The library wouldn’t tell on me, so that’s where I went whenever I needed a break from my bully. I say mine because she operated as a boutique bully, exclusively intimidating and denigrating me, and always in private without any witness as day after day, I handed over my self-esteem.
Her name was Nadine.
No one suspected anything amiss between my bully and me as we walked to school and ate lunch together every day. Like many abusive relationships, ours began as a seemingly healthy one, meeting in the fifth grade and quickly declaring ourselves best friends. When you’re eleven, friendship feels easy and all it took for ours to thrive was a shared love of Oreos and a pack of cards for endless games of Spit. But after that first year, our compatibility grew increasingly strained and by the start of seventh grade, Nadine had morphed into a mean girl. And knowing me so well, she knew precisely how to work her mean girl wiles on me.
Every morning, before setting out for school, Nadine commanded me to open my coat for her daily inspection of my outfit. These critiques took place regardless of the weather, even on freezing winter mornings and her opinion would set my self-esteem for the day. Gazing at my matching vest and hot pants she’d exclaim, Oh, you look so cute in that! And I’d revel in the boon of her benevolence. But the next morning, the air would thrum with inexplicable hostility and when I opened my coat, Nadine would stare stonily at me, declaring in an icy voice, Your thighs look big in that skirt, ensuring I spent the entire day squeezing my thighs together as I walked, and thoroughly hating my new skirt.
It was a brilliant tactic. As long as Nadine kept me questioning the friend-to-bully ratio, I remained stuck in exactly the state of anxious, frayed confidence her bullying required.
The situation grew worse. I did her homework, stole my mother’s Parliaments for her to smoke, and at lunch, sat staring at the checkerboard she’d abandoned to gossip with some girls at another table. Everything about me–the way I walked, talked, even how I stood during chorus, invited Nadine’s secret taunting and verbal lashings.
I tried to free myself from her, but my meager attempts to slip from her clutches always sent her flying into a soap-operatic rage. You’re such a bad friend! she’d yell, stomping away from me. And sucker-victim that I was, I’d run after her, begging forgiveness and frantically trying to knit things back together.
I didn’t bring my troubles to my parents. In the three years since they’d divorced and remarried, I’d learned to absorb my pain and grievances silently, as if they were toxic fumes. But then one day, something inside me broke, and I knew I couldn’t continue on in this way. Desperate for an ally and a protector, I turned to the library; and like most secret relationships, ours began with a lie.
Once or twice a week, I’d call Nadine to let her know I was going to be out sick. Then I’d get ready for school and pretend to leave the apartment. “‘Bye, everyone!” I’d shout, as if I was off to Morocco, only to tip-toe back to my room where I’d hide in my closet. When certain that my family had left for school and work, I’d take the stairs down to the lobby and walk up the street to the library.
Our city’s public library was a stately old building with an arched vaulted ceiling and colorful stained-glass skylights. To avoid suspicion, I willed myself into invisibility, avoiding the children’s room where the powdery librarian sidled up to young patrons like a kindly old witch suggesting new books. Conversation with this woman, I knew, could slide swiftly from “Have you read the latest Paul Zindel?” to “And what brings you here, my pretty, on a Wednesday morning?”
So, I stuck to the main room upstairs where gentle, turn-of-the-century ceiling lights barely lit the large space. Slipping between the stacks, my footsteps echoed softly on the floor as I headed down the long aisles away from inquiring eyes.
At the back of the library sunlight filtered through tall windows, and in the dusty light newspapers hung like laundry over long wooden rods slotted into a special stand; among them was Variety, the trade paper for the entertainment industry. As I secretly aspired to be an actress, I couldn’t believe my luck. Here it was…for anyone to read!
Lifting the latest edition of Variety from its slot, I’d settle in at one of the long, polished tables and make a Talmudic study of its pages. I felt giddy decoding the compressed show-biz lingo, a language far more alluring than seventh grade French. I’d read an article or two and then reward myself with the crammed back pages tight with casting calls in tiny print. As my eyes traveled up and down the notices, I was filled with internal helium, expanding my hope of one day finding this line waiting just for me:
12-14yr femme for sitcm, no xperince nec.
All I needed, I thought, was one professional gig that would allow me to quit middle school. A busy work schedule of rehearsals and filming would mean my parents would have to hire a private tutor and then, Oh, well, guess I’ll never see Nadine again! Boohoo!
I don’t know how I got away with it. My school was either very lax or very disorganized. The one time the school office called me at home, I fuzzed my voice into a malingering rasp and claimed to be down with the flu. Truancy, I began to realize, was an art. You had to mix things up just enough to keep the school and parents off the scent.
Revising my strategy, I endured stomach-twisting stretches with Nadine before going back underground. Even so, my report card for seventh grade shows me marked absent for twenty-nine days. I’d skipped nearly an entire month of school.
But life as a bibliosquatter suited me. Here, in my fortress of hushed purpose, I didn’t see myself as a truant but as a researcher, seeking opportunities to audition my way into a happier life. I delighted at having found such a comforting refuge from my bully. The sound of footsteps clicking down the aisles, the squeak of book carts wheeled from shelf to shelf. These became the white noise that quieted my mind, switched off my internal alarm, and slowed my heartbeat down to a soothing page-turning lub-dub.
As for the librarians, I viewed them as the sentinels of my refuge, guarding me against all external pressures. Standing behind the circulation desk with model posture, they wore pilled cardigans with only the top button fastened so that their sweaters spread behind them like shrunken superhero capes. I admired their efficient way with books, how they smoothed each one with a calm hand as if it were a baby in their care. And I loved the satisfying ka-chunk as the librarian stamped each due date card before tucking it into its manilla pocket.
My secret liaison with the library endured until the end of seventh grade. After that summer, I returned home from sleepaway camp with enough newfound confidence to finally liberate myself from Nadine. In school, I found a real best friend and while I still loved spending time alone at the library, I no longer showed up on weekday mornings.
Years later, I worked for a while in a library, and often, as I slipped books back onto their shelves, I felt as if I was taking care of old friends. You don’t easily forget the people or places that offer you a chance to catch your breath or feel safe enough to dream about the future. At a time when I regularly handed over pieces of myself as if I didn’t matter, the library gave me a space to remind myself of the person I could, and wanted, to be. With hardly a word, it comforted and encouraged, never demanding that I hand over anything precious other than say, my library card.
Miriam Glassman’s essay, Babysteps, appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Longridge Review. She has published several children’s books, including Call Me Oklahoma!, selected as one of the top chapter books of 2013 by the New York Public Library. She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and taught writing workshops at the Solstice MFA in Creative Writing of Pine Manor. She is working on a memoir. Follow her on Twitter: @MiriamGlassman