Ever since I can remember, reading was a wonderful escape for me. Not fitting in with my peers was a given, but I always seem to fit in when I was reading a book. I never worried that the characters in the book would care that I didn’t have the latest Jordache jeans or didn’t have the money to travel to a resort in Upstate New York for the summer like everyone else. One book in particular, The Velvet Room, took me to a place that I have never forgotten.
In the book, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Robin and her family are migrant workers and land in California. While trying to hide from her siblings, Robin finds a tunnel leading to an empty mansion on the hill. But one room is not empty. It is filled with ceiling-high bookshelves and tall windows with red velvet drapes and window seats. Robin finds herself returning day after day to the room, reading and exploring. She begins to wonder why just one room in this large empty house is furnished. I was engrossed in this book for many reasons, but mainly I wanted to find a room like that. I wanted to get away from my family and our dysfunctional drama into a room with tall windows and red-velvet curtains drawn tight against the sun. I wanted to wander and read all the leather-bound books on the shelves without fear of interruption or ridicule. It didn’t matter what you wore in the Velvet Room. Even Robin, in her worn clothes from the fields, didn’t have to worry in there. She could escape the hard life she lived at the bottom of the hill by curling up on the window seat with the curtains drawn and her feet up under her while she read a book.
I carried that book around with me everywhere when I was 11, to my mother’s dismay. I read passages about the room when I was alone, or wanted to be, which was most of the time. At one point my mother wanted me to come out of my shell and allowed me to put a sweater on layaway at K-Mart, a sweater that look so much like the kind everyone else was wearing I was giddy with excitement. It had a brown and yellow zig-zag pattern with a smart-looking tie at the waist. If I could talk her into a pair of wide bell-bottoms, I imagined I would look just like Laurie Partridge, although with my frizzy blonde hair and c-cups at age 11 there wasn’t much chance of that happening too soon. But I dreamed, and went to the store and put another $2 on the sweater each week. I patiently waited for cooler weather and the chance to wow everyone with how hip and groovy I looked in my sweater.
Needless to say, when I finally got the sweater I didn’t look anything like the incredibly thin, poker-straight-haired Laurie. I looked more like her little brother Danny (as in Bonaduce). I was wrong, that sweater didn’t change anything. I retreated back to my book after wearing the sweater for a full week, every day, with no ooohs and aaaahs from anyone.
Virginia Wolfe said every woman should have a room of her own. That might not always be possible, but a corner? How hard can that be? For the moment, I’ve got a large chair in my studio that faces my tiny bookcase and I’m content with that. I’ve got a room, and before that I had a corner. I’m going out to buy red velvet material to make curtains for the tiny windows in my studio this week because after all these years, I think I deserve them. Don’t you? Oh, and I found a copy of The Velvet Room on E-bay a few years ago, and I see it’s on Kindle now. It’s still a good book, and I still look a little like Danny Bonaduce. Some things never change.