the summmer before i turned thirteen and was about to make the the "big move" from pennsylvania to massachusetts, i was staying at my grandmother's house near philadelphia with my brother and sister, and my two cousins. my boy cousin and brother played video games and baseball, while my sister and girl cousin spent the summer secretively mothering their dolls and slamming doors in my face. the middle child, me, who desired nothing more than to play baseball like mike schmidt when she grew up, but couldn't run down the boys to play with her, was on her own.
the room i stayed in had rotated ownership, my mother and uncles having left little pieces of their respective adolescences in it after leaving- the model airplane belonging to uncle mac, the peeled-off wallpaper from uncle bob, and the stack of dusty books on top of the bureau, that once were my mother's.
i read a book called 'beautiful joe,' the true story of an abused dog that left me in mourning for days, then began the line of nancy drew mysteries. and guess what? that pesky girl solved all the mysteries with her crafty wit, which became tiresome quickly. but i could not stop reading them, because they were my only entertainment, and the only other book that was there had the front cover torn off, along with the last 50-100 pages. i lingered over the final few lines of the last nancy drew book in the line, willing it not to end, but it did, the forbidden key or the torn map having put all doubt to rest. nancy drew was the perfect sleuth. and i was officially bored.
after trying to help my grandmother with the new york times crosswords that she did every day, and just messing them up, i went outside and exposed my pasty skin to sunlight, neglecting the sunscreen. as i lay in bed that evening, trying to sleep on my burning arms and legs, i turned on the light in frustration. i was about to pick up beautiful joe and sink into tears again, when i paused over the mysterious book with the torn-off cover. i thought, "what would nancy drew do?" you bet that girl would have her nose in it, and find a treasure map inside that would lead to a treasure, enough to buy a mansion with a baseball diamond in the back and a big chain link fence that my siblings and cousins couldn't crawl over, but could see through- because i would be playing catch with mike schmidt inside, and we would laugh at their looks of jealousy, and he would tell me i had a good arm, that i was the only girl he'd ever seen who could throw all the way across the diamond just like he did.
i fanned through the book, and no map fell out. i was crushed. i sat back on the bed and looked at the title page- "peyton place," by grace metalious. it looked boring. the first chapter was slow. my arms hurt. the second chapter was a little better, so i kept going. soon i met alison mackenzie, an awkward thirteen-year-old girl who always had a nose in her book, and didn't have any friends that understood her. i fell asleep, comforted, while reading a rape scene that i didn't understand. there were lots of things i didn't understand in 'peyton place,' but i was a naive thirteen- just like alison, who had grown to be my only true friend.
being close to 400 pages long, it took me much of the summer to finish the 200-some pages that existed in the copy i was reading. i still remember the sentence fragment that ended it all-"Restless and frustrated, Selena-" well, apparently, Selena did something. and it was big.
i brought the book downstairs to my grandmother and asked her how it ended.
"you're too young to be reading that," was her answer.
"too late," i thought in my head. i then asked my mother, the apparent owner of the book.
"huh," she said, taking the book in her hands, "i wonder how it got like that? um...," she thought for a moment, "someone dies. and there's something with her father..."
"well her father, duh, he's dead already," i replied, unsatisfied.
"well, they made a movie of it," she said, "and a soap opera. it all gets comfusing."
mom didn't want to buy me a new copy of the book, as it was, in actuality, a little old for me. she picked up the first few books in the babysitter's club series, though, which i started reading grudgingly, noting that alison wouldn't give a crap about kristy's big idea. but slowly i was pulled in by the other-worldly perfectness of this suburbia, which was in such sharp contrast to the gritty peyton place.
and i was thirteen, and now reading age-appropriate subject matter. everyone was happy. and the wondering what happened in peyton place slowly faded, as i became accustomed to new england, and went to high school, and college. but what became stronger and stronger, the only thing, in fact, that i knew to be absolutely true, was that i was going to be a writer. in fact, i found it diffficult to remember when or if i'd even consciously decided to become a writer.
last week, half a novel under my belt, having nailed myself down to a day job and struggling to find time to write, i was browsing in the used book store of my new england town and came across a new edition of 'peyton place.' my heart jumped into my throat. someone had written a foreword titled, "open secrets: re-reading peyton place." i rifled past it and read the familiar opening paragraphs with a new understanding- they were about indian summer in new england. and they were beautiful.
i tried not to run to the cash register, and ended up power-walking there, paying for it, and then running to the haymarket, where i sat downstairs and met alison again, for the first time.
i'd like to tell you i finished it already, and have taken up my novel again with renewed vigor. but i find myself poring over it, slowly, seeing pieces of every thing i've ever written in the 'space between the words,' to borrow and mutate a phrase from miles davis.
i'd like to tell you i "can't wait" to finish, because i know that once i do, i will be able to finish my own novel, having brought everything in my writing life full circle. but i can't. i love being in the midst of all of this hope, the moment of opening the book, waiting for the treasure map to fall to the ground, envisioning the big house with the baseball diamond, and laughing with mike schmidt.