It’s a story that my sister loves to tell. “Remember that time you ran away to the library?” She laughs about it, because she thinks she understands what it is to be me. Or, rather, what it was like to be me, at eleven, nearly twelve, but going on thirty. She laughs like she understands—and maybe she does. I’ve never really asked her, I guess.
When I was eleven, I didn’t realize how lonely I was. My loneliness was a coat I wore; a hand-me-down I barely noticed every time I threw it over my shoulders. When I was eleven, we lived in North Bay, Ontario, a small town on the shores of Lake Nipissing, which is an Algonquin name meaning “big water.” The water may have been big, but the town wasn’t. Not now, and not then either.
It was our third “tour of duty” in the Great White North, and that coat was both a figurative, and literal, necessity. My mom, my younger sister and I had moved nearly every year from the time we were born. We weren’t army brats. We likened ourselves to modern “gypsies,” not realizing at the time that the term was offensive. While I would never use the “n” word, I romanticized the “g” one; in my mind, I was a clever, dark-haired adventurer, needing no one but captivating many. I remember countless “road trips” in old cars with the radio cranked while playing “who sang that?”
We grew up in a series of low-income apartments in various towns stretching from Peterborough to Ottawa to North Bay. Our familial wanderings were confined to the province, but included many places within it. We would later move as far as Sudbury, but, when I was in the sixth grade, we lived in North Bay.
I don’t think it really needs saying that we bore no actual Romani lineage; we just moved a lot. At first, we moved to escape my dad (after the second time he broke my mother’s nose) and then we kept moving—chasing new jobs and promising opportunities. I guess some of the moves might have been escapes from other bad relationships she left, but I’ve never asked my mother that, either.
My mom always laughs a little about how I was always the first one unpacked and set up, once we landed. The good places, I had my own room. Other times, my sister and I had to share. By the end of the first day we arrived, I always had my bed made, my bookshelf organized and arranged in whatever order I currently preferred, and pictures up on the walls. I loved opening up the boxes where my books waited. I loved their familiarity and visiting with them again at each unpacking.
Once my room was arranged, the second order of business was a trip to the public library to obtain the all-important library card. When I was eleven, we’d been living in North Bay for a couple of years already (and in a couple or three apartments), so I was already in possession of said card and we lived only a few blocks away from the library. I spent a lot of time there. I used to check out a pile of books after spending hours in the shelves, breathing in the often musty (but always comforting) scents of paper and the bindings and the glue that held the books together. I loved the sound of the library books, too—the creak and crinkle of the plastic wrappings. I loved the heft of the hardcovers and the fast promise of the thinner, lighter paperbacks. I loved them all. They were my friends, my people, and the library was my home, regardless of the town I had just moved to or was just moving away from.
No other library felt as right as that one. Even now, I can picture it. The back entrance, the children’s area and the mysterious section that belonged only to those in possession of the yellow (adult) library card. At eleven, my card was still pink. I don’t know what the library there looks like anymore. It may have been renovated or even (god forbid) demolished and rebuilt somewhere else in the last twenty-four years—but I don’t want to know, if it has.
When I was eleven, that library was a magical place. Behind it, there was a fountain that emptied over a little fabricated waterfall into a large, shallow pool, where people would bring their children to wade in, in the summer. The source of the waterfall was next to the back entrance of the library and was shaded by trees, bushes and flowers. I think they were tiger lilies, but I’m not sure now. I used to climb over the flowers and sit, perched on the rough wood frame of the waterfall, balancing until my back ached, book in hand and sun winking through the leaves. I could read, and listen to the quiet burble of the water. It felt like nothing bad could ever penetrate the magic of that space.
While I loved the small tables and tiny chairs of the children’s area, and the shelves that held the newest Encyclopedia Brown or Babysitter’s Club book, I longed for the day I would have permission to climb the black, metal, spiral staircase, and explore the muted hush of the second floor. Thinking back now, it was likely the non-fiction or reference section of the library, but for me it seemed like a promise to my future adult self. I dreamed of tapping away at an Underwood typewriter, making literary magic and living in my own apartment, with floor to ceiling bookshelves and lots of windows, light years from small-town, Ontario.
The night I ran away to the library is a bit of a blur. My sister still laughs about it, a little gleefully, but without any malice. We were sharing a room in the front part of a main floor apartment on First Ave. We were getting used to living with the man my mom was seeing at that time. He’d been released after a ten year stint in jail just before they met, and would be a part of our life for another decade until his drug use spiraled and my mom finally left. While I’m not exactly clear on the details, my mother remembers that my sister had been “being a shithead” that night and mom’s boyfriend responded in kind.
Again, I don’t remember the details. My mom says she thinks I got upset, and stood up for my sister, and I like to think that was the case, because I didn’t always try and protect her and was sometimes even the one she needed protection from. But that night, apparently, I couldn’t handle it. After he’d turned his anger on me, I fled the apartment. I tried to sneak out the door, but he caught a glimpse of me and gave chase. I remember running down the side of the building and he must have had to stop to put on shoes, because I quickly got ahead of him.
I don’t remember thinking about where I would go, I just went. Perhaps all of those days spent walking to and from it, had traced the route to the library in permanent marker onto the limited map of the small life I lived at eleven. So that’s where I went.
To the library.
To safety and possibility.
I could hear him calling my name, and his footfalls in the quiet air, as I slipped behind the bushes that lined the side of the building, and ducked down. My heart pounded and I was afraid he could hear me breathing. He yelled for a bit before he gave up and left, and a while after that, I slowly walked back to the apartment. It was nighttime and the library was closed, after all, and I had a lot more living that life to do before I could find myself writing stories next to the bookshelf, in this quiet, sun-filled room.
My sister still tells the story. “She was such a bookworm that she ran away to the library!” she says. She doesn’t know that that was one of the last times and places I felt that much peace in my life, until long after I was rewarded with the yellow library card. She doesn’t know what it meant to me—the place that existed before all the self-destructive ways in which I tried to find peace as a teenager and a young adult. Before my own many moves, and poor coping and bad choices. She doesn’t understand what it was like to be me, at eleven, going on thirty, not twelve.
Or maybe she does.
Maybe she could, if I gave her the chance.
This story is for her, and for my mother, and the travelers we once were.
I love you both.
Chantel Sandbach’s job is a prison, literally. She’s a parole officer in a penitentiary by day, out of necessity, and a writer by night (and day, and on weekends and holidays and anytime the inspiration strikes her), also out of necessity; the soul-fulfilling kind of necessity. She still doesn’t know what she really wants to write when she grows up, but has had one piece of flash fiction published, to date (and one upcoming). She is from Peterborough, Ontario, Canada.