(What’s Past is) Prologue

Deep in the trenches of my external hard drive I found my college essay. It’s from 1997. I only wrote one. I’m somewhat embarrassed (and saddened) of what a depressed, smug little thesaurus-using brat I was. Well, regardless, here it is, unedited, in its entirely. For the record: I got into every school I applied to with this sucker. And Elizabeth is still my best friend.

Depending on what kind of judge you are, I am either guilty of petty theft or grand larceny.

For years now, I have been stealing tattered volumes of life’s most revered secrets. I suppose I can blame it on The Bell Jar, which I managed to trip over the moment I emerged incredulously undaunted from eighth grade. Somehow, somewhere in the creased yellow pages of the musty book, something grabbed me. It was as if Sylvia had reached a hand out from the within the cracked binding to shake me from a thirteen year trance. And now, how many nights have I spent crouched in front of the towering shelves in my den, scouring row after row for another fallen work of art? And the chase is more rewarding than the catch. Hunting down retired copies of Vonnegut would give way to a mad search for the special edition of Breakfast of Champions, which in turn would lead to a hot pursuit of Timequake. It was more addicting than nicotine, more exciting than a sugar rush!

Theft is in my blood. When my brother crawled into his teens, he developed the habit of borrowing my father’s musty albums and surrendering them to the depths of his room. When he lost the White Album, he knew he was done for. The screaming that night could only be compared to the time he taped over an old Eric Clapton bootleg. Yet, for some strange reason, the untimely disappearance of The Complete John Donne went unnoticed. Tracing a finger over all the beautiful volumes that lined the shelves in my den, I wonder which of these presumably cherished copies have ever been read twice. Not many of the books look particularly beaten up, which bothers me. It always appeared to me that the battered book is always good to its reader. How had my parents let time alone yellow the pages?

So I began to reread, rethink, rework my mind. Books dined with me, walked with me and accompanied me in the bath tub. For months I preferred the comfort of Kate Chopin to the dull noise of a party, the colors of Maya Angelou to the stale cheers of a football game. High school seemed to fade away, become a sub-plot in my life. Everything is easier to swallow when it is handed to you as a quick digression from what truly matters. Did they honestly believe I wouldn’t see them, huddled deep within the crowds? When a sudden jolt of isolation scorched me, I would simply clench 1984 to myself and grudgingly think, “Well, they will never know what will happen to Winston and Julia, will they?” It was my secret; I didn’t want them to know any more that they were not interested. And everything remained calm until the epiphany near the end of act two.

The friday after Thanksgiving has been unforgivingly bitter outside. I had spent half an hour on a lurching bus with a broken heater, reading my favorite copy of The Stranger as the freshmen discussed the state of our school’s soccer team. The girl across the aisle would catch my eye occasionally; we would smile and look away. Elizabeth was once my best friend, but sophomore year doesn’t acknowledge childhood bonds. I made sure to cross my eyes at her before burying myself in the novel. When I finally escaped the frigid stupor of the bus, I gathered my belongings and darted into the warm solace of my house. Emptying the contents of my bag onto my kitchen table, I shuffled through the mess, searching for Camus. Five frantic minutes later I realized it was gone. A somber pain creeped softly around my stomache, and I tried to be rational. Books can always be bought, but I have always known the torn, dog eared pages to be more soothing. I know what happens to Meursalt. I know he is put on trial, I know he is found guilty. I have read the book enough times to know each thought that goes through the convict’s fragile head. But I wanted it back. No one deserved to share that knowledge, no one on the bus would appreciate the smooth words of Camus. And then the unanticipated plot twist.

The fool was at my doorway two days later, bearing L’Etranger. I looked at my book through the dirty storm door, and noticed that pieces of paper had been stuck in various pages. She opened the door herself.

“Meursalt’s whole attitude was flawed.”

“What?”

“I said, Meursalt’s whole attitude was flawed. He sent himself to prison on his own and couldn’t even understand how he got there. And instead of trying to get out, he sat there staring at the sky all day.”

I nodded my head in complete diagreement. She had completely midread Camus’ intent as an existentialist. And I loved her for this. She continued, deliberately placing her words in stagnant, hanging arrangements. The words felt heavy, like the sullen blue coldness that pressed up against the storm door. I heard every once of it, but would not be able to repeat it today. I know her ideas were misleading, her impression erroneous. It wasn’t her misinterpretation of the story that I enjoyed, it was the sheer tenacity she mustered, bluntly haranguing in the doorway, stumbling over words and reciting passages she had circled. Three hours later my mother found us sprawled over the couch, giggling like we were children once again. She has never seen L’Etranger as I see it. I have never seen The Stranger as she sees it. But, ah, that she sees it at all…

My archaic computer rests perpendicular to my parents’ pathetic looking bookcases. The shelves are drooping, the wood parched and cracked with age. Once lined with books, they look naked under the pale light of the morning. But there are still more to sort through, more to slip under my coat, more to coax upon my skeptically willing friends. Sylvia would approve.

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