My favorite reading experience, where the book I was reading matched the circumstances around me perfectly, used to be easy to pick out. I often used to take the train from the Chicago suburbs to Champaign-Urbana, when I bounced back and forth between my parents’ house and college. This particular trip I took was in the evening in the middle of a cold, clear winter. While the train was usually full enough that I was obliged to make small talk with a seatmate, this time it was almost completely empty and silent. Every other time I sat under fluorescent lights with dull grey metal all around me. This time I found myself in a refurbished Pullman car. Red velvet lined the seats, with a fringed gold trim edging the armrest. A sumptuous carpet rested under my feet. The lights had a soft glow emanating from ornate sconces. I burrowed myself into my seat, cushioned and alone, and picked up where I had left off reading The Shining for the very first time. The opulence matched The Overlook Hotel, and as I glanced out the window at an endless stretching snowy winter, seeing a single farmhouse light in the distance echoed my own isolation and that of the Torrences. For nearly twenty years that has been my favorite.
I may have a new contender. I have been sick with a really horrible protracted cold, and my boys are now sick with the same excruciatingly slow virus. My husband is traveling for work, and the boys have now missed three days of school. Last night my oldest wanted to sleep on the couch, so when he went to bed I tiptoed to my room and grabbed a book since I was not going to be able to fall asleep at 8:30. I had bought Room by Emma Donoghue more than a year ago and hadn’t touched it since. I’m not sure if I was worried that my heart wouldn’t be able to take it, but for some reason it nearly jumped off the shelf at me this time.
We are told the story through the perspective of a five-year-old boy named Jack. He and his mother are held captive in a small room by the man who kidnapped his mother years ago. The book opens on his fifth birthday and describes how they manage to make a life for themselves in “Room”, a place Jack has never left. It opens on the day of the spring equinox. I began to feel eerie, as yesterday was the spring equinox as well. Jack describes what TV shows he likes to watch, and because this is set in contemporary times, they are all shows my children watched too. Backyardigans, Wonder Pets, Dora the Explorer. The way his mother helps structure their days reminded me so much of what it was like when the boys were small, when one day can bleed into the next if it is just you together in the house, seeing no one else, going nowhere else. A state I am in right now. It is just us, quarantined away from the world, only using the resources we have on hand, and with each other as our sole company. It is both intimate and confining all at once.
Jack counts his teeth with his tongue when he is trying to distract himself. Each time he does I do the same and am reminded that a crown popped off one of my teeth earlier in the day. As I think about when I’ll be able to get that fixed Ma takes a ‘killer’ (painkiller) because her bad tooth is aching very badly. She is also waiting to get her tooth fixed, though for her it may never happen.
I read more than half the book in that one sitting, entranced, both seeing myself and the day I just had and the day I was about to have stretched before me, and seeing how much more I had that they didn’t. A window. A telephone. Food in the cupboards. The ability to open the door and feel fresh air on my face. Things I would never have stopped to appreciate that I still have even if I don’t have the Outside right now.
I’m not capturing how odd it felt, how odd it feels when your reality and fiction blends so perfectly together that you cannot extract one from the other. It isn’t something you can plan, though luckily sometimes it comes together. I read a scene from The Signature of All Things where the protagonist laments how useless paper is on a tropical island exactly one day before discovering all our paper was a humid mess in Puerto Rico. We read Harry Potter for the first time through the 2016 election and the coincidences were spooky (though that is an essay for another time). I guess I’ll tell this story better after twenty years than I do now, but I wanted to say…
Books are magic in a totally unpredictable and unusual way. And in the middle of a boring household cold, I got to experience that again.