Title: The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Author: Neil Gaiman
There’s no right way to love a book. For me, there are books I am in love with because of their story and there are books I am in love with because of the figurative and literal places in my life I ended up reading them. The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is brain-fluff wrapped up in too many truths about growing up. Because of that paradox, and the fact that I’m currently ignoring that I am technically an adult, I fell in love with it immediately.
The week I found it was one of the longest weeks of my new adult life. I worked 30 hours in closing shifts at work in six consecutive nights on top of going to school four days in a row and all the homework that comes with it. I was in no way looking for something to occupy my time. There was none to spare.
In between class and work, I walked into Book People in Austin just a couple blocks down from my campus. This two-story bookstore has become my new happy place in between responsibilities since it is large enough to wander and contains hundreds of books to leaf through. Usually I pick a book at random, read a couple chapters and put it back on the shelf when I leave. I haven’t wasted my time and a book gets to feel loved.
On my second day of work, I wanted something easy. I didn’t want to wander, I just wanted to hide. In this particular bookstore, Neil Gaiman’s works have their own shelf and almost every book, its own personal review by the booksellers. Without pausing to even read the synopsis of The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, I grabbed it and rushed to hide in the chair resting up against the classics section with a cup of coffee.
And I disappeared.
Gaiman has this magical simplicity to his writing where a 19-year-old college student can cancel out the constant foot traffic of a busy bookstore and be emotionally invested in the life of a 7-year-old boy who grew up suddenly and quickly after he met the strange Lettie Hempstock at the end of the lane with her ocean. The story is told in a flashback of a middle-aged man who you can tell never quite felt young. Innocent maybe, but he didn’t know that until he no longer was.
When I came back to reality an hour later, I decided this book was what I needed that week. I couldn’t have even told you why, but there wasn’t any way I could’ve left without it.
I didn’t pick it up again for several days. Work and school got the better of me and I might have gone insane a few times over the course of the weekend. Sunday night was night 6 of 6 of closing and after serving angry people their coffee, I had an insane craving for diner food. I wanted coffee and waffles and the kind of food coma that comes shortly after. And I wanted a place to read my magically simple book and not worry about having to leave.
So Magnolia’s it was. A 24 hour diner in the middle of Austin with omelets and giant pancakes sounded wonderful at 9 pm on a Sunday. Little did I know that the last day of the Austin City Limits music festival was just letting out.
As I pulled into the parking lot, I looked behind me and saw the multitudes waiting to cross the street and wait for hours for the same pancakes and omelets. My mission then changed from finding diner food to racing the masses for a table. They had won Magnolia’s, but there was the 24 Diner off of 6th Street that they wouldn’t have time to walk to. I raced to the heart of downtown Austin and beat the majority of the masses.
After saying it was just me, the hostess smiled at me and said there were several spots open on the bar if I wanted to eat immediately. I had beaten the swarm people. I had my spot. And I was not moving. Busy people behind the bar gave me menus and I told the waitress I just wanted a cup of black coffee and a waffle. 10 minutes later, I had a giant waffle in front of my face and the ACL crowd had begun to take over, yelling drink orders over my shoulder and squeezing in the 6 inches of air available at the bar. I did not care. I had my spot. I was not moving.
I opened my book and disappeared again. I met the villainous Ursula Monkton and her twisted desires and methods of making everyone happy. She was a Dolores Umbridge-like character that you hated simply because there are too many controlling, manipulative, and oppressive people like her in real life. I got to know the Hempstocks better and found out they were the family everyone wishes they had as friends growing up. The kind that just took care of things and knew enough to make you think they knew everything.
I was vaguely aware people being replaced with more people on my left and on my right, but I couldn’t tell you how many. The bartenders ignored me entirely, leaving my sticky plate as a marker that I deserved to sit there, only interrupting me to ask if I wanted more coffee. I looked up and it was 11:15. Neil Gaiman had done the impossible and canceled out a swarm of ACL attenders.
The next day, I had no brain function. I went to class and stumbled through the day just waiting for when I could disappear again. I made it to Mozart’s on Lake Austin and fought my way through the line of fellow Austinites to buy a bottomless cup of coffee and made my plan to disappear.
I discovered that oceans can be put in buckets, if you ask nicely enough, and that there are some people whose hearts just need more time to grow back. Different people remember events in different ways and some things are best forgotten.
And then it ended.
I felt like I had gotten pulled out of a dream by having a bucket of ice water dumped on my head. I had not planned on it ending and now that it had I was a little lost. The only thing I could think to do was write a thank you note to Neil Gaiman and share it with everyone. Whether he will ever see it is anyone’s guess, but anyone who can make a week like mine slightly less defeating deserves some recognition.