September 21, 2012

Old Friends And New Books: The Perks Of Being A Wallflower

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When I moved to New York, there was a giant stack of books I brought with me. Some old favorites I couldn’t bear to leave home. Others were new friends I had yet to meet, books that had sat on my shelf when I was too busy to read for pleasure in college. One of the latter was The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, gifted to me by my friend Ryan for my birthday in November of our freshman year.

Ryan, who I had met the very first night of college at our dorm orientation mixer, was a native Pittsburgher. He had a deep, throaty voice yet was soft-spoken, a sweet curl and smile around his words. When I first met him, I thought he was soooo cute, with his big brown eyes and tanned skin, but something told me I wouldn’t have a chance with this boy. Nevertheless, we hung out often as friends, went to dinner on campus, looked at photo albums (when people still had those!) from high school, told each other stories and secrets.

One night, outside of our dorm, Ryan and I sat and stared at the black Pittsburgh night, light pollution from surrounding buildings erasing the stars from the sky. Cool late-summer air tickled our arms. “I have something to tell you,” he said, as if he were a lover announcing a newly-acquired case of herpes or a recent finding of six illegitimate children. “If it wasn’t completely obvious, I’m gay.” I laughed, thinking of the new irony in my little crush on him. “Oh, is that all?” I smiled. “If it’s okay with you, it’s okay with me!” He hugged me a little hug, and told me stories about how his family was not entirely okay with it, to say the least, refusing to discuss this “lifestyle choice.” But I had accepted him unconditionally, and I think that meant a lot to him. “Elyssa’s my bestie!” I remember him saying once and giving me a big snuggle.

We stuck together during most of freshman year, and on my birthday he found it pertinent to give me The Perks of Being a Wallflower. In it, among other things, he had inscribed the words, “I know we haven’t known each other all that long, but you are dear to my heart.” I don’t know if kinder words have since been inscribed to me by a friend, especially one that I had not, in fact, known for very long. I was both taken aback and pleasantly surprised by them. But this note, coupled with the book’s own description as “unique, hilarious and devastating,” made me want to dive in.

For those of you who don’t know, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is the story of Charlie, a highly emotional young man in his freshman year of high school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His experience of the world is an honest though complicated one, enhanced by his lively though troubled friends.

I had heard good things about the book before, and resolved to get to it as soon as I could.

But somehow, “as soon as I could” became almost six years later. Ryan and I were now two years out of college and, truthfully, we never really spoke that much after freshman year. This was not out of bad intentions, but simply the drifting that takes place when lives go in different directions. We’re busy, we take different classes, and suddenly our first friends are no longer our forever ones. It was always nice to see him on campus and say, “Hi! How are you doing?”, each of us genuinely wanting to know about the other. We are, of course, still friends on Facebook, but that doesn’t count for anything real.

So when I finally picked up The Perks of Being a Wallflower last week, I was instantly mesmerized. Not only by the troubled Charlie for whom we find ourselves having so much hope; or his friends full of depth, complications, and brazen youth that frankly I was jealous of, but for the notes in it Ryan had left me, beyond just the inscription.

On page 39, highlighted in blue, “we are infinite.” An orange Post-It note accompanied it, mentioning that it was his one of his favorite passages.

On page 79, accompanying the italicized poem that Charlie reads on Christmas, another of Ryan’s favorite passages marked by an orange Post-It.

On page 180, when Charlie is at Bill’s house, Ryan comments on how kind the action is.

Somehow, though, what was even more heartbreaking than the story itself was that I was only just now seeing the care that Ryan had put into this present. The book was really important to him, and he wanted to share that importance with me. Reading it recently, I adored finding each new note and felt closer to Ryan, even after the time that had passed.

Just as I had unconditionally accepted Ryan, so had Charlie accepted Patrick, and as we saw in the book and as Ryan experienced in his own life, this was certainly not always the case. There are many powerful experiences shared in the book that a young person could relate to, but to me the most profound ones revolved around acceptance and love (of friends, of oneself, in general) — incidentally, some of the same passages Ryan marked: The Christmas party, Charlie at Bill’s house, Sam in the back of the pickup truck in the Fort Pitt tunnel. I am sorry I was not able to share all of this with Ryan when he first gave me the book, I am sorry that I was not able to say thank you in person for the way he shared himself with me so kindly and deeply by giving it to me.

As for the “I didn’t have time”? I mean, it’s possible, but I devoured the book in a single Sunday. I simply didn’t want to put it down. I have not been alone in this, likely since the book’s publication in the late 1990s. According to writer Marty Becker at Word Riot, the book “has quietly sold nearly half a million copies, birthing a cult of diehard fans more dedicated than the weirdest of Star Trek geeks.” The Perks of Being a Wallflower is of course a coming-of-age novel, once even compared to Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Upon reading this description, I was irked, mostly because there’s no way Holden Caulfield’s stuck-up, spoiled and self-centered view of the world can compete with Charlie’s purity of heart. I think this is something the “cult of diehard fans” picks up on. In high school, when everyone is fake on some level, Charlie is the one person who never was (that much, anyway). I think this is what Ryan picked up on, as well—leaving a place where he had to hide who he was and entering a place where he didn’t, I imagine he admired Charlie’s honesty and openness.

And now that The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a movie some 15 years after its first release, I wonder what Ryan will do. Will he rush to a theatre in California — where he lives now, according to Facebook — to see it because he loves it so much, or avoid the film at all costs for the same reason? I imagine if we were still close, we would bond or debate over our feelings pulling us in one direction or the other. Having just fallen in love with the book myself, I don’t know what I will do. But whether I end up staring at the screen or actively choosing not to, I will be thinking of Ryan and thanking him for introducing me to the book with six years’ worth of apologies for not thanking him sooner. TC mark

image – Marsh-mellow17
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