I started reading “grown-up” books when I was around ten years old. A small bookcase sat in the hallway at my friend’s house, and the glossy hardbacks crammed on its shelves called to me. I’d already worked my way through the Sweet Valley Highs and Nancy Drews and the sad stories of young girls losing their fathers to Alzheimer’s. These books — all horror books — seemed different. They were thick with text, and they promised secrets. And nightmares.
One title especially jumped out at me: Night Shift. “Excursions Into Horror,” the caption read under the author’s name. A large, gauze-wrapped hand sprouting eyeballs along its finger lines filled the entire front cover. I pulled the book out, holding my breath like it was something illicit: a gun or a knife, a rabid animal.
“Those are for adults,” my friend informed me, bored. I nodded, flipping through the pages.
Playing with anything that belonged to grown-ups risky. Even for me, the kid whose Mom smoked pot and whose first movie in a movie theater was Heavy Metal. My mom may have taken me to see the R-rated cartoon full of rotting skeletons and giant breasts, but I still knew Not To Touch Her Things.
My relationship with my mother wasn’t a conventional one. Like, at six, I asked her what fuck meant, and she replied after the shortest of pauses: “intercourse,” which of course made me laugh, because why would anyone say that to anyone else? How absurd. Thus began the recurring bouts of telling everyone around me to “intercourse off.”
Or when I was four and awoke before dawn on Easter morning to find the Easter bunny hadn’t left me any candy or chocolate bunnies or sugar-coated marshmallows molded into the shape of little yellow chicks. I wandered through the shadowy house until I found my mother asleep in the living room. Her arms and legs hung off the sides of the couch. A raspy breath escaped her lungs in a rhythm similar to an irregular heartbeat. I pushed her hair around her face and nudged her cheek until she came to, sniffling the whole time about how the bunny had forgotten me.
“Listen, kiddo,” she said, trying to hold her head up, looking like our frumpy brown couch might swallow her whole, “Easter and Christmas? Not real, and not really about gifts at all. Actually, those are religious celebrations revolving around a well-spoken man who was loved by a lot of people. He ended up being “crucified,” which means he was tied to a cross to starve and then left for dead. The people who believed in what he had to say think he was the son of God and his life was sacrificed to save all the sinners.”
She smirked and sank even deeper into the depths of faded tan pleather. “Before the Jesus believers came and converted everyone, the pagans celebrated other gods, by reveling in the coming of spring and then harvest. That’s where the eggs and wicker come from. One religion erased for another. Got it? It’s all made up.”
“So…” I stopped. Visions of crosses on a hillside where bloody bodies swung danced inside my head. Men slaughtered other men in a field below, where colorful eggs dotted the green grass and a giant Peter Cottontail gathered them up and placed them in candy-filled wicker baskets to deliver to deserving children everywhere. Sinners cried in a cemetery, eating yellow Peeps, waiting for a dead man to crawl from his grave.
“So… you’re the Easter Bunny?” I asked.
“You’re damn right,” she agreed, “Now let me sleep.”
The moment I saw Night Shift, I knew I had to read it. There was stuff in there. Stuff I simply had to know. After a few days of longing glances at the bookcase, I finally brought the book upstairs to my friend’s mother.
“May I please borrow this?” I asked. My friend trailed behind me, annoyed. We’d been playing Barbies before, and she’d been winning. Her mother looked down at me, and the book in my hand.
“Well, well. Stephen King, eh?” She wiped her slim fingers along the hem of her dark wash denim and squatted on the tips of her purple-painted toes to talk more directly to me. “Reading that could be quite an undertaking.”
“Oh, I love to read; I read all the time.” I took the opportunity of her proximity to breathe in all the wonderful smells that were my friend’s mom: Pine, Sandalwood, minty toothpaste. Her soft, earthy features dazzled me.
I handed the book to her, and she turned it over several times. “You might be too young for this. It could be scary. It could be over your head.”
“Did you like it when you read it?” I asked.
“Yes. It’s a great read. One of my favorite authors.” She leaned closer to me, looking into my eyes, making some kind of judgment call. “I want you to ask your mom. If she says you can read it, you can read it. See if you like the style, and then we’ll talk more.” She handed the book back to me.
“Thank you very much, Mrs. Fischer. I appreciate it.” I held my prize close to my chest.
“Can I read the book, momma?” My friend asked, suddenly interested.
“Absolutely not,” her mom responded.
I could feel my friend shooting eye daggers into my back as we headed back downstairs. She was starting to get sick of me. It didn’t help that her parents kept holding me up as an example for her.
The first time I had dinner with them, her father watched me cut my steak, knife in left hand, fork in the right (I’m left-handed) and nodded approval. I asked him to please pass the salt, and he did so, commenting, “Now Heidi, look at how well-mannered your friend is. That’s how you get invited back to places.” Later, I said thank you for the wonderful meal, and her mom beamed at me. “So polite! Heidi, take notes! You need to be more like Amy.”
I knew it was traitorous to enjoy it so much. Saying please and thank you didn’t warrant such adoration, especially at my friend’s expense. But at home, nothing I did was wonderful, and I was often considered the root of all problems.
I told my mom that the people next door thought I was a bright, well-mannered, upstanding citizen of the world, and she frowned. One of her silver Korat cats sat curled on her lap; a single green eye fixed on me with contempt.
“Well, that’s great, Amy.” She exhaled a long plume of marijuana smoke in my direction. “I’m glad you have the people out there fooled. So you can manage to treat people with some decency? Because in here, I’d say your actions are questionable.”
Sometimes my mom would be relieved The World saw me in a good light, other times she took it as a threat. That time it was a threat.
But she let me borrow Night Shift. Because books mattered. Maybe more than anything. The fact that I read voraciously was probably my one redeemable quality. Even when I was grounded, which was all the time, I was still allowed to go to the library.
On library day, all of us — including my step-dad — spent hours browsing and selecting, and often exited the fanciest building in Lafayette (for the library was also the town hall) in good moods for once; our arms each piled high with the maximum allowed books: fourteen. And every two weeks we’d trade our fourteen in for fourteen more. The very best day to ask anything of my mother was library day. Any other day was a gamble.
The night I borrowed Night Shift, I climbed into bed, book in hand, filled with anticipation. I lingered on the front cover, on the back abstract. I opened the pages carefully, relishing the moment. Whatever mysteries grown-ups were hiding in their adult books — stuff they cared about, talked about — I’d soon be privy to. The stuff too bloody and horrific for most kids. Most kids, but not me. I read the first page and…
…didn’t put the book down until way past midnight.
When I got home from school the next day, instead of heading over to Heidi’s to play with her Barbies, or cuddle with her dog, or hopefully eat some of her snacks, I went straight to my room to finish reading. At the end, I held it to my chest and stared at the ceiling.
I felt the world had expanded somehow; and I, imperceptibly changed. It was exactly like what I would experience a year and a half later, after my first cigarette: not quite like how people had described it, but boy I couldn’t wait to try another one.
Later that evening I walked over to Heidi’s to see if she wanted to play, but more importantly, to see if her mom would loan me another book. Heidi cracked the door open, eyeing Night Shift and not moving to let me in.
“This?” I shrugged, holding the book out like a peace offering. “I’m just returning it. Wanna play?”
“I guess,” she mumbled. Then she perked up. “Actually, yeah. Let’s practice!”
We went to her room to listen to the Bon Jovi tape, Slippery When Wet. Heidi, Sabrina, and I were making the ultimate dance routine to the song, “Livin’ on a Prayer.” We had plans to audition for a new show called, Putting On The Kids, featuring variety acts performed by children.
Heidi pressed play on her boom box, and we jumped and twirled, pushing our palms together and bowing our heads every time the word ‘prayer’ was sung. I liked it better when only Heidi and I practiced, because it was clear even then that I suffered rhythm issues, and my sorry efforts at dancing made Sabrina mad. She’d make me do the 360 spin over and over, demanding I do it right, even though I felt sure I was making a full rotation. I was scared she was gonna eventually force me out of the group.
We worked our routine several times, until we were out of breath, and collapsed on her bed, laughing. I thought about which Stephen King book I’d borrow next, while Heidi broke down for me why Bon Jovi was so cute.
“Do you believe in God?” she asked out of nowhere.
I hesitated. Most people were Christian and had strong feelings about it, and I already hung by a thread regarding Heidi’s friendship.
“Yes,” I lied.
“I don’t.” she twirled a swatch of her perfectly straight hair into a tight curl and pushed herself up and off the bed. That look was there again, the one I’d been seeing here and there for days, now. Disdain, boredom. “Are you getting boobs yet? I am. Wanna see my training bra?”
“Yes,” I said. This time not lying.
I stood up, and we solemnly faced each other. She counted 3, 2, 1, then flashed me. A tiny cotton bra covered what looked like would someday be very abundant breasts.
I made sure to think the word breasts, and not boobs, because once my mother was naked in the bath, shaving her legs. I’d sat on the toilet and peppered her with questions. Why do women shave their legs? Do men shave their legs? What happens if you don’t use shaving cream? Will you shave your armpits? What if you slip and cut your boob?
At the word boob, mom slammed the razor down with a splash in the water. “Don’t you ever, ever call breasts boobs,” she said, her face frightening in its intensity. It was like I had just spat venom at her. “You better call things what they are. Breasts. Penis. Vagina. No sloppy slang. No goddamn euphemisms.”
She shook her head and waved me away. No more nice mom. “You’re smart,” she yelled as I closed the bathroom door. “You better fucking act like it when you speak to people.”
So I never said boobs or dick, much to the chagrin of my peers; I never even thought the words, just in case my mom could read my mind.
Heidi put her breasts back in her shirt, waiting for me to say something.
“Neat,” I said. My own foray into the world of training bras had been disastrous: since there was not much for it to hold, it bunched up under my turtleneck and made all the boys in my Junior Scholastic Book Club at school laugh.
“Very pretty,” I added, for effect.
Heidi waved my words away, much like my mother in the tub. “My mom’s upstairs,” she said, turning her back to me. She pointedly focused on a new tape her father had just bought for her: Beastie Boys: Licensed to Ill. I was dismissed.
I found Mrs. Fischer upstairs and traded in Night Shift for Salem’s Lot. I took it home without saying goodbye to Heidi.
I quickly read through all of Mrs. Fischer’s books and wanted more. I began to browse on the other side of the library, the Adult Section. I’d bring up my pile of thick hardcovers and feel a certain amount of pride when the librarian read the titles — The Eyes of the Dragon, The Hellbound Heart, Interview with the Vampire, The Handmaid’s Tale, Thinner — then look at me, surprised.
The first time I crossed sides, a librarian called my Mom over when I approached the counter, pointing down at my selection, waiting for an adverse reaction. Instead, Mom raised her chin. “My daughter has permission to read whatever the hell she wants from this library, understand?” She winked at me.
I sat my stack down on the counter quietly, with dignity. I hoped I came off as worldly and intellectual. The librarian frowned the whole time as she stamped each book with the due by date. “Do you want a bag, honey?” she asked, her mouth a thin line, watching me as I struggled to wrap my arms around my bounty. “No thank you, ma’am,” I said, using my chin to stop the books from toppling over.
My mom was extra animated that day, the day she gave me the keys to the library. She smiled the whole way home. I basked in her love and approval, not knowing when I’d have her good graces again.
“That lady can intercourse off, am I right?” I said. My mom dissolved into giggles.
“Damn right,” she agreed, smoke from her joint billowing out of her nostrils in two thick plumes.
(a much earlier version of this essay won the 2017 Sunlight Press Summer Non-Fiction Award)