“Natalie,” Mrs. Stenninger bent down to my desk. Tall and angular, she always squatted to talk to us at our tiny desks. I quickly shoved my book into the cubby.
“Yes?” I asked, feigning innocence, like the pro liar I was fast becoming.
“What are you reading?” she asked. Mrs. Stenninger suffered no fools.
I sighed. No point in trying to salvage the fib. “A mystery book. It’s called Mandie and the Forbidden Attic.”
“Is it good?” I searched her face to see if she was genuinely interested. Her brow raised, her face open–all signs pointed to “yes.”
“Yes. It’s exciting.” I grasped through my ten-year old mind to express what that meant to me, but it danced out of reach. My brain wasn’t sophisticated enough to explain how escaping into a book was the only way I could handle the boredom without standing up in the middle of fourth grade and screaming.
Mrs. Stenninger cocked her head and looked at me thoughtfully, dangling earrings brushing her shoulder. “Well I know what it’s like to be in the middle of a good book and not want to put it down. Tell you what: why don’t I have you read a book out loud to the class, so we can all read together?”
– – –
Looking back, I’m sure she spoke to my mother about my refusal to participate in class. That was the year everyone started worrying about me. I was sick often; some of it real, some of it desperation. It was too much. Even at ten, life was too much for me. That was the year I told the doctor I wanted to kill myself. When she asked how I would do it, I described floating up in a hot air balloon and jumping out, or maybe taking too much Tylenol one day.
– – –
In grad school, while other students looked forward to summer break so they could drink too many Jack and Cokes or sit around and watch reality TV, I planned what books I was going to read, and in what order. As I slogged through Culture and Imperialism–and what felt like a dead-end relationship–I fantasized about reading a trashy romance novel first; one where the hero and heroine were cardboard cutouts instead of characters with flesh and flaws. Then I would move on to something lighthearted. An easy read about Anywhere But Here to soothe my aching brain and everything else that ached within me.
– – –
Even today, I am already plotting my next book. In the thick of the school year, waist-deep in papers and assigned reading, far-off lands and fantastic scenarios beckon. I wonder where my life went, then I open my laptop to enter grades, plan the next assignment.
I’m thinking maybe something YA. Something easy on the brain, heavy on plot.