Before iPhones, back when there were no good cartoons on in the middle of those hot July afternoons, I’d happily slink over to the heap of books in my bedroom to tackle the library’s summer reading contest. Participants received handouts resembling game boards, where every half hour of reading translated into filling in one circle along a winding path sprinkled with checkpoints. Reaching these won you a chance to pull a prize from the library’s grab bag.
I remember how invigorated I felt during my first time reaching into that bag. Closing my eyes, I desperately swirled my hand around to try and feel its contents, pulling out a kaleidoscope. Peering into the hole, I shook it around some and looked back in. Colorful shards rearranged themselves into a new collage—magenta and royal blue. Lime green and canary yellow.
I didn’t realize I’d been molested as a child until I took a victimology course while studying abroad in Asia. It just hit me as I sat there doodling on my paper. Why did I feel hollow in that moment, instead of emotionally charged? Thinking of my doctor holding me down, inserting her hands into me vigorously while commanding, the more you move, the longer it will take. Like my first grab bag experience, no other prizes to compare it to.
By the time I filled the next circles in on my reading sheet, I was more intentional about my feeling-before-choosing prize methodology. I was now aware there were also stickers, gel pens, whistles and rubber balls in the grab bag for me to consider.
So when I found myself holding onto the prize of abuse at 12, I thought I had somehow chosen it, or it, me. I’d wear my bloody lip and bruises like badges of honor. Look! I’ve chosen for this to mean love. “No trade-backs,” the librarian would say tartly as she’d eye me from above the rim of those round glasses that lay dangerously low on her wrinkly nose.
I thought this rule would make it easier to find a romantic partner in the grab bag of courtship. Until I was 23 in Vegas, bracing myself as a strange person with an iron-like grip rammed himself into me, again and again, my body limp yet on fire. Shutting my eyes, I felt around in my mind’s grab bag for options. If you just hold still, it will be over sooner, one memory advised.
By now, I was mostly done with my reading activity log and familiar enough with the prize options, feeling my choices before exposing them under the stale glare of florescent library lights.
In that room reeking of old wood, I could suddenly see the toys in their shoddy splendor— cheap dyes and flimsy plastic encasements forming fleeting moments of play, days later just another mound in the trash.
I continued to read that summer, but the grab bag remained a distant memory, the books’ substance filling my days with renewed wonder.