The start of the school year never indicated a big shift in my life. The hot bright summer sun still shone into my eyes as I walked from class to class, the sea surrounding my Branford house still rippled and lapped when I came home, and the cicadas still sang their shrill tune outside my window when I worked quietly at my desk. And of course, I still lost myself in a book up until the moment I fell asleep. It was the perfect way to unwind after a long day, and it kept my mind working.
As the leaves slowly lost their lively green and displayed a brilliant array of reds and yellows and oranges, my summertime self delved deeper into the busy, bumbling world of homework and clubs and commitments. The callus on my ring finger grew more and more pronounced as I scribbled away, pressing my pencil into the paper to make quick, dark marks defining physics, calculus, English. It was still that wonderful time of limbo in the school year, the calm before the inevitable storm, where it was all about taking in the material and not at all about spitting it back out. It was a serene, harmonic time, where everything seemed to be in balance. After classes, I’d go to sports, which is never something time-consuming in the fall - the real sports come in winter and spring. And I would pedal away on the stationary bike, or cycle my legs on an elliptical, and then I’d maybe spend some time with my friends, and we’d share coffee and stories and laughter. Then, I’d return home, to the sun, the sea, and the cicadas; those summery things that didn’t want to leave. I’d still read, of course. Not as much or as often, what with the increasing workload, but I’d still do it. It was a relaxing way to end a day; immersing myself in a character’s wild adventure or deep self-contemplation. If I liked a book, it wouldn’t take a long time before the reality around me melted away and all that existed were the words on the page. They became more than words - more than dried ink on rough paper. They kept my imagination alive as I pictured scenarios in my head, like a personal theater production for which I was the sole audience. Then, I’d drift to sleep.
My personal commitments grew each day. My school bag pulled my shoulders back because of its weight, and I leaned forward to compensate. My mother would scold me for my posture, and insist that I stand up straight and display confidence. I had the confidence, but I had more important things to worry about than my posture. My classes grew in difficulty, and I had to spend more time studying in order to keep my grades high. Basketball season started, and our practices ran for two hours on weekdays and we’d go to distant away games on the weekends which would span an entire day. I practiced and practiced to be a valuable asset to my team, and I felt that pang of disappointment after our losses when our efforts proved to be in vain. I wrote articles and made posters for club meetings, writing and drawing with an enthusiasm that I tricked myself into thinking was there. My friends and I had different classes, sports, and clubs, and we were all busy people that no longer had enough time for anything more than a quick ‘hey’ when we passed each other on campus. I returned home still to the sea, but the sun and cicadas had left. The water was different too, somehow. The waves crashed on the shore with a sharp finality instead of falling into each other gently. I could hear them clearly as I worked long nights at my computer, studying away. When it was time for sleep, it was probably too late to do anything but actually sleep, but the reading was a habit I couldn’t break. Even if my eyelids grew heavier by the second and my muscles ached for rest, I needed the words more than ever. My routine reality bored me and stressed me, but the words would break free from the page and surround me, shielding me from the outside world. I lived in the story. Whether I was the impersonal narrator, the main character, or an unnamed doorman, I could live in an augmented reality of my choice. I spent time with the man who hid his aging and crimes in a painting, and a woman who ran a railroad with the man who made the steel, and the man who traveled the expanse of time. They lived real, full lives in the words that defined their reality, and by reading those words, I set the stage for their stories to come alive.
I walked into my first period test in that foggy haze of sleep deprivation. I wasn't prepared enough. My stomach turned and my head throbbed with anxiety. I couldn’t stop tapping my fingers on the desk. When the period was over, I had left one of the questions blank for lack of time. I felt sick to my stomach - an overreaction to what had transpired. During our game that afternoon, I couldn’t compartmentalize my emotions as I normally could. The nerves stayed sharp in every corner of my memory, poking and prodding me so I could never be comfortable. I made stupid mistakes and lost us too many points. My coach screamed at me and I saw the contemptuous disappointment in everyone’s faces. On the ride home, I sat alone, with my earbuds blasting music, trying to drown out the anxiety that I couldn’t seem to shake. It was gripping - it encompassed me like the stories in my books, surrounding me completely and sealing off the real world. I had reverted back to my fight-or-flight instincts; my heart was pumping fast, my fingers tingled, and all I wanted to do was run, far, far away. It was almost a self-propagating reaction, started off by the events of the day, but now, it had snowballed to an irrational degree, and I couldn’t breathe. I needed my escape.
I returned home, completed my work, and grabbed my book. My mind wanted for the story. I started from where I had left off. As I settled into the rhythm of the book, my panic began to subside. The words arched and danced elegantly and soothed me. The curls and angles of the letters stretched themselves out and reformed into a visual image that I could clearly understand. I read voraciously and mercilessly, tearing through page after page in my quest for peace. I exchanged the stress of a panic attack for the adrenaline rush of a chasing a criminal through the streets of 1895 London. I could sense my feet slapping the pavement and the night wind blowing my hair wildly behind me. I could feel the numb ambition; all I wanted to do run fast enough to capture the man, to win, and I had no awareness of how long I had been running or how tired I felt. It was not relaxing - on the contrary, it was thrilling, invigorating, satisfying. That feeling was my escape, another version of life, without the dull routines and incessant repetition. I had not panicked because of the test or the game. I had been tied down in the cycle of my life, unable to grasp surprise or excitement. I found that in literature, and it gripped me like a drug. When one cannot actually break out of a prison on a secluded island, one can read about it and feel the suspense and danger. Of course, it’s not healthy to mentally reside in stories and imagination as real life progresses around you, but the power of words on the mind is terrifyingly potent because it’s rarely possible to live life in a fulfilling way all the time. Everyone falls into a routine at one point or another - life tends toward the familiar. That is precisely why the sweet, piercing words and extravagant realities of fiction are so effective. They pull us away and allow us to shed our personas, if just for a moment, to see life as lived by anyone we choose.
Now, as the tail end of a summer a year later is just finishing up, and the cicadas are sharp in my ears and the sun is illuminating the sky, I no longer rely on my escape from reality. I just let the words tell their stories.