On Top of It #16 by Lisa Martens
Letting Go of Holden
The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and they’re pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody’s be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. – Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye
I first picked up this book because it had a fiery cover and was worth 30 Accelerated Reader points. I was in fifth grade, and our school library had a point system called Accelerated Reader…the harder the book, the more points you received. At the end of the year, you used your AR points to buy things—like more books.
My strategy was always to read books higher than my grade level since they were worth more points. I wouldn’t even look at a book unless it had the pink mark of the eighth-grade level. Some kids took the opposite approach – they’d read tons of children’s books (green level or lower), and slowly accumulate points that way. But, unlike them, I actually enjoyed reading.
The Catcher in the Rye made very little sense to me, but Holden’s blase attitude, rambling sentences and disregard for things like grades appealed to the blossoming adolescent in me. He was my first taste of ‘bad boy.’ Within the first two pages, Holden had been kicked out of a private school and he didn’t seem to care. It wasn’t even the first school he’d been kicked out of.
I didn’t understand what the word fuck meant, but Holden was already tired of it. He fascinated me. I read the book and earned the points without knowing that Holden was on every Honors English high school required reading list. I aspired to meet a man like Holden, only with a machete, because I also had a thing for my Costa Rican gardener.
When I finally reached an age where I could appreciate everything Holden was saying, I was a teenager in Plano, Texas. I no longer clamored after useless reader points. I went to a school without windows and teachers called us by our ID number, not by our names. Although I wasn’t into selling drugs or piercing anyone’s tongue in the bathroom with a bobby pin, I had a bit of rebellious nerd in me. My friends and I broke into the aquaculture lab to eat lunch and play poker by the fish tanks. We were a strange crowd but somehow we got along: a Mormon girl named Heather who picked locks but wouldn’t drink caffeine or kiss a boy, a chubby Asian named Theresa who had a threesome in a hottub with a guy she’d met online (she loved his blog), and a gothic storyteller who’d gotten in trouble for writing a fake suicide note. Julie made her fingernails pointy and had to see a school counselor about that note, which included a scene where she was raped by aliens. We stole things, skipped school, and Julie and I pretended not to know English to be put into easier classes. I declared Holden my literary boyfriend. Then one day, as we ate Cheetos under the stairs and our fat folded over our jeans in the dark, Theresa scrunched her nose up and said, “Holden’s a pussy. He couldn’t even fuck a prostitute.”
I soon reread the passage with fresh eyes. It was true. Holden wasn’t a golden god. He was a snotty, sheltered, hypocritical virgin. He would never be able to provide me with the outrageous sex that Theresa talked about. He wouldn’t pressure me into a threesome or anal or write poems about my fat on his blog. When shit got real, he cried in a corner. He flunked out of school. All he did was judge other people for liking things and doing things.
I’d lost my boy idol. Someday, and someday soon, I’d want someone who wasn’t afraid to be sexy. And, after that, what would I like next…a man? Who had ambitions and paid bills? The kind of person who (gulp) did things that contributed to society?
More importantly, how had I been captivated by this coward for so long? Holden hadn’t changed – nothing he said or did changed. Everything he has ever done or will ever do is frozen, immutable, complete, like the museum of his childhood. He was and still is perfectly constant.
And down a secluded street, shaded by benevolent oaks, at the end of a silent cul de sac in one of the more nondescript suburban corners of heaven, is a house with a high wooden fence. And behind that fence, by the pool, J. D. Salinger is placing a little white pill onto the outstretched tongue of a teenage girl, who, wings aflutter, is still trying to reach Holden Caufield.
NOTE: This essay originally appeared on Episode 22.
Lisa Martens (Episode 22) currently lives in Harlem. In her past 10 years in New York, she has lived in a garage on Long Island, a living room in Hell’s Kitchen, the architecture building of CCNY, and on the couch of a startup. She grew up in New York, Costa Rica and Texas, and she’s still not sure which of these is home. She completed her MFA in Creative Writing from CCNY. Her thesis, What Grows in Heavy Rain, is available on Amazon. Check out her website here. Follow her on Instagram here.