I treasured Jane Eyre in part because it was so different from the books on my parents’ shelves. My mother has always proudly claimed the title of Reader, and visitors to our house were often amazed at the number of books crammed into the pressboard cases in the den, often stacked two or three deep.
“Has your mom really read all those?” Johnny Thompson asked me at a party, edging up to me to be heard over the blare of thumping electronica my older sister favored. I had spent the last year trying to contrive ways to bump into him in the hall at school or catch his eye, and the payoff seemed to be fast approaching.
“Wow,” he said. “Do you like to read, like her?”
“No,” I said, casting a glance at the multi-colored wall of romances, thrillers, series mysteries and guru-endorsed manuals. “I don’t like to read like her.”
Johnny was blond and muscular and confident, and the mixture of his closeness and his cologne, which I inhaled to the throbbing pulse of the music, was intoxicating. Chest to chest with him and spine to spine with the books, I felt my awkwardness melt away in the heat of the moment.
“I don’t really like to read much either,” he breathed in my ear, leaning over me with his arm propped against the shelf. “I guess I like the physical side of things more.”
Under Johnny’s arm I could see the cover of one of my mother’s discarded romances, on which a bulky blond man loomed over a writhing maiden molting out of her dress. The sudden image of Johnny and I as a mirror of that airbrushed pair caused a bubble of laughter to expand, get caught in my throat, and explode in a sort of hiccuping snort just as he moved in for the kill.
“I’m sorry,” I choked, as he pulled quickly back. “I have to go.”
I slipped away from him and fled upstairs in mingled embarrassment and relief. Barricaded in my room away from the insistent rhythmic thump of the stereo, I stroked the rich blue leather of Jane Eyre and let the heavy pages brush past my fingers. Here was a book that could seduce. Perhaps if Johnny had tried his moves in a room adorned with ancient and handsome volumes... But Johnny stubbornly resisted being imagined in such circumstances. I let the cover of the book fall open to reveal the inscription, dashed off on the marbled front paper in Aunt Emma’s bold black scrawl: “To Emma, an extraordinary reader. Gorgeous girls and gorgeous books belong together.”
In our only genuine instance of being simpatico, Johnny Thompson and I mutually avoided each other from then on.
“What happened to that nice boy you were talking to at Stacy’s party?” my mom asked. “I liked him.”