A short story about indecision and dissatisfaction.
When I was young and naïve, and my world had been delighted between sunlit smiles and white winter snow fights, I formed the error in judgement that would come to be my hamartia. I made the stupid mistake of believing, even in my childish whims, that if I cast out a beautiful net, I would attract beautiful things. Unfortunately, and yet inevitably I was wrong.
Beyond the summer of my 18th birthday lay the first true uncertainty I would know. At first, the indecision was easy, it lay somewhere in the future off a cliff somewhere far away. Like the morning sun, the gentle heat of May and June passed by in hours of warmth and lazy denial, July got hotter and the days burned away faster, and then it was August and I was already burned. Coarse, red, bubbling blistered skin- too late to seek the shade now. The damage had been done.
My parents were from the generation that still believed in the necessity of pushing your academically average child, into a gut-wrenchingly expensive college to frame a mediocre degree on their walls, somewhere between the Crayola houses and unmarked essays. My mother, in all her earnest and good heart, would tell me ‘education opens doors my darling’, and I, in all my scorn and sarcasm, would reply ‘no mama, hands open doors’. If I had believed in a deity like them, then I would ask you to pray for their souls, my parents were sweet and kind, they just knew nothing better, but neither did I. Content drifting within my own mediocrity and cliché, I passed my classes, mingled with my peers, I gently rebelled at the appropriate age, I existed. That summer I let my father fill in the forms to Yale, Cambridge, and Boston MIT with indifference, drifting through my own life on the currents of others. As vapid and as empty as the grey shells on the Maine beaches near where we lived. Our house was only a short distance from the places around which my small life orbited; the beach, the bookstore café and school so I never needed to go anywhere new. My world was very small back then.
I spent a great deal of that summer sat at the wrought iron table with the refurbished velvet chair, in the back corner of the bookstore café. I wasn’t sure if I was escaping my parents or myself but hunched over a Camus between piles of books and dusty shelves I hid. I had always believed that when one casts out a beautiful energy that in turn, you will receive the same back. My warped delusions of karma distorted from a passage of a faux Buddhist historical fiction I had read. So, I surrounded myself with what I wanted for myself; books and books on love, adventure, philosophy etc. I even went for self-indulgent walks in our garden to justify reading books on horticulture, which I had only skimmed through because the engravings had been so pretty. On one such walk, I decided that I would use all I had read from Keats, Dickinson, Whitman and Hemingway, and I would write poetry.
As mid-August chased me, my parents sat me down for the dinner table interrogation cliché. Except they were naïve, gentle and excited, it was I sat across from them in malice, I was selfish and insipid. My father asked me what I wanted to become.
What do I want to become?
In the second that his stress-bitten lips clamped down onto the last syllable of his question, my body had been pushed to the edge of that cliff I had been so effectively avoiding. Peering over the edge lay only an abyss, the vast expanse of uncertainty that ran shivers down my spine. However, scarier than the initial nothingness- the fog began to clear, lifting like expressive hands. Just as suddenly I was snapped back into the uncomfortable dining room mahogany.
‘So, a doctor? A lawyer? An accountant? A teacher? An entrepreneur?’
I smiled weakly at their encouraging faces. This is the climax of their parental duties, college applied for, a degree in progress, job well done. The whole summer had been a distant symphony, but this was the crescendo, obnoxiously loud it demanded attention and whether I wanted to or not, I listened.
Heavy summer storm clouds rolled in over the ocean from week to week and I took my shelter in the bookstore café. The odd but complementary combination of my two only real joys; coffee and literature. I delighted in the pretence of scribbling notes of poetry and prose as the rain rumbled through town. It was as if I genuinely believed that if I sat there long enough the adventure I had been reading about would and find me sat there in this insignificantly tiny town. The irony of it now amuses me in the bittersweet way only hindsight can provide; above the bell-speckled door of that tiny café on a chalkboard is written in cursive italics; ‘if you wait for nothing, and nothing comes, then don’t be disappointed’.
My poetry writing progressed to pastoral imagery as I took an afternoon to sit amongst the flowering plants of the garden and write. I must have written well over a hundred poems that summer, and at the time I honestly believed that they would save me from what I considered the destitution of my life. So I sent a select few off into the world, to literary magazines and publishers. Only one I ever considered a success. It was the only little bird which had been flown back to me with a reply. The poem was titled ‘Butterflies’ and was shortlisted for publication at a start-up London publishing house, but never reached fruition. I wrote that poem whilst watching all the butterflies in the garden flock to one withered lavender bush. I pondered why with all their vivacity, colour and beauty they fought each other for a space on that dull shrub. I wrote about the futility of being a butterfly. Fighting for just another flower, when with their wings of royal blues and gold the flowers should fight for them, I finished the poem and they still swarmed the pale lavender buds. After the poem had been shortlisted I thought about the futility of poetry, so then I stopped writing.
At the end of August, I nonchalantly signed my name to a prestigious college and stared off for all the speeches, for each congratulation, every ‘well done’. The numbness of my own being felt similar to having given up, but I had fought for nothing, and nothing had finally caught up with me. The very last days of August were unseasonably cool. I walked down the beach and collected pink-tinted sea shells. The summer-warmed water editing my footsteps away as I walked into September. Into a life.
I wrote this sat at dusty typewriter I don’t use, I don’t know why I bought it. Above my writing desk is an old wooden frame containing the pinned bodies of precisely twenty dusty butterfly specimens. Their intricate little wings faded and still. I still collect beautiful things, and I still read pretentious books, but now I don’t live in denial, I exist in regrets. Each night I drift into dreams comforted that in another universe somewhere I actually lived.