Hold a book long enough and it will remember you, I promise. The wetness of your breath and the oils from your fingers will comingle over time with the ferric oxide in the pulp to produce rusty little marks on the page. The process is known, quite beautifully, as “foxing,” and although it rarely alters the integrity of the paper, you mustn’t paw your way through life assuming touches are innocuous.
It was early morning in Northern England: knobs of lard crackled in pans blistering sausages, dogs trotted out to relieve themselves, newspapers with Thatcher’s face were tossed from BMXs. I loved watching the dads get into their cars: so brisk in their strides, jingling their keys. Weren’t dads great? All flared trousers and polyester ties; triangles of jammy, white toast clamped in their grinning mouths as they fucked right off to their nine-to-fives in the city. These were the men women wanted: broad-shouldered bringers of bacon, assertive with a stick shift and quick with a wink, singing “Daydream Believer” as they released the clutch to leave. Impeccable specimens steeped in the respect of their peers and Drakkar Noir . . . Pour Homme.
I’d found a book when we’d moved in: The Home Doctor by John D. Comrie, MD, 1931. A fat, hardback, A-Z medical reference of prewar maladies and their household cures. We’d never had a book before but immediately found a use for it because somebody-was-too-busy-watching-the-bloody-football-on the-telly-to-watch-the-bloody-saw-and-now-the-bloody-sawed-off-bunkbeds-had-bloody-wonky-legs-and-we’re-not-made-of-money-Steve. My sister’s half was all right. Mine wasn’t. Mum sucked on a Benson and Hedges and said, “Bring me The Home Doctor!” with the feigned exasperation of a woman who fixes everything. She slid it underneath the leg. Problem solved. I was ever so grateful. I had a terrible condition I hadn’t yet mentioned but now had everything I needed to fix it: a room of my own and unlimited access to John D. Comrie, MD, a man whose purview concluded tobacco was good, opium was better, and eugenics was a noble area of study.
I traced each word as I read back then—not quite old enough to be a confident reader but such a careful one: there’s plenty of me in that book if you want it. From training bra to sports bra, sports bra to regular bra, regular bra to maternity bra, maternity bra back to significantly smaller regular bra—it’s been everywhere, man, just like Johnny Cash. The anatomical drawings of men (unlike Johnny Cash) were devoid of genitalia. The anatomical drawings of women didn’t even exist. And yet I read on, despite growing concerns that the team I’d been consigned to, with its hysteria and melancholia and mammary glands, diseases of, was definitely not a side anyone would want to be on—despite hard evidence to the contrary that all the girls I knew at school were sensible go-getters with shiny hair that smelled like coconuts if you sat close enough.
We left the country. I don’t think it had anything to do with me. Dad was moving up in the world, and it only seemed fair he should illustrate it in the land of power lunches and convertibles. I was seventeen when he bought us all one-way tickets to America. A British accent and a sense of humor were the only currency I had, so I auditioned for theater school—nothing wrong with a little low-hanging fruit. The curriculum demanded we fight every day. Fight. Fight with real rapiers and daggers, broadswords, epees, trash-can lids. . . . It wracked my feeble body. I took ballet classes at night just to build my calves for the challenge. I dressed early for tutorials so my fencing partner wouldn’t have to smell the rancid jacket I trembled in. I stayed late to tidy the armory and spent the night in there when she followed me in, closed the door, threw me against an equipment rack and kissed ecstasy right out of me as it rained fucking swords.
Bit of a problem. I tried to walk it off. I lived in Philadelphia now, it was the midnineties; pedestrians still operated with peripheral awareness, weaving out of each other’s way as a matter of civic obligation. It was the perfect time and place for rhythmic deliberation. No dead ends. The mind aligns with the grid underfoot and contributes to solution-driven thought. Just keep walking. Walk. Walk. Keep walking. Take stock. What has been gained? What has been lost? Why was I smiling? Why was I crying? Would I never get to scream “Dinner’s ready!” up the stairs? Tell impulsive little hands that “We’re not made of money, love”? I was already such a fractured creature: too American to be English, too English to be American, too femme to be legit, too dutiful to be rebellious, too irreverent to blend, too bright to be silenced, too foolish to be amplified. I was just bits: shards of a promising figure that shattered in the kiln. A sidewalk sale stopped me. It was all there, spread out on a blanket in front of a townhouse.
“All the good stuff’s gone, I’m afraid.”
What remained was a perfect paperback, queer literary canon: Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, May Swenson, Dorothy Allison, Jane Rule. . . . Someone, in some way, must have died. And I, the stranger in the frame, was told by a man to take whatever I wanted.
“But I want it all.”
He wrapped up the books in the blanket, and I set off back to my apartment, holding my secret wisdom like a newborn. I should tell you of a night of enchantment next: candles, incense, city air on a fire escape at night, a little weed, a magical awakening of self-awareness borne of inspirational women writers. But that’s not what happened. I crawled into bed—hollow, howling. I seized The Home Doctor and looked up S for suicide. It said “(see INSANITY).”
. . .
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