We were paddling around the cool water in inflated inner tubes, relishing in the simple delight of a freshly filled pool. It’s a million degrees outside again, with this Florida sun as unforgiving as a bitter heart on its worst day. We drift, anchored to nothing.
He looks at me and takes off his goggles, a summery shade of cerulean blue, and in his brilliant and wise and childlike way asks me the question I can see has been patiently waiting on his tongue.
“Shell, what do you want to do with your life?” I suppose it has dawned on him that I will graduate college in a few months. I look at him and sigh, the air streaming out of my mouth like a thin whisper.
“I don’t know.” He cleans out his goggles and shifts in his floatie. His eyelashes are thick with drops of water that gleam as he blinks them away. “What do you think I should do?” My brother has a specific laugh reserved for ridiculous questions posed in a serious manner and that is the one that innocently escapes his lips.
“I don’t know! What do you want to do?” I look at him very seriously. He starts middle school this fall. The shadow casts a glimpse of a small mustache on his upper lip.
“I want to write. I want to write stories. Books, something.” I watch him process the thought.
“So, like a novelist?” He moves away from an oncoming wasp.
“Maybe.” I smile weakly, close my eyes as the wasp passes over my head. I don’t feel particularly convincing. He paddles back to me.
“Okay, then do it!” He is cheerful, tosses a ball to the other end of our suburban pond. My laughter sounds like a sigh.
Somewhere else in the landscape of my life, give or take about 365 days, I am sitting in a Thai bar twirling the straw of a pineapple juice that is too sweet visiting a friend who works here. She is fascinated that I keep returning to visit her when I’m in the area, that I call her friend. I think she is funny and has a loyal heart. We have talked about many different things: family, friends, work, school, cities, travel, boyfriends, hobbies. Today I ask her about her dreams.
This girl, with all the beauty of a jungle flower and all the sadness of a crushed butterfly, tells me in heavy English that she has no dreams because dreams are pointless. She looks at me like I have asked her something completely absurd. I close the translation dictionary and she wraps up our conversation to tend to another customer that has approached the bar. Her laughter is sharp, protective. She thinks I can’t see her, but I do.
I ask him what I should do if I can’t write a single story, or if I can’t get a publisher, or an agent, or an anything. My recent research on the writing market reveals it’s a pretty competitive place. And before I know it, my heart is leaking all over my swimsuit, sinking in this pool of sparkling blue. I’ve finished before I’ve even started. He calls out my name, pulls me away from my pictures of failed manuscripts stacked on a sloppy desk and brings me back to our current place in time. This pool, this sunlight, this summer air. He takes a deep breath.
“You can’t focus on what could happen. You have to think about what might happen. You have to be an optimist!” He proceeds to verify the definition of ‘optimist.’ I suddenly remember he is ten.
“Okay, yes,” he continues. “Optimist. That’s what I am. You have to look at the positive. It might be great! You can do it, Shell.” He shields his eyes from the glare of the sun and speaks from a tender space in his heart that he doesn’t reveal often. “You can do this.”
At lunch, my mom casually asks me about careers. Graduation hangs over me like the humidity: constant, unwavering, and seemingly everywhere. We scan through old half-dreams like a flip book, and I tell her what I know I want now. My dream job is to do work relating to the abolition of human trafficking (development of safe houses, awareness and outreach programs, research, lobbying for betters laws, etc.). And to write. Always to write.
I see the words swirling around in her eyes for a few seconds.
“Well, figure out what that looks like, do the research.” She is the most practical person I know, the feet to my wings. “Make a plan,” she says as she looks up at me to smile, “and you’ll be on your way.”
I woke up with the memory replaying in my mind; with the bass of the music still bouncing off of our skin, with the taste of canned pineapples still on my tongue.
I think of my friend, with her glossy hair and her fascination with American slang. She is beautiful, but not because of her toned body or manicured nails. I see her mind, her heart. She wants more, but she feels trapped. Her eyes are like tunnels with no end in sight.
My dream is to give her those dreams back. Or rather, to allow her to dream for the first time.
I started making some plans. Rough outlines, all terrifically scribbled in mismatched sticky notes. It’s all going to take a lot of work, but who knows what life holds? Maybe some of it’s a long shot. I guess we’ll see.
I think when we stop dreaming, something in us dies. The “what if” questions that so often plague me do have their place, but sometimes you just have to make the leap. Stick the landing. See what happens.
I don’t want to forget the miracle of people who allow me the space to dream, of people who believe in me. How beautiful and marvelous. Sometimes all you need is someone to tell you that you can do this.
This is me telling you that you can do this, that you can take that leap, that you can do this thing.
Here’s to the dreaming and the doing and the creating and the going. It is hard work, it is good work, it is work this world needs.
Like birds perched on a ledge, we were always destined for flight.