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December 14, 2021

A Bookish Holiday Memory

Xochitl Gonzalez’s debut novel, OLGA DIES DREAMING, releases on January 4th and revolves around a status-driven wedding planner grappling with her social ambitions, absent mother and Puerto Rican roots --- all in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Xochitl describes her first semester of college as a “giant culture shock,” but fortunately she developed a close friendship with her roommate, Celeste. Despite their different backgrounds, they had plenty in common when it came to their families, musical tastes and love for books. The latter proved to be their saving grace following an argument that Xochitl and Celeste had right before they headed home for the holidays.


My first semester of college was a challenging time for me. It had been a giant culture shock to come from what was then a very diverse, working-class Brooklyn of the ’90s to the much more buttoned-up, ivy-covered New England campus of Brown. It was like learning a new language, on top of all the adjustments academically, plus general homesickness. But a bright spot was my roommate, Celeste, whom I considered the saving grace of Residential Life.

We had been assigned randomly, and on the surface we had nothing in common. Celeste, a young white woman from an affluent suburb, was raised by a doctor and lawyer and already traveled the world. It was less a matter of if she would go to an Ivy than which one. I’d been raised in a railroad apartment by my janitor grandpa and my lunch lady grandmother, unsure of how I’d stumbled onto this campus in the first place. But beyond that, we had much in common: big, loud extended families, a love for Billy Joel classics and a voracious love for books. Lots of people at a school like Brown love books, of course, but given the course load of academics, few made time for them the way Celeste and I would --- each of us on our respective narrow twin beds across the cinder block room from one another, curled up with some paperback or another.

Of course, it was not all roses. We had plenty of arguments as all roommates do. Once when she colored my hair pink, another time when I told her the vest she was wearing was hideous and should be burned before being seen in public again. But our greatest blowup of all --- even all these years later, perhaps --- was right around Christmas. We had ventured out to one of the red sauce joints for which Providence was then known to celebrate the end of the semester, and the next day I discovered Celeste had eaten my leftovers. A simple “what happened to my eggplant parm?” led to a blowup that poked at sore spots around money, manners and a whole slew of things we’d thought didn’t matter, but maybe did.

I was heading home for break feeling saddened that this closeness I thought I’d felt might have been imagined. That all these months and weeks when I’d felt so understood, I actually hadn’t been at all.

Still, we had agreed to exchange holiday gifts, and before I left, Celeste presented me with mine. A book: the new-ish paperback edition of IN THE TIME OF THE BUTTERFLIES by Julia Alvarez. I began it on the long bus ride home down I-95, and with each passing page, my anger and upset towards Celeste melted. I felt seen by both the writer and the gifter.

More than 25 years later, Celeste and I are still friends and still, from time to time, send each other the love letters that we need in life by way of the gift of books.