My books are home to me. After two decades, fifteen apartments, they’re my constant. The one friend who doesn’t abandon; the lover who never leaves. I never miss the upholstered chairs and cherry desks or the clothes that oscillated with size and age, but I could never bear to part with my collection of three thousand strong.
Sitting alone in a house in the middle of the high desert, where the wind rattles the windows and the rain comes down in sheets, I never considered how cruel it could be to stay in a home done up to look like a home but it isn’t your home. I’ve never been good at putting down roots, but my books were the one thing I’d pack with care and lug from place to place. The embarrassing Ayn Rand and Bret Easton Ellis of my college years redeemed by Joan Didion, Alessandro Barico, Donald Barthelme, Don Delillo, Virginia Woolf, and Raymond Carver. The stacks from graduate school — I still could never part with Edmund Wilson. But give me my Victoria Redel, Amy Hempel, Jenny Offill, Toni Cade Bambarra, Christine Schutt, Michael Cunningham, and Zadie Smith.
Back in my twenties, when I had an intense relationship with several grams of cocaine, I remember quitting. Flushing it. Pacing my home, wondering what one actually does with one’s hands. How one occupies their body, sits still in it. And I remember making a list of 150 books I’d read in a year and I read them all because it felt good to feel the paper in my hands.
It felt good to live again after years of being committed to my ruin.
The stacks that towered at five thousand during the years I worked in book publishing and hosted a reading series at KGB Bar in New York City, where books crowded every clean surface of my small home. And then all the crash diets of my thirties where I’d purge boxes at The Strand and replace what I’d sold in a few short months.
Sometimes I think back to those days in Brooklyn where I’d sit out on the fire escape, book in hand, watching squirrels ravage the trees. I was lonely, boxed in a hothouse where my mother’s voice was the loudest sound. I rarely spoke to people. I carried a bookbag teeming with books, and I’d build a fortress on my desk. I could peer out but no one could get in.
I spent much of my childhood living in my head. As I got older, I grew adept at mimicking people. Pretending to be a normal person. But I was forever bookish, awkward, the teenage girl who never fucked, sucked, or drank wine coolers in Grant Park. I read books in bathrooms and on hallway floors. My guidance counselor would call me in, her face a mess of pain, waving one of my stories about a girl who hung herself from a pole, a tree, and she’d practice her concern when she asked, is something wrong at home. I shook my head. No, no, nothing wrong.
Of course, there was something wrong at home. But I had my books because they were the one thing I could hold and lay myself out to bear.
I think about the rows of neatly arranged books in my home by the ocean. How the hot California sun bared down on the covers, bleached them to bone, and the year I almost took my own life was the first when I couldn’t read. I couldn’t bear to face them. But they stuck around still. Decades of abiding friendship — they were in too deep to leave. Paul Harding, Italo Calvino, Adam Haslett, Nathan Englander — my, they were in dire need of a tan the books were too stark and white.
Last November, when I packed up all my books for storage, I cried. A man helped me carry and store the boxes and after he left I stood under the glare of the ceiling lights and inside the small room where a lifetime of friends met their imprisonment, I sobbed. Mourned. For the first time in my entire adult life, I wouldn’t have the words that had carried me through my blackest hours. I couldn’t pull a book off the shelf and re-read a passage. I couldn’t look at the spines and feel safe, whole.
When people talk about this year being the year of the introvert, I want to murder them — just a little bit. Because introverts don’t crave intense, constant isolation. Even in a tiny town where white stars blanket the charcoal sky. Where the clouds hover close. Where the sun settles into the horizon, staining the day violet and vermillion.
All this beauty can break every single piece of your heart and then kill you when you swallow the shards.
Six months ago, I embarked on a yearlong journey to roam around California. A cabin in the mountains, a home in the desert, a cottage by the sea and so on. I was clawing my way back to the woman I used to be, the woman who said yes to things. A woman who was going places. And the writing, the work, and the love all rose up around me until particles magnified to look like dust motes held a world hostage.
I can’t even begin to describe what it feels like to be in a home that’s not your home during the time when you need home most. In five days, I pack up my life and my cat and go on another drive to another home that’s not my home. A condo by a tear-shaped pool everyone’s frightened to use. The few books are traveler’s remains, their litter. Tomes discarded. The titanic asshole Norman Mailer, the yellowed paperback of Eat Pray Love. Slim volumes of bad poetry.
In each faux home, I imagine where my bookcases would stand. I see every book written by Nabokov, Woolfe, Ishiguro, Murakami, Lahiri, and all my old friends, pages welcoming. But there are no shelves here. Only the handful of books I bring place to place. I feel orphaned. Untethered.
I miss home. The wreck of it. The pots and pans crowding the cupboards. The photographs of dark matter I hang on the walls. The friends weaving in and out, spooling thread. Forking bolognese in their mouths because I make my four-hour pasta for the people I love. After dinner, they’ll linger in front of my shelves, fingertips tracing spines. And I’ve got a story about each friend, the story under the covers and the story of us.
But this place is just beyond my reach. I shake my hands, lean in as far as I can, but I can never quite touch the door. There go the keys to witness protection.
Six months of adventure giving way to loss — the kind of loss where you open your mouth to scream and no sound comes out. It’s only you and all that smothering quiet. It’s only you and a slim pile of five books. Acquaintances, really.
Never the truest of friends, the safest of homes.