I once heard a poem about a middle school librarian who, in big block letters, wrote on the wooden shelves of the LGBT section: Steal This Book If You Need To.
When I think of this poem I think of my baby sister Renee, who slept on books. She filled her crib with picture books the way other kids do with stuffed animals and she curled her chubby baby limbs around them. And I think, What books would I have stolen, had I been there, had I known I needed them?
Renee once wrote me a letter. She said when she was little, I was the one who comforted her. I picked her up off the couch, put her in my lap, and sang her the song about Flagstaff Mountain.
I don’t know any songs about Flagstaff Mountain. I don’t have the letter. But I found a paragraph about it in my high school journal, and I trust my handwriting on my wide-ruled journal pages and what it says about me.
I can’t find that poem in print, either. All I have is second-hand proof of what once was written, spoken, sung, which might be why I’m writing it now. Because to speak your truth is to make it real, but only fleetingly so. It is to make a sound wave, but only one among the many that bear the timbre and the tone of your voice, and it is to hope that there is someone who hears it, remembers it, writes it down, gives it back when you need it most.
To write your truth is something else completely. It is to make it solid, real, finite. If a word in a breath is a wave, then a word on a page is a particle, and with enough particles you have a mass, a piece of paper, a thing you can hold in your hand. You can sleep on it, or under it. You have a book you can read. You have a book you can steal, and you might need to, because this book might tell your story back to you in the night when you’re trying to forget it yourself.
If you are careful you can slip this book under your bedcovers without ever explaining to well-meaning adults why you want a book with gay implications. If you are desperate, if your mom likes to come in without knocking, you can rip it back into its elementary particles and eat it down letter by letter in the moonlight. Or if you are really afraid, you can never bring that book home at all.
If you are really afraid, you will never write your truth. Because you know that once you write it you can’t unwrite it. Once you see it you, can’t unsee it. And even if you rip that page out and swallow it whole, the ink will stick in your throat and your mom will take your temperature, and it’ll stain the thermometer, and she’ll know. So you only think it, sometimes, when you’re feeling reckless – just to keep an eye on it, just so you know where it is. And then you consciously forget it again.
I never knew that librarian, and my middle school library had no LGBT section at all. But I went to the public library three times a week, and my mother showed me how to fix the broken books. I chose the rattiest ones, the ones that sat dog-eared and decrepit on their shelves, and with tape and glue and erasers I fixed them and loved them, I lost myself in them.
And I ripped them. I tore their pages, cracked their bindings, marked them dark in pencil. And then I fixed them up, dropped them down the return chute, and no one had to know.
I was nine when Renee was born, and I thought she was magic. Evenings, I sat in the rocking chair, golden wood smoothed through generations to a mellow sheen, and my mother laid her warm weight gently in my lap. We sang her lullabies, and we whispered quiet stories, and then there was quiet: just the creak of the chair and the heat through the floor vents. We made a smooth space among the books and we tucked her in tightly, and I don’t think the ritual was for her at all.
Then I was in middle school, Renee a dark-eyed toddler, and my parents started to fight. Those evenings I left my books and my tape and glue and found her in her room. I put her in bed, read her books, sang her lullabies, fixed her up.
I didn’t rip those books to destroy them. I ripped them so that I could fix them, because there are a lot of things that need fixing if you’re 13 and gay, and in comparison the gasp of paper fibers separating and the slick smooth tape rubbed over with a thumb seemed like something I could handle.
And I ripped them because I was a lucky kid and I knew it, two parents and a house and money for piano lessons, and I wasn’t ungrateful. The pages yielded quietly, they hid behind their covers, and they slid anonymously down the return chute. I walked back to my mother’s car idling at the curb and slammed the door shut and no one had to know.
I found what I wrote about Renee’s letter in a journal at twenty-four, when I was trying to go back and fill in what I remembered with the things I wrote, trying to mediate a peace between the selves I have been. It felt like a gift: proof, that I was confused, but I loved my sister. Proof, that there was a time, long ago, when these things did not come so hard to me, and there might be a time again.
That’s the thing about written words. They tell you your own story back to you in the night when you’re trying to forget it yourself, but someone has to write them first. And you have to actually read them.
Which is why, even if my middle school had an LGBT section, and even if that librarian had been my librarian, I wouldn’t have stolen the books. I would not have let myself know that I needed them.
Vivian Underhill is a writer from Boulder, Colorado. By day, she works as a hydrologist, sampling stream water for trace metal contamination. By night, she writes all sorts of things. Her work has been published in LIP Poetry Magazine, New West Magazine, The Colorado Daily, Flatirons Literary Review, and BitchMagazine.org.