Friday, July 15, 2011

Eleven Years

I first met him in the Oxford Valley Barnes and Noble on a rainy afternoon about eleven years ago.

I’d heard he would be a bad influence on me, but I wanted to draw my own conclusions before entering the debate. And time was running short: a discussion about his worth was planned for the next day.

It was a tentative first meeting – I wasn’t sure I was ready to invest in the relationship, but I wanted the option to do so if things went well.

So I did what any frugal college student would. I found a comfy chair in a quiet corner and sat down overlooking the parking lot (no, the view from the Oxford Valley B&N is not what draws one to spend time there). Three hours later, my stomach growled, reminding me that as a frugal college student, I should eat in the dining commons. I sighed. I stood. I looked down at the paperback book in my hand, my finger marking the spot a couple hundred pages in, and I decided to take the plunge.

I walked downstairs to the counter and bought Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

I wolfed down dinner then returned to my room. Less than three hours later I closed the cover on the final page and took a deep breath, returning to the rarified air of reality after reveling in the rich atmosphere of fantasy for the bulk of my day. And I knew I’d made a new friend.

I won’t say the relationship wasn’t rocky at times. I went to the panel discussion and heard one of my favorite professors recommend staying away from Harry, not because he was necessarily evil, but because the Bible tells us to avoid even the appearance of evil. Another favorite professor lamented: “Fantasy writers create fantasy worlds. That’s how it works. I wish, for the sake of Christians, that Rowling had used something other than the trappings of magic for her world, but that’s what she used.”

They didn’t sway me away from my newfound friend. The trappings of magic were no trouble to me. They were simply the d├ęcor in a world unlike my own.

I started late in the relationship. Many were there before me. Rowling had already aged Harry four years by the time I began, and so I was able to work my way through books two and three in good time.

Then came the wait. I’d finished The Prisoner of Azkaban, but Goblet of Fire was only available in hardcover. College student that I was, I couldn’t justify spending $25 on a book that wasn’t for class. I waited for summer vacation, hoping I’d earn enough to justify the expense. A birthday present of a Borders gift card sent me to Border’s Express, where I found the book for just $19, and devoured it within three days.

I thought the wait was awful when I went a few months between books, but after Goblet, we were all forced into three years of agony. The pain was mitigated, slightly, by Harry’s arrival on the screen.

I remember going to meet him in visual form for the first time. The theatre was huge. I was with my friend Bekka. I sat in the vast darkness and watched quidditch for the first time, just as thrilled as I’d been to imagine it in the books.

In the time it took for Harry to turn from 14 to 15, I aged three years. I finished college and found myself working in the summer programs at SEND the next time I was eagerly anticipating Harry’s visit. I’ve never been a midnight showing kind of girl, and midnight book releases hold little more appeal to me, so I waited until the day of his release, after work, to find a copy of Order of the Phoenix.

And then, in panic, I searched in vain. Barnes and Noble, Borders, Borders Express – no luck at any one of them; all sold out. Unwilling to give up, a brainstorm occurred to me: Meijer. The great, the wondrous, Meijer. I swung into the parking lot at Eight Mile, hopped out of the car, and ran inside. Meijer has probably 20 aisles of groceries, a good acre of clothing and home goods, and another half acre of electronics, toys, pets, etc. But there’s only one row of books.

I went directly there. And found many copies of Order. I picked up the thick tome and took it to check out, proud that I’d out-smarted hundreds of other obsessed fans.

Order was probably the most difficult point in our relationship. As a 15 year old, Harry became annoyingly whiney and brooding. Sirius, who I’d come to love in Azkaban, wasn’t much better. I ignored my urge to slap Harry and pushed through to the end. And then, of course, Sirius’ shocking death. But I heard the prophecy for the first time, and another piece of the grand puzzle fell into place.

I finished Order staying in a tent on Grandma’s back porch over July 4th weekend. The house was full of guests, we added the tent for space. It was hot, and humid as only Southeastern PA can be. By the time I finished, the books pages were wavy

The two-year wait for Half-Blood Prince seemed like a blip on the screen after the longer one for Order. But when the book was released I found myself in a conundrum. I was living in rural Alaska, far from a bookstore. I hadn’t ordered the book online, because there was something about getting it off the shelf that appealed to me. But I wasn’t planning to head into town around its release. I considered ordering it, hoping it would make it to me promptly, but I knew if I could just ask someone to get it for me, I’d have it sooner. Problem was: I was living in a community with a lot of those Christians who were caught up in the fact that Rowling had used the trappings of magic. Not wanting to offend, I didn’t know who to ask…until one (again rainy) afternoon on a boat in the Prince William Sound, when I overheard Larry say, “I’m going to town this weekend. We need groceries, but really, it’s because Josh wants the newest Harry Potter book.” And Kelly, his wife, chimed in, “Yeah, Josh reads through those things faster than anything. I’ve never seen him so focused on a book.”

And I’d found my solution. I sidled up to Larry a little later, and looking out over ice floes and glacier silt, I asked him to get me a copy. A few days later I had the green-covered book in hand, and I was happy to discover that Sirius’ death, though tragic, seemed to have pushed Harry out of his whiney phase and back into a nice form.

Throughout these years the movies came out one by one. I watched most of them in the theatres with friends, though Order, which I dreaded, I didn’t see until it was on DVD. Happily, time constraints forced the writers to reduce Harry’s whining significantly, and he was a much nicer person in visual form than on the page.

Waiting for the final book, I began to look back at them all with a critical eye. I thought I detected a chiastic structure which gave me ideas of what would happen in the end. I debated with friends questions of who would live and who would die. And I hoped for an ending worthy of the choice I’d made years earlier to invest in the relationship.

Then came the final anticipatory summer. Back in civilization, I got The Deathly Hallows from the bookstore the day it was released, and, not working at the time, I settled in to the final chapters of my relationship with Harry similarly to my first experience with him. The final book is significantly longer than the first, of course, so I couldn’t go straight through in a day, and besides, I wanted to make it last – but I allowed myself to be engulfed in the world of Potter, it’s magical trappings, and the friends I’d made along the way.

And at the end, I once again took a deep breath of the rarified air of reality and returned, satisfied.

It’s been five years since that summer when I stepped onto platform 9 ¾ for the last time with Harry, Ginny, Ron, Hermione, and their children. Filmmakers have given me layers of the relationship to continue to explore – seeing Half-Blood Prince come to life and reveling in the quiet emotion of Deathly Hallows, Pt. 1 on the screen have sated my desire for “more” when the author inside me knows there can be, and should be no more.

But this weekend, the final part of the final version of the final chapter of this friendship will project onto screens. I’m not sure when I can see it – I have responsibilities this weekend which prevent me from going right away. I’m embracing the delay, though. I anticipate seeing the translation to visual Harry, but I don’t want it to end. I don’t want to experience that epilogue’s finality again. I know I have to.

But here’s the great thing about this friendship that started eleven years ago on a rainy afternoon: it doesn’t ever have to end. If I want, at any time, I can go back into the world of Hogwarts and Muggles. I’ll never experience them again for the first time, but I can experience them again.

So it’s not an end, per se. But it is a close. And the world is different than it was eleven years ago. But then, so is Harry. And so am I.