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, 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 onto physics, calculus, or English homework. It was still that wonderful time of limbo, the calm before the inevitable school year storm, when it was all about taking in the material and not yet about spitting it back out.
After classes, I’d go pedal away on my bike and then maybe spend time with friends, sharing coffee and laughter. Then, I’d return home – to the sun, the sea, and the cicadas. 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 be long before the reality around me melted away and all that existed were the words on the page. They kept my imagination alive as I pictured the story in my head – a personal theater production for which I was the sole audience. Then, I’d drift to sleep.
My commitments grew each day. My school bag pulled my shoulders back because of its weight. My classes grew in difficulty, and I had to spend more time studying to keep my grades high. Basketball season started: practice two hours a day and travel games on weekends. I practiced and practiced to be a valuable asset to my team. I wrote articles and made posters for clubs I had joined. My friends and I no longer had time for anything more than a quick “hey” when we passed on campus.
I still returned home to the sea, but the sun and cicadas were gone. The water was different too. 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. When I was finally done, it was too late for anything but sleep, but 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 daily routine bored me and stressed me, but the words would break free from the page and surround me, shielding me from the outside world.
I walked into my first period test in that foggy haze of sleep deprivation. I wasn’t prepared. My stomach turned and my head throbbed with anxiety. When the bell rang all too soon, I had to leave 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 many points. My coach screamed at me, and I saw the disappointment in my teammates’ faces.
On the ride home, I sat alone, with my earbuds blasting, trying to drown out the anxiety. It was gripping, encompassing me like the stories in my books, surrounding me 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 I wanted to run away. My stress 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. As I settled into the rhythm of the story, 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 transformed into a visual image that I could clearly understand.
I read voraciously, tearing through page after page in my quest for peace. I exchanged the stress of a panic attack for the adrenaline rush of chasing a criminal through the streets of 1895 London. I could feel my feet slapping the pavement and the night wind blowing my hair wildly behind me. 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 only, but books can provide the fulfillment that life can’t always offer. 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, when summer is finishing up, the cicadas are sharp in my ears, and the sun is illuminating the sky, I let the words tell their stories.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.