For a long while after we left Texas, books were my best friends. I don’t mean this solely in an endearing “Anne of Green Gables” kind of way. I mean it in a bare bones, borderline neurotic, vaguely concerning kind of way. I mean that books were where I turned when I was anxious and afraid; when I was lonely and confused. There is a block of several years of my childhood where the reality mostly eludes me. However, I remember with startling clarity the pages of the books I read. I close my eyes and, even now, words from that era jump off the page.
In our new mustard-colored house, I had my own room and I would lay on the bed reading book after book, consumed. Many days that summer I walked down to the small satellite library branch in our town and I’d settle back in a “reading corner” on a pile of pillows and read. I read all the books that were appropriate for my age group and then I began extending my parameter, picking up the thick paperbacks that seemed so prolific in that branch. I had noticed these paperbacks were on a constant and continuous rotation: they were “shelved” on the revolving stand at the end of the bookshelf, people would grab them covertly and then check them out. Quickly after that, they would be returned and put back on the library cart, waiting to be shelved again. The books had ridiculous pictures on the front showing huge muscled men dwarfing small women wearing flowing garments. The books intrigued me because they intrigued others.
The day I first read one of these books, I read it straight through, at first unabashedly and then as I progressed through the book, I hid the cover worried the librarian would notice I was reading and take it from me. I hid even further in the back corner than I had before. Initially I read out of curiosity trying to decipher the strange phrases such as, “heaving mounds” and “thick member.” I was not a beginning reader and I knew what each of these words meant by themselves but put together they read as something completely different. I grew impressed with the impact of the combination of words. It was shocking how an unassuming word like “wet” could be completely changed when partnered with the right word. My scientific side was fascinated by the mechanics of the sentences and I slowly became aware of how visceral my reaction was becoming. I felt good and bad at the same time. The feeling from the words was wrong in my rigidly Catholic-formed brain, but in a way I felt justified because it had been imposed on me by the word combinations.
For a long time I read paperback after paperback, enjoying and hating that funny feeling just below my gut. I began to barely register the words and I would just focus on the feeling, trying to analyze it; trying to make it go away. Though no one had out-right spoken to me with clarity about my sexuality, something told me this feeling was inappropriate. Finally one day, in an attempt to regain entry to heaven, I stopped reading the books. It was the end of the summer.
In a few weeks I would start sixth grade in a new school where one day I would be ushered into a girls-only classroom and awkwardly handed a “sponsored by Mennen” pack. The pack would contain a travel size Teen Spirit deodorant and an overnight menstrual pad. A teacher would rough sketch the fallopian tubes on the chalkboard and talk about the pain of cramps and the burden of being a woman. No one would raise their hands during question and answer time though we all had a million questions and it would be at least five years until we truly understood the fallopian tube drawing. After 30 minutes the lecture would be over and we’d be sent out for recess to play double dutch and kickball and to contemplate our impending womanhood.
I never read those books again, instead keeping to my Little House on the Prairie books, attempting to limit words to their exact meanings – fencing them in to tidy rows for a time.