’s okay to tell small fibs when you don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. She called them “white lies”. Janice was going through her closet one Saturday when she called me into her bedroom. Her room was always dark, the daylight shut out by heavy curtains, piles of clothes stacked and thrown on every surface. I was not allowed in her bedroom without explicit permission, so the brief moments I spent in there were overwhelming as my eyes adjusted to the darkness and took in the immense mess.
Janice half-disappeared into her closet, and rummaged through the clothes on hangers tightly packed on the highest bar. She pulled out a matching shirt and leggings set. Both the top and the bottom were a mottled dark brown. The top featured a mind-bending design consisting of embroidered multicolored loops and circles speckled with little round mirrors. I gritted my teeth. Janice asked me what I thought of it. Not wanting to hurt her feelings, I vaguely smiled and told her it was nice. She handed it to me. “It’s yours,” she said.
And here I was, on the last day of school before summer break, cringing at the chubby girl with shaggy short hair—my stepmom cut it—wearing a monstrosity of an outfit reflected back at me in the mirror. While I should have worn size 5 shoes, my stepmom refused to buy shoes for me. Instead, she passed down her worn out, stretched-out size 9 wide-width Reeboks. My glasses were courtesy of the welfare department, which didn’t pay for child-size glasses. I had to choose from a bin with about 15 different pairs that were all way too big for my face, and I eventually settled on the least ostentatious option, a pair of dark brown plastic-rimmed frames.
That school year had been tough for me. Everything I had known before my parents divorced, my whole world, was shaken up and turned upside down. Other girls had begun shaving their legs. My stepmom wouldn’t allow me to have a razor, arguing that nobody should be looking at my legs, anyway. I was forbidden from being friends with anyone who was not white or Christian. I moved from Pennsylvania to South Carolina, my dad had gotten custody of my brothers and me, and I had to learn to accept my stepmom’s peculiar personality. These peculiarities included hyper-sexuality, a penchant for ass beatings, and lounging at the kitchen table eating chocolate while watching her stepchildren scrub the kitchen floor with toothbrushes. Much, much later, I realized that Janice was, in fact, a sociopath. But by then, the damage was done.
Summer vacation loomed heavy on the horizon, and I had no idea what the full days in Janice’s house held for me. My dad spent very little time in the house with us, opting instead to hole himself up in his backyard shed, tinkering away with projects that he would never finish. If I barely saw him during the school year, I dreaded what that meant for the endless summer days ahead. But there was no time to think of that now.
I broke eye contact with my reflection in the mirror, turned and darted down the hallway, through the living room packed floor-to-ceiling with plants—Janice’s “babies”—and out the side door into the balmy morning air. I went through a quick mental checklist to distract myself from the impending bus ride. I could spend time outside. I could roller skate on the carport. We didn’t have bikes like we did when my parents were together, but I could walk. We didn’t have a swing set, and the pampas grass that dotted the back yard turned any potential play space into a gauntlet of razor-sharp foliage. I would have to make do.
There would be no time for lamenting the beautiful summers I spent in Pennsylvania, riding bikes, catching lightning bugs, taking long walks in the woods with my mom, playing on the swing set my dad built just for me as a surprise for my 8th birthday. For a fleeting moment, I pictured another little girl, this one wearing a purple dress, white socks and black shoes swinging on my swings, giggling as her hair whirled around her face. This girl would be going to my old elementary school, sleeping soundly in my old bedroom, in her dreams listening to her parents sitting on the patio outside her window talk about a future filled with possibilities.
That would be her future. Those would be her possibilities. Mine were long gone now. The bus pulled up alongside the driveway, and I hastily made my way up the stairs, covering the front of my shirt with a notebook and hoping that I could make it through the entire ride in peace. I gazed out the window at a landscape that still looked foreign to me. The rolling, green hills of Pennsylvania were supplanted with flat expanses of concrete, sparse grass that grew in thick, hard blades, and dirt that resembled sand much more than the black, fertile soil that I grew up with and played in. I let out a sigh of relief as we pulled into the school driveway, lined with immense, lanky pine trees. The bus ride was uneventful. Uneventful is a good thing.
The last day of school passed in a blur, as they always seem to do. There are yearbooks to sign and goodbyes to be said. Nobody asked me to sign a yearbook, and I didn’t have a yearbook for anyone else to sign. I hadn’t made friends over the course of the year because, as it turns out, nobody wants to be friends with the chubby girls with the huge glasses and the too-big shoes and the weird clothes and the strange accent. Nobody wants to be friends with the girl who cries a lot.
As we boarded the school buses in the afternoon, the smell of diesel smoke penetrated the humid early summer air. I found an empty seat and slid across its sticky vinyl until my shoulder bumped up against the window. I put my knees up on the back of the seat in front of me, plopped my backpack next to me, unzipped it, and rustled through the end-of-year papers until I found what I was looking for. I clutched it in my hands and closed my eyes as if it held the secret to my salvation. The summer reading list.
While many of the kids groaned when the teacher handed the list out in our English class, my heart fluttered. I never had a summer reading list before. I only had a few books to my name, and I had dearly missed reading since my parents divorced. Janice’s distaste for books was beyond anything I could understand. She frequently gloated about how her “street smarts” beat out my “book smarts” any day, and how I would never survive because, according to her, I lacked any common sense. Sometimes I could convince my dad to take me to the library, but not very often, and only when he seemed to feel acutely guilty for not spending any time with us. But now that I had books that I had to read for the summer, he would have no choice but to take me to the library. Maybe the summer wouldn’t be so bad after all.
I ignored Janice’s scowl as I discreetly passed my dad the reading list over dinner that night. Like every night in the previous few months, we dined on Hamburger Helper. I reached a point a few weeks earlier that I had to hold my nose to avoid gagging, but in my excitement and much to my surprise, I managed to polish off half the plate. Dad agreed to take me to the library, but Janice interjected the condition he must take my younger brothers, too. I knew what that meant: the clock would be ticking from the moment we set foot in the building.
I knew nothing about the books that I was assigned, so I picked the first at random: My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George. Dusk had arrived by the time we left the library, and sleep fell gently on my brothers in the back seat of Janice’s station wagon shortly after we began the ride home. I cracked the window for a slight breeze, opened one of my books and tilted it toward the glass to catch glimpses of the words in the passing streetlights. Sensing the onset of carsickness, I clasped the book to my chest, closed my eyes and put my head against the headrest. The breeze blowing through the window calmed my nausea as we made our way back home.
The next morning, I awoke before anyone else. I grabbed one of my library books and hunkered down on the floor between my bed and the window. I hoped, albeit unrealistically, that Janice would somehow forget that I existed. If not, at least I could catch a good half hour of quality reading time before all hell broke loose and she found some humiliating task for me to complete that would take up the rest of the day, like moving rocks from one end of the yard to the other in the blazing midday sun, only to have her inexplicably change her mind and make me move them back.
So, My Side of the Mountain it was. Books had always given me a fun, but short-lived experience. I felt a kinship with Ramona Quimby. I had giggled at Amelia Bedelia’s silliness. But none had ever changed me. My psyche was ripe for an immersive literary experience. And an immersive literary experience is just what I got.
I wasn’t just a spectator anymore. I was the main character. I ran away from home and found a cabin in the woods. I captured and trained a peregrine falcon to hunt for me. I survived a blizzard, stole game from poachers and befriended a weasel. I was in glorious solitude, far away from divorce and fighting, from crushing shame, from confusion and disappointment and the never-ending dark cloud of despair. I was no longer a burden, and I felt no burdens. I felt the crunching leaves under my feet and deeply inhaled the crisp mountain air, watched the birds hop from branch to branch and listened to the chipmunks chittering in the canopy above. I transcended.
Eventually, Janice took notice and prohibited reading during the day. I could see that my reading angered her, but something about me was different now. Over the course of the summer, as I found opportunities and consumed the books on my reading list, I began to chip away at Janice’s façade. Little by little, her power over me diminished, and the shame I felt began to lift. I knew that escape was always just a couple of pages away.
That summer set the foundation for the difficult summers to come. The years when I contemplated suicide, when I would lose all hope and fall time and again into an indescribable despair. Books kept me going, kept me alive. I could commiserate with Poe, find companionship with Miss Havisham in her dusty mansion. I understood how poor, tormented Wart felt in The Once and Future King. When I was hospitalized for depression in my teen years, I turned to Stephen King, who suited my macabre outlook enough to pull me through.
Even today, when I find myself followed by the dark cloud, when I’m trapped in agonizing sadness and crippling fear, ruminating on the traumas of the past and catching the specter of Janice in my peripheral vision, I know I can seek solace in words. All at once, the boundaries are blurred between what is and what is not, between reality and the imagined. I am part of a waking dream, albeit someone else’s dream that I have co-opted and molded into my own beautiful, mystical reality. It’s there I find my eleven year-old self, meet her eye-to-eye, dry her tears and comfort her. We are companions, she and I. We journey together, a journey that started 25 years ago, in the pages of a book from a summer reading list.
#Real #PersonalEssay #SummerNostalgia #SummerReading #Escape #Books
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