Some of my favorite reads have stolen upon me unawares. I remember my first encounter with the story: sheer magic! But how did I come to pull that book off the shelf? Select that particular author? I have no idea. The frame surrounding other discoveries grabs more memory.
I’ll never forget the how and why for one such blissful moment – a two-in-one, really, because the adventure brought two books, two authors my way.
I was in New York City with the entire fourth year class of the Architecture School. The two days of touring architectural highlights under the aegis of our professors were interesting and entertaining. I’d seen a lot of those buildings via slide projector in lecture class. Meeting them up-close-and-personal was satisfying. But the field trip came with an unavoidable challenge.
Most of my sister students had at least one friend in the A-school; some, many. I had none. My friends were among the RPG crowd, and they were grad students, or a year older than me, or a year younger, and all were in the College of Arts and Sciences.
So I came to New York friendless. This was no problem during the day while touring. I did have acquaintances with whom to trade commentary on the sights. It was the one night we would all spend in a hotel that provoked my uneasiness.
I’d been assigned to a room with three young women intent on enjoying the night clubs. They were nice enough to me. They were more than nice, actually, urging me to come with them and have some fun, exhibiting none of the social brutality common in high schools. (Who knew college would bring such civility?)
The rub was . . . I wasn’t keen on bar hopping. Yet saying, “thank you, but no,” seemed . . . so anti-social, so boorish, so unappreciative of their willingness to include. I wanted to say no, but I also wanted them to think well of me. And I wasn’t sure which choice would result in a greater sense of loneliness: out with a three friends who weren’t my friends? or skulking alone in a hotel room? Ugh! What a choice!
While I dithered, I got ready for clubbing: gauze peasant blouse in blues and greens with a tassel tie at the neck, woven leather shoes with a low heel (comfortable for dancing), and very tight jeans.
It looked like I was going out with my room mates willy nilly, borne along on the tide of their persuasion. They were sure: of course I’d have a better time with them.
I checked my pockets. Hard to do. Did I say those jeans were tight? I’d stored my money – a fifty dollar bill – in a pocket in the jeans in a dresser drawer in the hotel. Now was the time I would need it.
My pockets were empty.
One of the hotel maids must have done some rummaging while we were sightseeing.
Oh, there was a fuss! The hotel management was summoned. We got no change from them. Silly Virginia girl! Why did you leave your money in your hotel room? My room mates insisted on lending me money – enough for a night on the town. (They’d brought hundreds!)
I declined. There I felt no ambivalence. My college budget was tighter than my jeans. I’d borrowed $10 from each month to have some cash for this trip. I would need the sum remaining to get through the semester. If I borrowed money from my generous companions, I wouldn’t be able to pay them back. Or else I’d be unable to pay my share of the pizza order when I returned to my RPG mates.
The field trip ladies were regretful about my choice, clearly worried I’d be miserable. (I did say they were nice, right? They were nice.) But I was resolute, and they went off to their evening’s delight. I felt . . . relieved.
So, there I was, alone in a hotel room with nothing to do. (I was never a big TV watcher.) But I knew I’d figure it out. What next?
Surely dinner of some sort. My $50 was gone; luckily I had a few smaller bills, change left over from the day’s expenses. I’d noticed two deli’s in the same block as the hotel. And . . . there’d been a bookstore in the next block over! Abruptly my plans for the evening gelled. I was set! Why had I dithered and worried? A reader always has options.
One of the deli’s supplied me with a sandwich in a paper bag, and then I trundled off to the bookstore.
These were the days when bookstores still displayed their wares on wire racks with the book covers facing out. This bookstore, being in New York, had five segments (or more) devoted to SF&F. I was in heaven, browsing and browsing and browsing. Here was happy indecision. Which book would I chose?
After perhaps half an hour, it came down to two. Which should I carry away with me? Beauty by Robin McKinley? Or Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones? I dithered just as much as when faced with bar hopping, but this was a better choice: between two good’s, not two bad’s.
A startling idea popped into my head. Why not buy both? As a cash-strapped college student, I bought my books one at a time. But – I did some quick math – I had just enough money to splurge with a few pennies left over. Why not? I went home tomorrow.
You know how I answered that one.
Which book did I read first? That I don’t remember. But memory is vivid regarding the gestalt. I lounged on my hotel bed, well propped with pillows, munching my sandwich, and devouring the stories. I entered . . . not heaven (this was better than that), but a fairy tale city where three sisters grappled with loosing all their fortune and confronted the adventure that came to them in the cool forested land where they settled. I followed a young witch-boy struggling with betrayal and greatness in the steampunk world of Chrestomancy.
That night alone in a New York hotel room still ranks as one of the best in my life. I’m a reader, and I’m guessing you might be too. Have you ever had an unpleasantness (or a disaster) rescued by a good read?
I was grateful my room mates stayed out til one! I had time to savor both my treasures in peace and solitude. And was happy to greet the returning trio (not drunk, thank you) with good cheer and assurances that I’d passed an enjoyable evening.
In justice to the hotel maids, I must report that they had not stolen my $50. Remember those tight jeans? (I did say they were tight, right?) Apparently I didn’t push my fingers deep enough into my pinched pocket. The money was there all along.