Dear Young Dumb Self,
Think about the Dundalk Library. Not the way you discovered it during your slow drive-by last thanksgiving, staring from the window of your dad’s Jetta at the site where it had been transplanted and rendered unrecognizable. Think instead about it how it used to be: modest, simple, scarved by a shaggy lawn. Think about its red brick walls. Think about its tall windows and their sliding panelled blinds.
Those windows faced the Post Office on one side and the Town Hall on the other. Your own house was just a block away. This casual proximity remained a minor astonishment throughout most of your mid-adolescence. Until recently, you’d been living out in the country, where you had to look for moments of opportunity patterned within your parents’ lives if you wanted a ride into town. But now you’d moved. Now town was a thing that extended from your front door in every direction. The candy cones tufted with marshmallow fluff, sold at Steadman’s. The dreamy woodcut scent of Home Hardware. The VHS tapes for rent at Jug City, where sun-bleached ads for Lotto Max and Pepsi curled in the windows. All of it was within walking distance from your bedroom. Your easy access to these things was a source of simple, reliable joy. You walked around town feeling like a character in a book you loved but hadn’t read yet.
The library was closest of all. It felt like another room in your house, the sidewalk like a long exterior hallway lined with maple trees. You’d been going to that library since you were a kid. You knew every inch of it—though, truthfully, there weren’t many inches to know. It was a compact, economical operation. Children’s books in the basement, adult and young adult collections upstairs. The spin-rack of Louis L’Amour paperbacks. The illustrated Dean Koontz hardcover that stuck out by three inches in the fiction aisle. The fat, sluggish desktop computers that allowed your first skeptical glance at the World Wide Web. The rubber date stamp and the card catalogue and the thrumming overhead fluorescents and those panelled blinds which carved the sun into long, bright bars of light thrown across the carpet.
Think of yourself walking that short distance to the library on a gleaming Sunday afternoon in late spring. Think of the maple trees frothing above you in the breeze, and the scuffing sound of your Airwalks on the sidewalk.
Now think of your hand in your pocket, thumbing one of most important objects you’d ever possessed: a key to the library.
You worked there. Another minor astonishment. There was grant money and some sort of youth employment program. You spent a few weeks learning how to catalogue and re-shelve and chase up overdue notices and create new memberships and run the Saturday morning craft program. Your slavish attention to these tasks and your reverence for the system that they upheld was rewarded with this key, now glinting in the palm of your hand, now sliding inside the lock, now setting off the weighted thunk of the deadbolt. You slip past the “Closed” sign, careful not to disturb it, and step into the calmest, most quiet hours a teenaged girl can ever expect to find for herself, whether she’s looking for them or not.
The understanding was that you would drop in after hours and attend to some small tasks that might otherwise be neglected when the library was open—tidying the chaotic Sweet Valley High shelf, for example. Or Windexing the glass surface of the checkout desk. The tasks themselves mattered less than the fact that you had been trusted to perform them, alone. Even now, the memory gives you a small, sparkling thrill. The key! The responsibility! The knowledge that if you wanted to, you could come to the library at 3 a.m. You could come on Christmas Day. You could come whenever the desire struck you and that power, meagre though it was, belonged only to you. Its singularity made it special.
Correctly or not, you remember this as a quiet period of your life. Maybe the most quiet, in a literal way: this was long before the constant cacophony of downloaded music and podcasts and chirping message alerts. It was a hopeful period, too. It had the crackling quality of air before a dramatic, clarifying thunderstorm. Your life was an orchestra warming up—bleating clarinets, the long, promising draw of violin bows across strings, the scrape of chairs and music stands. You were in a staging area for what would come next: Adult Life. The tap tap tap of the conductor’s baton. You could feel, in some deep, limbic reservoir within your mind, the urgency of everything that was about to happen, and it had nothing to do with the thing that was presently happening: your shitty loneliness.
It’s there under all of the bright-eyed promise I’ve just described, under the half-artificial shine of your memory. You didn’t always experience that library job, or that period of your life, with such sedate pleasure, did you? Let’s be honest. As time wore on, you found yourself struggling.
Take a closer look: you’re performing your tasks more or less competently, but with an occasional trend towards mischief—a “Know Your Body” pre-teen pamphlet slipped between the spiny tomes in the Classics section, or a book about chess strategy (not checked out since 1989) placed boldly, cover-out, among the new-release thrillers. You did these things to distract yourself from the growing sense that you were spending what everyone says are the best years of life entombed, alone, in penal servitude to a small-town library.
One Sunday afternoon the phone rang. It could have been someone wanting to know if we were open, or a caller who, counting on the answering machine instead of a live human, was delivering an excuse for owing criminally large overdue fines. Outside of business hours, you usually let the phone ring and ring. But on that particular day you weren’t yourself. Or else you were more yourself than ever. You felt gloomy and grey. All of the contentment you sometimes experienced in the deserted library had soured into despair.
This time, there was an identifiable source for this spoilage: an argument with your boyfriend. He’d invited some other girl—his alleged “best friend” whose memory, all these years later, still makes your blood cool—to a soccer game. Your envy of his female friends collided disastrously with his disdain for dramatics. That fight, like all the others you’d had with him, involved a lot of silent staring in opposite directions. You’d left school without kissing goodbye—a certain sign of apocalypse.
Grey, grey, grey.
And now the phone was ringing.
You rose from the carpet. Did the ringing sound different somehow? Did you hope for solace on the other end of the line? You walked around the help desk and removed the receiver from its white plastic cradle. You put it to your ear. For a moment, silence again. Then you rattled through your standard greeting: “This is Megan at the Dundalk Public Library. Can I help you?”
A beat on the other end, then: “Hey.”
That voice! Leisurely, sidelong, signalling every valve in your body to constrict.
He had remembered where you’d be that day, had looked up the number, had overcome his famous dislike of the telephone. For your boyfriend, these were herculean feats. A trifecta of proof that you were not in careless, clumsy hands after all. For a moment, the clouds parted. Then you replayed that terrible salutation in your mind (“This is Megan!”) and felt your stomach dissolving to liquid. Talking to him, or the prospect of talking to him, was a particular torture in your life: you wanted it so badly, it was an all-consuming thought, but when it happened you wanted the exquisite agony of it to end as quickly as possible.
What sort of conversation was it? Hard to remember now. The essence was that he felt sorry, and that the best friend had been dis-invited from the soccer game. He wanted you to go instead. You could hear his mother’s influence in every word he mumbled. She’d always been on your side and you sometimes wonder, now, if her loyalty was in fact a disservice to you: she’d frog-marched him through your relationship, and the result was a resentful pall over each of his gestures and a cloying neediness over yours.
But all those stumbling insincerities—you were as guilty of them as him—were not the only reason for the way you felt, suddenly, as you stared across the reception desk towards the library. What you wanted, it turned out, was not his remorse and attention. What you wanted was a return to simple solitude. There was a rent in the forcefield that usually protected you on Sunday afternoons—he’d slipped through it, and now you wanted to push him out again, make repairs, reestablish yourself to yourself. The gloom was lifting, and not because of him. It was lifting because you saw, accelerating towards you at an encouraging speed, your return to the quiet, perplexing luxury of feeling lonely.
Many, many years later, on a business trip to some forlorn, snowbound corner of the American midwest, you will open a book and read this line: “The cure for loneliness is solitude.” It will be night, and you will be casually and tremendously bereft in a way that will have become familiar to you. Trucks hurtling by on the Interstate; water pipes shuddering inside the walls; the sound of your own skin sliding over the bed sheets. You will read that line and feel, at first, consoled. Then angry. In an adjacent room, someone may look up, startled, at the sound of a book hitting the wall: you have resorted to violent theatrics in order to demonstrate your distaste for these too-cute, too-tidy aphorisms that mock how you feel—and how you feel about how you feel.
But there is something to it, isn’t there? The cure for loneliness is solitude. Loneliness, in all of its guises: the kind you feel when you’re alone with yourself, and the kind you feel when you’re alone with the wrong person. Better the former. And maybe that, dear young self, is all there is to it.
Even I, in all of my so-called wisdom, am still trying to figure that one out, am still hurling books across the room when they strike me as too true to stay clutched between my hands.
The Dundalk Library has moved to a new building across town. It looks tidy and modern and efficient and much larger than it used to be. You haven’t gone inside—what you saw from the window of your Dad’s car that day last October was all you needed to confirm two things.
First, it’s annoying that no one ever asks your permission to uproot or tear down or rezone otherwise dramatically alter the temples of your youth.
Second, it doesn’t really matter because you're going to experience many long periods in life that will feel just like that library on a Sunday afternoon. A little bit boring. A little bit lonely. A little bit beautiful, because they are all yours.
They will remind you of that quiet space down the street—that space where you first learned the secret to curing your own damn loneliness.
Old Wise Self
Dear Young Dumb Self,